Now we’re almost ready to fly. The release of “The Man Who Sold The World” in April 1971 marks the start of arguably the greatest run of studio albums by anyone. From here right up until the release of “Scary Monsters” in 1980 (11 consecutive studio albums, I’m not counting “Pin Ups”) Bowie didn’t put a foot wrong.
The pieces are coming together. Bowie has found his right hand man and guitarist, Mick Ronson from Hull, who bought along drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. Tony Visconti is again producing and playing bass. It’s falling into place.
On its release the album proved quite controversial, not so much for the musical contents but for the cover image of Bowie reclining on a chaise longue at his home at Haddon Hall clad in a “Mans dress” designed by British fashion designer Michael Fish (no, not the weatherman). It’s one of 4 sleeves the album has lived in over time, alongside the US “Cartoon” cover, the hugely elaborate German foldout cover and the later RCA re-issue black and white Ziggy cover (I have 3 of the 4, although the Dress and US covers in my collection are re-issues. The German one will likely remain out of my reach unless I win the Lottery !).
Musically the 60’s hippy stylings that dominated “David Bowie (2)” are being swept away. Small remnants of them linger on “After All” but this album is more muscular and rock ’n’ roll (pointed at by “Cygnet Committee” on the previous record, lyrically if not entirely musically). It starts well with a song Bowie was still coming back to on the Earthling tour over 25 years later. “The Width Of A Circle” perfectly introduces not only the new rockier sound but one of its architects. Ladies and gentleman say a big hello to Mick Ronson. Not only had Bowie found himself a guitar player for the next few years but Ronno was also a master arranger and budding orchestrator on whom Bowie would lean heavily through this and his next three albums. It all starts with a squeal of feedback and Ronno slides into the first of many classic riffs he’d conjure up for Bowie. Very quickly it’s obvious this is a very different David Bowie album. This is a hard rock 4 piece as evidenced by Ronson’s first solo which is anything but your stock-in Blues Rock solo of the time. Lyrically, here and throughout the whole album, Bowie is singing of isolation, paranoia, mental illness, fantasy, sex, God and the devil, there are no love songs on “The Man Who Sold The World”.
Next up is “All The Madmen”, the title says it all. It’s a song about mental illness, deeply rooted in Bowie’s fears for his own and the plight of his half brother Terry who was by this time resident in Cane Hill Hospital, the institution pictured on the cartoon cover of the US release. More crushing guitars and a great riff from Ronson with Tony Visconti’s bass very high in the mix, as it is on the whole album, Ronson having told him to play like Jack Bruce.
“Black Country Rock” is another hard rocker featuring a ver accurate Marc Bolan impression toward the end. “After All” is the only real relief from the rock, an acoustic-centred song with the repeated refrain of “oh by jingo”. Another song about childhood.
Side 2 opens with “Running Gun Blues” telling of a soldier and his killing spree. “Saviour Machine” has computers controlling everything that people do and eventually exterminating humans…sound familiar ? “She Shook Me Cold” has Ronson running wild and Bowie singing about sex.
And then we come to the title song…it actually sits a little uneasily here. A friend has a theory that every Bowie album has a track on it pointing straight to the next album. “Cygnet Committee” was that song on the last album and “The Man Who Sold The World” fulfils that position here, pointing toward “Hunky Dory”. It’s one of my favourites, even more so the version Bowie and Ronson cooked up for Lulu featuring one of DB’s wonderfully asthmatic sax performances. Midge Ure also had a crack at it if I remember right. The less said about a well known unplugged cover the better.
Everything comes to a close with “The Supermen”. It draws influence from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche who Bowie was reading a lot at the start of the 70’s. A look back to a long lost race of, errrr, Supermen who brutally ruled the world, “pre-facists” as he later described them. It’s a great tune regardless of the heavy nature of the subject matter.
Toni Visconti has said that TMWSTW is one of his top 3 Bowie albums, he has great memories of making the record. This would be the last time Visconti would work with Bowie for some years, partly because he was very busy producing Marc Bolan and partly as he didn’t trust Bowie’s new manager, Tony De Fries. For Bowie things were certainly on the upswing. His next 4 albums may well be as good a quartet as anyone has ever made…
All The Madmen - https://youtu.be/KrlvgARHdzc