The Man Who Sold the World (album)

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This article is about the album. For the song, see The Man Who Sold the World.
The Man Who Sold the World
Original UK cover
Studio album by David Bowie
Released 4 November 1970
Recorded 18 April – 22 May 1970
Studio Trident Studios in London and Advision Studios in West London
Length 40:37
Label Mercury
Producer Tony Visconti
David Bowie chronology
David Bowie (Space Oddity)
The Man Who Sold the World
Hunky Dory
Alternative covers
1970 American release
1971 German LP
1972 RCA 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 in November 1970, and in April 1971 in the United Kingdom. The album was Bowie's first with the nucleus of what would become the "Spiders from Mars", the backing band made famous by The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972. Though author David Buckley has described Bowie's previous record David Bowie (Space Oddity) as "the first Bowie album proper",[1] NME critics Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray have said of The Man Who Sold the World, "this is where the story really starts".[2] Departing from the largely acoustic music of Bowie's second album,[3] The Man Who Sold the World is considered by some to be a hard rock and heavy metal album.[4] It has been claimed that this album's release marks the birth of glam rock.[5][by whom?]

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 ambience "like Dracula's living room".[6] 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.[7] Although Bowie is officially credited as the composer of all music on the album, biographers such as Peter Doggett have marshalled evidence to the contrary, quoting 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."[8]

Visconti was annoyed by Bowie's preoccupation with married life during the recording of The Man Who Sold the World, but he still rated it as his best work with Bowie until 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).[9] Bowie is quoted in an interview in 1998 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", indeed, were already in existence to name two before the sessions began.[10] 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.[11]

Music and lyrics[edit]

Much of The Man Who Sold the World had 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.[2] Music critic Greg Kot said the album marked Bowie's change of direction into hard rock.[12] The record also provided some unusual musical detours, such as the title track's use of Latin rhythms to hold the melody.[9] The sonic heaviness of the album was matched by the subject matter, which included insanity ("All the Madmen"), gun-toting assassins and Vietnam War commentary ("Running Gun Blues"), an omniscient computer ("Saviour Machine"), and Lovecraftian Elder Gods ("The Supermen").[2] The song "She Shook Me Cold" was an explanation of a sexual encounter. The album has also been seen as reflecting the influence of such figures as Aleister Crowley, Franz Kafka and Friedrich Nietzsche.[9]

Cover art[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.[13] The first UK cover, on which Bowie is seen reclining in a Mr Fish "man's dress", was an early indication of his interest in exploiting his androgynous appearance.[7] The dress was designed by British fashion designer Michael Fish, and Bowie also used it in February 1971 on his first promotional tour to the United States, where he wore it during interviews despite the fact that the Americans had no knowledge of the as yet unreleased UK cover.[14] It has been said that his "bleached blond locks, falling below shoulder level", were inspired by a Pre-Raphaelite painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.[15] 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 original UK "dress" cover, which also appeared on the 1999 EMI remaster.


It was originally thought that none of the songs was 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.[16] Mercury Records released "All the Madmen" with "Janine" (from the previous album) as the B-side as a single (Mercury 73173) but withdrew it.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] The title track also provided an unlikely hit for Scottish pop singer Lulu (produced by Bowie and Ronson)[19] 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 Unplugged in New York.

Reception and legacy[edit]

Professional ratings
Retrospective reviews
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 4.5/5 stars[20]
Chicago Tribune 2.5/4 stars[12]
Pitchfork Media 8.5/10[21]
Q 3/5 stars[22]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide 3.5/5 stars[23]

The Man Who Sold the World was generally more successful commercially and critically in the US than in the UK on its original release in 1970–71.[2] Music publications Melody Maker and NME found it "surprisingly excellent" and "rather hysterical", respectively.[24] 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".[25] 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.[26]

The album has been cited as influencing the goth rock, darkwave and science fiction elements of work by artists such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Gary Numan, John Foxx and Nine Inch Nails.[9] In his journal, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana listed it at number 45 in his top 50 favourite albums.[27] 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, though this is also attributed to Marc Bolan's appearance on the UK TV programme Top of the Pops in December 1970 wearing glitter,[28] to perform what would be his first UK hit single under the name T. Rex, "Ride a White Swan", which peaked at Number 2[29] in the UK chart.

