The World Of David Bowie album cover artworkWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: 1 September 1967; July, October 2000
Producers: Tony Visconti (1967), Mark Plati (2000)

Released: March 1970

Available on:
Bowie At The Beeb
Conversation Piece
The Width Of A Circle

Personnel

1967:
David Bowie: vocals
John McLaughlin, Big Jim Sullivan: guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Alan White: drums
Siegrid Visconti: vocals

2000:
David Bowie: vocals
Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard, Mark Plati: guitar
Mike Garson: keyboards
Gail Ann Dorsey: bass guitar, vocals
Sterling Campbell: drums
Holly Palmer, Emm Gryner: vocals

Written about his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, ‘Karma Man’ was one of the first songs David Bowie recorded with producer Tony Visconti.

You can’t show people what Buddhism is. You can only show them the way towards it. Buddhism is really a process of self-discovery, of discovering the truth for oneself.… Chimi Youngdong Rimpoche gave me the best advice I have ever been given, ‘to try to make each moment of one’s life one of the happiest, and if it is not to try to find out why’… I was a tremendously earnest Buddhist at that time, and yet very unhappy.

I had studied their literature and their philosophy, meditated for long periods, and stayed at their monastery in Scotland. I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows and becoming a monk. Yet, I had this uneasy feeling inside me that Buddhism wasn’t right for me. It was a very crucial time, a worrying time, because I had already gone a long way towards Buddhism… I never became involved in any of the forms of Buddhism linked to yoga, although that did interest me. I was studying Mayana Buddhism, which is more oral. You have to study carefully through tuition, reading and meditation. For a time, I was vegetarian – even to the point where I would never wear anything leather, not even leather shoes or belts, on the principle that this was part of what was once another living being. This was all very important to me until I suddenly realized how close I was to having my head shaved and taking the vows of abstinence. I decided that wasn’t for me, but I was actually studying mime with Lindsay Kemp by then, and he was so earthly that I learned from him that people are much more important to me than ideas.

David Bowie
David Bowie: Living On The Brink, George Tremlett

In the lyrics, the titular protagonist watches, unobserved, passers-by at a fairground. His arms are tattooed with images of “scenes from human zoos, impermanent toys like peace and war”. The word ‘impermanent’, meaning transient or temporary, and tying in with the Buddhist belief in rebirth, occurred again in ‘After All’ (“I sing with impertinence/Shading impermanent chords with my words”) and ‘Changes’ (“the stream of warm impermanence”), and in several interviews of that time.

One evening David was sitting watching television when suddenly he took his eyes from the screen and said to me “I’m going to write some top ten rubbish”. Nothing on television could have prompted this remark so he must quietly have been pondering the problem of his unsold records, the movements on the screen becoming as flickering flames of a coal fire. “I don’t think you could ever knowingly write rubbish of any kind,” I said. He laughed and replied “Wanna bet? You’ve seen nothing yet.” And so he went away and wrote ‘Let Me Sleep Beside You’, which was neither rubbish nor top ten material, but another very good song. He then wrote two other songs which he also indexed under ‘rubbish’, namely ‘Karma Man’ and ‘In The Heat Of The Morning’.
Kenneth Pitt
The Pitt Report

‘Karma Man’ was initially intended as the b-side of the rejected singles ‘Let Me Sleep Beside You’ and ‘When I Live My Dream’.

WITHOUT doubt David Bowie has talent. And also without doubt it will be exploited. For, Mr. Bowie, a 19-year-old Bromley boy, not only writes and arranges his own numbers, but he is also helping Tony Hatch to write a musical score, and the numbers for a TV show. As if that wasn’t enough, David also designs shirts and suits for John Stephen, of the famed Carnaby Street clan.

And his ambition? “I want to act,” says Bowie modestly, “I’d like to do character parts. I think it takes a lot to become somebody else. It takes some doing.”

“Also I want to go to Tibet. It’s a fascinating place, y’know. I’d like to take a holiday and have a look inside the monasteries. The Tibetan monks, Lamas, bury themselves inside mountains for weeks and only eat every three days. They’re ridiculous – and it’s said they live for centuries.”

It should be stated that David is a well-read student of astrology and a believer in reincarnation…

“As far as I’m concerned the whole idea of Western life – that’s the life we live now – is wrong. These are hard convictions to put into songs, though. At the moment I write nearly all my songs round London. No. I should say the people who live in London – and the lack of real life they have. The majority just don’t know what life is.”

Melody Maker, 26 February 1966

‘Karma Man’ remained unreleased until March 1970, when Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt chose it for inclusion on the Decca Records compilation The World Of David Bowie.

A previously-unreleased stereo mix of the song was included on the 2010 deluxe edition of David Bowie.

In 1997 Bowie’s version of ‘Seven Years In Tibet’, with vocals in Mandarin, was released as a single in Hong Kong. It hit the number one spot during the handover of control of the region from the United Kingdom to China. As a result, Bowie became the first non-Asian artist to top the charts there.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve felt really guilty about the continuing situation. I wrote a couple of things in 1968 about this situation. One was called ‘Silly Boy Blue’ and another was called ‘Karma Man’.

I thought, what a perfect time to release an anti-Chinese song in Hong Kong, just as the Chinese take over. It got super-popular, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to tour there now, of course. I’ll probably try and play there next year, but we’ll see. I’ve probably fallen out with the Chinese now.

David Bowie, 1997
BBC Radio 1