[Review] David Bowie: The Man Who Sold The World (1970)

Bowie takes a left turn toward electric sci-fi with future Spiders Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey.

Kronomyth 3.0: Some say the view is crazy, but you may adopt another point of view.

Lurid, technicolor electric rock that explodes in the listener’s mind, The Man Who Sold The World is a great leap from the man-in-the-moon precocity of “Space Oddity” and its weakly whelped psychedelic litter. David Bowie had flirted with science fiction on his last album, but he consummates the relationship here by bedding such strange animals as supermen, madmen, gunmen, mountainmen and, of course, the man who sold the world. Safe inside his hallucinatory asylum, the artist throws out the rock & roll rule book and follows a map of his own making into uncharted territory. In other words, it’s here that the world bid welcome to the real Mr. Jones.

Though Bowie’s show from beginning to end, a great debt is owed to the backing band, which now included future Spiders Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey. It’s they who help catapult Bowie into the rarefied air of over-the-top stars by delivering the right shades of subtlety and harshness, the brilliant set designers behind this amazing one-man musical. Otherwise the singer might have been peddling the same wares; “After All,” “All The Madmen,” “Saviour Machine” and “The Supermen” are clearly cut from the same cloth as his previous costume. But here are songs rendered not by mere men but musical warlocks whose brutality crushes the core of Bowie’s message and releases the hallucinogenic subtext hiding within his words. Few knew what “The Width of a Circle” amounted to, but many went along for the ride with no regrets afterward. Likewise the title track must have winked when we blinked, but we’re compelled to sadness out of a shared musical sympathy.

It’s the directness of the music that still amazes: “She Shook Me Cold” evokes the shakes of withdrawal better than John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” ever could, “Running Gun Blues” runs through the mind of a renegade soldier like a kid through a candy store, “Black Country Rock” hits upon a sublime strangeness that even Marc Bolan had difficulty reaching. If you haven’t discovered this album yet, buy it by any means necessary. Me, I was lucky to have a wonderful Dad who thought enough of his strange son’s musical taste to add this to my collection while on a business trip in California. At the time, he recalled getting a strange look from the sales clerk at the record store (and that was with the tame B&W cover). I think the government uses record stores as a training ground for future DMV employees. I stood in the wrong line once at a DMV and I swear I got the “Omigod, you don’t actually still listen to Icehouse” look. The Rkyodisc remaster sounds wonderful by the way but the extra tracks are dispensable.

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Original elpee version

A1. The Width of a Circle (8:07)
A2. All The Madmen (5:38)
A3. Black Country Rock (3:33)
A4. After All (3:52)
B1. Running Gun Blues (3:12)
B2. Saviour Machine (4:27)
B3. She Shook Me Cold (4:13)
B4. The Man Who Sold The World (3:58)
B5. The Supermen (3:39)

CD reissue bonus tracks
10. Lightning Frightening (3:38)
11. Holy Holy (2:20)
12. Moonage Daydream (3:52)
13. Hang Onto Yourself (2:51)

All songs written by David Bowie.

Original 8-track version
A1. The Width of a Circle
A2. Saviour Machine (part 1)
B1. Saviour Machine (conclusion)
B2. Black Country Rock
B3. She Shook Me Cold
C1. After All
C2. The Supermen
C3. All The Madmen (part 1)
D1. All The Madmen (conclusion)
D2. Running Gun Blues
D3. The Man Who Sold The World

The Players

David Bowie (guitar, vocals), Ralph Mace (moog synthesizer), Mick Ronson (guitar), Tony Visconti (electric bass, piano, guitar), Mick Woodmansey (drums). Produced by Tony Visconti; remixed by Tony Visconti; engineered by Ken Scott; executive producer: Robin McBride.

The Pictures

Album designed and photographed by Keef.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, cassette and 8-track in November 1970 in the US (Mercury, SR/MC8-61325) and Japan (Mercury, SFX-7345) and in April 1971 in the UK (RCA, INTS 5237/PK 2103).

  1. Re-issued on elpee and 8-track in November 1972 in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and Italy (RCA Victor, LSP-4816/PK/P8S-2103) and Greece (RCA International, MFL-RCLP 20245) with lyrics innersleeve and unique cover; reached #26 on the UK charts and #25 on the US charts.
  2. Re-issued on elpee in 1973 in Japan (RCA, RCA-6078).
  3. Re-packaged with Space Oddity on 2-for-1 2LP in 1983 in France (RCA, NL 37727).
  4. Re-issued on elpee in 1983 in Japan (RCA, RPL-2123) and in the Netherlands and Spain (RCA, NL-14654); reached #64 on the UK charts.
  5. Re-issued on elpee, cassette and compact disc in Germany (RCA, NL/NK/PD 84654).
  6. Re-released on expanded remastered compact disc, 24k gold compact disc, cassette, elpee, double-elpee and clear vinyl double-elpee on June 30, 1990 in the US (Rykodisc, RCD 10132/RCD 80132/RALP/RACS 0132-2), the UK (EMI, CDEMC/TCEMC 3573), Brazil (EMI, 791837-1/4) and Japan (EMI, TOCP-6203) with 4 bonus tracks; reached #66 on the UK charts.
  7. Re-issued on expanded remastered compact disc on April 24, 1996 in Japan (EMI, TOCP-8862) with 4 bonus tracks.
  8. Re-issued on 24-bit remastered compact disc in September 1999 in Europe (EMI, 521901 0).
  9. Re-released on limited edition 180g vinyl elpee in 2001 in the UK (Simply Vinyl, SVLP 264).
  10. Re-issued on compact disc on July 6, 2005 in Japan (EMI, TOCP-53529).
  11. Re-issued on compact disc on January 10, 2007 in Japan (EMI, TOCP-70142).
  12. Re-issued on compact disc on October 28, 2009 in Japan (EMI, TOCP-95042).
  13. Re-issued on 180g vinyl elpee on February 26, 2016 in Europe (Parlophone, DBXL1) and on picture disc elpee in 2016 in the UK (Parlophone, DBRSDP 2016).

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