The Man Who Sold the World

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"The Man Who Sold the World"
Song by David Bowie
from the album The Man Who Sold the World
Released4 November 1970 (US)
April 1971 (UK)
RecordedTrident and Advision Studios, London
18 April – 22 May 1970
GenrePsychedelic rock, folk rock
LabelMercury Records
Songwriter(s)David Bowie
Producer(s)Tony Visconti

"The Man Who Sold the World" is a song written and performed by David Bowie. It is the title track of his third album, which was released in the US in November 1970 and in the UK in April 1971. The song has been covered by a number of other artists, notably by Lulu, who had a UK No. 3 hit with her version in 1974, and Nirvana, whose 1993 performance of the song for the television program MTV Unplugged introduced it to a new audience.

The song was reworked by Bowie, featuring atmospheric synths, a new bassline, techno-style drums and a notably darker mood, for performances in concerts from 1995 to 1997, including the 1995 MTV Europe Music Awards. Bowie later returned to playing the original version in the 2000s.

Inspiration and explanation[edit]

The persona in the song has an encounter with a kind of doppelgänger, as suggested in the second chorus where "I never lost control" is replaced with "We never lost control".[1] Beyond this, the episode is unexplained: as James E. Perone wrote,

Bowie encounters the title character, but it is not clear just what the phrase means, or exactly who this man is. ... The main thing that the song does is to paint – however elusively – the title character as another example of the societal outcasts who populate the album.[2]

In common with a number of tracks on the album, the song's themes have been compared to the horror-fantasy works of H. P. Lovecraft.[3] The lyrics are also cited as reflecting Bowie's concerns with splintered or multiple personalities, and are believed to have been partially inspired by the poem "Antigonish" by William Hughes Mearns:[4]

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away...

In the BBC Radio 1 special programme "ChangesNowBowie", broadcast on 8 January 1997, Bowie was interviewed by Mary Anne Hobbs and was asked about the song. He commented: "I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. Maybe now that I feel more comfortable with the way that I live my life and my mental state (laughs) and my spiritual state whatever, maybe I feel there's some kind of unity now. That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you're young, when you know that there's a piece of yourself that you haven't really put together yet. You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are."[5]

Other releases by Bowie[edit]


Lulu version[edit]

"The Man Who Sold the World"
Single by Lulu
B-side"Watch That Man"
Released11 January 1974 (1974-01-11)
Format7" single
RecordedJuly 1973
Songwriter(s)David Bowie
Producer(s)David Bowie, Mick Ronson
Lulu singles chronology
"Make Believe World"
"The Man Who Sold the World"
"The Man with the Golden Gun"

The song was covered by the Scottish singer Lulu in 1974, who, according to biographer David Buckley, performed it in "a sleazy, almost Berlin cabaret style".[6] Lulu would recall Bowie inviting her to a concert he gave after which he met her in his hotel room saying: "I want to make an MF of a record with you [because] you're a great singer." Lulu – "I didn't think it would happen but [Bowie] followed up two days later. He was übercool at the time and I just wanted to be led by him. I loved everything he did. I didn't think 'The Man Who Sold the World' was the greatest song for my voice, but it was such a strong song in itself. I had no idea what it was about. In the studio Bowie kept telling me to smoke more cigarettes, to give my voice a certain quality."[7] Bowie produced the Lulu recording of "The Man Who Sold the World" with Mick Ronson during the July 1973 Pin Ups sessions and also contributed guitar, saxophone and backing vocals. The remainder of the band included Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mike Garson on piano, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums.[8]

Lulu's "The Man Who Sold the World" was released as a single on 11 January 1974 having been introduced by Lulu on the TOTP broadcast of 10 January 1974: the track only made its Top 50 debut (at #27) on the chart dated 26 January 1974 following a reprise performance by Lulu on TOTP two days earlier on 24 January 1974, with a third TOTP performance by Lulu on 7 February 1974 broadcast facilitating a boost from No. 13 to No. 5 on the chart dated 9 February 1974. In her TOTP performances in support of "The Man Who Sold the World" Lulu has been characterized as "dressed and sounding exactly like a diminutive Bowie".[9] Lulu performed the song in the second-season finale of French and Saunders.

