Rick Wakeman had worked with David Bowie on ‘Space Oddity’ and was considered one of the most reliable – and busiest – session keyboardists in England. His presence on Hunky Dory did much to influence the sound of the album, leading to a set of mainly acoustic, piano-led songs in contrast to the heavy rock of The Man Who Sold The World.
David called and asked me if I’d play some piano on some new songs. So I went round to his house in Beckenham, Kent. I nicknamed it Beckenham Palace because at the time I was living in a tiny little terraced house in West Harrow and his kitchen was bigger than my entire place.
Things had really changed for him. He was a successful artist and he had a young family. I sat at the piano while he played a load of songs to me on his battered old 12-string guitar. ‘Life On Mars?’ stuck out as being something very special. He wanted a piano solo, he wanted the album to be very piano-orientated. I was given complete freedom by him.
In 2003 Bowie said that, while some of the songs had been demonstrated to Wakeman on guitar, he had performed others on the piano.
Lovely fella, Rick, however his memory is as loopy as mine in some places. Several songs on Hunky Dory were written on piano, e.g. ‘Life On Mars?’ and ‘Changes’ for starters, not guitar. I played my plodding version and Rick wrote the chords down then played them with his inimitable touch.
Tony Visconti had produced Bowie’s previous two albums, David Bowie (1969) and The Man Who Sold The World. However, they had parted company following Bowie’s decision to sign a management deal with Tony Defries, whom Visconti distrusted.
Ken Scott was a former EMI engineer who had worked on several Beatles recordings, as well as Bowie’s previous two albums. He had recently set up a company ahead of a move into full music production, and during a casual conversation Bowie revealed he was looking for a producer. This led to an alliance which continued through much of Bowie’s glam rock period, with Scott producing not only Hunky Dory, but also the three albums that followed: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane, and Pinups.
I happened to mention to him that I wanted to start moving into the producing side of things. Much to my surprise he replied, ‘Well, I’ve just got a new management deal, and I’m about to start a new album. I was going to produce it myself but I don’t know if I can. Will you produce it with me?’ Of course, I wasn’t going to say no. Just like that, I was a producer. Besides, I never really thought that David would amount to much at the rate he was going, so if I screwed up, no one would hear it anyway. Well surprise, surprise!
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust
David, his wife Angie, and his publisher Bob Grace went to Scott’s home one evening in 1971 to sift through songs and ideas Bowie had prepared for the album. Scott had low expectations of Bowie’s potential as an artist, and looked upon the opportunity to grow into a producer’s role without too much scrutiny. Against his expectations, he was blown away by what he heard, and knew that the album was likely to draw attention.
As we were going through the material it suddenly hit me. ‘Hang on, this guy is really fucking good. He could be a lot bigger than I expected and this album might actually be something that a lot of people will listen to. Crap.’ Here it was again. Trial by fire.
That was it for pre-production. We worked out most of the songs that we were going to record, then it was a matter of just going into the studio. Some of the songs had been demoed and the band knew them already, and some of them they didn’t so we started from scratch on those.
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust
Hunky Dory was the first of three consecutive Bowie albums to feature a cover version. This time it was Biff Rose’s ‘Fill Your Heart’; on Ziggy Stardust he performed Ron Davies’s ‘It Ain’t Easy’, and Aladdin Sane contained a rendition of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Let Spend The Night Together’.
‘Fill Your Heart’ was followed by tributes to three key influences on Bowie. The first was ‘Andy Warhol’, who reportedly disliked the song.
Loathed it. he went ‘Oh, uh-huh…’ then just walked away. I was kind of left there. Somebody came over and said: ‘Gee, andy hated it.’ I said: ‘Sorry, it was meant to be a compliment.’ ‘yeah, but you said things about him looking weird. Don’t you know that Andy has a thing about how he looks? he’s got a skin disease and he really thinks that people see that.’ It didn’t go down very well.
I got to know him after that. It was my shoes that got him. They were these little yellow things with a strap across them, like girls’ shoes. He absolutely adored them. Then I found out that he used to do a lot of shoe designing when he was younger. he had a bit of a shoe fetishism. That kind of broke the ice.
The second tribute was ‘Song For Bob Dylan’, which saw Bowie ambitiously putting himself forward as a potential leader for the coming generation.
That laid out what I wanted to do in rock. It was at that period that I said, ‘Okay [Dylan], if you don’t want to do it, I will.’
I saw that leadership void. Even though the song isn’t one of the most important on the album, it represented for me what the album was all about. If there wasn’t someone who was going to use rock ‘n’ roll, then I’d do it.
Melody Maker, 28 February 1976
The final of the three tributes was a musical homage to the Velvet Underground, whose groundbreaking debut album Bowie had heard in December 1966, shortly after its release.
I was hearing a degree of cool that I had no idea was humanly sustainable. Ravishing. One after another, tracks squirmed and slid their tentacles around my mind. Evil and sexual, the violin of ‘Venus in Furs’, like some pre-Christian pagan-revival music. The distant, icy, “Fuck me if you want, I really don’t give a damn” voice of Nico’s ‘Femme Fatale’. What an extraordinary one-two knockout punch this affair was. By the time ‘European Son’ was done, I was so excited I couldn’t move. It was late in the evening and I couldn’t think of anyone to call, so I played it again and again and again.
New York magazine, 2003
‘Queen Bitch’ was Hunky Dory‘s most upbeat, guitar-driven moment, and pointed the way to the more rock-based sound of the Ziggy Stardust period.