This is — sort of — where I first got on the Bowie bus. I’d heard “Space Oddity” on the radio, but I did not associate it with anything — I was young enough that I didn’t notice band names too much, apart from the Beatles most likely — and just judged songs I heard by whether I liked them, on a case-by-case basis.
But I had started tentatively buying some singles by this point, and looking at albums. That’s how this one got me — that cover. The US version had a completely different “cartoon” cover that would never have caught my attention, but I had the (good? bad?) fortune to see the provocative UK cover featuring Bowie in the “man dress.” It’s hard to express fully what a completely mind-blowing (and erotic) concept this was for a reasonably sheltered young lad to see — the blurring of gender concepts that, at the time of my upbringing, were bright clear lines never to be crossed.
It was both the utter audacity of a man looking like a girl (what with the long hair and the dress, etc) and the fact that he looked fantastic in it that just criss-crossed all kinds of new neural connections in my brain, but although I could barely stop staring at it I made sure my parents didn’t see it (even then I knew I had wandered “out of bounds” of my supervised environment). It would be many years before I got to buy a copy, but that cover made a huge impression on me and how I looked at gender roles — and ensured that his next one, Hunky Dory, would be my first Bowie album. It cracked open a door that Ziggy Stardust would later kick wide open, and ironically that impact is beautifully re-enacted by Bowie and Tilda Swindon (with Andreja Pejić and Saskia de Brauw as their doppelgängers) in the video for “The Stars Are Out Tonight” some 45 years later.
So, mid-1970 and much of early 1971 was a period in which big new influences came (and in one case, went) into Bowie’s life. For the period leading up to the album, the most important of these people were (in ascending order) Tony Visconti, who figured out how to record him; Mick Ronson, who gave him a new sound; Bowie’s new manager Tony DeFries, who got him better deals; and of course the most important of the bunch in this time-frame, Angela Barrett, his new girlfriend (quickly fiancé and then wife). There’s another much more shadowy figure that also played a big role, since he was the person who brought Barrett and Bowie together — a music executive named Calvin Mark Lee of Mercury Records. It is said (by Bowie himself) that he met Angela (later Angie) because they were both, um, “dating” Lee.
It’s difficult to track down any definitive evidence of Bowie’s own self-proclaimed bisexuality, but this reviewer has no trouble believing that — in his early years at least — he was. Lindsey Kemp has said he had a relationship with Bowie, Angie says David and Mick Jagger fooled around, Angie and David were both friends with gay designer Freddie Buretti (who lived with him and Angie at Haddon Hall for a while), they hung out with loads of other gay people, and Angie was another self-proclaimed bisexual. Despite any homosexual acts being prosecutable in the UK at the time, and despite Bowie’s later seeming exclusivity with women, there’s a handful of people who say Bowie was at least willing to experiment. It is undeniable that he found gay culture at the very least fashionable and fun — there’s a fair amount of polare and other gay slang littered amongst his early-70s work, and then there’s that dress and the long hair and the beginning of the gender blurring.
That said, Angie had gone from helping David with the Beckinham Arts Lab “free festival” by cooking hamburgers for sale in a wheelbarrow in early 1970 to marrying him and giving birth to his son, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, in mid-1971 (she’d actually started off as a personal assistant/road manager, roles she continued after they fell in love). Still, the subversive influence that Bowie courted with his confessions of bisexuality (during the Ziggy period in particular), coming on the heels of his toying with gender stereotypes (ranging from his campaign for long-haired men as a boy to this album cover and his later androgynous years) had a lasting impact on the impressionable youth of the day, as seen by the rise of glam rock and its (for a brief time) total invasion of the previously uber-macho world of rock. Men and boys who would have rather died than be thought as “effeminate” were wearing Lycra (Spandex), makeup, and glitter by the time the mid-70s rolled around.
Although many would point to the next album, the regressively softer Hunky Dory, as the moment when Bowie really found his full footing (and indeed, there are many who list it as one of, if not the, favourite album of his), The Man Who Sold the World is the record where all the elements began to fall into place. It seems odd that “settling down” with Angie, having a kid, and owning a home (albeit more of a commune; his bandmates, friends, and even his half-brother Terry would live there for periods of time) would presage his exploration of gender and sexuality roles, and foreshadow arguably his most famous period of strong songwriting and performance, but for Bowie nothing was ever what it seemed on the surface; even domesticity.
The first song on TMWSTW has an unusual public pedigree: for listeners who went from the previous album to this one, “The Width of a Circle” simply sounds like a bizarrely deep excursion into heavy metal, with a tripped-out wandering lyric that covers Nietzsche, Khalil Gibran, and Alastair Crowley/HP Lovecraftian tones with one of Bowie’s early acknowledgements of bisexuality (in this song, particularly, gay sex with demons). But there is some documentation of the evolution of this number.
