Strange, mad celebration: ‘The man who sold the world’…

Posted: April 8, 2021 in Uncategorized
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In Spring 1971 an album came out that was ignored. It was by David Bowie and it was looking more and more that the hit he had with ‘Space Oddity’ barely two years previously had cursed him as a one-hit wonder. Bowie was at a crucial point where he had to find a direction as he already had something of a reputation as an artist with no direction. He had also suffered a flop single in ‘The Prettiest Star’ and not even the soon to be famous Marc Bolan guesting on it as a guitarist could save it from obscurity. Bowie seemed lost to the fringes of rock music, an invisible artist who just couldn’t fit in with the times. But the album was to prove to be a stepping-stone to something much bigger. For now though, a rescue mission was nowhere in sight.

 ‘The man who sold the world’ doesn’t have the sophisticated song craft of ‘Hunky Dory’. Nor does it have the consistency and space-rock pop of ‘Ziggy Stardust’  but nevertheless, it’s an album with staying power. I find myself returning to it after all this time and immersing myself in the proto-goth rock of the album. Yes, this is Bowie’s most goth album, music from the crumbling mansion of Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’.

From the opening feedback of Mick Ronson’s guitar on ‘The width of a circle’ you are in a sinister world of sexual ambiguity, existential questing and a dash of the occult. It’s like Bowie heard Black Sabbath and placed them in a different parallel universe. The hard rock riffing of that opening track is informed by the heavy rock of the time, but it’s heavy rock with an intellectual force behind it.

The conceptual vibe of that opening track also puts Bowie into the progressive realm. It’s possible – with a strained ear – to even hear the multi-song parts of the Who’s ‘Tommy’ and – whisper it – the Moody Blues, whose songs were frequently conceptual, with several parts to them.

1970 was a year of reckoning for Bowie. He was frustrated and feeling his career had stalled, trying to expurgate himself from a contract with manager Ken Pitt and also trying to find someone strong-arm and audacious enough to help him find the wider public acclaim that was slipping away from him. He was in a state of stasis, but also full of new ideas. He wanted to move into a more rock direction but wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

Bowie forged ahead, forming a band called The Hype, with producer Tony Visconti on bass, John Cambridge on drums and a person who would make an important contribution to help Bowie realise his musical ambitions – guitarist and arranger Mick Ronson.

Recommended by John Cambridge, Ronson was a gift to Bowie’s then flighty and ungrounded talent, able to quickly jump into Bowie’s songs and work at the frenetic pace Bowie demanded. Within only a few days of meeting Bowie, Ronson played on a BBC session, claiming to not having had any time to learn the songs:

‘ I just watched his fingers’ Ronson remarked, with a typical laconic shrug.

In a cruel ironic twist, Cambridge’s introduction of Ronson to Bowie proved to be his undoing. He did one gig and was then replaced with drummer Woody Woodmansey, brought in on Ronson’s insistence that they needed a more solid and creative drummer. In Ronson’s mind, he wanted the band to be an improvisational blues rock band like Cream. But of course, with Bowie’s songs, they could never be that. They would be something else entirely.

The Hype played a smattering of gigs, even playing places as far flung as the Penthouse in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, which was the debut gig of Woody Woodmansey. However, the band was always going to be a short-lived affair as Bowie’s grasshopper mind was soon back to thinking of presenting himself as a solo artist once again, only with a band. Besides, the record company would never go along with an album by The Hype. They had signed David Bowie as a solo artist and that was how it had to stay.

By April of 1970, Bowie was back in the recording studio at Trident, starting an album that was originally to be called ‘Metrobolist’, in a homage to Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’.  However, the final album would appear as ‘The man who sold the world’ as the record company, Mercury, didn’t like the original title and changed it without Bowie’s input or consent.

The sessions for the album were somewhat nervy and fraught. Bowie was ill-prepared, with only a handful of completed songs and not having the budget of being able to spend as much time in the studio as he wanted to, producer Tony Visconti found himself having to cajole Bowie along, who spent too much time kissing and canoodling with his new wife, Angela Barnett.

Bowie’s flippant and seemingly disinterested attitude exasperated Visconti. It was Visconti who took on the pressure, as he was not only the bassist, he was also the producer. Engineer Ken Scott had no choice but to just sit it out, while Visconti tried to work out what Bowie wanted. The band, with the addition of Ralph Mace, brought in to play Moog synthesiser – were often left to blindly work out arrangements, having to roll along with Bowie’s haphazard and chaotic methods of working. Bowie would then approve or disapprove of the workings of the band. Meanwhile, the studio clock was running down and Visconti fretted whether they’d manage to finish the album.

Thankfully, some songs had previously been worked out live in the short-lived Hype. ‘Width of a circle’ and ‘The Supermen’ had been road tested and arranged but still, Bowie left the recorded version of ‘Width of a circle’ to the band, directed mostly by Mick Ronson. It’s a stunning opener and show case for Ronson’s often unhinged and manic guitar soloing.

The song moves through three stages: the hard rock almost Kinks-like riffing of the verses, to a dreamy middle section that then morphs into a boogie rock with Bowie relating an obviously homosexual encounter with some unnamed demon. It was all very H.P. Lovecraft and it was outrageous – nobody in rock music was writing such openly homo-erotic lyrics.

 ‘The width of a circle’ is followed by one of Bowie’s most haunting songs ‘All the madmen’. This was actually the first song that the band worked on and it was one of Bowie’s more completed songs prior to the recording sessions. This gentle strummed acoustic song was more like a folk song, almost like a more spooked cousin of ‘Space Oddity’ and it’s one of the album’s most compelling tracks.

It’s well documented how Bowie himself was fearful of becoming mentally ill as his half-brother Terry had become, suffering a life-time of schizophrenia and frequent spells in a mental asylum. ‘All the mad men’ is Bowie working through his anxieties and delivering an in character lyric.

This song once again benefits from the input of the band, who go into a faux- flamenco style musical passage that gives the song a musical diversion not unlike Jeff Beck’s ‘Beck’s Bolero’. It ends on the bizarre refrain of ‘Zane, zane, zane, ouvre le chien’, repeated and sung in a weird doo-wop parody.  The opening two tracks alone must surely have left the listener thinking this was no conventional rock songwriter. Bowie was determined to be subversive and left of the mainstream.  He wanted success, but he insisted on his own terms.

‘Black country rock’ is a throwaway track that Bowie originally only had a few lines for, leaving the rest of the music to Visconti and Ronson, who came up with a T.Rex style backing track. (Visconti was T.Rex’s producer at the time)

This pastiche was not lost on Bowie, who did a perfect impression of Marc Bolan on the last chorus of the song. It was an off the cuff joke that everyone liked, so it stayed. Although it’s a flimsy song after the intense two opening tracks, it’s bit of light relief in the album’s often brooding and claustrophobic atmosphere.

‘After All’ is one of Bowie’s most inscrutable lyrics. It has references to Aleister Crowley – ‘live till your rebirth and do what you will’ – and the fact that the song is in waltz time gives it a macabre nightmarish quality. The strange refrain of ‘Oh by jingo’ adds to the enigmatic vibe of the song. The song is shadowy and floats on a swirling cloud of Moog synthesiser.  The lyrics have a pessimistic tone to them. ‘Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown/ so hold on to nothing and he won’t let you down’. Bowie was already tuning in to the grim feeling of the new decade. The 70s were here and there was the feeling of a long party being over.

‘Running Gun Blues’ must rank as one of Bowie’s least written about or talked about songs. It opens side two in a bleakly comic mood, Bowie singing in a camp high register about being a soldier on a killing spree in Vietnam. The lyrical content as you can imagine, is rather absurd and it comes across as unconvincing, a rare Bowie mis-fire that almost threatens to break the spell cast by side one of the album.

However, the passing years have revealed it to be a Bowie curio, as if it’s the last sighting of the ghost of Anthony Newlay and could have been a song written in 1967 for Bowie’s first album.

‘Saviour Machine’ would have been a much better opener for side two. It’s Bowie in sci-fi  mode and predates his decadent rock of ‘Diamond Dogs’. After the character invention of Major Tom, Bowie introduces another character, President Joe, but doesn’t elaborate beyond the first verse when he switches voices and becomes the voice of the machine, warning its creators that obliteration is inevitable.

Apocalyptic science fiction that warned of a coming dystopia was one of the niche strands of popular culture in the early 70s. A popular TV programme called ‘Doomwatch’ reflected the future-shock concerns of technology and how it would affect humanity. The space race seemed to have propelled culture into a new world of uncertainty. Bowie was one of the first voices in pop music to latch onto this.

 ‘She shook me cold’, like ‘Running Gun Blues’ is another Bowie anomaly. Not so much a song, as an exercise in heavy blues riffing that is mostly the invention of the band. Bowie sings about a sexual encounter and then uncharacteristically slips into a braggadocio about breaking the hearts of virgins. The song is another showcase for Ronson’s guitar playing and a chance for the band to stretch out in a jammed section. Bowie seems almost incidental on this track and his lyrics are perfunctory and seem contrived.  This track is probably the closest the listener gets to hearing what Mick Ronson’s idea of his vision for the music is.

The title track ‘The man who sold the world’ remains one of Bowie’s greatest songs and ranks alongside his classics. One thing I’ve always wondered is what the hell is it about?’ The answer, as with all ambiguous lyrics, is whatever you want it to mean.  I view it as a druggy meditation on alienation, a kind of precursor to the ‘girl with the mousy hair’ in ‘Life on Mars’ who is lost in the illusion of a media created universe.

On the other hand, it was an era when some lyric writers were becoming equivocal and some rock songs became almost cabbalistic messages to be interpreted while you sat stoned on the floor of your bedsit. 

(The lyric is apparently inspired by the supernatural themed poem ‘Antigonish’ by William Hughes Mearns )

The album closes with the bombastic ‘The Supermen’, a track that Bowie apparently said to Woody Woodmansey ‘I want it to sound like Cyclops stomping through a village and destroying it!’ Woody was soon to get used to Bowie’s abstract instructions and obliged by suggesting they use some kettle drums that had been left in the studio after an orchestral session.

It was a melodramatic end to a somewhat scatter-gun album, made on the edge of nerves as Bowie left everything until the last possible minute. Tony Visconti related the story of how Bowie only wrote the lyrics and recorded the vocals for the title track only hours before the album went to be mastered. The band up to that point had no idea what Bowie was to sing, or even if he would bother to.

What I like about the album is that it sounds like a record that is as much the band’s album as it is Bowie’s. The unmistakable sonic fingerprints of Mick Ronson especially are all over this album. The drumming is superb, almost free form in places, the influence of Ginger Baker is apparent, and Visconti’s creative bass playing and other musical input make this a joint effort. If we must talk percentage splits, I’d say this is 60 per cent Bowie with the other 40 going to the band. It captures Bowie at a stage in his life where he is prepared to throw all the cards in the air and take them as they land.

‘The man who sold the world’ had been recorded for almost a full year before it came out in Britain. It had its first release in America in late 1970, with a cartoon cover of a cowboy that apparently Bowie had no say in and hated. He arranged for a different cover for the UK release. The record company, Mercury, might have expected a straight forward Bowie with band shot but what they got was Bowie reclining in a chez lounge in a dress. A man’s dress, Bowie would often assert. The record company disapproved of the cover and this is likely the reason the album release was delayed. It came out, and despite some good reviews and the patronage of DJ John Peel on ‘Top Gear’ sank with no trace.  The album suffered from under promotion as the record label has gone cold on Bowie. They were probably expecting another ‘Space Oddity’ but what they got was something totally unlike that album. It was a perverse trend Bowie was to continue throughout the rest of his career.

By the time the album was released, Bowie was re-energised as he now had a new manager who was to have a life changing impact on his life – Tony Defries.

Defries apparently said to Bowie ‘You’re a star and I’ll make you one’ Bowie was in such a frustrated and wound up state that he is said to have cried with relief to have somebody at last who could change the direction of his then flat-lining fortunes. Within months, Defries had negotiated a new record deal for Bowie with RCA. (Bowie already had his next album in the can)

‘The man who sold the world’ captures Bowie at the start of a musical trail that would finally pay off with ‘Ziggy Stardust’ but for now, Bowie had to be content with being an obscure artist who nobody really knew how to market or categorise but most who knew him agreed, it was inevitable that soon his talent would break big.

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