Bowie was still an aspiring pop star, with but one successful single under his belt, at the time of Hunky Dory's release. It wouldn't last.



Regular listeners of this program know that NPR turned 50 years old in 2021. Throughout this year, we've reflected on cultural landmarks from the year of our founding - 1971. Those have been some of my favorite stories of this year, and now we have one more. This day in 1971, David Bowie released the album "Hunky Dory." Here's Allyson McCabe.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: First, there was the Beatles. Then came the Stones. In 1969, David Bowie scored his first U.K. hit with "Space Oddity" but failed to chart in the U.S. Unsure of how to make a name for himself, Bowie tried side projects, collaborations, giving his songs away to other artists, such as Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits.


PETER NOONE: (Singing) Oh, you pretty things, don't you know you're driving your mamas and papas insane?

MCCABE: But after his record label sent him to America, Bowie came back with ideas to spare.

RICK WAKEMAN: He called me up, said he - would I like to go out to his house, Haddon Hall, in Beckenham, in Kent, 'cause he wanted to play me some songs. And I went up there, and he had a battered, old 12-string guitar, and he started playing me these songs, one by one.

MCCABE: That's keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who played on Bowie's 1971 studio album "Hunky Dory." Gazing across the Atlantic, Bowie paid tribute to American idols such as Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed...


BOWIE: (Singing) I'm up on the 11th floor, and I'm watching the cruisers below. He's down on the street, and he's trying hard to pull sister Flo.

MCCABE: ...While also charting his own course...


BOWIE: (Singing) Ch-ch-ch-ch (ph) changes. Turn and face the strange. Ch-ch-changes. Ooh, look out, you rock 'n' rollers. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Turn and face the strange. Ch-ch-changes. Pretty soon now you're gonna get older.

MCCABE: ...And, well, just being weird.


BOWIE: (Singing) Lay me place and bake me pie. I'm starving for me gravy. Leave my shoes and door unlocked. I might just slip away, hey.

MCCABE: Dave Stewart says the album had a huge impact.

DAVE STEWART: We had a few unique singer-songwriter types, like Nick Drake. But when Bowie came out with "Hunky Dory," I was in, like, total shock. You know, it was like a complete revelation. And each track was completely different from the next track.

MCCABE: Bowie inspired Stewart's band, Eurythmics, as well as Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, The Cure - pretty much everyone with a video in the early days of MTV. Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg.

NICHOLAS PEGG: Among the young fans of Bowie at the time of "Hunky Dory," there were so many of the pop stars of the future, people who came through 10 years later or a little later than that, the early '80s, practically every pop star who was in the top 10. And I guess they all found their own special parts of what Bowie was doing that spoke particularly to them. And that's how you end up with this extraordinary diversity.


JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: Bowie's eclecticism and his magpie interest in all forms was something that resonated with me a lot.

MCCABE: That's "Hedwig And The Angry Inch" co-creator John Cameron Mitchell, who says Bowie's influence went beyond the music.

MITCHELL: The androgynous trend was owned by Bowie. I mean, it was started by others, people that he learned from - Lyndsay Kemp, and Marc Bolan was working around the same time. But Bowie took it to the next degree. He was the guy who synthesized what he saw through his body and psyche.


BOWIE: (Singing) It's a god-awful small affair to the girl with the mousey hair. But her mommy is yelling no, and her daddy has told her to go.

MCCABE: Bowie sweeps his long hair back from his face like a Hollywood screen siren on the album cover, the image tinted like a theater lobby card. In "Life On Mars?" he sings about a young girl who goes to the movies to escape the drabness and disappointment of her life.


BOWIE: (Singing) And she's hooked to the silver screen.

MCCABE: The whole album was a peek at the future, explains Nicholas Pegg.

PEGG: So, yeah, he's playing with that whole concept of - and I think it's to do with theatricality. It's to do with the playing of roles. It's to do with layers of authenticity. These are all ideas that are central to Bowie's writing right through his career.

MCCABE: Rick Wakeman says Bowie didn't just think boldly; he lived boldly.

WAKEMAN: If David wanted to know what it was like to walk naked down Oxford Street in London, he'd walk naked down Oxford Street in London. He wouldn't think, well, I wonder what it's like.

MCCABE: Six months after "Hunky Dory," Bowie debuted an entirely new character.


BOWIE: (Singing) Now Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly and the Spiders from Mars.

MCCABE: Ziggy Stardust was the role that made Bowie the Starman. But as he explained to WHYY's Fresh Air, "Hunky Dory" was the vehicle for a far greater ambition.


BOWIE: We were creating the 21st century in 1971.

MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICK WAKEMAN SONG, "LIFE ON MARS?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.