top of page

The Man Who Sold The World

  1. The Width Of A Circle [8.05]

  2. All The Madmen [5.38]

  3. Black Country Rock [3.32]

  4. After All [3.51]

  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]

Bonus tracks on 1990 reissue:

  • Lightning Frightening [3.38]

  • Holy Holy [2.20]

  • Moonage Daydream [3.52]

  • Hang On To Yourself [2.51]

The Man Who Sold The World


  • Mercury 6338 041 - April 1971

  • RCA Victor LSP 4816 - November 1972

  • RCA International NL 84654 - November 1984

  • EMI EMC 3573 - April 1990

  • EMI 7243 5219010 - September 1999

  • Parlophone 0825646283446 - September 2015 (CD)

  • Parlophone DB69732 - February 2016 (LP)


  • David Bowie: Vocals, Guitar

  • Mick Ronson: Guitar

  • Tony Visconti: Bass

  • Mick Woodmansey: Drums

  • Ralph Mace: Synthesizer


  • Trident & Advision Studios, London


  • Tony Visconti

When The Man Who Sold The World began recording at Trident Studios in April 1970, David Bowie was in the middle of a period of unprecedented professional and personal upheaval. The attention brought to him by the previous year's hit "Space Oddity" had died down and the follow-up, "The Prettiest Star", had flopped. The three members of his new outfit Hype were now living at Haddon Hall, where another regular visitor was his half-brother Terry Burns. Although now a voluntary resident at Cane Hill Hospital in South London, Terry would stay at Haddon Hall for up to four weeks at a time during the early part of 1970. Meanwhile, David's professional relationship with his manager Kenneth Pitt was rapidly deteriorating, and with the ascendancy of Angela Barnett and Mick Ronson, change hung heavy in the air.


In an interview for Disc & Music Echo in February 1970, Bowie had intimated that a new long-player was on the way. "The next album will be more solid," he promised. "As the first side will be completely augmented it means specially writing a whole set of new material. The second side will be just me with guitar." The album that eventually appeared bore no resemblance to such a pattern, but it's interesting to note that the live BBC session recorded on February 5th did: Bowie played the first four numbers on acoustic guitar and was then joined by the electric band for the remainder of the performance.


During February and March, Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson constructed a makeshift studio beneath the stairwell at Haddon Hall, and it was here that Bowie would demo much of his early 1970s material. "We wrote the original stuff for The Man in that little room under the stairs," he confirmed many years later.


In late March, Hype convened at Advision Studios in Gosfield Street to begin work on the single version of "Memory Of A Free Festival" and make an initial attempt at "The Supermen". These were to be drummer John Cambridge's final Bowie sessions: he was sacked after having difficulties with the percussion part in "The Supermen", and receives no credit on The Man Who Sold The World. "John was ousted at Ronno's request," says Visconti. "Little by little, Ronno replaced the group with other mates from Hull." Cambridge was replaced by 20-year-old Mick "Woody" Woodmansey, another member of Ronson's former band The Rats. "Mick was a very fundamental drummer," Bowie recalled many years later. "he was quite open to direction and in a way sort of carried out what I wanted done much more than most of the other drummers I've worked with. His strengths definitely were in the area of British rock and British rhythm & blues."


Principal recording for the album that would become The Man Who Sold The World began at Advision on April 18th 1970, moving the following week to Trident where the sessions continued, on and off, until May 1st. A few days into the sessions, Woodmansey cut his finger with a knife, requiring three stitches and rendering him unable to play for a fortnight. From May 12th - 22nd the sessions returned to Advision for a final ten-day stretch.


Tony Visconti, who played bass on the album as well as producing it, says that The Man Who Sold The World was intended to be "our Sgt Pepper - anything goes, no matter how far-fetched." However, Visconti would soon discover that the majority of the sessions would be spent trying to coax the newly-wed David out of his apparent apathy for the project. "This man would just not get out of bed and write a song," said Visconti later. "...we just laid down the chords, the arrangement, the guitar solos, the synthesizers, and David would be out in the lobby of Advision holding hands with Angie and going coochie-coochie-coo...we had about three days left and I said, "David, you're going to have to throw some lyrics on these songs, and vocals...I was totally infuriated with him that I had to work so close to the deadline and of course we had hardly any time left to mix that album. David wasn't around for most of the mixes, either. He came up with a lot of clever bits, like the little talking section in the middle of "All The Madmen", but really the album was me and Mick Ronson. David just wasn't there."