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".[20] 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".[20] In a review upon the album's reissue, Q called it "a robust, sexually charged affair",[22] 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".[30]

Track listing[edit]

All songs written and composed by David Bowie

Side one
No. Title Length
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
Side two
No. Title Length
5. "Running Gun Blues"   3:11
6. "Saviour Machine"   4:25
7. "She Shook Me Cold"   4:13
8. "The Man Who Sold the World"   3:55
9. "The Supermen"   3:38

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 1971 rerecording of "Holy Holy", incorrectly described in the liner notes as the original 1970 single version. Bowie vetoed inclusion of the earlier recording, which is otherwise only officially available on the 'Five Years (1969–1973)' box set. 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.[31] Rykodisc later released this album in the AU20 series (RCD 80132) with 24-bit digitally remastered sound.

Bonus tracks (1990 Rykodisc)[edit]

  1. "Lightning Frightening" (1971 outtake from the Arnold Corns sessions [1]) – 3:38
  2. "Holy Holy" (1971 re-recording of A-side from 1970 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

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]

The album was remastered in 2015, it was initially released exclusively for Five Years 1969-1973 compilation, but released separately in 2015 as digital download and in 2016 as CD and vinyl record.



Year Chart Position
1972 UK Albums Chart 26
1973 Billboard 200 105
2016 UK Albums Chart 89


  1. ^ David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story: p. 78.
  2. ^ a b c d Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: pp. 37–38.
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Bourgoin, Suzanne M.; Byers, Paula K. (eds.) (1998), Encyclopedia of World biography 18 Supplement: A-Z (2nd ed.), Detroit, London: Gale, p. 59, ISBN 0-7876-2945-6 .
  6. ^ Martin Aston (2007). "Scary Monster", MOJO 60 Years of Bowie: p. 24.
  7. ^ a b Pegg 2011, pp. 301–306.
  8. ^ Peter Doggett, The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s. HarperCollins, 2012.
  9. ^ a b c d David Buckley (1999). op. cit. pp. 99–105.
  10. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 302.
  11. ^ "Revisiting a Classic: Tony Visconti Talks about Taking David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World on the Road". 2015-05-06. Retrieved 2015-05-07. 
  12. ^ a b Kot, Greg (1990). "Bowie`s Many Faces Are Profiled On Compact Disc". Chicago Tribune (10 June). Retrieved 30 July 2015. 
  13. ^ THE CULT OF CANE HILL. Urbex | UK. Retrieved 25 July 2010.
  14. ^ 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).
  15. ^ Jones, Mablen (1987), Getting It On: The Clothing of Rock 'n' Roll, New York: Abbeville, p. 197, ISBN 0-89659-686-9 .
  16. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 20.
  17. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 21.
  18. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 40.
  19. ^ a b Pegg 2011, p. 159.
  20. ^ a b c Erlewine, Stephen Thomas (1 April 2002). The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie | AllMusic. AllMusic. Retrieved on 11 June 2011.
  21. ^ Wolk, Douglas (1 October 2015). "David Bowie: Five Years 1969–1973". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 1 October 2015. 
  22. ^ a b Columnist (November 1999). "David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World (EMI)". Q (EMAP Metro Ltd) (158): 140–1. 
  23. ^ Sheffield, Rob (2 November 2004). David Bowie: Album Guide | Rolling Stone Music. Rolling Stone. Fireside. Archived version retrieved on 27 October 2014.
  24. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 306.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 301.
  27. ^ Kurt's Journals – His Top 50 Albums. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
  28. ^ Bourgoin, Suzanne M.; Byers, Paula K. (eds.), ibid. ; 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 .
  29. ^ British Hit Singles & Albums, Guinness World Records
  30. ^ Columnist (February 2002). "David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World (EMI)". Mojo (EMAP Metro Ltd) (99): 84. 
  31. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 145.

External links[edit]