EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an exclusive excerpt from “Kooks, Queen Bitches and Andy Warhol: The Making of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory” by Ken Sharp (available at www.ken-sharp.com). The book chronicles the fascinating back story behind the celebrated album. Constructed as an oral history, “Kooks, Queen Bitches and Andy Warhol: The Making of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory” culls revelatory new interviews with scores of the album’s key participants including Bowie’s band members, producer Ken Scott and RCA Records personnel, as well as archival commentary from David Bowie and the late Mick Ronson for an all-encompassing look at this seminal release.
By Ken Sharp
Over the past five decades, David Bowie’s towering musical legacy is rightfully acclaimed as among the most inventive, groundbreaking and compelling in rock history. Bowie’s 1971 long player, “Hunky Dory,” in particular, has garnered lofty praise, voted by Time magazine as one of the top 100 albums of all time. Enlisting Ken Scott as co-producer, Bowie and band entered Trident Studio in June of ’71 to cut the “Hunky Dory” album.
Woody Woodmansey (drums, Hunky Dory): During that time David really got into writing songs. Not that there weren’t songs on “The Man Who Sold the World.” But on that album we’d get a chord sequence that Mick and Tony would put a bit in. It was really influenced by what Mick and I had been into a couple of years prior to that. On a lot of those songs David hadn’t written the lyrics, we just put the backing tracks down and then he’d come in at the end and write all the lyrics. Between “The Man Who Sold the World,” I think he was just soaking up all the successful stuff that he liked. “OK, what is it gonna take to be a successful rock and roll star?” For “Hunky Dory” he was starting to write a lot more on piano. I’d hear him in Haddon Hall plunking out very simple chords. Then he got a bit more skilled.
Bob Grace (general manager, Chrysalis Music, 1969-1972): The songs had been in David’s head for a long time and now they were all out of his head and on tape or acetate. Later in his career his work in the studio, like when he worked in Berlin, was more extemporaneous. But this was more structured. It was more like the sixties where a songwriter writes his songs: when they’re all finished, some of them get covered and some don’t and then later on we’ll do the album, like Carole King or Neil Sedaka would have done it.
Woody Woodmansey: I remember listening to a Neil Young album, and on one track I was blown away how all the way through the song the drummer never hit the cymbal — and then when he did hit it, it really meant something. So that was kind of the approach for me on “Hunky Dory.” It was finding out a way to get the songs across, finding a rhythm and an approach for a song without taking it over. It was about serving the song.
Trevor Bolder (bass, Hunky Dory): David was always simple with what he did. It was just a band, bass, drums, guitar, a keyboard and acoustic with some backing vocals.
Woody Woodmansey: We didn’t have a lot of time to work the songs out. Sometimes it was straight into the studio and, “OK, let’s do this song.” I don’t recall any real rehearsal for the songs on “Hunky Dory.” All through the albums we did with David, we didn’t really rehearse tracks before we went in and recorded. Sometimes you’d do a little bit of work on what the approach was gonna be, say for “Life on Mars?” It had a classical feel and we were thinking, “How can we keep it so it’s a rock thing you could play in front of a rock audience?” It had a classical feel, so it was a blend of John Bonham plays classical, almost. We made sure to play tasteful, too. If you played anything it had to be tasteful rather than our approach on “The Man Who Sold the World,” [which was] “How can I get all my favorite fills and Mick with his guitar licks onto this album?” [Laughs.]
Trevor Bolder: David would play us songs on acoustic and we’d sit there in the studio, learn it and then just go for it. It was the first album I ever played on and the first time I’d been in the studio. I was nervous at first but we settled down pretty quick. The run-throughs were OK, but when we were gonna do a take, I hated the red light that would go; on, that’s the one thing that always got me. It was like, “Oh God, if I make a mistake it’s gonna ruin everything.” It was fun to work on the record and exciting, but in a way it was more important to get your part down than whether the song was any good or not. We didn’t really know it until the album was mixed. Then you’d play it at home and you went, “Oh, what a great album!”
Ken Scott (producer, Hunky Dory): I had worked as an engineer on David’s two previous albums, “Space Oddity” and “The Man Who Sold the World.” Both of those were produced by Tony Visconti. Those albums weren’t successful, and David took a bit of time off. As an engineer, I got fed up with sitting at the board making comments to the producer like, “You know what would be great here; how about a thousand lesbian hummers?” So the producer pushes the button: “Why don’t we try a thousand lesbian hummers here?” And if it works, he takes all the credit. I was going through that along with the others engineers at Trident at that period, people like Roy Thomas Baker and Robin Geoffrey Cable. We just wanted to move into production. David booked a session producing a friend of his. I was booked on the session because we’d worked together before. During one of the tea breaks I told him I wanted to get out of engineering and move into production. He said, “Hey, I just signed a new management deal and they want to put me in the studio to record an album. I was gonna produce it myself but I don’t know if I’m capable of doing that. Will you co-produce with me?” And of course, I said yes.
Bob Grace: Ken Scott would go on to work with Supertramp and others. David had a knack for finding the hot people before they were hot.
Ken Scott: Working with David on his first two albums, I felt he was talented, but I didn’t think he was a superstar. When he asked me to co-produce him, I thought it was the ideal situation: He was someone who had talent and maybe the record wouldn’t turn out to mean anything, but it would help me learn what the hell I’m doing. [Laughs] When David was left to his own devices and didn’t have anyone setting everything up behind him, it was a whole different ballgame. And it was while we were listening to his songs that suddenly this huge electric light bulb went off. It was like, “Holy shit, this guy is actually really good!” Just suddenly, I was so impressed, and the panic started again because my God, he could actually be a huge superstar and people might hear this album.
Woody Woodmansey: Nobody else really knew David had it in him at the time to write such good songs.
Bob Grace: I was part of the selection team, but ultimately David decided with Ken what songs to record. There was one song, “Fill Your Heart” by Biff Rose that David was thinking of not doing for the album. I knew that Derek Green, a guy who had been my mentor as a publisher, published that song so I managed to persuade David to keep that on the album. So I did my friend a favor and got him a David Bowie cut.
Woody Woodmansey: As well as looking at the material as a song, you knew you had to go out and do it live. You didn’t want too much of the “I am just a songwriter” type of songs with all different styles. So there was a concern of making it sound like a unit. In many ways, the songs on Ziggy were much better suited to live performance.
Mick Ronson (David Currie interview, The Starzone Interviews, 1985): I was lucky because I was allowed to do what I wanted, which I thought was really good of David. He gave me a lot of freedom which gave me the chance to express myself as well. That was all good for me… that was a good quality he had.
Ken Scott: To me, most great things occur with the right team. There was an intuitive relationship between me, David and Mick. I’d also add Woody and Trevor as well to that team. In talking to Woody recently, he said that he wasn’t given enough time to really learn the songs. As simplistic as his playing was, there’s an edge to it that just works so well on all the songs. And as a bass player, Trevor just nailed it. More often than not with the right team you’re all on the same wavelength, and your choices are instinctive and you don’t have to talk about things. That happened certainly on the first two records, “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust.” I always had to keep one step ahead of him and try to hear in mind what he might want next and make sure we could do it. There would be nothing worse than getting three quarters of the way through a song, and now he wants to put down five sets of vocals. He hated coming along to mixing sessions. In fact, he generally hated being in the studio, I think. During the four albums I worked with him, he only showed up at only one mixing session, which was for the song “Lady Grinning Soul.” GM
“Kooks, Queen Bitches and Andy Warhol: The Making of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory” can be ordered via www.ken-sharp.com