Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: 18 April – 22 May 1970
Producer: Tony Visconti
Engineers: Ken Scott, Gerald Chevin, Eddie Offord
Released: 8 April 1971 (UK); 4 November 1970 (US)
The Man Who Sold The World
David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar, Stylophone
Mick Ronson: 12-string acoustic guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Ralph Mace: Moog synthesizer
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums, timpani
Closing song the first half of David Bowie’s third album The Man Who Sold The World, ‘After All’ provided a moment of sombre reflection in a set of otherwise heavy rock songs.
Delivered sotto voce in one of Bowie’s most restrained vocal performances, ‘After All’ is a song of innocence and experience. Bowie appears to be rejecting the 1960s hippy dream, rejecting its idealism and contrived innocence that made its adherents “just taller children, that’s all”.
Bowie had sung about childhood on earlier recordings such as ‘There Is A Happy Land’, ‘Come And Buy My Toys’, and ‘When I’m Five’, not shying away from exploring the darker side of youth. In ‘After All’ he sings of the disappointment brought by adult influence: “Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown/So hold on to nothing, and he won’t let you down…”
‘After All’ was one of the first examples of Bowie’s odd take on life. The idea behind the song was that we all grow old, but that we still remain children at heart. For a gentle song like this one, my drums had to be subtle; it was mainly a hi-hat, just keeping it together, and occasionally a bit of ride cymbal and floor toms.
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie, 1971
There are additional echoes of Bowie’s Buddhist beliefs in the line “Live your rebirth and do what you will”. However, the prevailing message is closer to Aleister Crowley’s belief system Thelema, a central tenet of which was “‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the Law”. Bowie was increasingly interested in Crowley and the occult during this time, and went so far as to namecheck him on 1971’s ‘Quicksand’.
Another key influence on Bowie’s writing was Friedrich Nietzsche, most notably on ‘The Supermen’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, and again on ‘Quicksand’. Here he touches upon Nietzschian Übermensch philosophy, looking beyond the limits of humanity in the line “Man is an obstacle, sad as the clown”.
‘After All’ also stands as a musical manifesto of sorts – Bowie anticipates the forthcoming musical age with the words “We’re painting our faces and dressing in thoughts from the skies”, and the payoff line “The thought just occurred that we’re nobody’s children at all” could have been an oblique reference to Marc Bolan’s previous band, the proto-glam rockers John’s Children.
The song’s central refrain, ‘Oh by jingo’, has roots as far back as the 17th century. ‘By Jingo’ was a substitute for ‘By Jesus’, or may alternatively have referred to St Gengulphus of Burgundy, a nobleman murdered by his wife’s lover in 760 AD.
‘After All’ was the only track on The Man Who Sold The World not to be remixed for the Metrobolist release in 2020. According to the press release: “The 2020 re-release of the album under its Metrobolist moniker has been remixed by original producer Tony Visconti, with the exception of the track ‘After All’ which Tony considered perfect as is, and is featured in its 2015 remaster incarnation.”
This, however, may not have been entirely accurate. In a Q&A with fans published in August 2020, Visconti spoke about the remix project, saying: “Some of the masters are missing, so it won’t be a complete album in the sense of modern remixing… I’m only able to remix about 60% of the album.”
In the studio
During The Man Who Sold The World’s gestation, Bowie briefly toyed with the idea of separating the songs into electric and acoustic halves, similarly to Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. Although the plan was swiftly abandoned, ‘After All’ would have been the most obvious contender for the acoustic side.
So beautiful. This would’ve been a stand alone song if David was performing solo in an Arts Lab, but we did our best to make it very much part of this album with a very trippy interpretation. I always saw the theme as a plea for peace, a hand held out to the older generation that didn’t quite understand or approve of what we youngsters were on about. It’s a song of gentle persuasion and all the sonic beauty is very seductive.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
Bowie had used varispeed techniques in the past to alter the sound of his voice, most notably on his 1967 novelty song ‘The Laughing Gnome’. He deployed the method once again on ‘After All’, on the ‘Oh, by jingo’ refrain, and would revive it again on the future recordings ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ and ‘See Emily Play’.
Mick’s beautiful mandolin part played on 12-string really sweetens it up. Woody plays delicate bell cymbal work throughout. I’m playing four different basses including my bowed Ampeg Baby Bass on the second verse. The Stylophone makes its return on this track, and those back up vocals singing ‘Oh by jingo’ were recorded at various speeds to create children’s voices and very grown up voices. The circus instrumental section featuring the drunken trombone, played on Moog by Ralph Mace, could be from a French avant garde film by Cocteau.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
The song also included the Stylophone – previously used on ‘Space Oddity’ – and a Moog synthesizer. The Moog had been popularised by Wendy Carlos on her 1968 album Switched-On Bach, and was used by bands including the Beatles, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones.
‘After All’ was one of the first times anyone in rock ever used a Moog synthesizer. We got a classical pianist to play it for us and I was kind of imitating the Wendy Carlos Switched-On Bach record. The synthesizer was used to play classical music, but we used it in a rock context with classical music overtones. That album was so groundbreaking.