The year 1971 proved defining for David Bowie; having become a father for the first time, he signed a record deal with RCA before going on to meet Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed while in New York City. In June of that same year, he played live for the first time with Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey, the band who would go on to become The Spiders From Mars. The year culminated with the December release of his fourth studio album Hunky Dory.
Divine Symmetry is the latest in a never-ending line of posthumous Bowie releases. It continues a theme of providing an accompaniment to a studio album, as Conversation Piece was to Space Oddity, and The Width of a Circle was to The Man Who Sold The World. As the subtitle, An Alternative Journey Through Hunky Dory, suggests, this time, the collection celebrates 1971's Hunky Dory. This latest offering is a showcase of the year leading up to the release of Hunky Dory, told through home demos, BBC radio sessions, studio recordings and rare live recordings.
The impressively packaged boxset consists of sleeve notes written by Bowie expert Tris Penna, with contributions from Hunky Dory co-producer Ken Scott, lifelong Bowie friends Geoff MacCormack and George Underwood, singer Dana Gillespie and guitarist Mark Pritchett among others.
Disc one of the four-CD set is entitled "The Songwriting Demos Plus", featuring no fewer than fourteen previously unreleased demo recordings, including early versions of 'Waiting For The Man' and 'Quicksand' recorded in a San Francisco hotel room. As expected with demos, many sound rough and sparse, yet the foundations of the later studio recordings are evident. While thin on backing instrumentation, demo versions of 'Queen Bitch’ and a short version of 'Life on Mars?' do not sound too far from how they would later be released on Hunky Dory.
The set's second disc is titled "BBC Radio in Concert: John Peel". Originally recorded in London and first broadcast on the 20th of June 1971, however, eleven of the tracks on the disc never made the final broadcast and are officially released here for the first time. The tracks are billed as being by "David Bowie and Friends", and Bowie evidently thrusts his friends forward into the spotlight. Dana Gillespie takes lead vocals on 'Andy Warhol', after being introduced by Bowie as a "very, very, very excellent songwriter", while George Underwood provides the vocals on 'Song for Bob Dylan' and the third verse of 'It Ain't Easy'.
Disc three, "BBC Radio and Live", consists of seven tracks recorded in September 1971 for BBC Radio and a previously unreleased near-complete live recording of a show at Friars Aylesbury from the 25th of September 1971. The recording shows glimpses of nervousness, something not usually associated with Bowie. Before the performance of 'Space Oddity', he states, "This is one of my own that we get over as soon as possible", although as the gig goes on, he sounds more at ease. Highlights of the performance include a stripped-back version of 'Oh! You Pretty Things' and a brash 'Changes'.
The fourth disc, "Alternative Mixes, Singles and Versions", provides a collection of differently mixed releases, including a selection of 2021 mixes by former Bowie producer Ken Scott. By beginning with six tracks from the August 1971 promotional album, BOWPROMO, and closing with the 2021 mixes, there is a clear difference in sound quality, with the recent mixes benefitting from modern technology to provide crisper vocal outputs and clearer instrumentation. The clean 2021 mix of 'Song for Bob Dylan' sounds worlds away from the demo version that features on the set's first disc.
For any keen Bowie fan, Divine Symmetry proves a must-have boxset. Yet, for the casual fan, although there are far more accessible Bowie releases to enjoy, the unique insight that Divine Symmetry provides can keep any listener hooked. The release provides access, and insight, into the creative process Bowie so often undertook. It offers a look into the many ideas that were thrown about and constantly reworked to get the sound Bowie was happy with. It reveals how important experimentation was to Bowie, and that theme would continue throughout his career, no better evidenced by the Ziggy Stardust creation that would create headlines the year after Hunky Dory.