Released by David Bowie’s estate in 2022, Divine Symmetry, subtitled “An Alternative Journey Through Hunky Dory,” is a 4-disc collection chronicling the year’s work leading to David Bowie’s fourth studio album. Demos, previously unreleased tracks, and live recordings capture the sound of a vision in a state of flux.
As its lead single, “Changes,” makes clear, Hunky Dory, released on Dec. 17, 1971, presented a notable metamorphosis for the artist who would go on to define transformation. This worked against Bowie as his label, RCA Records, worried he would reframe his image again, and did not promote the single. Hunky Dory didn’t chart until after the release of Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.
Bowie had only landed one hit during his tenure at Mercury Records, and it would have marked him as a novelty singer. “Space Oddity” charted five days before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969. His third album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, amazing as it is, did not sell or get radio play. Initially, Bowie took time off from recording and touring to write new songs.
To contrast the heavy, guitar-drenched The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie composed most of what would be his next album on piano, accessing an array of melodic options for the experimental songwriter. He dipped into the cabaret mix of his 1967 debut album to further blur the boundaries of art pop, infusing theater into Hunky Dory.
Bowie entered London’s Trident Studios with the lineup who would become the Spiders from Mars: guitarist and pianist Mick Ronson, and drummer Mick Woodmansey, who both backed Bowie on The Man Who Sold the World, and bassist Trevor Bolder. The more complicated piano parts on Hunky Dory were played by Rick Wakeman, keyboardist of the prog band Yes, who would explore orchestral rock on solo works like Journey to the Center of the Earth. For live shows, such as the Sept. 25, 1971 Live Friars in Aylesbury concert included in the box set, pianist Tom Parker augmented the sound. Bowie co-produced the album with Ken Scott, who engineered Space Oddity and The Man who Sold the World.
You can listen to the playlist here while you read on to get our rationale for choosing these particular versions of each song.
“Changes” – 2021 Alternative Mix
“Watch out, you rock and rollers!” 1971 was supposed to be the year of the singer-songwriter, with Carole King’s Tapestry, Cat Stevens’ Teaser And The Firecat, and Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson dominating radio play. “Changes” introduced Bowie as a rising composer-performer, and the demo sums up the culmination of past personas in one scratchy acetate. Everything on the final mix is implied in a worked-out fashion, with Bowie invitingly exhaling the beats.
The alternative mix of “Changes” is a wakeup call, the horns blow reverent revelry, much higher in the mix, which is crystal clear. But the highlight and most prominent change is Bowie’s reed work. Before taking his stage name from a Bowie knife, David Robert Jones’ first instrument, at age 13, was saxophone, which he played throughout high school in a series of small bands. This alternate take finds him laughing and crying his way through the final saxophone solo with a more questioning finish. The “Changes – Live Friars, Aylesbury” live recording elsewhere on the box is also a fun romp in spite of Bowie’s warnings of chordal mishaps.
“Oh! You Pretty Things”- Sounds of the 70s: Bob Harris
The live performance of “Oh! You Pretty Things” on The Sounds of the 70s is solo Bowie, just voice and piano, and is incredible. There are no background singers, which at first clears the way for his lyrics to pop and challenge, but ends with an open invitation to a group singalong, as the chorus is just too infectious to ignore. Bowie, by himself, is a pied piper for the Tomorrow People, making way for the Homo Superior, but assigning homework, like Nietzsche and Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race as required reading.
“Eight Line Poem” – Live Friars, Aylesbury, 25th September 1971
The Live Friars recording of “Eight Line Poem” isn’t the cleanest of takes, but the performance is more pristine in the raw. Ken Scott’s “Eight Line Poem – BOWPROMO Mixes” is fascinating for clarifying the lyrical “collision,” and other subtle distinctions in the vocals; the mix is better at the BBC’s Sounds of the ’70s broadcast with presenter Bob Harris, but Ronson and Bowie’s guitar interplay at Live Friars is the most playful.
“Life on Mars?” Original Ending Version
On the back cover of the original vinyl Hunky Dory, you’ll see a handwritten note saying “Life on Mars?” is “Inspired by Frankie.” Sinatra chose Paul Anka’s lyrics to the melody of Claude Francois’ minor 1968 French hit “Comme D’habitude” over Bowie’s offering of “Even A Fool Learns To Love.” Frank did the song as “My Way,” while the Hunky Dory transformation took revenge Bowie’s way. He imposes an entirely new melody over the original descending opening chords, and ascends into a new musical universe, with a younger generation in its orbit.