Chart positions[edit]

Chart (1974) Position
Belgian Singles Chart (Ultratop)[10] 24
Netherlands Singles Chart[10] 10
Irish Singles Chart[11] 8
UK Singles Chart (Official Chart Company)[12] 3


Midge Ure version[edit]

Midge Ure covered this song in a 1982 studio release, which appeared on the Party Party Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (released 3 December 1982) and promotional 7" single (backed with "Band of Gold" by Modern Romance). The track was subsequently re-recorded/re-mixed and released as a B-side to Midge Ure's If I Was 12" single (released 13 September 1985). This later version is featured as the title song of the 2015 video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Richard Barone version[edit]

The song was covered by American singer Richard Barone in 1987 on his proto-chamber pop album, Cool Blue Halo. Using cello, acoustic guitar and symphonic percussion in a live setting.

Nirvana version[edit]

"The Man Who Sold the World"
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana).jpg
Promotional single by Nirvana
from the album MTV Unplugged in New York
Recorded18 November 1993 at Sony Music Studios in New York City
LabelDGC Records
Songwriter(s)David Bowie
Producer(s)Alex Coletti, Scott Litt, Nirvana
Nirvana singles chronology
"About a Girl"
"The Man Who Sold the World"
Audio sample
Music video
"The Man Who Sold the World" on YouTube

In his journals, Kurt Cobain of the American grunge band Nirvana ranked the album The Man Who Sold the World at number 45 in his top 50 favourite albums.[13] A live rendition of the song was recorded by the band in 1993 during their MTV Unplugged appearance, and it was released on their MTV Unplugged in New York album the following year. The song was also released as a promotional single for the album,[14] and received considerable airplay on alternative rock radio stations. It was also placed into heavy rotation on MTV, peaking at number 3 on MTV's most played videos on 18 February 1995.[15] Nirvana regularly covered the song during live sets after their memorable acoustic performance up until lead singer Cobain's death in 1994. In 2002, the song was re-released on Nirvana's self-titled "best of" compilation.

Bowie said of Nirvana's cover: "I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering 'The Man Who Sold the World'" and that "it was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool".[16] Bowie called Nirvana's cover "heartfelt", noting that "until this [cover], it hadn't occurred to me that I was part of America's musical landscape. I always felt my weight in Europe, but not [in the US]."[17] In the wake of its release, Bowie bemoaned the fact that when he performed the number himself he would encounter "kids that come up afterwards and say, 'It's cool you're doing a Nirvana song.' And I think, 'Fuck you, you little tosser!'"[18][check quotation syntax]

On 14 February 2016, surviving Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Pat Smear teamed up with contemporary Beck to perform "The Man Who Sold the World" at a pre-Grammy Awards party, in tribute to Bowie, who had died the month prior, with Beck performing the vocals.[19] In 2017, to mark what would have been Kurt Cobain's 50th birthday, the Phonographic Performance Limited released a list of the top twenty most played Nirvana songs on the TV and radio in the UK in which "The Man Who Sold the World" was ranked at number six.[20]

A louder electric guitar cover appears on the band's "Live and Loud" set list.


Weekly charts[edit]

Chart (1995) Peak
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[21] 40
Canada Top Singles (RPM)[22] 22
European Hit Radio Top 40 (Music & Media)[23] 29
Poland (LP3)[24][25] 1
US Alternative Songs (Billboard)[26] 6
US Mainstream Rock (Billboard)[27] 12
US Radio Songs (Billboard)[28] 39
US Alternative Top 50 (Radio & Records)[29] 5
US Rock Tracks Top 60 (Radio & Records)[30] 12
Chart (2012) Position
UK Rock and Metal (Official Charts Company)[31] 13
Chart (2013) Position
France (SNEP)[32] 149

Year-end charts[edit]

Chart (1995) Peak
US Top Rock Tracks (Radio & Records)[33] 66


Five Years (1969–1973)[edit]

The song appears on the compilation album Five Years (1969–1973). "Metrobolist" was the album's original title, planned for release by Bowie as a gatefold presentation, with hand drawn title accompanying cartoon-style drawings front and back, opening up to display a double sleeve photo-spread inside. But the only substantial evidence "Metrobolist" was ever proposed as a Mercury record company product are labels with the title "Metrobolist" printed on surviving tape boxes.[34]