Strong words and, perhaps, not entirely fair: "The Width Of A Circle" and "The Supermen", to name two, were certainly in existence before the sessions began, as was the basic melody of "Black Country Rock". Visconti and Ronson may have dominated the arrangements and mixes, but Bowie's role in the actual songwriting is not in question: "I really did object to the impression given in some articles that I did not write the songs on The Man Who Sold The World," he said in 1998. "You only have to check out the chord changes. No-one writes chord changes like that."


The group swelled to five with the arrival of keyboardist Ralph Mace, a Philips executive who had become the label's Bowie man at the time of January's "Prettiest Star" session and had recently played synthesizer on the single version of "Memory Of A Free Festival". "Ralph was a virtuoso and a dear, supportive friend," says Visconti. "He worked in the classical department and was about 45 at the time. He looked very straight, with short hair and business suits, but what a lovely soul and concern he had for our music!" Mace, whose keyboard contributions would prove crucial to some of the album's more unsettling moments, described the sessions as "a creative build-up, a synthesis", and disagreed with Visconti's account of Bowie's approach to the sessions. "David would bounce ideas off people," he told the Gillmans. "I thought that David knew what he wanted and what he didn't. There was often a grey area in between when he was searching, but when he was right he knew."


Although it has its quieter moments, the hard-rock arrangements and unrestrained guitar heroics on The Man Who Sold The World make it unquestionably Bowie's 'heaviest' album until Tin Machine, and stylistically something of an aberration between the predominantly acoustic sensibilities of the two albums on either side of it. This turn of events can be laid largely at the door of Mick Ronson. "Mick's idols were Cream," said Visconti. "He coached Woody to play like Ginger Baker and me to play like Jack Bruce. David was loving the sound of his new band."


Speaking in 1976, Bowie described the making of The Man Who Sold The World as "a nightmare", also calling it "the most drug-oriented album I've made", and adding that it was recorded "when I was the most fucked up" and "holding onto some kind of flag for hashish". Curiously, neither Visconti nor anyone else interviewed about this period recalls David taking drugs at the time, and bearing in mind that Bowie's comments were made at the depth of his coke-addled Thin White Duke phase - a period when he was far more evidently 'fucked up' than in 1970 - they should be taken with a pinch of salt. More lucidly, David once explained that "With The Man Who Sold The World I wanted to work in some kind of strange micro-world where the human element had been taken out, where we were dealing with a technological society. That world [was] an experimental playground where you could do dangerous things without anybody taking too many risks, other than ideas risks." On another occasion he described the album's content as "very telling for me - it was all family problems and analogies, put into science-fiction form."


Even those with little stomach for prurient theorising tend to agree that this album covers what, by Bowie's standards, is highly intimate territory. Although the lyrics are less straightforwardly autobiographical than those on the Space Oddity album, there is an unsettling darkness about the material which appears to proceed from the darkening of David's personal world over the previous year. The death of his father, his disillusion with the Beckenham Arts Lab hippies, the souring of some close friendships, and above all the continuing deterioration of his half-brother's mental health, are manifested on The Man Who Sold The World in a series of sinister excursions into a netherworld of paranoia, manic depression, quasi-religious ecstasy, violent homoeroticism and schizoid hallucination. In 1999 he explained that "I'd been seeing quite a bit of my half-brother during that period, and I think a lot of it, obviously, had been working on me...I think his shadow is on quite a lot of the material in a way...knowing about the fragility of mental stability in my family generally, on my mother's side particularly, I think I was going through an awful lot of concern about exactly what my mental condition was, and where it may lead."


Notwithstanding the 'science-fiction' remark, part of what makes these songs so disturbing is that they are largely devoid of the glitzy sci-fi sheen which renders Ziggy Stardust or even Diamond Dogs almost cosy by comparison. Few Bowie songs are scarier than "All The Madmen", "After All" or the title track itself. Nor can "Saviour Machine" or "The Supermen" be dismissed as mere comic-strip, tunnelling as they do into a darkly Nietzschean cavern of the subconscious. Bowie had been reading the German philosopher in early 1970, and the introduction of Nietzsche into his customary environment of subverted fairytale and self-lacerating introspection results in some uncomfortably intimate confrontations with what David later described as the "devils and angels" within himself. He would certainly have been aware not only of Nietzsche's proposals about the affirmation of the Superman and the doctrine of power but also that the philosopher himself had died virtually insane.


