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Week 66 | The Man Who Sold the World (1970)

Years ago I read a Bowie biography that made the point that “The Man Who Sold the World” is essentially a heavy metal album, and since Bowie recorded it in 1970 it can truthfully be said that he was a pioneer in that genre, too.  Its hard to listen to a song like, “The Width of a Circle” and not agree with the point.  The album has obviously been around for a long time, and the title track has gone through at least two revivals (when Lulu recorded it in 1974, and the Nirvana version, in 1993, after which Bowie returned the song to his live set-list).  So, I think today “The Man Who Sold the World” doesn’t produce the same kind of reaction that, say, Bowie’s first, somewhat obscure self-titled album does— as an unusual work even amidst a characteristically diverse catalogue.  But that’s what it is.

Bowie’s prior album was, “Space Oddity,” which is pretty low-key.  Before that Bowie had been in his hippy phase for several years— but he hadn’t done anything that sounded like Led Zeppelin until this album.  And, while some of his subsequent music would certainly have a hard edge, he would never truly return to the genre.  But this one has all the element of early 70’s heavy metal — loud guitars, blues influence (he even has his obligatory “She Shook Me Cold” song), and repeated occult references.  

To this last point, Bowie was experimenting with his supernatural references as much as his musical style.  He would never fully abandon occult themes, but two albums later, with “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust,” Bowie more or less settled on space aliens over “supermen” and Aleister Crowley.  

Nonetheless, “The Man Who Sold the World” includes signs of things to come.  With Mick Ronson on guitar and Woody Woodmansey on drums, three of the four Spiders of Mars were in place (including Bowie himself, but not yet including Trevor Bolder).  While I don’t think this album should properly be categorized as “glam,” it clearly references glam-rival, Marc Bolan, when Bowie does his best impersonation of the lead singer of T-Rex during the song, “Black Country Rock.”  And while the songs don’t overtly touch on gender identification, one of the album’s three alternative covers certainly does— long-haired Bowie, reclining, in a dress.

The first time I ever recall hearing about David Bowie, was my mother telling me a story about him in that dress.  She had a read an account of Bowie trying to go through an airport while wearing a dress, and a security guard was quoted saying something along the lines of while he had seen many strange things in the airport, he had never seen anything like that.  Today, that story seems quaint, but Bowie knew how to shock, at the time.

The album famously has two other alternate album covers— one featuring Bowie in mid-kick, and the other featuring a kind of cartoon alluding to two of the songs, “All the Madmen” (there’s an asylum in the background), and “Running Gun Blues” (the cowboy with a blank speech bubble is somewhat ominously carrying a rifle).  

Bowie quickly moved on from this album.  Of the more than thirty songs that appear on Bowie’s first two official live albums, “David Live” and “Stage,” only one song, “The Width of a Circle” appears (on “David Live”).  That song also appears on “Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture” and “Santa Monica ‘72,” but nothing from “The Man Who Sold the World” appears on any of the subsequent live albums recorded for the duration of the 1970s through the 1990s.  The song, “The Man Who Sold the World” would make its return on live albums recorded after that— “A Reality Tour” and “Glastonbury 2000,” and since I saw him perform it in a concert during the 1990s, perhaps there’s another live album in the works featuring the song.  But Bowie certainly downplayed the album during most of his performing history. 

Oddly, Bowie also references, “All the Madmen,” in his 1993 song, “The Buddha of Suburbia,” in the middle of which, for no apparent reason, he blurts out, “Zane, Zane, Zane, ouvre le chien,” which is a line from the earlier song.  “Zane,” as far as I can tell, has no meaning.  “Ouvre le chien,” means “open the dog,” in French.  If that phrase has meaning, I am at a loss as to what it is.  My best guess is that the line is supposed to illustrate madness, which is the subject of the earlier song.  “Buddha” was used in the soundtrack of a show of the same name.  Although I never saw the show, I am guessing the nonsensical dysfunctions of society serve as a plot point, so…nonsense.  

For me, I like the album.  I think of “Space Oddity” as a huge leap forward from, “David Bowie,”  “The Man Who Sold the World” an advancement from there, and then, the next album, “Hunky Dory” as Bowie finally reaching cruising altitude with his first truly great album.  For whatever reason, I don’t find myself listing to this album or its songs very often, but when I do, I enjoy it.  It certainly should be counted amongst his major works.

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