Golden Year

The making of Hunky Dory. Reprinted by kind permission of MOJO magazine.

IT WAS ON JUNE 3, 1971, that David Bowie walked into the dressing room at the BBC's Paris Theatre, an imposing Edwardian white stone building at the bottom of London's Regent Street. His friends and musicians - including bassist Trevor Bolder, who'd played with this happy, impatient new-found dad for just a couple of hours – were starting to wonder where he'd got to, when he emerged minutes before their onstage time.

He'd disappeared into the dressing room clad in jeans and a T-shirt. He walked out in a dress, assured and beautiful, like Lauren Bacall. He walked in a has-been, imprisoned on a second-rate record label, and walked out announcing a new album that would obliterate the spectre of David Bowie, the curly-haired one-hit wonder. Within weeks, he'd have finished that record, confined his failures to the past and inspired a tiny group of enthusiasts who considered him “our golden boy.” Rarely in musical history has one man transformed his destiny so instantly, so thoroughly, and so effortlessly. As Bolder observes today: “He cited where he was going to be. And then he did it.”

In the David Bowie catalogue, Hunky Dory stands alone. While the preraphaelite cover photo is elegant, this is not a radical visual transformation, into a Ziggy Stardust or a Thin White Duke. Nor are its musical about-turns as drastic as its successors. Yet underneath its enigmatic exterior, Hunky Dory embodies the single most significant change of David Bowie's career: a change not on the outside, but on the inside. Before Hunky Dory, Bowie thrashed about, desperately seeking a genre or niche; here, he confidently occupies his own space. In his youth, Bowie was the boy who tried hardest, to become a star, to refashion himself into an artist. With Hunky Dory, he was no longer a tryer – he was a natural, a man who dreamt up songs on the bus, or in his sleep.

This celebration of new beginnings, birth and rebirth came at the end of a phase of failure and desertions. After an age spent watching friends such as Stevie Marriott and Marc Bolan achieve the success he coveted, Bowie had notched up a UK Number 5 hit with Space Oddity in September 1969. But the album that followed was, by general consent, underwhelming, and according to his record company, a disaster. The Man Who Sold The World – Bowie’s hard rock rejoinder – also bombed, helping spark an estrangement between Bowie and producer Tony Visconti that would last until the middle of the decade.

Then Olav Wyper, Bowie's principal champion at Mercury Philips, left the company, leaving David an orphan artist. Mick Ronson, the guitarist who'd done so much to pull Bowie's sound into shape during The Man Who Sold The World’s spring ’70 sessions, was another defector. Along with drummer Woody Woodmansey he’d sped, homesick, back to Hull in the band's van.

Early in 1971, even new manager Tony Defries seemed distant, preoccupied with his scheme to sign up Motown child star Stevie Wonder, who came of age that May. Throughout his career, Bowie had been reliant on his accomplices. Now, as 1971 dawned, he was at his most alone. Strangely, he didn't seem that bothered. For TMWSTW, Bowie had worked nose-to-nose with Ronson, down in the gothic gloom of his basement at Beckenham’s Haddon Hall mansion. Now the singer emerged into the light, taking over the departed Visconti's airy room overlooking the Haddon Hall garden, and moving in an old piano, a chaise longue, and an Art Nouveau screen. In that one room, abetted by Angie, his wife since the previous March, he would fashion himself and his future.

“It was a total rebirth,” remembers Bowie’s friend and plugger, Anya Wilson. “It was all focused on his creativity. He was probably in the best space I’ve ever seen him. He was accommodated. Angela would get up and run his bath for him in the morning. She literally built a cocoon around him.”

On a typical day, Angie would prep breakfast and maintain a steady stream of cigarettes and tea. With the morning still young, Bowie would work at the piano obsessively. Switching from guitar to keyboard, Bowie found his harmonic and melodic options transformed, and as he mastered the new instrument he re-shaped himself via sheer hard graft. As he told MOJO's Paul du Noyer in 2003, ”I forced myself to be a good songwriter... I made a job of work at being good.”

“The writing sessions were legendary!” Mark Pritchett

“He laboured at it,” says Mark Pritchett, the Dulwich College schoolboy who had joined up with the Beckenham Arts Lab in 1969 and would work with Bowie through to 1974. “The writing sessions were legendary. They could be hours at a time.”