The 'devils and angels' remark exposes another leitmotif, surely connected with the album's title. Many of the songs include variants on a central image of the narrator climbing to a high vantage point and undergoing an unexpected, disturbing or, in the case of "Black Country Rock", 'crazy' experience. The same thing happens, in one form or another, in "All The Madmen" ("It's pointless to be high"), "The Width Of A Circle" ("He struck the ground, a cavern appeared"), "She Shook Me Cold" ("We met upon a hill"), "The Supermen" ("mountain magic"), and the title track itself ("We passed upon the stair"). The common link is surely the key Gospel passage in which Christ is tempted by the Devil into becoming, in effect, the man who sold the world: "The Devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things I will give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then said Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan." (Matthew 4: 8-10). There can be little doubt that in 1970 Bowie's own inner demons were battling it out on just such an apocalyptic plane.


During the break between the Trident and Advision sessions came a pivotal moment in Bowie's career. Unhappy with the direction in which Kenneth Pitt was attempting to steer his work but anxious not to destroy a close friendship, Bowie had already sought the advice of Olav Wyper, the General Manager at Philips Records. Unwilling to intervene between an artist and his manager, Wyper had referred David to a legal firm in Cavendish Square. On May 7th Bowie arrived for a meeting at Pitt's flat accompanied by a young litigation clerk called Tony Defries who, according to Pitt's account, proceeded to do all the talking while David sat silently on the chaise longue. Pitt agreed to dissolve forthwith any professional obligations between himself and David. The pair parted amicably if sadly, and not long afterwards Tony Defries resigned his job to become Bowie's full-time manager. David's final commitment to Pitt was his appearance at the Ivor Novello Awards on May 10th. Two days later he was at Advision, working once again on his album.


It was an episode of the utmost significance. In retrospect, the difference in business practice between the prudent, old-school Pitt and the hard-boiled huckster Defries could not have been more acute. They remain two of the most influential figures in Bowie's story, and despite the fact that each tended to polarize the opinions of contemporary eyewitnesses, from the point of view of David's career there was good and bad in both. It's extremely doubtful whether Pitt's cautious approach would ever have broken America or launched Bowie as a global superstar, let alone do so with such spectacular results as those later achieved by the machinations and methods of Defries. Furthermore, Defries brought with him the kind of resources that had previously been unavailable to David. Over the years Pitt had staked a considerable personal investment in his client, but the amounts involved were negligible by comparison with the funds made available by Defries's colleague Laurence Myers, who had recently formed a management company called Gem Productions (which also took The New Seekers and Gary Glitter onto its books in 1970). Gem would underwrite most of the expenses incurred over the next couple of years until Bowie's success led to the formation in 1972 of MainMan, Defries's business empire.


Countless facts, figures and contradictory quotes about Tony Defries have filled the middle chapters of many a Bowie biography, but they are not the subject of the present book. It is sufficient to say that the contractual small-print of MainMan's financial dealings and the profligate insanity of the 1972-1975 period, which under Defries's stage-management were part and parcel of what made Bowie a star, also ensured that individuals other than David banked the lion's share of his earnings until the beginning of the 1980s - by which time Defries himself had long since been ousted under far more acrimonious circumstances than those attending Pitt's departure. But all this lay far in the future; for the time being Defries, like Angela, provided essential support, strategies and resources. As Tony Visconti has since suggested, "Angie and Defries are often maligned by critics and cronies of David, but without their constant support and input, there would never have been a Ziggy, or an Aladdin, or a future Bowie for that matter."


In the last days of his professional association with Bowie, Kenneth Pitt had drawn up ambitious plans to approach a major artist to design the new album sleeve, his shortlist including Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Patrick Procktor. These plans came to nothing, but it seems likely that Pitt's intentions influenced Bowie's first choice of sleeve design. It is commonly believed that the original sleeve was the famous photo of Bowie in a dress, but this is not the case. David initially asked Mike Weller, a familiar face at the Beckenham Arts Lab whose work echoed the pop-art style of the likes of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, to design a cover reflecting the album's ominous atmosphere. Weller proposed a painting of Cane Hill Hospital, where a friend of his was a patient - apparently he was unaware that it was also where Terry Burns lived - and Bowie received the idea enthusiastically. Weller's cartoon design featured a gloomy rendition of Cane Hill's main entrance block with a shattered clock-tower. In the foreground stood a cowboy figure copied from a photograph of John Wayne, carrying a rifle in reference to "Running Gun Blues". At Bowie's suggestion, Weller added his 'exploding head' trademark, a device he had previously used on his posters for the Arts Lab so that fragments of the cowboy's ten-gallon hat were seen breaking away from his head. The cowboy's speech-bubble contained the line "Roll up your sleeves and show us your arms", a multiple pun on guns, record-players and drug-taking which proved too much for Mercury, who chose to blank out the text and leave the speech-bubble empty. 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.


