The Man Who Sold the World (album)

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The Man Who Sold the World
Original 1970 American release
Studio album by
Released4 November 1970 (1970-11-04)
Recorded18 April – 22 May 1970
StudioTrident Studios in London and Advision Studios in West London
ProducerTony Visconti
David Bowie chronology
David Bowie
The Man Who Sold the World
Hunky Dory
Alternative covers
1971 British LP
1971 British LP

The Man Who Sold the World is the third studio album by English rock artist David Bowie. It was originally released in the United States by Mercury Records on 4 November 1970,[1] and then in April 1971 in the United Kingdom.[2] He recorded the album with producer Tony Visconti at Trident Studios in London and Advision Studios in central London.

The album's hard rock style was a departure from the largely acoustic music of Bowie's previous self-titled album. Author David Buckley has described that record as "the first Bowie album proper."[3] NME critics Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray have said of The Man Who Sold the World, "this is where the story really starts".[4]

Writing and recording[edit]

The album was written and rehearsed at David Bowie's home in Haddon Hall, Beckenham, an Edwardian mansion converted to a block of flats that was described by one visitor as having an ambiance "like Dracula's living room".[5] As Bowie was preoccupied with his new wife Angie at the time, the music was largely arranged by guitarist Mick Ronson and bassist/producer Tony Visconti.[6] Although Bowie is officially credited as the composer of all music on the album, biographer Peter Doggett quoted Visconti saying "the songs were written by all four of us. We'd jam in a basement, and Bowie would just say whether he liked them or not." In Doggett's narrative, "The band (sometimes with Bowie contributing guitar, sometimes not) would record an instrumental track, which might or might not be based upon an original Bowie idea. Then, at the last possible moment, Bowie would reluctantly uncurl himself from the sofa on which he was lounging with his wife, and dash off a set of lyrics."[7] Despite his annoyance with Bowie's fixation on married life during the recording of The Man Who Sold the World, Visconti still rated it as his best work with Bowie until 1980's Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).[8]

Bowie himself was quoted in a 1998 interview as saying "I really did object to the impression that I did not write the songs on The Man Who Sold the World. You only have to check out the chord changes. No-one writes chord changes like that". "The Width of a Circle" and "The Supermen", for example, were already in existence before the sessions began.[9] Ralph Mace played a Moog modular synthesizer borrowed from George Harrison; Mace was a 40-year-old concert pianist who was also head of the classical music department at Mercury Records.[10]

Music and lyrics[edit]

The Man Who Sold the World was a departure from the largely acoustic music of Bowie's second album.[11] According to music critic Greg Kot, it marked Bowie's change of direction into hard rock.[12] Much of the album has a distinct heavy metal edge that distinguishes it from Bowie's other releases, and has been compared to contemporary acts such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.[4][13] The record also provided some unusual musical detours, such as the title track's use of Latin rhythms to hold the melody.[8]

The album's subject matter also had a quality of heaviness, exploring themes of insanity ("All the Madmen"), gun-toting assassins and Vietnam War commentary ("Running Gun Blues"), an omniscient computer ("Saviour Machine"), Lovecraftian Elder Gods ("The Supermen"),[4] and, in "The Width of a Circle", a sexual encounter – with God, the Devil or some other supernatural being, according to different interpretations – in the depths of Hell.[14][15][16] The album has also been seen as reflecting the influence of such figures as Aleister Crowley, Franz Kafka and Friedrich Nietzsche.[8]

Cover artwork[edit]

The original 1970 US release of The Man Who Sold the World employed a cartoon-like cover drawing by Bowie's friend Michael J. Weller, featuring a cowboy in front of the Cane Hill mental asylum.[17] Weller, whose friend was a patient there, suggested the idea after Bowie had asked him to create a design that would capture the music's foreboding tone. Drawing on pop art styles, he depicted a dreary main entrance block to the hospital with a damaged clock tower. For the design's foreground, he used a photograph of John Wayne to draw a cowboy figure wearing a ten-gallon hat and a rifle, which was meant as an allusion to the song "Running Gun Blues". Bowie suggested Weller incorporate the "exploding head" signature on the cowboy's hat, a feature he had previously used on his posters while a part of the Arts Lab. He also added an empty speech balloon for the cowboy figure, which was intended to have the line "roll up your sleeves and show us your arms"—a pun on record players, guns, and drug use—but Mercury found the idea too risqué and the balloon was left blank. According to Bowie biographer Nicholas Pegg, "at this point, David's intention was to call the album Metrobolist, a play on Fritz Lang's Metropolis: the title would remain on the tape boxes even after Mercury had released the LP in America as The Man Who Sold the World."[6]