Other cover versions[edit]


  1. ^ King, Maureen (1997). "Future Legends: David Bowie and Science Fiction". In Morrison, Michael A. (ed.). Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Westport, CT: Greenwood. p. 131.
  2. ^ Perone, James E. (2007). The Words and Music of David Bowie. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. pp. 15–16.
  3. ^ Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: p. 38.
  4. ^ David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story, p. 100; Allmusic review. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
  5. ^ Wallace, Grant (27 June 1999). "ChangesNowBowie Transcript – Radio 1". Retrieved 19 January 2013.
  6. ^ David Buckley (1999). Op. cit: p. 196.
  7. ^ Spitz, Marc (2009). Bowie: a Biography (1st US ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group. p. 228. ISBN 978-0-307-39396-8.
  8. ^ Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Op. cit.: p. 118.
  9. ^ Bartlett, Neil (1988). Who Was That Man: a present for Mr Oscar Wilde. London: Serpent's Tail. p. 244. ISBN 978-1-85242-123-6.
  10. ^ a b Lulu – The Man Who Sold the World – peak chart positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  11. ^ Lulu – Irish Singles Chart peak positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  12. ^ Lulu – UK Singles Chart peak positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  13. ^ Kurt's Journals – His Top 50 Albums. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
  14. ^ Nirvana – The Man Who Sold the World Retrieved 5 May 2014.
  15. ^ "Billboard Magazine – Video Monitor" (PDF). Billboard. 18 February 1995. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  16. ^ St Thomas, Kurt and Smith, Troy. Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects. St Martin's Griffin (2004). pp. 191. ISBN 0-312-20663-1.
  17. ^ Gundersen, Edna (14 September 1995), "Cover Story: Bowie, beyond fame and fashion", USA Today: D1, 2
  18. ^ Nicholas Pegg (2000). The Complete David Bowie: pp. 138–139.
  19. ^ Beck and living Nirvana members honour David Bowie at pre-Grammy party Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  20. ^ 20 most-played Nirvana songs revealed to mark Kurt Cobain’s 50th birthday Retrieved 3 March 2017.
  21. ^ " – Nirvana – The Man Who Sold the World" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  22. ^ "Top RPM Singles: Issue 7984." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  23. ^ "M & M Charts Airplay EHR Top 40" (PDF). Music & Media. Music & Media. 18 February 1995. p. 33. Retrieved 26 January 2019.
  24. ^ "THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD". Polskie Radio. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
  25. ^ "Archiwum Listy Przebojow – Trojki – Nrivana". Polskie Radio. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  26. ^ "Nirvana Chart History (Alternative Songs)". Billboard.
  27. ^ "Nirvana Chart History (Mainstream Rock)". Billboard.
  28. ^ "Nirvana Chart History (Radio Songs)". Billboard.
  29. ^ "Alternative Top 50" (PDF). Radio & Records. Radio & Records. 10 March 1995. p. 62. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  30. ^ "Rock Tracks Top 60" (PDF). Radio & Records. Radio & Records. 24 February 1995. p. 64. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  31. ^ "Official Rock & Metal Singles Chart Top 40". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 15 April 2017.
  32. ^ " – Nirvana – The Man Who Sold the World" (in French). Les classement single.
  33. ^ "Top 95 of 95" (PDF). Radio & Records. Radio & Records. 22 December 1995. p. 86. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  34. ^ Five Years (1969–1973) companion book (2015) p. 8.
  35. ^ Louisa Buck, "Jeremy Deller's English Magic", The Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2014.
  36. ^ "70/80 - rock-classics in Ukrainian style". Kamyaniy Gist. Retrieved 27 February 2019.
  37. ^ "Michael Stipe covers David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on Fallon — watch". Consequence of Sound. 30 March 2016.
  38. ^ "Michael Stipe: The Man Who Sold the World". YouTube. 30 March 2016.
  39. ^ Bubbles (31 October 2016). The Man Who Sold the World. Trailer Park Boys. Retrieved 27 February 2019 – via YouTube.
  40. ^ "Ozark season 2 trailer song: What is the song in the Ozark trailer?". Daily Express. 3 August 2018. Retrieved 6 September 2018.

External links[edit]