The release

With his strongest set of songs to date, a three-album record deal, and beautifully intricate production, Hunky Dory looked set to become Bowie’s commercial breakthrough.

However, it was not to be. RCA’s marketing division was involved minimally in the cover selection and production, and were furthermore informed that Bowie was intending to make imminent changes to both his image and sound. This left the company unsure at to how to promote Hunky Dory, and there was internal disagreement on how much money to allocate to a marketing campaign.

Bowie wrote some notes on each of the songs, which were used in press advertisements around the time of the album’s release:

Changes – This album is full of my changes and those of some of my friends.

Pretty – The reaction of me to my wife being pregnant was archetypal daddy – Oh he’s gonna be another Elvis. This song is all that plus a dash of sci-fi.

Eight – The city is a kind of high-life wart on the backside of the prairie.

Life On Mars – This is a sensitive young girls reaction to the media.

Kooks – The baby was born and it looked like me and it looked like Angie and the song came out like – if you’re gonna stay with us you’re gonna grow up Bananas.

Quicksand – The chain reaction of moving around through out the bliss and then the calamity of America produced this epic of confusion – Anyway, with my esoteric problems I could have written it in Plainview – or Dulwich.

There is a time and space level just before you go to sleep when all about you are losing theirs and whoosh void gets you with its cacophony of thought – that’s when I like to write my songs.

Fill – Biff Rose song.

Andy – A man of media and anti-message, with a kind of cute style.

Bob – This is how some see B.D.

Queen – A song on a Velvet Underground-Lou Reed framework s’about London sometimes.

Bewlay – Another in the series of David Bowie confessions – Star-Trek in a leather jacket.

Despite RCA’s uncertainty, the album was well received critically. In the UK, the NME described it as “a breath of fresh air compared to the usual mainstream rock LP of today. It’s very possible that this will be the most important album from an emerging artist in 1972, because he’s not following trends – he’s setting them… Hunky Dory is a masterpiece from a mastermind.”

Melody Maker, meanwhile, said it was “not only the best album Bowie has ever done, it’s also the most inventive piece of song writing to have appeared on record for a considerable period of time.”

Critical notices in the US were similarly enthusiastic. Rolling Stone described Hunky Dory as Bowie’s “most readily enjoyable work since his Man Of Words/Man of Music album of 1969.”

With his affection for using intriguing and unusual themes in musical settings that most rock “artists” would dismiss with a quick fart as old-fashioned and uncool, he’s definitely an original, is David Bowie, and as such will one day make an album that will induce us homo superior elitist rock critics to race about like a chicken with its head lopped off when he learns that he’s a couple of pretentious tendencies he’d do handsomely to curtail through the composition of an album’s-worth of material. Until that time, Hunky Dory will suffice hunky-dorily.

The record-buying public were less enamoured, however. Hunky Dory came out on 17 December 1971, and initially sold poorly. Bowie was undeterred, and – spurred on by his three-album deal with RCA – was midway through recording the Ziggy Stardust album by the time it was released.

It was only in 1972, with the success of ‘Starman’ and Ziggy, that sales rose, and Hunky Dory peaked at number three in the UK.

RCA released ‘Life On Mars?’ as a single in the UK in 1973, and like the album it reached number 3. US chart success was less forthcoming, and a 1972 single of ‘Changes’ peaked at 66 in the Billboard Hot 100.

Reissues, remixes, remasters

Hunky Dory was reissued on compact disc by Rykodisc/EMI in 1990. It included four bonus tracks: ‘Bombers’; a re-recording of ‘The Supermen’ from the Ziggy Stardust sessions in November 1971; a demo of ‘Quicksand’; and an alternative remix of ‘The Bewlay Brothers’.

The album was remastered and re-released by Virgin/EMI in 1999, this time without the bonus tracks. It was remastered once more for the Five Years 1969–1973 box set, for which it was released on CD, vinyl and digital download.

BOWPROMO, meanwhile, was given a first official release for Record Store Day on 22 April 2017. The box set with a single vinyl disc, five photographic prints and new recording notes was limited to 15,000 copies worldwide. The vinyl was single-sided, containing just Bowie’s recordings.

I’ve been asked many times if I thought it was going to be a great album, and the answer is yes. I know it’s very easy to say that in retrospect, but I’d been doing two or three sessions a day for the last three years – at that point, you can tell when you walk out of a session whether it’s going to do well or disappear without a trace. I remember telling people I’d just played on what was going to be a very iconic album – which Hunky Dory of course was.
Rick Wakeman
The Guardian

The 2022 box set Divine Symmetry was subtitled An Alternative Journey Through Hunky Dory, and contained demos, studio outtakes, and radio sessions from 1971.

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