Bowie’s earlier melodies – Space Oddity, say, or The Man Who Sold The World – had been compact, almost claustrophobic. On the piano, he was liberated. His new melodies swooped over an octave or more, nearly always underpinned by long piano runs, which he perfected over hours or days. “He'd work at the runs and wouldn't stop,” says Pritchett. “Angie might say, ‘We're scheduled to do this.’ “I’m not fucking doing it - I’m doing *this.’ He just had to get the runs right. And when he got it he was crazed. He was on top of the world.”

With Ronson back in Hull, Bowie had only the minimum of musical assistance. He started to rely on Rungk, a band made of Mark Pritchett and two fellow students at Dulwich College, for the heavier songs, which started to arrive that spring after he'd heard The Stooges for the first time. For other demos, he'd bash it out on the piano accompanied by drummer Henry Spinetti (the brother of Hard Day's Night/Help! actor Victor). But he constructed the song that would transform his fortunes without any help whatsoever.

The first outsider to hear Oh! You Pretty Things was Chrysalis Music publisher Bob Grace. Fulfilling an advisory role in the temporary absence of Defries, he was well used to early morning phone calls from Bowie (“He clung to me like a limpet,” says Grace). Today, it was good news.

“He told me, 'I got up about four this morning with a song, and I have to get it out of my head,” says Grace. “Now this was just before [Cannes-based music trade fair] MIDEM, and at the time I could get free use of the Radio Luxembourg studios. So I said, You can come up, I can record an interview with you for MIDEM, and we can do the demo.”

The tape, recorded that same day, was a straightforward rendition, with Bowie playing piano and singing accompanied only the jingling of his bracelets. “It was stunning,” says Grace. “I said, What shall we do with this, and he said, Oh, if we could get a cover? And I said, Mickie Most is at MIDEM – and I can get to see him.”

Bowie had bumped into Mickie Most several times over the past eight years, and every encounter with the legendary starmaking producer had ended in failure. But Bowie didn't breathe a word of this to Grace, doubtless reckoning it would increase Grace's nervousness. And Grace was apprehensive enough when he met Most in a booth in Cannes, and cued up the acetate. “How it worked with Mickie was, you'd play him a song on some terrible Dansette stereo, and he'd normally give you about 10 seconds and go, No. Folklore was if he listened to all of it you were in with a chance. With our demo, he listened to the whole thing, turned around and went, “Smash!”

Later that day Most phoned Peter Noone, the Herman's Hermits singer on the verge of splitting his group, and told him, “I just heard your first solo hit.” As Bowie disappeared to the US, for a press trip to promote The Man Who Sold The World, it looked like the first step in his relaunch.

Oh! You Pretty Things’ arresting, impressionistic lyrics almost certainly arrived as readily as the music: “I'm not aware of any redrafting – I think the redrafting went on in his head,” says Mark Pritchett. The cascade of images begs countless interpretations, but it would soon become clear to Bowie’s confidants that here were the beginnings of a new manifesto.

“The Pretty Things were the kids brought up in a post-industrial society,” says Anya Wilson’s boyfriend Dai Davies, who had it from the horse’s mouth, “and how they would have this sexy, youthful leisure time.” Bowie expounded upon a societal change that would inspire the next evolution of the human race: “an evolutionary state where bisexuality would become the norm,” recalls Davies.

In the US in late January, however, Bowie was exploring the new continent's strictly heterosexual delights, via the teenage girls laid on by Rodney Bingenheimer, self-styled Mayor of Sunset Strip. Meanwhile, fanboy Bowie discovered the Stooges, checked out outsider-rocker Norman Odam – aka the Legendary Stardust Cowboy – and took sandwiches to street musician Moondog. He even went to see the Velvet Underground, going backstage to share his admiration with his idol Lou Reed – not realising he was actually speaking to Doug Yule. He returned full of confidence that Noone's single would be a hit. But would it really banish the spectre of the David Bowie, one-hit wonder?

To that end, Bowie left nothing to chance. Using Chrysalis money, he hired a new PR: John Lennon's schoolmate and Merseybeat founder Bill Harry. “Bob Grace called me, told me Tony Defries had lost interest, and David needed to get things moving,” says Harry, who was amazed to find that Bowie had assembled mood boards to illustrate his new image. Bowie, Grace and Harry commissioned shoots, including the “Sphinx” series from photographer Brian Ward. Together, Harry and Bowie trumpeted Bowie's future – in the Daily Mirror, Daily Express and elsewhere – and airbrushed his past; while Bowie charmed writers like the Mirror's garrulous Don Short, Harry would walk over to their filing cabinets, insert the new press shots – and bin pics of the 1969, Space Oddity Bowie, consigning that loser to history.

