Thursday, 17 February 2011

Man Who Sold the World (1970)

Morrisey described this as Bowie's best album, but that was in the Foreword to producer Tony Visconti's autobiography, so he can be fogiven for minor exaggeration. But no less an authority than Charles Shaar Murray reckons this is where the Bowie story really begins, so maybe Moz has a point.

What's inarguable, I think, is that this is the first great Bowie album. From here on there's a ten year period of unparalleled musical innovation. One triumph follows another as Bowie invents Glam, drops it in favour of popularising electronica, throws that over for white soul in a cocaine haze, before coming back to Major Tom in 1980 with Scary Monsters. There's nothing in popular music which even comes close to this. Dylan manages as long a run of uninterrupted great albums, but there' s not the same variation, and the Beatles didn't produce half as many great albums nor did they have - for all the genius at work - the same scope. Nobody else even gets within a mile of Bowie.

So is Morrissey right about Man Who Sold the World then?

Well, no. It's the start of a brilliant run, and the first evidence of creative genius, but it's not, I think, as brilliant as some of the albums which followed it, nor is it the leap that Bowie needed to make.

There are still obvious lyrical and stylistic links to the earlier David Bowie albums for a start. I love 'All the Madmen' and 'After All' but they could have slipped onto Space Oddity without so much as a note or line change. Tracks like 'Running Gun Blues', 'The Supermen' and 'Saviour Machine' while far heavier musically than earlier recordings, are lyrically at least still in the same universe as 'Little Bombadier' or 'We Are Hungry Men'.

But there's the difference, I suppose. Musically this is a different universe altogether.

Picture me as a thirteen year old boy putting this LP on for the first time (and spot the black and white Ziggy picture on the cover sleeve as I slip the LP out - another bit of marketing mis-direction compared to the original image of Bowie recling on a settee in a dress!), being a little surprised at the wailing feedback which starts 'Width of a Circle', then re-assured by the acoustic guitars which quickly replace it as Bowie starts singing about mythical monsters and talking blackbirds (pre-internet, I had no idea what the blackbird quipped though!).

And then Mick Ronson intervenes.

Christ almighty. Whatever else this album might be, it was pretty evident that it wasn't Space Oddity II. Eight minutes of multiple guitars and apparently meaningless lyrics , the music stopping and re-starting, moving up and down in volume like a knackered lift, massive echoing guitar solos, funky bass lines and sudden unexpected tempo changes, this was an enormous Frankenstein of a track, literally like nothing I had ever heard before, an entire album's worth of ideas poured into a single track. And this was only the opener!

That level's not sutainable, of course, and that's probably for the best. The next track, 'All the Madmen', is a whimsical, if creepier, throwback to earlier times as is 'After All' on the same side of LP. As an aside, when I was fourteen or fifteen I entered the Ryman short story writing competition with a story about a thinly disguised Doctor Who entering his own head and meeting his previous incarnations before finally talking to Jesus (I know, I know, you don't have to tell me). I called the story "All the Madmen", but I nearly called it "Demented Man" after the Hawkwind song - these Bowie ballads could have slipped on a Hawkwind album fo the period without any really noticing.

But back to the music. 'Shook Me Cold' starts with one of the best guitar sounds ever and heads off into new territory of hammering guitar and drums. And the lyric is quite obviously not about gnomes or nursery rhymes, pitiful ex-soldiers or cups of tea - it's most definitely about sex. And 'Black Country Rock' is pure heavy metal; a big, bad bastard of a song.

The rest of the album is pretty clearly a transitional set of numbers. The same sort of songs as stories approach as David Bowie, in particular, but with a science fiction bent that looks forward to Ziggy and Aladdin Sane and with the heavier sound of the post-Hunky Dory years. If it can sometimes sound a little bit silly sounding from the vantage point of forty years later, that's all forgiven when you listen to the title track, where a repetitive guitar line plays over an almost calypso guitar and Bowie comes up with his best lyric to date, sung over one of his best melodies. So good it was covered by Lulu and Nirvana, 'The Man Who Sold the World' would have qualified this album for greatness even without 'Width of a Circle' and the others.

Maybe Mozza had a point, after all?

The Great Missing Track

In reality it should be 'Lightning Frightening', since that's the track which was actually left off this album, if I remember right, but the far better'Shadowman', which was recorded the following year in reality can stand in for it. Too proto-Ziggy for Hunky Dory (from where it actually was omitted), it should have appeared on some Bowie album of the period and is well worth looking out on whatever Rykodisc re-issue it turned up on.

Spotify: David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World

Incidentally, it was the fourteen minute version of 'Width of a Circle' on Ziggy Stardust - The Motion Picture which I first heard - and it's even more awesome than the studio version.


  1. tis a great album - sounds a lot like Dog Man Star

  2. At vert specific points, and only at those points.