With the release of Hunky Dory still some six months off, Bowie and Friends previewed the material being considered for the album. John Peel served as the genial master of ceremonies. The band brought a newfound muscularity to "Queen Bitch" and a rock edge to "Bombers" that kept it well-removed from twee territory. "Looking for a Friend," too, gained requisite swagger. Introducing "Kooks," Bowie noted the influence of Neil Young which is evident in its arrangement.
Bowie generously ceded the spotlight to his Friends throughout the performance. Geoff McCormack handled the lead vocal of Chuck Berry's lively "Almost Grown." George Underwood tackled "Song for Bob Dylan," snarling in the style of the song's subject as the verse melody gently evoked Dylan's "My Back Pages." Dana Gillespie impressed with the song Bowie wrote (and later produced) for her, "Andy Warhol." Bowie, Underwood, and MacCormack traded off verses on the finale, a rendition of Ron Davies' "It Ain't Easy," with Gillespie very audible on the choruses. "It Ain't Easy" would be recorded for Hunky Dory but shelved until Ziggy Stardust. The concert is presented twice - once in mono and once in stereo. Only the mono presentation has the performances of "Bombers" and Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown."
A mere five days after this freewheeling concert, Bowie and the band entered Trident Studios to begin recording Hunky Dory. On September 21, he returned to the BBC for a Sounds of the '70s broadcast with presenter Bob Harris. This set opens CD 3 here. (A handful of selections from the Peel and Harris shows were issued on Bowie at the Beeb, but this collection marks their first appearances in full.) Echoing his early period as one-half of a duo with John "Hutch" Hutchinson, Bowie appeared in a stripped-down acoustic format with just the very sympathetic Mick Ronson by his side. They performed six songs intended for Hunky Dory including the Brel/Shuman "Amsterdam" and Paul Williams and Biff Rose's "Fill Your Heart." The spare, subtle approach focused more attention on the strength of the compositions such as "The Supermen," or "Eight Line Poem," with its tight interplay between Bowie and Ronson. "Kooks" had shed its Neil Young sound (but still awaited the brass and strings of the final album version) and Bowie reclaimed "Andy Warhol" as his own. The superstar artist was beginning to emerge.
CD 3 continues with a concert at Friars in Aylesbury on September 25, 1971; the bill at the 700-capacity proscenium house also featured the rock trio America. After reprising his duo act with Ronson for the first few songs, Bowie welcomed the as-yet-unnamed Spiders and pianist Tom Parker. "We want to entertain you. We want you to enjoy the songs. We want to make you happy, because we want to be happy doing them," an audibly nervous Bowie tells the audience. His patter is endearing, whether talking up the "underrated" Biff Rose - in addition to "Fill Your Heart," he does the quirky "Buzz the Fuzz" in a variety of animated voices - or explaining that "Space Oddity" is "one of my own that we get over as soon as possible." His introductions to each song are charmingly low-key and often self-effacing, but he's commanding and full-throated when singing.
Roughly a third of the set comprised outside material. In addition to the two Rose songs, he offered "Amsterdam," "Waiting for the Man," and another Chuck Berry classic, "Round and Round." He accompanied himself on piano on "Oh! You Pretty Things" before bringing out Tom Parker on "Changes." Two of Hunky Dory's "people songs," "Song for Bob Dylan" and "Andy Warhol," both continued to grow and develop in these earthy versions. The show very much gives the sense of the artist being on the cusp of something big - not quite there yet, but closer than he'd ever been before.
The fourth disc of Divine Symmetry rounds up various studio tracks beginning with the CD premiere of the promotional album colloquially known as BOWPROMO. Originally pressed in 1971 and reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day in 2017, the white-label album was pressed up by Gem Management and given to record label contacts in the hopes of securing record deals for Bowie and Dana Gillespie. Seven Bowie tracks appeared on Side One, and five from Gillespie on Side Two. The Bowie tracks were mixed at Trident in late July 1971, not long after the songs were recorded there, and those mixes would be refined for the final Hunky Dory master. ("Bombers" would ultimately be dropped from the track listing. It didn't resurface until 1990.) Six of Bowie's seven songs on BOWPROMO are here; "It Ain't Easy" isn't included as the BOWPROMO mix is identical to that which later premiered on Ziggy Stardust. Most of the tracks aren't radically different but all have subtle mix variations. "Eight Line Poem" is the exception as it has an entirely different vocal. Both "Kooks" and "Quicksand" have been pitch- and tempo-corrected specifically for this release.
