The artwork

Bowie initially chose to call the album Metrobolist, seemingly a pun on the Fritz Lang’s landmark sci-fi film Metropolis. This early title was listed on the tapes when the final mixes were delivered to Mercury, suggesting it was changed at a late stage to The Man Who Sold The World.

The album was released in the US in 1970, and initially sported a cartoon cover drawn by Bowie’s friend Michael J Weller. The artist suggested a painting of Cane Hill Hospital, not knowing that Terry Burns was treated there. In the foreground of the picture was a cowboy figure clutching a rifle – a reference to ‘Running Gun Blues’. His fragmenting hat further suggested the themes of madness which run through the album.

The drawing initially had a speech bubble containing the words: “Roll up your sleeves and show us your arms”. This was intended as a multi-layered joke, referencing guns, vinyl records, and intravenous drugs. This was deemed unacceptable by Mercury, and the speech bubble was left blank – a tabula rasa on which viewers might infer whatever meaning they chose.

Although Bowie pronounced himself pleased with the design, he soon had a change of heart and arranged for a photoshoot with Keith MacMillan at Haddon Hall. For this Bowie wore a blue-and-white satin dress purchased from the Mr Fish boutique, with knee-high black boots and long flowing hair, and was shot by MacMillan while reclining on a chaise longue in the house’s living room.

The photograph, rendered with a canvas-like texture, to evoke the works of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was rejected by Mercury in the US. To Bowie’s fury, the label opted instead for the cartoon cowboy artwork, amended with the album’s new title. In 1972 Bowie described Weller’s cover as “horrible”, but by 1999 had changed his mind, saying he “actually thought the cartoon cover was really cool”.

The dress cover was never used in America, and due to low sales became a rarity in the UK.

In 1972, RCA reissued The Man Who Sold The World in the US and UK with a new sleeve. This was a stark monochrome shot of Bowie, clutching a guitar and performing a high kick, in a Ziggy-era jumpsuit. This remained the album’s official sleeve until the dress cover was restored for a 1990 reissue.

On the back cover were some liner notes containing more hype than Bowie’s backing band:

Chronologically, this is the second of David Bowie’s rock and roll albums, and at the same time, it is a clear landmark indication that what was once only rock and roll is now a boundless form of musical expression, yet still rock and roll. Bowie was a pioneer in this knowledge.

The music is unmistakable vintage Bowie. From the throbbing sweeping ‘The Width Of A Circle’ to the eclectic and Bowie-ized synthesis, rock and rolling ‘Black Country Rock’, the album mirrors the intense and vulnerable sensuality of its maker.

Neither metaphor nor analogue, Bowie’s music insists on its own reality. Phantasmagoria is its reality; the preternatural its unsettling truth.

Never attitudinal, somewhat both stark and lavish (intelligent and sensual), this album, recorded at the onset of the decade, is a clear prognosis for the ’70s.

Another curiosity was a German edition with a bizarre illustration of Bowie by Witt Hamburg. This Alan Aldridge-inspired artwork depicted Bowie’s head on the wrist of a giant winged hand, suspended in the cosmos and flicking the Earth away.

The release

The Man Who Sold The World was released in the US in November 1970. Bowie was reportedly displeased that the label had changed the title from Metrobolist, and when his UK label prepared to release it in April 1971, he briefly and unsuccessfully attempted to have it retitled Holy Holy, after a recently-recorded single.

The album sold better in the US than in Bowie’s home country. Mercury’s publicity department gave it a bigger push, and the warm critical reception led to Bowie undertaking a three-week promotional tour of the USA in February 1971, his first visit there. Later that year he spoke to Penny Valentine from UK music weekly Disc and Music Echo, explaining why he thought the album had done well:

For one thing it got massive airplay, and I suppose in a way it’s more palatable than things I’ve done in the past because of its heavy backing.

That’s all credit to Tony Visconti, who produced it, it was my idea initially to get heavier – just to try another way – but he got it all together. I probably needed a heavier sound behind me, and obviously it’s worked. It’s not that I have a very strong feeling for heavy music – I don’t. In fact, I think it’s fairly primitive as a music form.

I look for sensation rather than quality, and heavy music seems to be full of musicians who have quality rather than musicians who for some reason can chill your spine. I suppose really I look for something in music that I look for in my own life.

David Bowie, 1971
Disc and Music Echo

In the UK, Melody Maker described the album as “surprisingly excellent”, while the New Musical Express called it “rather hysterical”. When the album was reissued in 1972, in the wake of Ziggy‘s success, it fared better, reaching number 24 in the UK and 105 on the US Billboard 200.

In April 1971 The Man Who Sold The World was released to complimentary reviews. Lacking a hit single, in fact no single, it failed to sell. But this has become one of my top three Bowie albums in my personal chart. It brings back fond memories of Mick Ronson goading me to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing and emulate him. If you have complaints that the bass is too high in the mix, blame Ronno. And even though Bowie threw me for a loop in his newly formed unorthodox method of song writing, his writing and performances were ultimately stunning.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy