David Bowie’s first proper masterpiece arrived in a flashy frock coat and cabaret face powder, a luscious serving of piano glam galaxies removed from the stomping guitar hero Bowie would become just one year later. Young Bowie was in full thrall with music hall singer Anthony Newley, and you can hear that influence in Hunky Dory‘s clanging pianos and buoyant tempos. “Oh! You Pretty Things” struts and preens like the British teenage ragamuffins it’s adoring and “Life on Mars?” smuggles existential malaise and social injustice in heavily-coded lyrics and the kind of big-crescendo-chorus that sounds like it’s on its way to a premiere in the West End. And “Quicksand” isBowie at his most vulnerable, declaring his own helplessness over a bare bed of acoustic guitar.
He cranks the amps only once, late in the album, for “Queen Bitch,” an affectionately-teasing number about Lou Reed. To hear it today, with its slashing central riff, tumbling tempo and hollered chorus, it almost feels like a trailer for Ziggy‘s “Hang on to Yourself.” Its inclusion on an album full of frilled collars and fine china offers a revealing glimpse of the artist’s method: Even at this early stage of his career, Bowie knew exactly where he was going next.