The short and bare “Life on Mars?” demo is the skeleton of the soundscape masterwork it will grow into, but the experience needs the cinematic scope of the strings, Ronson’s orchestral reach on the guitar solo, and the magnificence of Wakeman’s runs. The best version is the full recording which doesn’t fade until after a phone rings, ruining the take, and Ronson curses it.
“Kooks” – In Concert John Peel Peel Stereo
Although he offered the song to The Carpenters, “Kooks” was written to Bowie’s son, Zowie, now Duncan Jones, the director, and the original album version is an upbeat welcome to the world. Sitting on a robustly strummed 12-string guitar, with harmonies, lush strings, and happy horns, it makes a good case for taking “a chance with a couple of kooks hung up on romance.” The performance for the John Peel Sessions, recorded a few days after the birth, doesn’t sound like a performance at all, but a singular sharing of the song with the newborn.
“Quicksand” – Early Version – 2021 mix
The acoustic demo of “Quicksand,” recorded in a San Francisco hotel room, was Bowie’s immediate reaction to his confusion about America. Not content to watch the Golden Dawn crawl in at Aleister Crowley’s place with the likes of Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne, Bowie looks to Himmler and Churchill for empty philosophy, and concludes Greta Garbo is the most resilient Homo Sapien. The sound is bare, but we can already hear how it will develop in the studio. The BOWPROMO mix is lush, gorgeously blending the strings and electric instruments.
The “Early Version” finds divine symmetry in the space between piano runs, understated drum rolls, and bass-to-vocal interplay. It’s also worth it for all the bile Bowie throws into the phrase “bullshit faith.”
“Fill Your Heart” – 2021 Alternative Mix
“Fill Your Heart,” written by Biff Rose and Paul Williams, has an interesting journey. It chugs along as acoustic guitar-propelled, chord-riff rock and roll from the demos through the live performances. The best of which is the all-too-cozy live rendition at Life Friars, Aylesbury on Sept. 25, 1971, where Bowie asks Ronson to “get a bit nearer” and still has to further coax him “to the mic.”
“Fill Your Heart – 2021 Alternative Mix” turns the tune positively vaudevillian when Rick Wakeman’s fingers go happily bouncing on a Bechstein grand piano. The piano gives the vocals a lot of space to breathe, where the acoustic guitars had been taking up too much air.
“Andy Warhol” – Live Friars, Aylesbury, 25th September 1971
Bowie’s U.S. tours may have been oddly isolating, but he filled his time in New York gathering with like minds, hanging with Lou Reed and the Andy Warhol’s Factory troupe. “Andy Warhol” was written for Dana Gillespie, who channels somnambulist singer Nico as a starting point before breathing life into the fiery delivery in the box set’s “Andy Warhol – In Concert: David Peel, Mono.” Ronson’s fret work is electrifying, piercing the facade of an icon with a guitar pick.
But Bowie has more fun with it on stage. He and Ronson expertly flow through each other’s acoustic guitars to bring depth to the “Sounds of the 70s: Bob Harris” appearance,” but the Live Friars performance is a scream. We can hear Bowie roll his eyes.
“Song for Bob Dylan” – Demo
Bowie does more than playfully spoof an idol’s publicly perceived persona on “Song for Bob Dylan,” he lays out a manifesto, nominating himself to fill the void. “Song for Bob Dylan – Demo,” is Bowie as the new Dylan. He affects the original vagabond’s “sand and glue” voice, and blows a signature sounding harmonica. The song was originally written for George Underwood to sing, and he instills it with a caricaturist’s flair on “Song For Bob Dylan – In Concert: John Peel, Stereo.” But this is the theatrical Bowie channeling diverse personas through different singers. The final mix is purely Bowie, but the Demo captures the essence of the icon he aims to replace.
“Queen Bitch” – Demo
“Queen Bitch Demo” sounds so much like a Velvet Underground outtake, it could almost be mistaken for one of the songs Lou Reed recorded as a resident songwriter at a mail-order rock and roll label. Bowie even nails Reed’s casual self-mocking vocal style, laughing at himself as he stumbles into verses. It is a far cry from the album cut, and the lackadaisical garage rock feel brings out the beauty of the melody.
