Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

David Bowie—
The Man Who Sold The World


Released 1970 on Mercury
The Seth Man, March 2002ce
David Bowie’s third album, “The Man Who Sold The World” is (even for Bowie) one surreal fucking record.

The third and last of Bowie’s albums prior to his re-launch on RCA Records, flanked by “Man Of Words, Man Of Music” (re-issued as “Space Oddity”) and the hit-the-ground-glamming-ness of “Hunky Dory”, “The Man Who Sold The World” reflected major upheavals in Bowie’s artistic direction. Ace guitarist Mick (“HE was The Nazz”) Ronson was allowed all the space he required to give Bowie’s music an angle far heavier and electric than previous while Bowie himself had already grown his former Hendrix/Barrett perm out to an outrageous length which enabled him to cut a remarkably unisexual figure on the notorious original cover portrait as a courtesan in waiting, reclining on a chaise lounge in some turn of the (which?) century artiste’s salon resplendent in an ankle-length dress and stack heeled boots. Proportionately as disturbing was the manner in which the almost complete Spiders From Mars lineup of Mick Ronson (guitar), Mick Woodmansey (drums), producer Tony Visconti (bass) and mysterious Moog operator Ralph Mace accompany Bowie’s vocals, guitar (and occasional stylophone) blow up the numbers beyond that of a mere mortal group. They rock out like a band who lived, breathed and shat rock’n’roll morning ‘til night and then set the alarm at 3:00am to wake up and get some more in before sunrise.

Much has been written over the years about the reoccurring themes of alienation in Bowie’s lyrics. And although I STILL can’t recite “The Bewlay Brothers” verbatim, I can state that the lyrics on “The Man Who Sold The World” are about as oblique and obtuse and harrowingly honed to issue forth only the most open-ended meanings possible while never veering too far into outright obscurity. And although “Running Gun Blues” and “She Shook Me Cold” hold more traditionally based themes, all the remaining lyrics near-exclusively speak more as coded non sequiturs yielding trace elements of Dylan, Barrett, Nietzsche and Burroughs. But from this oppressive weight of influences emerge a bed of bleak yet sparkling diamonds of post-psychedelic, detached lyrics of searching -- a quality that permeates “The Man Who Sold The World” in its entirety. The programming of tracks is so perfectly laid out it feels like a weirdly unspoken concept album as they combine to suggest a narrative more felt than described as clusters of small yet crucial details and the boldest of strokes continuously drive home a suggested timeline that tracks the progress of an unnamed character’s soul odyssey through psychological set pieces constantly heading towards a final transformation.

The epic “Width Of A Circle” opens with a Hare Krishna chant melody played on twin, backward-echoed guitar riffing as acoustic strings strum in the background. But when Ronno kicks in with an electric guitar sound whose finesse and attack are perfectly matched, it’s a Falling Rock Zone with no warning or shelter and sheer sonic meltdown. Bracing yourself for another onslaught will do you no good as Ronson continually throws in accents that are perfectly timed, executed and wind up colouring everything in an unyielding tone force: commanding clusters of arpeggios to multiply at will neatly into the rhythm without losing the thread, ever. But the rest of the band aren’t slouches, either: Woodmansey is a drummer with an insanely focused sense of flow with rapid, even pacing while Tony Visconti’s King Kong bass playing is protected in the mix by his own hand to roam the landscape freely with giant steps. The track winds down to a waterfall of two backward-echoed acoustic guitars that soon part to reveal another mammoth, near-Iommi riff as a brief echoed tympani roll and chorale almost glimpse behind the curtains of “In The Court Of The Crimson King,” but with Peter Hammill operatically wailing his plight, instead. Ronson returns with his Sab riffing after this song within a song concludes and all soon crumbles to silence.

“All The Madmen” begins with a blind search through the wet countryside for something dearly lost and nearly won until it’s clear from the tapping of cymbals and creepazoid Moog circus hymnal that all is not right. Ronson busts down the door flat with one of the best examples of his shocking buzzsaw/distorto din, mutating it effortlessly into a stinging, echoing descent at once happy and sad. The tempo increases in speed, shored up by Ronno’s aggro rhythm, stylish soloing and Woodmansey’s impeccably quick, precise and HARD drum fills as Bowie quietly goes mad in the corner when for no reason WHATSOEVER an indiscreet and glacial Moog synthesizer line zaps right in outta nowhere, stereo pans from left to right just before the hand-clapping fake French sing-along. And it’s all accented by Ronson’s descending and enflamrf guitar coda. “Black Country Rock” is the ‘lightest’ moment of the album, an oasis from all the sturm und drang featuring Visconti’s hilarious speed bump pump bass accenting that dwarfs even Wyman’s rave-up at the end of “19th Nervous Breakdown.” Ronson drives it all down the middle as Bowie cheekily throws in some adenoidal Bolan larynx-twittering at the end for good measure. “After All” is an ominous though poignant warning with rebounding bass volleys resounding over slight cymbal use and staccato drums that accent like the slamming of asylum gates behind a damp and introspective late night. A phased Moog melody tromps by in a chilling pantomime of past days and happier times.

Side two begins with the near-caricature Vietnam-as-Broadway non-extravaganza, “Running Gun Blues.” Though its “Laughing Gnome”-quality lyrics do nothing to undermine Ronno’s ricocheting riffing machine as Woodmansey clatters away in a flurry of Mitch Mitchell fills as a backdrop of Moog lunar landings masquerading as explosions fill in the distance. “Saviour Machine” opens with Ronno’s effortless Quicksilver expositions, soon underlined by low synthesizer mimicries and Bowie’s utterly damaged nightmare of a man-made socio-political apparatus-turned-messiah consumed by conscience and freaked out by responsibility. “She Shook Me Cold” sees Visconti’s bass playing totally roaming like a lobotomized Jack Bruce as Ronno just blitzes out like Pagey during his solo spot on “Heartbreaker” as Woodmansey is content to just flail and hit everything that moves. The instrumental bridge is heavy as fuck: especially when the bass cuts out to reveal Ronson’s riffing going neck and neck with the drums. But even when the bass rumbles back in with a curtain of bass smother Ronson’s playing is unimpaired and shamelessly heavy as this virgin cherry buster sees Little Bowie’s head explode over and over. “The Man Who Sold The World” sees Ronson’s Polaris guitar riff guiding the near samba collection of maracas and fish-bellies’n’Moog to a place where one handshake makes an unthinkable deal all too real. “The Supermen” is the stunning finale where all is revealed with a chorale of Götterdämmerung and a clatter of drums performing a drama perched on the edge of The Abyss, pushed ever closer by Ronson’s thick yet reserved buzzsawing guitar until finally, all too soon, this particular Twilight of the Gods drops down and off into an echo of night...and infinity.


Note:
“The Man Who Sold The World” would wind up being released in four different sleeves. The original American Mercury release with the notorious “drag” cover was immediately replaced with a quizzical colour cartoon of a grumbling vigilante with sheathed rifle passing by a town square, its tower clocks shot out. But the West German version on Mercury took the cake: released in a circular die-cut, the cover depicts an illustration of a winged Bowie-headed creature with a posterior hand poised to flick the tiny planet earth out of its orbit, its universe and into the furthest reaches of oblivion. RCA re-released it in 1972 with the far more conservative update in a black and white ‘Ziggy’ photo sleeve.