In the studio (continued)
David Bowie reportedly slept a lot during the album sessions, rising only in late afternoon. Visconti described him as taking “an awful lot of tincture of cannabis” at the time. In 1976 – at the peak of his cocaine addiction – the singer claimed that the album emerged at a peak of excess.
The Man Who Sold The World is actually the most drug-oriented album I’ve made. That was when I was the most fucked up. Young Americans probably is a close second, but that is from my current drug period. The Man was when I was holding on to some kind of flag for hashish. As soon as I stopped using that drug, I realized it dampened my imagination. End of slow drugs.
Playboy, September 1976
Bowie’s apparent apathy towards the album seemed out of character. He was reportedly enthusiastic about his powerful new band, which had a harder rock sound than anything he’d fronted before, and his songwriting was becoming more assured by the month, but he delegated the production, arrangement and mixing almost entirely to the band.
This man would just not get out of bed and write a song… We just laid down the chords, the arrangement, the guitar solos, the synthesizers, and David would be out in the lobby of Advision holding hands with Angie and going coochie-coochie-coo…
I was totally infuriated with him that I had to work so close to the deadline and of course we had hardly any time left to mix that album. David wasn’t around for most of the mixes, either. He came up with a lot of clever bits, like the little talking section in the middle of ‘All The Madmen’, but really the album was me and Mick Ronson. David just wasn’t there.
The Record Producers, BBC, 1982
Bowie later disputed this perception. During a BowieNet webchat in December 1998 he said: “I really did object to the impression given in some articles that I did not write the songs on man who sold… you only have to check out the chord changes. NO ONE writes chord changes like that”.
Regardless, the album saw a new way of working for Bowie, in which he built up a series of backing tracks, often with little idea of how they might end up sounding, before writing lyrics and recording his vocals late in the production process. It was a method he retained for much of the rest of his life.
This was the first of many albums for which David did not have finished lyrics or even a song title. The emphasis was more on sound and attitude this time. Most songs had working titles, like ‘Running Gun Blues’ was called ‘Cyclops’. We were OK with this as a band, but as a producer I was getting some vocals recorded only at the last possible minute. This was often minutes before the final mix, a more than slightly tense situation.
Five Years book
Despite the tensions in the studio, Visconti remained proud of the album. After its release, however, he and Bowie stopped working for several years, until their reunion in 1974 for the Diamond Dogs album.
Making this album was such a treat for all of us. We felt we were going to change the world with this music. It is one of David Bowie’s finest hours as a songwriter. It is a complicated piece of music with some styles he rarely returned to. Hunky Dory was a singer/songwriter album, more personal, and after that glam rock happened and Bowie’s take on that was by far the best. The Man Who Sold The World is dark and deep. If we had the finance to tour this, it could have been a different course for David. Sadly, the band broke up after the album was made. I went on to work with T.Rex, Mick and Woody went back to Hull and didn’t return to David’s camp until the making of Hunky Dory and that led to the amazing Ziggy Stardust period.
Five Years book
Visconti split with Bowie to focus on his work with Marc Bolan and Tyrannosaurus Rex (later T.Rex). The main cause of their rift was Visconti’s distrust of Tony Defries as Bowie’s manager. After the completion of The Man Who Sold The World, Defries asked Bowie to break up Hype, and Ronson and Woodmansey temporarily returned to Hull.
Defries also offered to take charge of Visconti’s career, but the American producer eyed him with suspicion.
I wasn’t so enamoured with the idea and didn’t like his style so I was not easily seduced. I needed proof that he could do what he’d say and set him a task to recover an arranger’s fee long overdue for me. He never did, but sent me an invoice after I grew tired of waiting for action and got it on my own. I told this story to David and said I was very wary of throwing my lot in with his if Defries was at the helm. History proves that Defries was extremely effective for Bowie’s career, but it was something David regretted when the financial structure in the MainMan camp came under scrutiny. Every major and minor expense was charged to David whereas Defries had assumed no liabilities. But before that was to happen, on the corner of Argyll Street and Regent’s Street, outside the office of Tony Defries and his partner Lawrence Myers, David and I had a parting of the ways. As I turned to walk away from David, the look on his face just seemed to say ‘Why, oh why?’ I felt terrible, but Marc was about to become almost a full time job for the next two years of my life.
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy