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. Indeed, TMWSTW introduced the first version of the band that eventually became known as The Spiders From Marsnote . Also, Bowie had recently married his first wife Angela, and reportedly spent a lot of time with her during the writing and rehearsal sessions. 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. Bowie's next release, Hunky Dory, may have been Lighter and Softer musically (if not lyrically), but it was the combination of apocalyptic themes and intense sounds on this album that pointed the way forward to Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs. To quote Carr & Murray again: "This is where the story really starts."
Oh, and Nirvana did a Cover Version of the Title Track on MTV Unplugged in New York, leading some younger fans to falsely assume that they were the ones who wrote it. Kurt Cobain also listed The Man Who Sold the World on no. 45 in his personal list of 50 favourite music albums.
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. Guests include Heaven 17 vocalist Glenn Gregory and Spandau Ballet saxophonist Steve Norman. Bowie gave the tour his blessing.
- "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 run, I can fly, I can 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 demented 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.
- British Accents: As usual, Bowie's native accent is frequently evident. However, things really get interesting on "The Supermen", where he babbles about "mountain magic", "powers weird by mystics taught" and "nightmare dreams no mortal mind could hold" in a bizarre Cockney accent that makes the whole affair even stranger.
- 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 "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.
- Doppelgänger: This is one interpretation of the Title Track.
- Dramatic Timpani: Heard briefly at the end of "The Width of a Circle" and the intro to "The Supermen".
- Early Installment Weirdness: To the Heavy Metal genre as a whole. Its sound is far tamer than most modern entries in the 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. Still, for 1970 it was heady stuff.
- 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 (see Executive Meddling on the Trivia page for more details) 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: The phrase "Zane, zane, zane" travels from the right speaker to the left. The backing vocals near the end of "The Width of a Circle" ("Turn around, go back!") also use stereo panning.
- Heavy Metal: One of the earliest examples, releasing in 1970.
- 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". 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 (maybe even 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 Width of a Circle".
- The Noun Who Verbed: The album and its Title Track.
- 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".
- Record Producer: Tony Visconti produces an entire Bowie album for the first time. He also doubles on bass and occasionally plays piano and recorder.
- Sad Clown: Invoked in "After All".
- The title is a reference to Robert A. Heinlein's novella The Man Who Sold the Moon.
- 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"
- Something Blues: "Running Gun Blues".
- 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.
- Spoken Word in Music: "All the Madmen" has a spoken interlude.
- Surprisingly Gentle Song: "After All", which you could mistake for a lullaby if you ignored the lyrics.
- Titled After the Song:
- A Bloodborne/DC Universe crossover fanfic is named after this album.
- So is a track on the second Person of Interest soundtrack CD.
- A variation: In 2007, Doctor Who Magazine published a comic strip story called "The Woman Who Sold the World".
- Similar to the above, the Torchwood novel The Men Who Sold the World.
- 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".
- Übermensch: A theme that shows up "After All" ("Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown") and "The Supermen".
- 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).
- The Vietnam War: The then-current setting of "Running Gun Blues", as evidenced by the Villain Protagonist's use of the racial slur "gooks".
- Villain Song: "Running Gun Blues".
- The West Midlands: Alluded to in the title of "Black Country Rock".
- 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..."