A clutch of odds and ends follows up the BOWPROMO tracks (which feature the immense contribution of Rick Wakeman on piano in his first appearance on Divine Symmetry). The bluesy "Lightning Frightening" was first released in a mono edit on the 1990 Rykodisc reissue of Ziggy Stardust. The April 1971 Trident recording was originally recorded for The Micky King All-Stars, a concept in the mold of The Arnold Corns. The short-lived group was rounded out by singer King (heard on background vocals), bassist Herbie Flowers, drummer Barry Morgan, and guitarist Mark Pritchett. "Amsterdam," a favorite during this period, appears in both an early mix and the released single version. (The song was quite unlucky. Recorded during the first Hunky Dory session, it was replaced late in the game by "The Bewlay Brothers." It then made it to an early Ziggy Stardust master tape before getting cast aside again. It ultimately appeared as the B-side of Pin-Ups' "Sorrow." It wasn't altogether inappropriate, as Pin-Ups was an album of covers, of which "Amsterdam" was one.)
The mono single of "Changes" b/w "Andy Warhol" follows. The final Bowie single in the U.K. to be cut in mono, it's confirmed here by producer Ken Scott to be a stereo fold-down. Various recent and new mixes by Scott conclude the disc: the 2016 piano/strings/voice mix of "Life on Mars?" first issued on the Legacy collection and seven 2021 mixes of Hunky Dory material in album order including the outtake "Bombers," an early take of "Quicksand," "Changes" with a different sax solo, and a longer "Life on Mars?" with studio clatter and chatter. None of these will replace the originals but all are valid on this "alternative journey" as the mixes highlight different aspects of the instrumentation and vocals with clarity.
Those looking to hear the original Hunky Dory will have to turn to the Blu-ray Audio disc to do so, in high resolution stereo as remastered in 2015. The Bob Harris BBC broadcast is on the Blu-ray, too, along with twelve alternate versions of Hunky Dory tracks assembled in album sequence (all of which are on the CD) and, finally, a DTS-MA 5.1 surround mix of the 2016 version of "Life on Mars?"
Audio for Divine Symmetry has been mastered to a high standard by John Webber at AIR Studios, with the 2015 Hunky Dory having been handled by Ray Staff. The set's producers are candid regarding the sound quality which is variable on some of the CD 1 demos as well as on CD 3's Friars Aylesbury concert. The latter has been sourced primarily from a "less-than-perfect" quarter-inch mono soundboard tape with distortion, dropouts, and so on. Missing sections (including the first part of "Changes") have been restored from even lesser-quality sources. It's all listenable, but one shouldn't expect "release quality" on everything here. The sound of the studio material is uniformly good, with subtlety and detail that's brought out even more on the Blu-ray.
The handsomely slipcased package is a wonder to behold. A 100-page hardcover book is overflowing with striking color and black-and-white photography of the ever-photogenic artist as well as with memorabilia (including tape boxes, acetates, sheet music, advertisements, original press releases, picture sleeves, and handwritten lyrics) and copious text and annotation encompassing a timeline, track-by-track notes, essays, oral histories, commentary from Ken Scott, photographer Louanne Richards, and key personnel, original reviews and magazine articles, and more. It's truly exhaustive, and sets a standard for this type of release. A second, 60-page paperback book is a composite reprint of Bowie's notebooks from the era with lyrics, chords, proposed track listings, notes, and costume sketches all in his hand. Each disc is adorned with an RCA-style label and housed in a paper sleeve with a unique photo of the long-tressed star on each.
HUNKY-DORREY? HUNKY-DOREY, pondered Bowie in his notebook. Whatever the spelling, this celebration, excavation, and alternative journey assembled as Divine Symmetry is, simply, hunky dory. The countdown to a similar set for Ziggy Stardust is underway...
Divine Symmetry (An Alternative Journey Through 'Hunky Dory') is available now: