The Man Who Sold the World, David Bowie's third studio album, was recorded in April and May of 1970, and was released in America first (in November of that year). The British release was delayed until April 1971 due to executives at Mercury Records, Bowie's then-current label, fretting about the singer posing in "a man's dress" on the cover photo.
The album came at a critical time in Bowie's life and career. He'd recently achieved his commercial breakthrough with "Space Oddity", but his failure to follow it up made it look like he'd be a One-Hit Wonder. But Bowie was as forward-thinking as ever, as he left behind the Music Hall-influenced sound of his first album and the Folk Rock of Space Oddity in favour of a Hard Rock/Heavy Metal hybrid that recalled Cream, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, building this sound off of the blueprint formed by the harder-tinged and prog-inspired elements of Space Oddity while also directing it in a distinctly independent direction. Indeed, TMWSTW introduced the first version of the band that eventually became known as The Spiders From Mars.note Also, Bowie had recently married his first wife Angela, and reportedly spent a lot of time with her during the writing and rehearsal sessions while the band worked on the music without him. According to Peter Doggett's The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie And The 1970's, "...at the last possible moment, Bowie would reluctantly uncurl himself from the sofa on which he was lounging with his wife, and dash off a set of lyrics".
If this is true, then Bowie's mind must have been an even more interesting and unpredictable place than usual when he was writing these songs, because his wedded bliss certainly didn't show in the lyrics. As Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray describe the subject matter in Bowie: An Illustrated Record: "Assassins, madmen, occultists, deranged computers, dormant elder gods, children possessed of secrets beyond their parents' imaginings and a plunge into a new poly-sexual imagery compounded the blow struck by the album's startling cover... the new Bowie was dealing in strange and disturbing commodities."
It wouldn't be the last time. While Bowie's next release, Hunky Dory, was Lighter and Softer musically (if not lyrically), the combination of apocalyptic themes and intense sounds on this album pointed the way forward to the Glam Rock albums that established Bowie as a celebrity (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs). To quote Carr & Murray again: "This is where the story really starts."
The album was a modest critical and commercial success, though it achieved more sales and acclaim in the US than the UK. While it didn't exactly put Bowie on the map as a star, it did do enough to convince audiences that he was more than just "the man who did the Major Tom song," building the first vestiges of a devoted following that would explode in quantity just two years later. It became a bigger success when RCA Records reissued it in 1972 to bank off the success of Ziggy Stardust, though was still generally considered a case of Early Installment Weirdness by most listeners (albeit decent in its own right). In the decades since its release, it's become noticeably Vindicated by History, with analysts noting in hindsight its wide-reaching influence on Post-Punk, Goth Rock, and Dark Wave, with the dirge-like "All the Madmen" and "After All" being particularly important tracks in the development of the late 70's goth scene. Combining that with the album's aforementioned founding of Bowie's forthcoming glam rock sound, The Man Who Sold the World is now considered an essential part of the Bowie discography. As of 2020, Acclaimed Music lists the record at No. 1875 on its dynamic list of the 3000 most critically praised albums.
Oh, and Nirvana did a Cover Version of the Title Track on MTV Unplugged in New York (much to Bowie's approval), leading some younger fans to falsely assume that they were the ones who wrote it (much to Bowie's irritation). Kurt Cobain also listed The Man Who Sold the World at no. 45 in his personal list of his 50 favourite music albums. Midge Ure also covered the song, with said cover being famously used in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Beginning in 2014, Tony Visconti and Mick "Woody" Woodmansey began Holy Holy, a sporadic tour in which they play the album in its entirety, along with other Bowie songs. (Bowie never toured to promote the album when it was originally released.) Guests include Heaven 17 vocalist Glenn Gregory and Spandau Ballet saxophonist Steve Norman. Bowie gave the tour his blessing.