Weller tells the Gillmans that David was "very pleased" with the Metrobolist design, but it appears that not long afterwards Bowie changed his mind and persuaded Philip's art department to commission Keith MacMillan to photograph him instead in the 'domestic environment' of the Haddon Hall living-room. For this celebrated photo-session, Bowie reclined on a chaise longue in a cream and blue satin dress - a man's dress, he later explained - purchased from the Mr Fish boutique after a tip-off from his boyhood friend Geoff MacCormack, who was working behind the counter at the time. With one hand dropping the last of a scattered pack of playing cards and the other toying effeminately with his wavy locks (by now his "Space Oddity" perm was growing out in favour of a luxuriant post-hippy style), David resembled nothing so much as Lauren Bacall in her prime. He later explained that the photo, overlaid with a canvas texture, was intended to mimic the style of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. At the time it was a deeply provocative image, and the most brazen enactment of gender-confusion Bowie had yet undertaken.


In America, Mercury swiftly rejected the 'dress' photograph, and with it Bowie's suggestion that the album be released in a gatefold sleeve. Instead, the label gave the go-ahead for a single sleeve featuring the 'cartoon' artwork, adulterated by the blanking of the speech bubble and the replacement of the gothic-script Metrobolist with a cartoonish rendition of a new title, The Man Who Sold The World. David, whose initial enthusiasm for the cartoon cover had evaporated, was reportedly furious, and he successfully persuaded Mercury to use the 'dress' photograph on the UK release. The Gillmans produce a witness from Bowie's early American fan base who was told by David in 1972 that the cartoon sleeve was "horrible...I don't know what that cover was all about." With splendid contradiction, Bowie said in 1999 that "I actually thought the cartoon cover was really cool...for me it had lots of personal resonance about it."


When RCA reissued The Man Who Sold The World in 1972 both countries replaced the sleeve with a black and white shot by Brian Ward, showing David performing a high kick in his early Ziggy gear. Like the same year's reissue of Space Oddity, the RCA version came with a set of breathlessly polysyllabic sleeve notes informing the listener that Bowie's music was "Neither metaphor nor analogue...Phantasmagoria is its reality; the preternatural its unsettling truth." The 'kick' photo remained the album's official sleeve until the 1990 reissue reinstated the 'dress' picture and obligingly included the various alternative covers in its packaging, among them the artwork for the original German release, which was again entirely different: a curious Pythonesque cartoon by Witt Hamburg depicting a winged Bowie with a giant hand in place of his body, poised to flick the planet earth off into space. More recently, the booklet of EMI's 1999 reissue included further shots from the 'dress' photo-session. (Keith MacMillan, the photographer responsible for the 'dress' picture, moved out of Bowie's orbit soon afterwards; under the name Keef, he would go on to direct a number of celebrated music videos including Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights", Blondie's "Picture This" and Paul McCartney's "Pipes Of Peace".)


The American version of The Man Who Sold The World was released in November 1970, while in Britain it didn't appear until April 1971, almost a year after the sessions themselves. Initially angry that Mercury in America had deviated without consultation from his preferred title of Metrobolist, by November 1970 David was trying to persuade the label to rename the forthcoming UK release Holy Holy, after his freshly recorded single: in a letter to Mercury on November 10th, Tony Defries wrote: "if the single is a success then it will generally assist the album sales to have the same title, notwithstanding that the title track is not on the album." In the event, the "Holy Holy" single was a flop, and the album remained The Man Who Sold The World on both sides of the Atlantic.


Although nowhere a huge success on its initial release, The Man Who Sold The World fared better in America than in Britain, benefiting from an energetic publicity push by Mercury whose American head of A&R, Robin McBride, gushed over the album as an "extraordinary creation in rock music". Its critical success even led to a promotional tour in February 1971 - Bowie's first trip to America, where the reviews eclipsed anything written about The Man Who Sold The World in Britain. In the Los Angeles Free Press, Chris Van Ness declared that "What happens to a flower-child, when all of the world around him is going slightly crazy and power struggles are taking over everything, including his music, is that he harnesses his genius, conforms to the insanity, outpowers the loudest group around, and does it all just a little better than anybody else...There is a fine edge of madness that runs throughout the album...The concepts of the title song, "The Supermen" or "Saviour Machine" are not your normal song themes, but then David Bowie is not your normal writer." Rolling Stone found the album "uniformly excellent" and "an experience that is as intriguing as it is chilling, but only to a listener sufficiently together to withstand its schizophrenia...Tony Visconti's use of echo, phasing and other techniques on Bowie's voice to achieve a weird and supernatural tone...serves to reinforce the jaggedness of Bowie's words and music, the latter played in an intimidatingly heavy fashion by an occasionally brilliant quartet guided by Visconti's own maniacally sliding bass".