Before the album came out, Bowie and Ronson performed a version of the song for BBC Radio, as found on the outstanding Bowie at the Beeb compilation album. Ronson, who had assisted with the reworked and more rocked-out single version of “Memory of a Free Festival,” had re-acquainted himself with Bowie (who was in search of a new lead guitarist … and a more rock-oriented direction) only two days before the Beeb performance, according to Chris O’Leary.
This version of “The Width of a Circle” was the “original” one Bowie likely wrote in 1969 while working on the last album, and bears more of a similarity to that record. While Ronson is an unmistakable presence on the BBC version, it’s nowhere near as metalled-out as the eventual album cut, with Bowie’s singing and lyric still taking center stage at this point, and the song running less than five minutes. At the end of the performance, the announcer asks if Bowie is going to take this newly-assembled band on the road, and in turn David asks “Michael” (Mick) pretty much if he wants to stay on and do that. Bowie jokes that “looking at this lot, no” but then says “yes” he likely will. Bowie even mentions on-air that “Michael” has just come to him from a referral from the drummer (John Carmichael of the Rats, who knew Ronson from that Hull-based band).
As others have said, Ronson sounds like he is still grappling with the number, and to be fair, it’s a compositional mess in the “tradition” of “Unwashed,” “Wild-Eyed Boy” and “Memory of a Free Festival” — part structured, part jam, with highly allegorical and inpenetrable lyrics, Bowie’s very public rebelling against the kind of structured songs he’d been pressured to write and which hadn’t worked out for him.
The official album version became even more so, following Bowie’s desire that this album be much more of a “hard rock” sound than his previous efforts, for which of course Ronson was the perfect choice. Visconti and Ronson essentially wrote new second act for the song and had Bowie provide additional lyrics not heard at all in the BBC version. The guitar and bass parts, having started out much more heavy metal, get a bit more “rolling” than rocking in the last half of the expanded 10-minute number, in contrast to Bowie’s new and far darker homoerotic Crowley-meets-Black Sabbath fantasy lyrics.
On tour, the song would get stretched out even further (up to 15 minutes) to act as a hard-rock jam that allowed Bowie to change costumes and perform an accompanying mime bit. Yes, really. It’s important to remember where the music scene was in 1970: bands like Yes and King Crimson were doing some of their most important work, and song lengths were swinging as far away from the no-more-than-three-minutes idiom as possible. The wide proliferation of casual drug use was, no doubt, the fuel that allowed musicians to reach for such hypnotic and shamanic (at best) or over-indulgent (more typically) heights, and for audiences to accept them.
This “long jam” style in Bowie’s hands, though, was fodder for his first runs at introducing more theatricality into the concerts, which would of course play a vital role in the near future — and which had a lasting and profound impact on not just progressive bands like Genesis (under original frontman Peter Gabriel), as well as many other bands and their audiences. This was the period where “showmanship” started to become an important factor alongside musicianship. Bowie and Ronson (and Marc Bolan) may have invented glam rock, but at this point they were still cooking it up in the lab.
“All the Madmen,” though, was straight-up Black Sabbath, and for good reason: like Ozzy, Bowie figured it was his fate to eventually go mad. The soft-rock opening (featuring some recorder by Tony Visconti) that wouldn’t have been too out-of-place on his Deram album gives way to Ronson’s electric guitar fireworks before returning (briefly) to the eye of the musical storm with a short spoken-word bit before returning to its catchy chorus, while Bowie sings about how much he’d prefer to remain at the asylum, as he’s more comfortable there (in some interviews, he indicated that the song is very much about his half-brother Terry Burns, who suffered from schizophrenia).
“Black Country Rock” is a different beast, but it’s still an imitation of others: in this case, pretty directly riffing off Bolan and T. Rex, who would very shortly become glam stars themselves. Bowie, who has always had a gift for mimicry, both pays homage and to some extent sends up Bolan with an uncannily-accurate copy of his style and phrasing. The song remains a primer for riff-ridden guitar rock, and one could easily see it covered by any number of “southern rock” bands such as the Allman Brothers — the fact that Bowie only wrote one verse (and then repeats it) for the thing lends that comparison some credibility.
Then, suddenly, we’re totally back to the first album again with “After All,” yet another song about children with a dark underbelly and a doomed fate awaiting them (reminding us of Charles Addams’s work, and predating A Series of Unfortunate Events by 30 years) that recalls “There is a Happy Land” from his debut, and echoes the darker sides of the non-LP “When I’m Five,” only this time with a dollop of sea shanty mixed in. This song could, in fact, have fit in easily with the recent Netflix adaptation of Handler’s “The Wide Window.” That darkness carries on with the clownish yet violent opening vocal for “Running Gun Blues,” which seems to draw from the Vietnam conflict for its theme of an ex-soldier turned wannabe mass murderer.
