11/4/70: David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World
David Bowie’s third studio album was released 50 years ago today, and it is widely considered the opening salvo of his classic period. Producer Tony Visconti was brought in to corral Bowie’s various styles into more of a cohesive sound. This was to be done by shifting Bowie from a purely solo artist to incorporating a band, including Mick Ronson on guitar and drummer Mick Woodmansey, who would soon be core members of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars.
The Man Who Sold the World represents a shift from the more acoustic folk of the previous album to a heavier rock/blues rock sound. Yet the acoustic guitars quite audible in the mix, lending to its recognizeable early 70’s Bowie sound. The original title of the album was Metropolist, after Friz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis film, but was changed by Mercury without asking Bowie, and the initial album cover on the U.S. release featured a cartoon cowboy in front of an asylum. Bowie had it changed for the U.K. release in April 1971. Despite positive contemporary reviews, the album was initially a commercial failure but was quickly reassessed after the breakthrough with Ziggy Stardust a couple years later.
Now it’s considered a crucial element of his classic early 70’s period. Everything to do with rock music was evolving so fast, and it didn’t take long for the listening public to realize how good it was. It may not be entirely innovative, but Bowie definitely put his own twist on the heavy blues rock genre. I liken it to Pink Floyd’s Meddle – a great blend of the band’s past and immediate future. Bowie has credited producer/bassist Visconti and guitarist Ronson for the album’s sonics. Bowie’s lyrics – with themes including Nietzsche, Vietnam, and man being ruled by computers – range from esoteric to dark, and border on frightening at times. The instrumental tracks to these songs, driven by Woodmansey’s drums, Visconti’s fuzzy bass, and the possibly underrated Ronson’s guitar, are relentless.
Some of the haunting vocal affectation in The Width of a Circle and the title track can also be heard on his final album, Blackstar, something I hadn’t noticed until now. Black Country Rock strongly hints at the direction he would take on his next album, Hunky Dory. She Shook Me Cold veers into Cream territory. But perhaps more so than any of his contemporaries, Bowie’s vocals make the otherwise common heavy rock sound his own. It’s hard to find any weak spots on this one.
- The Width of a Circle
- All the Madmen
- Black Country Rock
- After All
- Running Gun Blues
- Saviour Machine
- She Shook Me Cold
- The Man Who Sold the World
- The Supermen