The arrangement

Befitting a song concerned with schizophrenia and mental illness, ‘All The Madmen’ is multi-part and musically complex. Interestingly, producer Tony Visconti later claimed that he and the other studio musicians worked out the arrangement without David Bowie, who at the time was preoccupied with his new bride Angie.

Opening with strummed 12-string guitar, ‘All The Madmen’ sounded not unlike the folk-rock stylings of Bowie’s previous album, not least with the addition of Mick Ronson and Visconti’s recorder parts. That gentle levity soon faded, however, at the one-minute mark, with the crash landing of Ronson’s electric guitar riffs and Woody Woodmansey’s drums.

On ‘All The Madmen’, Tony had the idea of having a bolero section, where he encouraged me to play on the bell of the ride cymbal, and make a little tune out of the cymbals.
Woody Woodmansey
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie, 1971

Intriguingly, Visconti later told the BBC that ‘All The Madmen’ was recorded with the working title ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.

It’s hard to say how much you do when you write a song with someone else, and even though we weren’t credited as writers, Mick and I were getting the chord changes together. ‘Width Of A Circle’ was the only track that was written, and that was only the first part of the song that was written. The second part, where it goes into a boogie, was written in the studio, and Mick and I definitely wrote all that, and David just threw all his words and melody on top. ‘All The Madmen’, for instance, originally had a working title of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Later, we just laid down the chords, the arrangements, the guitar solos, the synthesisers, the recorders, and David would be out in the lobby of Advision, holding hands with Angie.
Tony Visconti, 1982
The Record Producers, John Tobler and Stuart Grundy

Midway through, Mick Ronson performs a multitracked guitar solo, before ‘All The Madmen’ breaks down with a brief three-voice spoken section which recalls the aural experimentation of his first album:

Where can the horizon lie
When a nation hides
Its organic minds
In a cellar, dark and grim
They must be very dim

The interlude over, ‘All The Madmen’ recovers its heavy rock status, and switches to a frenzied shuffle beat. ‘The Width Of A Circle’ may have been the album’s true epic, but Bowie and his band were adept at creating complex arrangements on a smaller scale too.

A dramatic intro with Arabic/Andalusian semi-tone chords played by David. I volume-knobbed high bass string notes to add mystery. Woody does brilliant bell cymbal work then Mick and I play recorder parts channeling Bartók on instruments not really made to be playing such music. This is one of my favourite tracks because it just grows and grows. It is in a bolero 6/8 time; the instrumental is played with a jazz bolero feeling, something I imported from the New York jazz scene and showed to Woody and Mick. Then there is the eerie short breakdown soliloquy for three voices. The lovely Moog synthesizer parts were written by Mick Ronson and played by keyboard virtuoso Ralph Mace, the head of the classical music department at Philips Records. Suddenly the band drops back in and the Bartók recorders reappear with David singing another verse. After that we tear into the jazz bolero and rock very hard. The song’s themes are recapitulated with more Moog work by Ralph Mace, it’s all quite frenzied and mad.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

‘All The Madmen’ ends with the repeated mantra “Zane, zane, zane, ouvre le chien” – ‘open the dog’ in French. The chanted ending was a songwriting trick he would reuse several times in his career, notably on ‘Starman’ and ‘Time’.

Bowie never explained the oblique Dadaist phrase, which he revived in 1993 on the song ‘Buddha Of Suburbia’.

He evidently retained a liking for the words, for in 1995 it was part of the set design on his Outside Tour, written in lights above the stage. The phrase, grammatically corrected to Ouvrez Le Chien, was used in 2020 for a live album recorded during the tour.

Finally the round and round ending comes with various vocal parts coming in as counter melodies plus the immortal words, ‘Zane, Zane, Zane, ouvre le chien’, which means ‘Zane, open the dog’ in English. What does that mean? I’ll leave it to your imagination, although it has been analysed many times. This track is sensational in every way, a five minute and 40 second symphonette.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

In the studio

‘All The Madmen’ was one of the first of the songs on The Man Who Sold The World to be recorded.

The album sessions began at Advision Studios in London on 17 April 1970. Bowie and his band spent four hours working on his new batch of songs, which included ‘All The Madmen’.

In May 1970 a reference tape was made, containing early mixes of ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘After All’, ‘All The Madmen’, ‘Black Country Rock’, and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. This mix of ‘All The Madmen’ omitted the ‘Laughing Gnome’-like “He followed me home Mum. Can I keep him?” in the spoken section.

The release

The song was first released on The Man Who Sold The World. The album was issued in the USA on 4 November 1970, and on 10 April 1971 in the UK.

On 1 December 1970 a promotional single was issued in the US, containing ‘All The Madmen’ on both sides. This was an edit lasting 3:14, with the first chorus and middle eight removed. This ‘Mono Single Edit’ was released in 2015 on the Re:Call 1 compilation, part of the Five Years (1969-1973) box set.

The single was never given a full release, although copies with ‘Janine’ on the b-side were pressed by Mercury.

Live recordings

In early 1971 David Bowie took his first trip to the USA, where he undertook a promotional tour and networking with a variety of key figures in the American music industry.

On 14 February he was in Los Angeles, and was invited to perform with the band Christopher Milk at A&M Studios on Hollywood’s La Brea.

Bowie declined to take part in most of the jam, but did join the group for a version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’.

Afterwards Bowie attended a party at the home of LA attorney Paul Feigen. Bowie took his guitar and sat cross-legged on a waterbed, where he performed versions of ‘All The Madmen’, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Amsterdam’, and ‘Hang On To Yourself’.

The performance was recorded by legendary nightclub owner and publicist Rodney Bingenheimer, and played on his radio show in the 1990s. Part of the recording was also used in a 2004 documentary about Bingenheimer, Mayor of the Sunset Strip.

Bowie did not perform ‘All The Madmen’ live in the 1970s, but it was dusted down with a new arrangement in 1987 for the Glass Spider Tour.

A recording from the tour was released in 2007, on the concert film Glass Spider and its accompanying album of the same name. The audio was reissued in October 2018 as Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87), in the Loving the Alien (1983–1988) box set.

Previous song: ‘The Width Of A Circle’
Next song: ‘Black Country Rock’