Much of TMWSTW seems to cover depressing ground as much as Space Oddity did, but in large part thanks to his new collaborators, Bowie has by now figured out how to drape sour songs with exciting riffs, pyrotechnic arrangements, and dramatic vocals so as to make the darkness alluring. Thus, naturally, his up-to-this-point favourite theme of the Messiah figure gone horribly wrong is revisited with this new treatment, resulting in the best of his many attempts to capture this neo-Huxleyesque vision of the future, the song “Saviour Machine.” Nearly a decade ahead of Douglas Adams (but four years after Doctor Who tackled the topic, though they would again numerous times later), Bowie invents the greatest computer in the world and of course it becomes the center of a new, subservient religion, to its chagrin and protest.
It’s another weird exercise in musicality, and again nods to “heavy metal” in lots of ways — quite apart from its doomsday/no-god-to-save-us scenario, the song features extended guitar breaks, shifting time signatures, and a particularly careering vocal. As noted by O’Leary in his “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” blog, the first and third of the solos oddly lift their chorus from Bowie’s own non-LP song “Ching A Ling,” as un-metal a song as there ever could be. Of his many attempts at a dystopian futurescape (which in fact was a common theme in UK science fiction in the 60s and 70s — that eventually the world would be wholly dependent on some kind of supercomputer or super-network of computers to run everything, and that it would go horribly wrong), this was his best effort to date, though Bowie would of course top it years later with the longer-form works Diamond Dogs and 1. Outside.
O’Leary (quoting Pegg and Visconti, among others) notes that one of the reasons this album has such a distinct new sound is that Bowie was almost a guest artist on his own record: newly married to Angie, “he left Visconti and Ronson to arrange the sessions, play most of the instruments, edit and overdub the tracks … Only at the end, mainly during the mixing stage, did Bowie show up (sometimes having just scrawled out a final lyric) to record his vocals,” it is claimed (an account only weakly disputed by David himself). This seems very evident on at least “She Shook Me Cold,” which sounds very much like Mick Ronson doing his best Cream impersonation, with a sprinkling of Hendrix thrown in. Very much out of character for Bowie, his lyric is not far above your typical grunt-rock “love song” centering around sexual conquest, including an extended “orgasmic” moaning vocal and guitar break.
That this is the song just ahead of what is by far the most sophisticated and mature track on the album, the title number, just seems as though Bowie sailed in to the recording studio, heard what Ronson and Visconti had come up with, thought it fun and wrote an immature teen-boy lyric to go along with the crotch-rock stylings — and didn’t think too hard about where to put it in the running order. Nevertheless, “The Man Who Sold the World” seems all the more exotic in its placement between “She Shook Me Cold” and yet another stab at Nietzsche in the album’s final song, “The Supermen.”
Featuring a masterfully restrained guitar limited to extremely simple parts (the chorus itself is mostly just scales) and above-average bass (by Visconti again), the arrangement and rhythms of the song transport the listener to another time and place not otherwise found on this album — a mysterious arena where riddles and enigmas murmur sweet nothings in our ears.
Following Nirvana’s cover 23 years later, the song became a staple “hit” in Bowie’s subsequent collections and tours, but in fact it was never a single for him — it was the b-side of the following album’s “Life on Mars?” in the UK, and for the reissued “Space Oddity” single in the US. Lulu, of all people, had the biggest hit with it — she took it to #3 in the UK charts. Up to this point, Bowie had written a number of derivative-but-good songs, and was now writing some original-but-good songs — but this, in your humble reviewer’s opinion, was his second truly “magical” song (following “Space Oddity”) and by far the most “Bowie-like” (when viewed in later context) song that would foreshadow his future career highlights.
Despite (so the story goes) only having the lyric and vocal delivered while the producer and band waited around on the final day of album production, it is a glorious fusion of the gentle rock that had marked his first and second album with a more eloquent lyric addressing his own demons (and angels) than anything he had managed up to this point. It does borrow, yet reinvents, lines from diverse sources such as Hughes Mearns “Antigonish” and Wilfred Owens’ “Strange Meeting,” both poems from the early part of the 20th century (and let’s not forget Ray Bradbury’s “Night Meeting”), but places them in a wonderfully atmospheric new context that imprints Bowie’s own psyche onto those concepts.
The extended Ryko version of the album throws in a previously-unreleased track, “Lightning Frightening,” the non-LP single a-side “Holy Holy” — the latter of which was good enough to get Bowie a new publishing deal — and a pair of 1971 (and demo-like) versions of “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang On to Yourself,” recorded under the pseudonym “Arnold Corns” (A Corns in UK institution-speak) for legal reasons. It is said that the oddball group name was invented to recoup the cost of the demo sessions without violating Bowie’s existing Mercury contract). These songs wouldn’t reappear until two albums later — on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars — and though these versions, recorded in the studios of Radio Luxembourg, are an interesting testament to those songs’ development, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.