The Man Who Sold the World

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This article is about the song. For the album, see The Man Who Sold the World (album).
"The Man Who Sold the World"
Song by David Bowie from the album The Man Who Sold the World
Released 4 November 1970 (U.S.)
April 1971 (UK)
Recorded Trident and Advision Studios, London
18 April - 22 May 1970
Genre Glam rock, psychedelic rock, art rock
Length 3:55
Label Mercury Records
Writer David Bowie
Producer Tony Visconti
The Man Who Sold the World track listing
"She Shook Me Cold"
"The Man Who Sold the World"
"The Supermen"

"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 U.S. 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 a heavy bassline, güiro as percussion 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 song's title is similar to that of Robert A. Heinlein's 1949 science fiction novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, with which Bowie was familiar.[1] However, the song has no similarities to the story in the book. 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".[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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:[5]

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. Bowie 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."[6]

Other releases[edit]

Bowie Personnel[edit]

Cover versions[edit]


"The Man Who Sold the World"
Single by Lulu
B-side "Watch That Man"
Released 11 January 1974 (1974-01-11)
Format 7" single
Recorded July 1973
Genre Glam rock
Label Polydor
Writer(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".[7] 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 a 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."[8] 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.[9]

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 24 January 1974 TOTP broadcast 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".[10]

Lulu's chart positions
Chart (1974) Position
Belgian Singles Chart (Ultratop)[11] 24
Netherlands Singles Chart[11] 10
Irish Singles Chart[12] 8
UK Singles Chart (Official Chart Company)[13] 3

Lulu Personnel[edit]

Midge Ure[edit]

Midge Ure covered this song in a 1982 studio release. This version is featured as the title song of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Richard Barone[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.


"The Man Who Sold the World"
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana).jpg
"The Man Who Sold the World" cover
Promotional single by Nirvana from the album MTV Unplugged in New York
Released 1 November 1994
Recorded 18 November 1993 at Sony Music Studios in New York City
Genre Alternative rock, acoustic rock
Length 4:20
Label DGC Records
Writer David Bowie
Producer Alex Coletti, Scott Litt, Nirvana
MTV Unplugged in New York track listing
"Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam"
"The Man Who Sold the World"
"Pennyroyal Tea"

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.[14] 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,[15] and received considerable airplay on alternative rock radio stations. It was also thrown into heavy rotation on music video stations such as MTV. 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 "best of" compilation album Nirvana.

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]

Nirvana's chart positions
Chart (1995) Peak
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[19] 40
Canada Top Singles (RPM)[20] 22
French Airplay Chart[21] 34
US Alternative Songs (Billboard)[22] 6
US Mainstream Rock (Billboard)[23] 12
US Radio Songs (Billboard)[24] 39
Chart (2012) Position
UK Rock and Metal (Official Charts Company)[25] 18
Chart (2013) Position
France (SNEP)[26] 149

Nirvana personnel[edit]

Other covers[edit]


  1. ^ King, Maureen, "Future Legends: David Bowie and Science Fiction", in Morrison, Michael A. (ed.) (1997). Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Westport, CT: Greenwood. p. 131.  The Man Who Sold the Moon is also the title of a collection of Heinlein's short stories. In 1975 Bowie told a reporter that he had acquired the film rights to another Heinlein novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, and would write the score and star as the character Valentine Michael Smith (see Gillman, Peter; Gillman, Leni (1986), Alias David Bowie, London: Hodder & Stoughton, p. 402 ); since then, Bowie has said he had read the novel but never intended to make the film (see Campbell, Virginia, "Bowie at the Bijou", in Movieline, April 1992, p. 35).
  2. ^ King, Maureen, "Future Legends: David Bowie and Science Fiction", in Morrison, Michael A. (ed.) (1997). Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Westport, CT: Greenwood. p. 131. 
  3. ^ Perone, James E. (2007). The Words and Music of David Bowie. Westport, CT: Praeger. pp. 15–6. 
  4. ^ Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: p. 38.
  5. ^ David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story: p.100; Allmusic review. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
  6. ^ Wallace, Grant (27 June 1999). "ChangesNowBowie Transcript - Radio 1". Retrieved 19 January 2013. 
  7. ^ David Buckley (1999). Op. cit: p. 196.
  8. ^ Spitz, Marc (2009). Bowie: a Biography (1st US ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group. p. 228. ISBN 978-0-307-39396-8. 
  9. ^ Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Op. cit.: p. 118.
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ a b Lulu - The Man Who Sold the World - peak chart positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  12. ^ Lulu - Irish Singles Chart peak positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  13. ^ Lulu - UK Singles Chart peak positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  14. ^ Kurt's Journals - His Top 50 Albums. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
  15. ^ Nirvana - The Man Who Sold the World Retrieved 5 May 2014.
  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. ^ " – Nirvana – The Man Who Sold the World" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  20. ^ "Top RPM Singles: Issue 7984." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  21. ^ "InfoDisc : Accès direct à ces Artistes (The user has to do an artist search for "Nirvana")". Retrieved 14 October 2012. 
  22. ^ "Nirvana – Chart history" Billboard Alternative Songs for Nirvana.
  23. ^ "Nirvana – Chart history" Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs for Nirvana.
  24. ^ "Nirvana – Chart history" Billboard Radio Songs for Nirvana.
  25. ^ "Archive Chart: 2012-02-12" UK Rock Chart. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
  26. ^ " – Nirvana – The Man Who Sold the World" (in French). Les classement single.
  27. ^ Louisa Buck, "Jeremy Deller's English Magic", The Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2014.

External links[edit]