Accounting for the album's American success in a 1971 interview for Disc & Music Echo, Bowie explained, "For one thing it got massive airplay, and I suppose in a way it's more palatable than things I've done in the past because of its heavy backing. It's not that I have a very strong feeling for heavy music - I don't. In fact, I think it's fairly primitive as a music form. I look for sensation rather than quality, and heavy music seems to be full of musicians who have quality rather than musicians who for some reasons can chill your spine." This sounds suspiciously as though Bowie was already distancing himself from the album's intermittent Led Zeppelin pretensions; certainly, when he re-entered the studio a few months later to record Hunky Dory, the results were noticeably more acoustic and, in places, even more spine-chilling.


Reports of The Man Who Sold The World's American success should not be exaggerated, however. By the end of June 1971, a mere 1395 copies had been sold in the US, and the story of 'massive' American sales in the run-up to the UK release smacks more of hype than of accuracy. Michael Watts was exaggerating wildly in both directions when he commented in Melody Maker in January 1972 that The Man Who Sold The World had cleared 50,000 copies in the States and about five in Britain, "and Bowie bought them." But sales of the first UK release were indeed disastrous, and as a result, the British 'dress' sleeve is now a real collector's item, fetching around £200, while the ultra-rare German sleeve can command considerably more.


Despite its poor sales, The Man Who Sold The World garnered decent reviews in Britain. Melody Maker called it "a surprisingly excellent album" with "some tremendous flashes of brilliance" among the "inventive and unusual" writing. The NME found "a bit of horror in "All The Madmen", some quiet folk on "After All", and much drive in "The Width Of A Circle", but considered the overall tone "rather hysterical".


By the time the album was released in Britain, Bowie had shaken off a year of comparative lethargy and was demoing new material at a breakneck pace. Tony Visconti, however, disliked Tony Defries and had had enough of David's "poor attitude and complete disregard for his music". He had quit at the end of The Man Who Sold The World sessions and transferred his energies into producing the early successes of David's friendly rival Marc Bolan. Visconti didn't see Bowie again for three years, but would later return to collaborate on some of his finest albums.


On the eve of Bolan's success, Visconti oversaw a fascinating interlude which would prove crucial to Bowie's future. Keeping alive the name Hype from Bowie's pre-Man Who Sold The World live outfit, Visconti enlisted The Rats' vocalist Benny Marshall, who joined the trio of Ronson, Visconti and Woodmansey to record new material for the Vertigo label in November 1970. Re-named Ronno, the band released a solitary single called "Fourth Hour Of My Sleep". Although material for a proposed Ronno album was beginning to accumulate, Visconti's duties in the Bolan camp soon forced him to bow out. His replacement on bass was Trevor Bolder, yet another Hull acquaintance of Ronsons. "We were in rival bands," Bolder later explained. "I was playing Muddy Waters-type R&B in the Chicago Star Blues Band, while The Rats were closer to The Yardbirds or even Cream." Thus it was that by the spring of 1971 there existed a four-piece band that was effectively Benny Marshall and The Spiders From Mars. Marshall, however, was not destined to front the group for long; in May 1971, a year after the dissolution of The Man Who Sold The World sessions, Ronson received a telephone call from Bowie that would provide the springboard for everything that was to follow.


Meanwhile, The Man Who Sold The World went on to belie its initially indifferent reception to become one of the most highly regarded of all Bowie's albums. Artists as diverse as Kurt Cobain and Boy George have cited The Man Who Sold The World as a major influence. "It wasn't until years later that it was recognised for its forward-thinking sound and songwriting concepts," says Tony Visconti, who has described it as "almost a textbook in how to make an alternative album" and often cites it alongside Scary Monsters as his joint-favourite Bowie collaboration. Viewing The Man Who Sold The World dispassionately one might argue that the fine balance had yet to be perfected and that the hard-rock leanings just occasionally topple over into self-indulgence - but in the face of the album's panoramic sweep, and the sheer quality of its finest moments, this is a minor consideration. When all is said and done, The Man Who Sold The World is one of the best and most important albums in the history of rock music.

bottom of page