The title

David Bowie initially chose to call the album Metrobolist, possibly a pun on the Fritz Lang’s landmark sci-fi film Metropolis, but also apparently a play on the words ‘my troubledest’.

The 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.

DB and myself were involved in the Beckenham Arts Lab in 1969 – he had more or less left it, but the sleeve came out of that friendship. The relationship for a couple of years was quite close and intense in some ways. I was also at school with him but was a year older, which when you’re 15 is quite a lot. I heard the tapes of the album in 42 Southend Road [Haddon Hall], and DB asked me if I would do some designs for the sleeve.

I was staggered by the content of the tapes – it was very different to what he’d been playing at the Arts Lab… It was acoustic guitars, and so that was what was so exciting about The Man Who Sold The World – it was a full rock band.

I said to DB, ‘These are very troubled songs,’ and he said, in a cod Yorkshire accent, ‘Aye, it’s me troubled-est.’ And I said, ‘And that’s going to be your title.’ That was DB – very serious, and also very, very funny. And that, spelled ‘Metrobolist’, was going to be the title.

Mike Weller
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The artwork

The Man Who Sold The World 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 take a look at 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.

I heard the tapes in his living room, with David present throughout the whole session. He was totally detached. It was almost as if he had already moved off from those recordings. They were slightly different to the finished album – I think it must have been 50 to 55 minutes of music that we listened to. These were the tapes that were then going to be sent on to Mercury…

The character [on the cover] was taken from a photo of John Wayne, which seemed to me to be the image that emerged from the album. The colours were also very important, the blues and the greens – these were what came to me while listening to the tapes: “Mansions cold and grey…”

I was a commercial artist and the Beckenham Arts Lab turned me into something else: this was subverting everything I had done for industry. I produced a gouache colour presentation, which was intended for DB to take to the record company for sale. I’d done a lot of posters for the Arts Lab, and DB liked my ‘Exploding Head’ design. They were a whole series of men and women. They began with a full face, but by the end of the strip of maybe 15 panels they would have exploded into fragments. On the sleeve, the character has an exploding hat – DB enjoyed the idea that at least one aspect of the figure was exploding. As soon as I got back I prepared the gouache work. It took less than a week, two days. I knew exactly what it was that I was going to do. Angie was hugely influential on David’s decisions, she was very interested in the finished product. But by that time DB had already had a lot of photography done at Haddon Hall.

Mike Weller
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

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 artist and poet 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.

I had a friend, Harold Ward at the Beckenham Theatre Centre, who was very interested in the idea of the marriage of two guys – but one of them would be wearing a wedding dress. I had done a drawing of this – and I’m not saying that he got the idea of wearing a dress on the cover from any drawing, but it was certainly part of the atmosphere at the time, because I took so many drawings over there…

The lettering for ‘Metrobolist’ was completely hand-lettered and gothic, not based on any font. The sleeves were printed and my copy of the record is the one DB gave me. The Keith MacMillan ‘man dress’ pictures had already been taken and David wanted a gatefold sleeve with some of those images. So the album would have the ‘Metrobolist’ cover, a gatefold sleeve and the back would carry the lyrics. The real problem occurred over payment. Tony Defries was going to organise payment, but this went on into 1971 and I got fed up. I sent an invoice to Mercury and got a payment and that was the end of the affair…

I felt bewildered by what happened. He just had a change of heart. There was never any reconciliation – but I do have rights to my work on the sleeve with a contract signed by Tony Defries and DB.

Mike Weller
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)