David Bowie’s ‘A Divine Symmetry’ Chronicles the Path to ‘Hunky Dory,’ His First Truly Brilliant LP: Album Review

It could certainly be argued that 1971 was the year that David Bowie became David Bowie: He recorded and released his first brilliant album, “Hunky Dory”; wrote, recorded and conceived most of the “Ziggy Stardust” album and larger-than-life persona that would lead him to stardom; and teamed up with the manager, the label and band that would help get him there.

Also in that fateful year was one of the all-time great songwriting streaks of the rock era: Gifted with a grand piano, Bowie began writing songs on that instrument as well as his usual guitar, and what ensued? “Changes,” “Life on Mars?,” “Oh! You Pretty Things” and most of the other classics from the “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust” albums, along with deeply cerebral tracks like “Quicksand” and “The Bewley Brothers.”

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It’s a remarkable time that is documented in superfan-satisfying detail in the 4-CD collection “A Divine Symmetry,” the latest in the long and beautifully compiled series of reissues from the Bowie estate (the vinyl will be available in February). It includes a whopping 48 previously unreleased tracks: what appears to be all of the demos, unreleased songs, different mixes and live recordings from this intense incubation period that Bowie himself deemed worthy of official release (he spent a vast amount of time preparing his archives for release in the years before his death in 2016). Also included are two requisite lavish books, which are loaded with photos, notebook entries, drawings and an extensive history of the era, including an interesting alternate tracklist for the album that saw two outtakes (both included in this set) opening and closing side two: “Bombers” and Bowie’s overwrought (but beautifully sung) cover of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam,” respectively.

It’s basically a timeline of the run-up to superstardom, which brings an important caveat: This compilation definitely is not for casual Bowie fans. Subtitled “An Alternate Journey Through ‘Hunky Dory,’” it revels in the details, the sketches, the ideas that went into the masterwork, rather than the finished masterwork itself. Like “The Width of a Circle,” the companion to his 1970 album “The Man Who Sold the World,” this is an addendum to “Hunky Dory” (the familiar final album is not included here), and is essentially everything connected with the album that isn’t on the final album.

Photo: Brian Ward
Photo: Brian Ward

That said, there’s much to dig into here. The unreleased songs are largely unspectacular but a couple are fascinating: Bowie cannibalized a section of “Tired of My Life” for the chorus of “It’s No Game,” released nearly a decade later on the “Scary Monsters” album, while odd “King of the City” has a soaring chorus and is unlike virtually anything else he wrote at the time. “Shadow Man” is a decent if tossed-off song with abysmal lyrics that one certainly hopes were made up on the spot; “Right on Mother,” inspired by his mum’s support of his marriage to Angela Barnett the previous year, is loaded with hippie-era clichés and a vapid melody (somehow it was covered by ex-Herman’s Hermits singer Peter Noone, who’d scored a hit with his version of “Oh! You Pretty Things”). “Looking for a Friend” is possibly the last song Bowie recorded in the earthy style of the early ’70s; both it and “Shadow Man” were re-recorded for “Ziggy Stardust” and remain unreleased, so it’s possible that more fully realized versions of the songs may be included in the companion to that album (which would be next in line).

There’s also a folkier demo version of “Song for Bob Dylan,” complete with a wheezy harmonica, and alternate mixes of several albums tracks, some of which original producer Ken Scott has remixed to include elements that were dropped from the final versions — again, nothing earth-shattering, but there’s “Changes” with more prominent horns, “Kooks” with louder string arrangements and bass, and Ronson’s two electric guitar tracks on “Queen Bitch” can be heard in better detail.

Also included are three live sets: an oft-bootlegged June 1971 live BBC radio session that was the Spiders From Mars’ first performance (bassist Trevor Bolder literally had a night to learn the songs) and finds them premiering several songs from “Hunky Dory,” accompanied by several friends who take lead vocals on a couple of tracks — while interesting, the lack of rehearsal shows. There’s also an acoustic set that Bowie and Ronson recorded for the BBC in September that consists mostly of “Hunky Dory” songs.

More interesting, but in significantly lower sound quality, is a September concert from the Friars club in Aylesbury, a venue around 50 miles northwest of London that holds a special place in Bowie lore as the site of the first “Ziggy Stardust” era concert just four months later. The show captured here follows an acoustic-then-electric format, with Bowie and Ronson opening with two Biff Rose covers and then launching into mostly “Hunky Dory” songs — which would have been completely unfamiliar to the audience — before being joined by the rhythm section and closing with covers of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” and the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man.” It’s a rough performance (and Ronson’s electric guitar is barely audible) but the crowd chants for yet another encore until Bowie pleads that they don’t know any more songs.

But there would be many, many more in the coming months. “A Divine Symmetry” is like a charming teenage photo of a future superstar, a glimpse of the greatness that was just around the corner.

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