"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.
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. 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". 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.
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. 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:
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. 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."
A new studio version of the song, recorded by Bowie in 1995 and mixed by Brian Eno, appears as a B-side on the CD single "Strangers When We Meet". This version also appears on the bonus disc that followed some versions of Outside - Version 3.
A live version recorded at BBC Radio Theatre, London, on 27 June 2000 was released on the bonus disc accompanying the first releases of Bowie at the Beeb in 2000.
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". 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." 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.
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".
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. 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, 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". 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]." 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!'"
Midge Ure on the film soundtrack Party Party (1982). This version is also included on No Regrets: The Very Best of Midge Ure, and the compilations The David Bowie Songbook and Starman: Rare and Exclusive Versions of 18 Classic David Bowie Songs, CD premium from the March 2003 issue of Uncut magazine. This version is also played during the opening scene and end credits of the video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
^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).
^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.
^Perone, James E. (2007). The Words and Music of David Bowie. Westport, CT: Praeger. pp. 15–6.