The Man Who Sold The World
David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, piano
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums
Ralph Mace: Moog synthesizer
Written for David Bowie’s friend Marc Bolan, ‘Black Country Rock’ was the third song on Bowie’s third album The Man Who Sold The World.
The two guys I was working with, drummer Woody Woodmansey and guitarist Mick Ronson, are semi-pro musicians from the North. They had a lot of trouble with my stuff ’cause they’re blues freaks, ah, and it’s all very hard and ultra-masculine stuff, so I thought I’d write one for them. And they loved it; they played their guts out on it! Tony Visconti is still producing, doing Tyrannosaurus Rex and such. ‘Black Country Rock’ was written for Marc Bolan.
In the studio
‘Black Country Rock’ was fleshed out in the studio by Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, based on Bowie’s idea for a vocal melody.
I constantly asked myself, ‘Will he or won’t he finish these songs on time?’ This, however, worked like a drug for David and most of the songs on the album, like ‘Black Country Rock’, ‘The Saviour Machine’ [sic], ‘She Shook Me Cold’ and ‘All The Madman’ were written well after we’d recorded the backing tracks. ‘Black Country Rock’, for instance, was actually its working title, which simply described the styles of music we’d used. David cleverly incorporated those words into the song.
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy
With drummer Woody Woodmansey, the musicians recorded a backing track for Bowie to add vocals to. The recording was augmented with Ralph Mace’s low Moog synth notes during the guitar solos, and Mick Ronson’s staccato piano chords during the final vamp.
I never knew what this song was about. I just knew that once you’d heard that riff it would stick in your head for days. Some good music had come out of the Midlands; maybe that’s what the song was about.
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The then-instrumental recording bore a resemblance to The Move, which sparked a working title which Bowie later incorporated into his lyrics. The Move hailed from England’s West Midlands, an area known as the Black Country due to its key role in the Industrial Revolution, with coal mines, iron foundries, brickworks, steel mills and glass factories.
We jammed on this one over and over until it had a form. We didn’t know how to describe it. It was funky, it had twang and it rocked! We dubbed it ‘Black Country Rock’. The lyrics came later and the description became the subject of the song. This was so much fun to play. I love David’s nod to Marc Bolan singing the last chorus.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
‘Black Country Rock’ is one of Bowie’s simplest lyrics, consisting merely of four identical two-line verses, and three choruses. The vocals were recorded during the final album sessions, and during the recording Bowie mimicked Tyrannosaurus Rex frontman Marc Bolan.
David did a great Marc Bolan impersonation. He did it a couple of times on the Space Oddity album. He did it a little bit on ‘Unwashed And Slightly Dazed’, where he does that warble. For Man Who Sold The World, on ‘Black Country Rock’ he originally did the entire song as Marc Bolan and the playback was so funny, it was a perfect impression, but he didn’t want to use it. They adored each other but their rivalry was very strong, and Marc was less kind towards David than David was towards him.
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Bowie and Bolan had an on-off friendship and sometime rivalry, often sharing concert bills. In January 1970, prior to the album sessions, Bolan played guitar on the first recording of ‘The Prettiest Star’, which was released as a single but failed to chart. The atmosphere during the session was reportedly tense, due to Bolan’s jealousy at the success of ‘Space Oddity’.
For ‘Black Country Rock’, Tony Visconti treated Bowie’s vocals with EQ to make them sound thinner, to enhance the Bolan-like effect.
David spontaneously did a Bolan vocal impression because he ran out of lyrics. He did it as a joke, but we all thought it was cool, so it stayed. In fact, we re-recorded it to get it right, and I thinned out David’s voice with equalisation to get it to sound more like Bolan’s.
Record Collector, 1971
The recording contained more vocals than appeared in the final album mix. 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 ‘Black Country Rock’ contained extended Bolan-style vocals.
Not everyone was impressed with Bowie’s vocal affectations, however.
Mick and I were getting a bit disillusioned [after the album’s release], and Bowie had pissed us off a bit when he sang ‘Black Country Rock’. That’s a great song, but for some reason he felt he had to sing it like a caricature of Marc Bolan. We weren’t fans of Bolan’s ‘oh-ow-oww’ singing voice, so when he started singing it like that, Mick and I said to each other, ‘Fucking hell. I can’t go out on stage if he’s going to sing like that!’ Even though it was just one song, it really grated with us for some reason.
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On 15 January 1971, three months before the album’s release, Mercury Records released Bowie’s standalone single ‘Holy Holy’. The single, Mercury 6052 049, had ‘Black Country Rock’ on the b-side.
In June 1973, when Bowie had achieved world fame, RCA belatedly released ‘Life On Mars?’ as a single. Although most countries’ editions had ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ on the b-side, in Portugal it was backed with ‘Black Country Rock’.