Song 340: David Bowie, “Oh! You Pretty Things” (1971)

Hunky-Dory-David-Bowie

For all of David Bowie’s innovative and insanely creative records, from the abstract, fragmented Low to the noisy, chaotic Aladdin Sane, my favorite Bowie album is the staunchly old-fashioned Hunky Dory. Many of its songs are straight out of Tin Pan Alley, with soaring strings and pianos that merrily chug along. In my opinion, it’s Bowie at his very best, despite the lack of innovation.

The first track is “Changes,” an undeniably good song that I’ve simply heard too many times to truly appreciate. To me, Hunky Dory starts with its second song, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” Ostensibly a song about mankind being replaced by another, supernaturally better species, it’s also about aging. Considering Bowie was only 24 (!) when the album was released, it’s a pretty insightful view of generational exchanges. It’s hard to tell where, if anywhere, Bowie falls on the thematic spectrum: is he the un-pretty one making way for the “homo superior,” or the beautiful one telling the old people that he’s not going anywhere? (I think we all know that David Bowie was, and always will be, the latter, but it’s an interesting question from a songwriting perspective.)

I wasn’t too familiar with the chronology of the David Bowie discography until today, and I didn’t realize that Hunky Dory is so early in his chronology. That makes sense, of course—despite the album’s greatness, there isn’t too much adventure to it, and it predates both the Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke eras of Bowie’s career. It’s heartening to know that Bowie sees Hunky Dory as an important step in his evolution, or at least that’s what he said in a 1999 interview:

Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, “Good album, good songs.” That hadn’t happened to me before. It was like, “Ah, I’m getting it, I’m finding my feet. I’m starting to communicate what I want to do. Now: what is it I want to do?”

The answer: everything.

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