Lyrical themes

The Man Who Sold The World introduced a darker side to David Bowie’s songwriting. With his mod and hippie days firmly behind him, he turned to a set of new influences – chief among them the likes of the Velvet Underground and Jacques Brel.

The album’s themes included paranoia, schizophrenia, hallucination, fantasy, lust, God and the devil. Bowie had evidently been reading Nietzsche, whose works The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra appeared to inform the songs ‘All The Madmen’ and ‘The Supermen’ respectively.

On at least three songs – ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘All The Madmen’ and the title track – Bowie sang of his personality breaking apart and encountering himself. His preoccupation with delusion and mental illness was, in part, a reaction to his elder half-brother Terry Burns’s deteriorating mental state. Burns, who took his own life in 1985, had been a formative influence on Bowie, introducing him to new music, books and philosophical beliefs.

Burns suffered his first psychotic episode in 1967, and by the time of the album’s recording was spending much of his time in a local asylum, Cane Hill. He visited Bowie often at weekends at Haddon Hall, and helped inspire several tracks on The Man Who Sold The World, along with later songs including ‘Five Years’, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, and ‘Jump They Say’.

I saw so little of him and I think I unconsciously exaggerated his importance. I invented this hero-worship to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups.
David Bowie, 1993

In the studio

David Bowie, Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey began recording The Man Who Sold The World on 17 April 1970, and the album was completed on 22 May. The sessions, which were fitted around Bowie’s live itinerary, were far from plain sailing. Woodmansey cut his finger on a knife shortly after the sessions began, leaving him with three stitches and unable to play for two weeks.

As with the [1969] David Bowie album, I was more involved with making the music than working the console. I did mix the album, however. It was recorded, probably, in equal parts in both Trident and Advision Studios. Ken Scott is the only credited engineer, although I am almost certain it was Eddie Offord who worked with us at Advision. Both studios had built their own prioritised consoles, Trident had their own brand designed by Malcolm Toft and Advision also built their own desk too, and I believe that Gerald Chevin, a fine engineer in his own right, had something to do with that. It is obvious that a lot of close mic’ing was used as there is hardly any room ambience in the mixes.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969–1973) book

The band had a budget for six weeks in the studio. The sessions began at Advision Studios in Gosfield Street, near Oxford Circus in central London, and later moved to the more familiar Trident Studios before returning to Advision towards the end.

For The Man Who Sold The World, it was the first time for us in a big, proper London studio. Before that we’d try to get all of our favourite licks in and David had to write above that, so there was not a lot of planning. It was done on the spot. Tony is a hands-on producer in that he played an instrument, so there’d be a lot of, ‘You play this, then I’ll play that.’
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust, Ken Scott

Ronson and Visconti enlisted Ralph Mace to play Moog synth on several songs on the album, but otherwise it was wholly performed by the core musicians. Unlikely the albums released either side – David Bowie (1969) and Hunky Dory – it contained no additional session musicians or elaborate orchestral arrangements.

Mick came with his 100 watt Marshall stack with three knobs: volume, treble and bass, turned up to 10. Mick hardly touched those knobs. If he wanted to play quieter he just turned down the volume on his black Les Paul. His one effect was a wah-wah that he often used in stationary positions as a unique tonal filter. I acquired a 200 WEM bass stack with two 18″ speakers and I soon became accustomed to playing at 10 (you realise that 11 is fiction, right?). David played his acoustic 12-string but often played my Fender Strat in rehearsals (which I traded for my Jazzmaster with Tommy Evans of Badfinger). Woody had quite a large kit and he played at 10 too. This was very exciting. Our last album was based on folk rock and within a year we were playing heavy metal, almost.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969–1973) book

According to Visconti, Bowie was largely unmotivated. He was reportedly preoccupied with his new marriage, and was dealing with the end of his management partnership with Kenneth Pitt. It was during this period he began working with new manager Tony Defries, with whom he remained until 1975.

The Man Who Sold The World is an interesting album because it didn’t have a commercial attitude behind it. We played whatever we were inspired to play, as opposed to someone telling us that a song was going to be a single so it needed to be three and a half minutes long. That wasn’t part of the game on this album, so I really expressed myself.

It was our Sgt Pepper, if you like, at least in progressive rock terms. I’m making that comparison because on these songs we were able to open up and do whatever we felt was right. The three of us let it all out on our instruments, and then came back together and clicked on certain sections. We had a Moog synth as well, played by the Bowies’ friend Ralph Mace, which was about the size of a room with what looked like a thousand leads!

This was a big album, and pretty bizarre in some ways, but we all trusted Tony [Visconti] to know what he was doing so we could step up and let rip if we wanted to. That’s a great feeling to have when you’re recording – a sense of security because the producer knows what he’s up to. If it ever got too weird or too far from the point, Tony would say something. He’d occasionally give me some instructions about the drums, but he was going by the feel of it because he was also new to this kind of music. If he heard something he liked, he’d ask us to repeat it.

So much of The Man Who Sold The World was guided by feel. When I look back at it I can see that Bowie was experimenting with a new sound. For me, this album was Bowie jumping into rock ’n’ roll with both feet.

It’s incredible that he could still write such great songs among all the confusion. In some ways the whole year of 1970 was a mess. Our band was new, and firing on all cylinders, but none of us – least of all Bowie – knew what direction was right for us. We were having fun, but fun wasn’t enough.

Woody Woodmansey
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie
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