The jealous intensity grows through the live performance at the David Peel session, positively bursting out from behind the “frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat” like Bowie’s open flirtations with sexuality and identity. But Bowie got it right on the first try.
“The Bewlay Brothers” – 2021 Alternative Mix
Hunky Dory was initially planned to end on “Port of Amsterdam,” an English-language cover of a Jacques Brel song, until Bowie wrote “Bewlay Brothers.” The song comes alive in the alternative Bowie choral disarrangement which closes it. It shows the rebel rebel Starman Bowie would become, playing “Star Trek in a leather jacket.” The song is profoundly misleading, and mischievously significant, haunted by layers of ghosts.
Songs that didn’t make the record (but that you should still listen to)
For the lyrics to the songs on Hunky Dory, Bowie dove into the “cut-up” method of writing first explored by Beat writer William S. Burroughs. The process consists of cutting up existing sentences and rearranging them into new meanings. This process had to be extended to the songs which fit on the album, as the record came during a particularly productive period for Bowie, and LPs could only hold so much within the grooves. Some of these slipped out into future albums, others just never made the cut.
“Bombers” – BOWPROMO MIX 2022 Remaster
“Bombers,” which was left off Hunky Dory at the last minute, is Bowie digesting a full course of lessons gleaned from the Neil Young school of songwriting. The 2021 remaster keeps it as dirty as the demo, but veers short of grunge. The Remaster version explodes in timeless pop fashion. The harmonies propel the rhythm section, which flies the planes, while the guitars drop the bombs.
“Right On, Mother” – Demo
After the perceived failure of selling The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie set about giving songs away to other artists. Former Herman’s Hermits lead vocalist Peter Noone had a hit before Bowie with his version of “Oh! You Pretty Things.” He also recorded “Right On, Mother,” sticking very close to the demo included in the box set. It is more playful than a laughing gnome, and catchy within the first few measures.
“Looking for a Friend” – Live Friars, Aylesbury, 25th September 1971
“Looking for a Friend,” was written for a shelved side project called Arnold Corns. Inspired by the Pink Floyd song “Arnold Layne,” the short-lived side project yielded the songs “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” and “Hang On to Yourself,” which would find their way to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
“Looking for a Friend” comes alive on stage. The concert tapes of the set cue up some true gems, including an almost reluctant performance of “Space Oddity.” Group unity rules for “The Supermen,” and “Pretty Things.” The band also rips through renditions of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man,” as well as Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown,” and “Round and Round.”. The Live Friars version of “Looking for a Friend” acquaints itself with the glamor twins with depraved ferocity, and is the loosest the future Spiders from Mars ensemble has ever sounded.
“How Lucky You Are (aka Miss Peculiar)”
The insistent menace inherent on every beat in the waltz makes “How Lucky You Are (aka Miss Peculiar)” into the kind of character study found in Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill songs. Bowie pitched the song to Tom Jones as a kind of “Mack the Knife” translation, but the “Delilah” singer passed.The deceptively bouncing triple time lands harder and harder as Bowie’s theatrical keyboard captures the most rudimentary forebodings of dread. “When you walk, you walk behind me,” Bowie sings, inviting a longer lag time.
“King of the City” – Demo
A seemingly sad Bowie invites the audience to “Come back to the real thing… We’ll tell our friends we’re finding our own way.” The song is also lonely, and would have been lost if the middle section didn’t ultimately find its way onto Scary Monsters, reworked as “Ashes to Ashes.”
“Shadow Man” – Demo
Ronson’s subtle piano rhythm drives “Shadow Man” emotionally. He is calling just to see who answers.The response comes in an almost duet with Woodmansey’s vibrant drum fills. Bowie’s eyes, however, are drawn to the road ahead, as the song eventually came out on the Heathen album.
“Tired of My Life” – (Demo)
Divine Symmetry opens with the harmony-stacked demo of “Tired of My Life,” and it is the perfect conclusion to the playlist. It is a thing of dark beauty, beyond morose, past nihilism, and beneath kindness. It shakes a branch on the snow and defeats the sun. The song draws the blinds on yesterday to reveal something so much scarier: My personal favorite song of the 1980s, “It’s No Game,” which would open and close 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.
Divine Symmetry is available at the David Bowie store and on all major streaming platforms.