Bowie's charm and sense of destiny was just as evident during Peter Noone's recording of Oh! You Pretty Things. It was unusual for writers to attend Mickie Most sessions, says Noone - “they hate changes [to their songs]” - but when the musicians, headed by studio veteran Herbie Flowers, couldn't match the feel of the demo, they asked Bowie to show them.

“He could only play the song in F#, which became the new key,” says Noone. “Suddenly, with him playing the piano the song came alive. We cut it sort of half-live, I kept the original scratch vocal and then just doubled the high notes. It was mixed in 30 minutes.”

It was Bowie, says Noone, who suggested the change the line “the earth is a bitch” to “the earth is a beast” to ensure the single didn't miss out on radio airplay. It didn't. On May 22 the single commenced a 10-week chart run, peaking at Number 12. Bowie was back.

“Talk about diligent, he redefined the word!” Publisher Bob Grace

There was one immediate consequence of Bowie's return to commercial significance. Bob Grace and Bill Harry were both called in by Tony Defries, who resented their intrusion. Harry told him to stick it; Grace promised to keep the manager in the loop. Defries's friends contend that he hadn't left the singer on the back-burner after all, but was merely waiting till the June expiry of Bowie's Mercury contract. But whatever the strategy, with the Stevie Wonder deal dead by late May and Bowie's music back in the charts, Defries refocused – with formidable results. “His attitude was, 'I'll take care of this,'” says Bowie-connected singer Dana Gillespie. “He made sure nobody had any hassles to deal with, and was free to create.”

Haddon Hall – now packed with visitors including Defries, Gillespie, longtime friends George Underwood and Geoffrey “Warren Peace” MacCormack, Mark Pritchett, clothes designer Freddie Buretti and others – became a love-in fuelled by the Bowies’ “babymoon”. “David and Angie had curtailed their activities outside their relationship,” recalls Gillespie. “The fact they were having a child took over everything for a while.”

The birth of Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones on May 22 was a key event in establishing the iconography of David and Angie, the post-heterosexual couple. In that “blissful” ambience, Bowie was filled with a sense of destiny that intensified over the following weeks, as he prepared to unveil his newest compositions at a BBC Concert appearance on Thursday, June 3. It was to prove another landmark – the debut of what were to become the Spiders From Mars – but it could have turned out very differently. A fortnight before, Bob Grace had booked a band comprising guitarist Tim Renwick and bassist Herbie Flowers, veterans both of the *Space Oddity sessions. But in a last-minute U-turn a week before the show, Bowie phoned Mick Ronson and summoned him from exile.

Ronson's own recording project had stalled after just one single, 4th Hour Of My Sleep, and the guitarist later remarked he'd been sitting aroung in Hull, “getting depressed.” He assembled his band, Ronno  – with Bolder, Mick Woodmansey and singer Benny Marshall – who arrived in Beckenham and rehearsed for just one afternoon. Also present at the BBC was old Bowie hand Mark Pritchett, along with Gillespie, Underwood, MacCormack and Marshall on backing vocals. Bolder in particular was “nervous as hell. It’s 10 songs and I had two hours to learn them and think up the bass lines. But the bass lines that I play on the radio show are the same ones I played on the [final] record.” But Bowie was unconcerned, occupied only with the future: “Everything was really positive, nothing was ever negative, we were going to do this, we'll finish up being wherever and we did,” says Bolder. “He had it all in his head.”

All of those involved share the same memory of apprehension, followed by euphoria as they negotiated the 10 songs with no major cockups. Ronson was unflappable, and in one afternoon had worked up many of the guitar melodies that would adorn Hunky Dory. The songs laid out the theme, of Bowie appropriating the work of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol, establishing himself as their youthful heir. Song For Bob Dylan sees him don his hero’s mantle, just as Robert Zimmerman had donned his on Song To Woody.