Bowie was enthusiastic about the finished design, but soon reconsidered the idea and had the art department at Philips Records, a subsidiary of Mercury, enlist photographer Keith MacMillan to shoot an alternate cover. The shoot took place in a "domestic environment" of the Haddon Hall living room, where Bowie reclined on a chaise longue in a cream and blue satin "man's dress", an early indication of his interest in exploiting his androgynous appearance.[6] The dress was designed by British fashion designer Michael Fish.[18] It has been said that his "bleached blond locks, falling below shoulder level" in the photo, were inspired by a Pre-Raphaelite painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.[19] In the United States, Mercury rejected MacMillan's photo and released the album with Weller's design as its cover, much to the displeasure of Bowie, although he successfully lobbied the label to use the photo for the record's release in the United Kingdom. In 1972, he said Weller's design was "horrible" but reappraised it in 1999, saying he "actually thought the cartoon cover was really cool".[6]

While promoting The Man Who Sold the World in the US, Bowie wore the Mr Fish dress in February 1971 on his first promotional tour and during interviews, despite the fact that the Americans had no knowledge of the as yet unreleased UK cover.[18] The 1971 German release presented a winged hybrid creature with Bowie's head and a hand for a body, preparing to flick the Earth away. The 1972 worldwide reissue by RCA Records used a black-and-white picture of Ziggy Stardust on the sleeve. This image remained the cover art on reissues until 1990, when the Rykodisc release reinstated the UK "dress" cover. The "dress" cover has appeared on subsequent reissues of the album.[20]


It was once thought that none of the songs were released to the public as a single at the time, though a promo version of "All the Madmen" was issued in the US in 1970.[21] Mercury Records released "All the Madmen" with "Janine" (from the previous album) as the B-side as a single (Mercury 73173) but withdrew it.[22] The same song appeared in Eastern Europe in 1973, as did "The Width of a Circle". "Black Country Rock" was released as the B-side of "Holy Holy" in the UK in January 1971, shortly before the album.[23] The title track appeared as the B-side of both the US single release of "Space Oddity" in 1972 and the UK release of "Life on Mars?" in 1973.[24] The title track also provided an unlikely hit for Scottish pop singer Lulu (produced by Bowie and Ronson)[24] and would be covered by many artists over the years, including Richard Barone in 1987, and Nirvana in 1993, who performed a cover of "The Man Who Sold the World" for MTV Unplugged in New York.

Reception and legacy[edit]

Retrospective professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic4.5/5 stars[25]
Chicago Tribune2.5/4 stars[12]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music3/5 stars[26]
Music Story4/5 stars[27]
MusicHound Rock4/5[27]
Q3/5 stars[29]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide3.5/5 stars[30]
Spin4/5 stars[31]
Spin Alternative Record Guide5/10[27]

The Man Who Sold the World was generally more successful commercially and critically in the US than in the UK when it was first released.[4] Music publications Melody Maker and NME found it "surprisingly excellent" and "rather hysterical", respectively.[32] John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone called the album "uniformly excellent" and commented that producer Tony Visconti's "use of echo, phasing, and other techniques on Bowie's voice ... serves to reinforce the jaggedness of Bowie's words and music", which he interpreted as "oblique and fragmented images that are almost impenetrable separately but which convey with effectiveness an ironic and bitter sense of the world when considered together".[33] Sales were not high enough to dent the charts in either country at the time, however it made No. 26 in the UK and No. 105 in the US following its re-release on 25 November 1972, in the wake of Bowie's commercial breakthrough The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.[34]

The Man Who Sold the World has since been cited as inspiring the goth rock, dark wave and science fiction elements of work by artists such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Gary Numan, John Foxx and Nine Inch Nails.[8] In his journal, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana listed it at No. 45 in his top 50 favourite albums.[35] In 1993, Nirvana covered its title-track for their televised special MTV Unplugged in New York. It has been claimed that glam rock began with the release of this album,[36] though this is also attributed to Marc Bolan's appearance on the UK TV programme Top of the Pops in December 1970 wearing glitter,[37] to perform what would be his first UK hit single under the name T. Rex, "Ride a White Swan", which peaked at No. 2 in the UK charts.[38]