The Man Who Sold the World was supported in the US by one single: a truncated edit of "All the Madmen", which failed to make a real dent in the charts thanks to Mercury US's poor distribution of it. Unlike its predecessors, the album was notably not supported by a single at first in the UK due to Mercury not being able to find a song they considered suitable enough. In lieu of this, Bowie recorded and released the non-album single "Holy Holy" as a substitute (though the album track "Black Country Rock" would be featured as the single's B-Side). RCA Records would eventually end up issuing the album's Title Track as a single in 1973, riding off the success of Ziggy Stardust and the label's concurrent reissue of The Man Who Sold the World.
In November 2020, to commemorate its 50th anniversary, the album was reissued under its Working Title Metrobolist. This release features new mixes of almost all the songs by Tony Visconti; the sole exception is "After All", because Visconti feels he can't improve on the original mix. Michael Weller, who drew the original "cartoon cover", created an animation based on the image to mark the occasion.
- "The Width of a Circle" (8:07)
- "All the Madmen" (5:38)
- "Black Country Rock" (3:33)
- "After All" (3:52)
- "Running Gun Blues" (3:12)
- "Saviour Machine" (4:27)
- "She Shook Me Cold" (4:13)
- "The Man Who Sold the World" (3:58)
- "The Supermen" (3:39)
Bonus Tracks (1990 Reissue):
- "Lightning Frightening" (3:38)
- "Holy Holy" (2:20)
- "Moonage Daydream" (3:52)
- "Hang on to Yourself" (2:51)
"I can fly, I will scream, I will break my trope":
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The subject of "Saviour Machine". Humanity creates a Master Computer to run everything; it soon gets bored, begins making threats, and demands to be turned off or else."Don't let me stay, don't let me stay
My logic says burn so send me away
Your minds are too green, I despise all I've seen
You can't stake your lives on a Saviour Machine"
- Alien Sky: The realm of "The Supermen" has a red sky.
- Ax-Crazy: The narrator of the darkly humorous "Running Gun Blues" is a Sociopathic Soldier who won't let a cease fire get in the way of a perfectly good killing spree."It seems the peacefuls stopped the war
Left generals squashed and stifled
But I'll slip out again tonight
Cause they haven't taken back my rifle
For I promote oblivion
And I'll plug a few civilians"
- Lyrical Dissonance: The music accompanying all this is downright happy!
- Breather Episode: "Black Country Rock" is considerably lighter in tone than anything else on the album.
- The Casanova: The protagonist of "She Shook Me Cold" is one of these. He's also the sexual equivalent of a Spirited Competitor, and he's overjoyed when he finds a woman who can keep up with him.
- Darker and Edgier: Than most of Bowie's previous work. Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray noted that "The vision Bowie presents here is one of unrelieved chaos and terror (the only respite is hanging out in Black Country Rock)".
- Death Seeker: "The Supermen" gives us a whole civilization of them. Also, the titular character of "Saviour Machine" may be the only example of a suicidal computer.
- Divine Date: In "The Width of a Circle", a (male) supernatural being who may be either God, an angel, Satan, or a regular Horny Devil takes the narrator to Hell... where they get their freak on.
- Dramatic Timpani: Heard briefly at the end of "The Width of a Circle" and the intro to "The Supermen".
- Early Installment Weirdness: Its sound is far tamer than most modern entries in the Heavy Metal genre, and most songs on the album seem closer to folk rock or hard rock than actual metal. Perhaps the most recognizably "metal" track on the album (by modern standards anyway) is the opener, "The Width of a Circle", and even then it's pretty light compared to its successors.
- Effective Knockoff: Around 1976, an unknown bootlegger manufactured fake copies of the original US Mercury pressing that were convincing enough to be sold in the cut-out bins at mainstream record retailers. The packaging of these bootlegs replicated the original cover.
- Eldritch Abomination: Featured in the Title Track, "The Width of a Circle" and "The Supermen".
- Epic Rocking: "The Width of a Circle" is just over eight minutes.
- Face on the Cover: Three of the album's four covers feature pictures of Bowie. The "cartoon cover" is one of very few aversions in the Bowie catalog, and one of only two instances in Bowie's entire studio catalog where the cover art lacks his likeness at all (the other being ★, though in Man's case the impact is diminished by the fact that the 1971 UK cover art, which does feature Bowie on it, is considered the canonical one).
- Fantasy Kitchen Sink: The world of "The Supermen". It's as if Bowie tried to cram as many fantasy tropes as he could into one song.
- Gratuitous French: The closing chant of "All the Madmen" is "Zane, Zane, Zane/Ouvre le chien" (The second phrase translates into "Open/Unleash the dog"; "zane" just seems to be a nonsense interjection with no actual meaning).
- Gratuitous Panning: On the original album, during the end of "All the Madmen" the phrase "Zane, zane, zane" travels from the right speaker to the left. (The Metrobolist remix eliminates this effect.) The backing vocals near the end of "The Width of a Circle" ("Turn around, go back!") also use stereo panning in both mixes.
- Heavy Mithril: "The Width of a Circle" and "The Supermen"; the former features a segment about a sexual encounter with what's either an angel, a demon, or an alien, while the latter chronicles a race of suicidal supergods.
- Hive Mind: "The Supermen" is set in a place "Where all were minds in uni-thought".
- In the Style of...:
- Last Note Nightmare: "The Supermen" ends with a Wham Line which is accompanied by an apocalyptic, heavily reverbed musical freakout. Extra points for being the last song on the album."So softly a supergod DIIIIIIIIIES!"
- Longest Song Goes Last: An Inverted Trope, as this album starts with its longest song.
- Lyric Swap: In "The Supermen", the first two repetitions of the chorus end "So softly a supergod cries". In the third instance, it's changed to "So softly a supergod dies".
- Mohs Scale of Lyrical Hardness: Considering that most of the songs deal with dark subjects such as supernatural horror, mental illness, and predatory sexuality, they range from 6 to 8 (though "Running Gun Blues" is a 9). However, the light-hearted "Black Country Rock" is only a 2.
- New Sound Album: This one introduced the sound that carried Bowie to lasting fame. When Bowie died in 2016, Sean O'Neal of AV Club wrote a career retrospective in which he began by discussing the first two albums:Then came The Man Who Sold The World, with its hard-rock guitars and arrangements from Mick Ronson and producer Tony Visconti finally giving Bowies needling voice and existential angst the musical edge it demanded. From then on, every generation would get the Bowie it deserved.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: On the cartoon cover, the cowboy on the front is based on John Wayne, and the woman on the back resembles Marilyn Monroe.
- Non-Appearing Title: The title of "The Width of a Circle" is nowhere to be found in the lyrics.
- The Not-Remix: The 2020 reissue Metrobolist remixed the original album — except for "After All", which is included in its remastered form from 2015 because Tony Visconti thinks the original mix is "perfect as is".
- The Noun Who Verbed: The album and its Title Track both use this trope in their titles.
- One-Word Title: Averted on the original album, but more or less in effect with the Metrobolist remix. (Its complete title is Metrobolist: Nine Songs by David Bowie.)
- Only Sane Man: The theme of "All the Madmen" is that the world is so crazy that it's the "sane" people who are truly mad."'Cause I'd rather stay here
With all the madmen
Than perish with the sadmen roaming free
And I'd rather play here
With all the madmen
For I'm quite content they're all as sane as me"
- Our Mermaids Are Different: "The Supermen" briefly mentions "sad-eyed mermen".
- Packaged as Other Medium: The cartoon cover looks like a comic strip image.
- Perfectly Cromulent Word: In the Title Track, the narrator gazes "a gazely stare".
- Politically Incorrect Villain: "Running Gun Blues" is set during the then-current Vietnam War, and its Villain Protagonist has no problem referring to the Vietnamese with the racial slur "gooks."note
- Record Producer: Tony Visconti produces an entire Bowie album for the first time.note He also doubles on bass and occasionally plays piano and recorder.
- The title is a reference to Robert A. Heinlein's novella The Man Who Sold the Moon.
- The Working Title Metrobolist, eventually used for the 2020 remix, is derived from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis. It's also a Punny Title based on Bowie's observation that he wrote these strange, scary songs at "me troubled-est".
- Khalil Gibran is mentioned in "The Width of a Circle".
- Critics have noted that some of Bowie's lyrics are influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley. Word of God: "I was still going through the thing when I was pretending that I understood Nietzsche... And I had tried to translate it into my own terms to understand it so 'Supermen' came out of that."
- Going the other way, the title track plays in the opening of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and the lyrics foreshadow many of the events in the game.
- It has been speculated that the title track may also contain a reference to the poem "Antigonish" (1899) by William Hughes Mearns. Compare the opening stanza of Mearns' poem:"Yesterday, upon the stair
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away"
- With the opening stanza of Bowie's song:"We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn't there
He said I was his friend"
- Speech Bubble: The cowboy from the cartoon cover has a blank one. According to artist Michael Weller, it originally read "ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR ARMS". US Mercury censored this because they thought it was a drug reference; when the album was released, the dialogue was simply erased. However, it's been restored for the 2020 Metrobolist reissue.
- Spoken Word in Music: "All the Madmen" has a spoken interlude.
- Surprisingly Gentle Song: "After All" could be mistaken for a lullaby if you ignored the lyrics.
- Titled After the Song:
- A Bloodborne/DC Universe crossover fanfic is named after this album.
- In 2007, Doctor Who Magazine published a comic strip story called "The Woman Who Sold the World".
- A Torchwood novel is titled The Men Who Sold the World.
- The Man Who Sold America, a 2019 book critiquing Donald Trump by MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid.
- Tomato in the Mirror: From "The Width of a Circle":"Then I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree
And I looked and frowned and the monster was me"
- Trend Covers: Like Space Oddity before it, the 1972 reissue has Bowie as Ziggy Stardust on the cover. When Bowie regained the rights to his catalog in 1990, he restored the 1971 "dress cover".
- Variant Cover: Four different covers officially exist for the album:
- The original 1970 American release featured an illustration of a John Wayne expy standing in front of the Cane Hill Mental Institution, toting a rifle; this cover is featured on the back of the liner notes booklet on all CD reissues from the 1990 Rykodisc release onwards. A modified version◊ would later be used for Metrobolist, the 2020 remix, replacing the logo, adding the text "NINE SONGS BY DAVID BOWIE" at the bottom, and un-censoring the cowboy's speech bubble.
- The 1971 British release featured a photograph of Bowie lounging in a satin dress, surrounded by playing cards scattered on the floor. The original plan was for the American cover to be the one used on all releases, as part of a gatefold that would include the dress photo as the inner illustration, but conflicts with Mercury Records execs forced a change of plans; the British cover would eventually be reinstated as the "canonical" one once Bowie regained the rights to his back-catalog in 1988.
- The 1972 German release used an elaborate round paper cover featuring an illustration of Bowie as a winged hand beast flicking away the Earth; this cover folded over the record's inner sleeve.
- The 1972 international reissue by RCA Records used a trend cover, featuring a black-and-white photo of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust on both the front and back. This cover would be reused on all RCA issues of the album, as was also the case with Space Oddity.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: "All the Madmen" is about Bowie's schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns, who was then living at the Cane Hill mental institution (the building depicted on the cartoon cover).
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: Not the titular characters of "The Supermen"; these omnipotent immortals (a la H. P. Lovecraft's Elder Gods) lead "tragic endless lives", consider themselves "chained to life", and would do anything for "a chance to die/To turn to mold". When one of them finally dies at the end of the song, it's definitely an Esoteric Happy Ending.
Forget all I've said, please bear me no ill, Oh by jingo
After all, after all..."