The delightful Kooks paid tribute to his new son: “I'd been listening to a Neil Young album and they phoned through and said my wife had had a baby,” he tells host John Peel. The jiggling chords came straight from Young's Till The Morning Comes, while the lyric quotes the title of I Believe In You. Most presciently, Bowie also announces the title of his forthcoming album, taken from the catchphrase of Peter Shoot, ex-RAF Landlord of Bob Grace's favourite pub, The Bear, in Esher: “It will either be a disaster, or everything will be hunky dory.” Announcing the album was presumptuous in the extreme, considering Bowie was still handcuffed to Mercury Philips.

But the next great act of theatre in the Bowie story would top even that. This was a grandstanding performance by Tony Defries, with unwitting support from Mercury executives Irwin Steinberg and Robin McBride, who arrived for lunch at Londonderry House  and were stunned by Defries's opening announcement: “David will never record for you again.”

The pair were “completely blindsided”, says McBride. Steinberg's reaction was that Defries would have to refund all of Mercury's investment in Bowie; in this, he played entirely into Defries's hands, allowing him to acquire the rights for the two Mercury albums and, in future years, make a huge amount of money out of them.

All was now clear for the recording of the songs – which, in another display of chutzpah, Tony Defries (or rather, his business partner Laurence Myers) would bankroll, ensuring they would control the rights. Trident, where David had recorded many times, was the obvious choice as a studio, as was Ken Scott as producer – he had recently engineered George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Scott had worked with Bowie on two previous albums: “I wanted to move up to production and this would be a perfect time to practise – I thought, If I fuck up it doesn't really matter.” But as Bob Grace played through Bowie's demos at Scott's house in Crofton Park, “this huge lightbulb went on,” says Scott. “It was bloody hell! This is for real!”

Pianist Rick Wakeman, who'd played Mellotron on the Space Oddity album, had much the same reaction: “I went to David’s house and he played me every song on his old 12-string guitar. I told him he had a batch of songs that were just unbelievable - which they were.” Two standout songs, Changes and Life On Mars?, had arrived, again seemingly effortlessly, over that month, again based on lyrical piano runs. The tune (indebted to My Way) and a good portion of the snapshot, observational lyrics of Life On Mars?, had entered Bowie's head on a summer's day in Beckenham…

“A beautiful day in the park,” he would recall, “sitting on the steps of the bandstand. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn't get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”

As the sessions commenced late in June, Bowie was confident, but impatient to get the songs down. For all of the band it was “on the edge”, say Scott and Bolder, as they worked through songs they'd only played a few times before. And this time no one was more nervous than Ronson. Bowie had delegated the arrangements to the guitarist, geeing him up: “Go on! If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out, but have a go!” Ronno dragging incessantly on his trademark rollups as he pored over manuscripts. Bowie gave people space - “total freedom,” says Wakeman - wrenching them out of their comfort zone, giving them no time to over-think. Ken Scott was puzzled by the rush, figuring perhaps that Bowie wanted to give himself plenty of time for the vocals. “But then when it came to sing, he only ever needed one or two takes. He is the only singer I've ever worked with, that virtually every vocal take he did was a master.”

The sessions were more or less complete when Bowie told Scott and the band that he had one more song he wanted to record: The Bewley Brothers. The band came back in and recorded the vertiginous, winding song in a couple of takes, with Bowie's vocals added later that night: “My mouth dropped when I heard it,” says Ken Scott. “Then he said, Don't listen to the lyrics, they don't mean anything - I've just written them for the Americans.”

It was Bowie himself, during his American trip, who'd hit on RCA, the home of Elvis. The deal was sketched out in August; in September Defries, Bowie and Ronson arrived at the Warwick Hotel in New York to sign the contract – by which time Bowie and Defries were already planning an entertainment empire that would include Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (but not Doug Yule).

Already recording its successor, the team weren’t even that bothered by Hunky Dory’s initially limp commercial impact. Changes soon became an airplay hit, trailblazing what was to come. Bowie, and most of the MainMan crew, shared not a doubt that this would work. “He was our golden boy,” says Anya Wilson. “The sun shone through him.”

After Hunky Dory came the deluge – but today, in its unique blend of innocence and worldliness, it still offers the deepest, warmest pleasures of Bowie's multilayered songbook. Ironically, perhaps, it was Tony Defries, the legal-eagle Colonel Parker wannabe, who would best encapsulate the magical appeal of its making. “Tony would always tell us, This is the best part of an artist's life,” says Dana Gillespie. “When you're on the way up. Because after that there's only one way to go. And later, of course, it did become a money-making machine. But these, I think, were golden days.”