In a retrospective review for AllMusic, senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine cited The Man Who Sold the World as "the beginning of David Bowie's classic period" and complimented its "tight, twisted heavy guitar rock that appears simple on the surface but sounds more gnarled upon each listen".[25] Erlewine viewed its music and Bowie's "paranoid futuristic tales" as "bizarre", adding that "Musically, there isn't much innovation ... it is almost all hard blues-rock or psychedelic folk-rock – but there's an unsettling edge to the band's performance, which makes the record one of Bowie's best albums".[25] In a review upon the album's reissue, Q called it "a robust, sexually charged affair",[29] while Mojo wrote, "A robust set that spins with dizzying disorientation ... Bowie's armoury was being hastily assembled, though it was never deployed with such thrilling abandon again".[39]

Track listing[edit]

All tracks written by David Bowie.

Side one
1."The Width of a Circle"8:05
2."All the Madmen"5:38
3."Black Country Rock"3:32
4."After All"3:52
Total length:21:07
Side two
1."Running Gun Blues"3:11
2."Saviour Machine"4:25
3."She Shook Me Cold"4:13
4."The Man Who Sold the World"3:55
5."The Supermen"3:38
Total length:19:22
  • Sides one and two were combined as tracks 1–9 on CD reissues.

CD releases[edit]

The Man Who Sold the World was first released on CD by RCA in 1984. The German (RCA PD84654, for the European Market) and Japanese (RCA PCD1-4816, for the US market) masters were sourced from different tapes and are not identical for each region.

The album was reissued by Rykodisc (RCD 10132)/EMI (CDP 79 1837 2) on 30 January 1990 with an extended track listing, including a 1974 re-recording of Bowie's single "Holy Holy" originally issued as a b-side (but incorrectly identified as the 1971 original.) Rykodisc later released this album in the Au20 series (RCD 80132) with 24-bit digitally remastered sound.

Bonus tracks (1990 Rykodisc/EMI)[edit]

  1. "Lightning Frightening" (1971 outtake from the Arnold Corns sessions [1]) – 3:38
  2. "Holy Holy" (1974 B-side re-recording of A-side from non-LP single) – 2:20
  3. "Moonage Daydream" (1971 Arnold Corns version) – 3:52
  4. "Hang On to Yourself" (1971 Arnold Corns version) – 2:51

"Holy Holy" was incorrectly described in the liner notes as the original single version, recorded in November 1970 and released in January 1971. Bowie vetoed inclusion of the earlier recording, and the single remained the only official release of the 1970 recording until 2015, when it was included on Re:Call 1, part of the Five Years (1969–1973) compilation.[40] Similarly, the liner notes incorrectly list the personnel for "Lightning Frightning" as those who played with Bowie during the Space Oddity period, when in fact the personnel were members of the Arnold Corns sessions proto-group.[41]

1999 remaster[edit]

In 1999, the album was reissued again by Virgin/EMI (7243 521901 0 2), without the bonus tracks but with 24-bit digitally remastered sound. The Japanese mini LP (EMI TOCP-70142) replicates the cover and texture of the original Mercury LP.

2015 remaster[edit]

In 2015, the album was remastered for the Five Years (1969–1973) box set.[40] It was released in CD, vinyl, and digital formats, both as part of this compilation and separately.[42]


Adapted from The Man Who Sold the World liner notes.[43]

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1972–73) Peak
UK Albums Chart[44] 24
US Billboard 200[45] 105
Chart (1990) Peak
UK Albums Chart[44] 66
Chart (2016) Peak
Italian Albums (FIMI)[46] 49
UK Albums Chart[44] 21
US Top Pop Catalog Albums[45] 38


