The Man Who Sold the World (1971)



1. Width of a Circle: Masterpiece #2. This is one of the great opening tracks on any Bowie album. Having said that, listening to this back to back with one of its hard rocking contemporaries (eg: Led Zeppelin IV or Black Sabbath’s Paranoid), the band (including producer Visconti on bass and new comer Mick Ronson on guitar) sounds paper thin and almost lightweight. Still, the lyrics slaughter anything Zep ever came up with. I don’t recall them singing about having sex with the Devil in Hell. 10.0

2. All the Madmen: It’s possibly referring to his brother Terry and he seems to be questioning the whole idea of ‘sanity’. A great song. The little spoken word interlude after the soaring chorus gives it a beautiful demented quality (“..he followed me home..”). Fared well when trotted out on the Glass Spider tour in 1987. 8.0 

3. Black Country Rock: “Pack your packhorse up and rest up here…”. Cool Bolan-esque vocal effect and a decent guitar/bass rocking number without peeling the paint off the wall. Riff-heavy blues based boogie, all the rage in 1970. 7.0

4. After All: This creepy little gothic nursery rhyme ballad fits into the general theme of the album quite nicely. Bowie’s voice is rather delicate and lovely, tackling some disturbing themes that would be revisited later on the following album’s Quicksand. 7.0

5. Running Gun Blues: Bowie’s strangled voice and demented, paranoid lyrics along with the off centre mix and bass-heavy blues rocker make this track one hell of a tongue-in-cheek riot. Hit and miss stuff coming from Bowie at this early stage, but he was definitely on the right track. 6.0

6. Saviour Machine: Who has ever written a song like this? Heavy apocalyptic track and downright frightening as Bowie sings from the POV of the machine before it destroys humanity. Thought provoking stuff and amazing vocals. 6.5

7. She Shook Me Cold:  Ronson isn’t Clapton and Visconti isn’t Jack Bruce, yet this is as powerful as any 70s hard rocking blues work-out gets, and the instrumental freak-out interplay suits Bowie’s twisted, sexed up lyrics. Underrated. Never played live. 8.0

8. The Man Who Sold the World: Masterpiece #3. Ambiguous meaning again but contains my favourite ‘cheese grater’ moments ever. A certified Bowie classic. Nirvana had more success than Bowie with this track. The definitive version remains the 1979 SNL Klaus Nomi performance which is worth tracking down. 10.0

9. The Supermen: Great finishing to the album but not my favourite song. Bowie pretending to understand Nietzsche. The whole “ softly a supergod cries” with Mick Ronson harmonising (especially live) wears a trifle thin. By no means a Bowie classic but a suitable closer to this album. 6.0


VERDICT: It’s a concept album about a shaven headed transvestite, as opposed to a concept album about a flame haired Martian rock star. It is a logical precursor to Ziggy Stardust but still a long long way off its brilliance. The whole production on this album is thin and a bit of a letdown and Visconti would soon relinquish bass and production duties and return several years later – around Young Americans. I don’t think newly-wed Bowie was fully behind it. It’s not a fully formed, fleshed out masterpiece like some future albums. Having said that I still hold a special place for it (and its many albums covers). Consider it the start of the classic Bowie phase.

NEXT: Greatness!

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