  1. ^ Kevin Cann (2010). Any Day Now - David Bowie: The London Years: 1947–1974: p. 198
  2. ^ Zaleski, Annie (13 January 2016). "On The Man Who Sold The World, David Bowie found his career blueprint". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  3. ^ David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story: p. 78.
  4. ^ a b c d Carr & Murray 1981, pp. 37–38.
  5. ^ Martin Aston (2007). "Scary Monster", MOJO 60 Years of Bowie: p. 24.
  6. ^ a b c d Pegg 2011, pp. 301–306.
  7. ^ Peter Doggett, The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s. HarperCollins, 2012.
  8. ^ a b c d David Buckley (1999). pp. 99–105.
  9. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 302.
  10. ^ "Revisiting a Classic: Tony Visconti Talks about Taking David Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World on the Road". 6 May 2015. Retrieved 7 May 2015.
  11. ^ Perone, James E. (2012). The Album: A Guide to Pop Music's Most Provocative, Influential, and Important Creations. ABC-CLIO. p. 90. ISBN 0-313-37906-8. Retrieved 8 June 2013.
  12. ^ a b Kot, Greg (10 June 1990). "Bowie's Many Faces Are Profiled On Compact Disc". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 30 July 2015.
  13. ^ Perone, James E. (2007). The Words and Music of David Bowie. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 19. ISBN 0-275-99245-4. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  14. ^ David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story: p.101
  15. ^ Martin Aston (2007). "Scary Monster", MOJO 60 Years of Bowie: pp. 24–25
  16. ^ Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: p. 38
  17. ^ THE CULT OF CANE HILL. Urbex | UK. Retrieved 25 July 2010.
  18. ^ a b Poulsen, Jan (2007) [2006]. David Bowie – Station til station (in Danish) (2nd ed.). Gyldendal. pp. 63–64. ISBN 978-87-02-06313-4. Retrieved 16 February 2009. However, see also Spitz, Marc (2010). David Bowie A Biography. London: Aurum. p. 150. ISBN 978-1-84513-551-5. 'In Chicago, New York, he didn't wear any dresses,' [Ron] Oberman says. 'But he wore the dress in L.A.' (Ron Oberman was then American publicist for Mercury Records).
  19. ^ Jones, Mablen (1987), Getting It On: The Clothing of Rock 'n' Roll, New York: Abbeville, p. 197, ISBN 0-89659-686-9.
  20. ^ The Man Who Sold The World (2015 reissue) (Media notes). Parlophone. 2015. DB69732.
  21. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 20.
  22. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 21.
  23. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 40.
  24. ^ a b Pegg 2011, p. 159.
  25. ^ a b c Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie". AllMusic. Retrieved 11 June 2011.
  26. ^ Larkin, Colin (2007). The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (5th ed.). Omnibus Press. ISBN 0-85712-595-8.
  27. ^ a b c "The Man Who Sold the World". Acclaimed Music. Retrieved 26 December 2016.
  28. ^ Wolk, Douglas (1 October 2015). "David Bowie: Five Years 1969–1973". Pitchfork. Retrieved 1 October 2015.
  29. ^ a b "David Bowie: The Man Who Sold the World (EMI)". Q. EMAP Metro Ltd (158): 140–41. November 1999.
  30. ^ Sheffield, Rob (2004). "David Bowie". In Brackett, Nathan; Hoard, Christian (eds.). The Rolling Stone Album Guide (4th ed.). Simon & Schuster. pp. 97–99. ISBN 0-7432-0169-8.
  31. ^ Dolan, Jon (July 2006). "How to Buy: David Bowie". Spin. 22 (7): 84. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  32. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 306.
  33. ^ Mendelsohn, John (18 February 1971). The Man Who Sold The World by David Bowie | Rolling Stone Music | Music Reviews. Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. Retrieved on 11 June 2011.
  34. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 301.
  35. ^ Kurt's Journals – His Top 50 Albums. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
  36. ^ Bourgoin, Suzanne M.; Byers, Paula K. (eds.) (1998), Encyclopedia of World biography 18 Supplement: A-Z (2nd ed.), Detroit, London: Gale, p. 59, ISBN 0-7876-2945-6CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link).
  37. ^ Bourgoin, Suzanne M.; Byers, Paula K. (eds.), ibid.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link); Auslander, Philip (2006), Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, p. 196, ISBN 0-472-06868-7.
  38. ^ British Hit Singles & Albums, Guinness World Records
  39. ^ Columnist (February 2002). "David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World (EMI)". Mojo. EMAP Metro Ltd (99): 84.
  40. ^ a b FIVE YEARS 1969 – 1973 box set due September at
  41. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 145.
  42. ^ David Bowie / 'Five Years' vinyl available separately next month at
  43. ^ The Man Who Sold the World (CD booklet). David Bowie. Mercury Records. 1970.CS1 maint: others (link)
  44. ^ a b c "The Man Who Sold the World". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  45. ^ a b "The Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie : Awards". AllMusic. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  46. ^ "Album - Classifica settimanale WK 16 (dal 2016-04-15 al 2016-04-21)" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 23 April 2016.

External links[edit]