The Man Who Sold The World
David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar
Mick Ronson: electric guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Ralph Mace: Moog synthesizer
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums
A heavy rock shuffle in 6/8 time, ‘Saviour Machine’ tells the apocalyptic tale of a sentient computer created to bring peace to mankind, but which tires of aiding humanity and pleads to be disconnected lest it causes death and destruction to Earth.
Although in later years Bowie would become a champion of computers and the internet, ‘Saviour Machine’ shows his early skepticism about modern technology. The song tells the tale in which “President Joe” heralds a new sentient machine – The Prayer – which ends war, provides food for the people, and becomes the final word of law.
The situation unravels, however, when The Prayer becomes bored, threatens to introduce a plague or war, and demands that the people take control of their own lives and renounce their faith that a machine can solve their problems.
Bowie had long had an interest in science fiction and fantasy, and a potential antecedent of ‘Saviour Machine’ was the 1969 film Colossus: The Forbin Project, which appeared in English cinemas in early 1970.
In the film an advanced supercomputer, Colossus, is created to control the US and Allied nuclear weapons system. Colossus becomes sentient and links with the Soviets’ own computer system, Guardian, to the alarm of the US scientists. Colossus takes to the airwaves and declares that it will prevent war, giving humans a choice between “the peace of plenty and content, or the peace of unburied death”.
‘Saviour Machine’ is a sci-fi song about a president who had invented a machine that controlled everything in the world, from the weather to disease. Unfortunately the machine got bored and was begging to be disconnected, thinking of starting wars or creating a plague to relieve the tedium. It had some really cool time changes in it, and musically was quite challenging to play. It is also relevant, because the world’s getting a bit like that, isn’t it? More and more control being handed over to machines.
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie, 1971
In 1990 a tape reel containing a number of Bowie recordings from 1970 was sold at Sotheby’s. Among the titles was ‘The Invader’, which turned out to be an early version of ‘Saviour Machine’, featuring Bowie performing ‘la la la’ vocals. ‘The Invader’ was the working title during the taping of the backing track.
Bowie’s own original title for ‘Saviour Machine’ was ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, despite its lyrics not containing the phrase. He evidently liked the phrase enough to repurpose it for the album’s title track.
Mick Ronson’s lead guitar break, heard at 1:28 and 3:08, was recycled from Feathers’ 1968 song ‘Ching-A-Ling’, in which it was sung by Bowie with wordless ‘la-la-la’s.
In this song we play a jazz waltz beat, with a little nod to Dave Brubeck. Again, the Moog playing is amazing, emulating symphonic instruments, a high Bach trumpet solo, a piccolo and French horns. We were very much influenced by the Walter Carlos album Switched On Bach, a brilliant party piece that displayed what a Moog in the right hands could do. By the way, the trumpet and guitar melody in the instrumental is a melody David wrote a couple of years earlier when he was in a folk trio called Feathers. It was a vocal line in a song called ‘Ching-A-Ling’.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
The original German edition of The Man Who Sold The World ended with a reprise of four seconds from the intro to ‘Saviour Machine’, segued from the end of ‘The Supermen’.
In December 1979 Bowie recorded an hour-long radio special, to promote the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’ single. The show was broadcast on 20 January 1980, by the syndicated US radio show ‘King Biscuit Flower Hour’, as ‘David Bowie – A Look at the Seventies’.
During the show Bowie played a number of songs from the 1970s, including several of his own. The running order was ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Instant Karma!’ (John Lennon), ‘Saviour Machine’, Suffragette City’, ‘Deborah’ (Tyrannosaurus Rex), ‘Autobahn’ (Kraftwerk), ‘I Feel Love’ (Donna Summer), ‘DJ’, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’, ‘Virginia Plain’ (Roxy Music), ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog (The Stooges), ‘I’m Looking For A Love’ (Bobby Womack), ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ (Ann Peebles), ‘Fame’, ‘Trial-Prison (Philip Glass), ‘Don’t Worry About The Government’ (Talking Heads), and ‘Where Were You?’ (The Mekons).
Later in 1980 Bowie was interviewed by the NME, and was asked about “Gary Numan and John Foxx and all the other little Diamond Dog clones”.
Numan? I really don’t know. I think what he did – that element of ‘Saviour Machine’ – type things – I think he encapsulated that whole feeling excellently. He really did a good job on that kind of stereotype, but I think therein lies his own particular confinement. I don’t know where he intends going or what he intends doing, but I think he has confined himself terrifically. But that’s his problem, isn’t it?
NME, 13 September 1980
In the studio
‘Saviour Machine’ was recorded at London’s Trident Studios on 4 May 1970, the same day that David Bowie and the band taped ‘Running Gun Blues’. The session took place from 6pm to 10pm.
The song was recorded without Bowie having a clear idea of vocals or melody – the backing track was laid down by guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Tony Visconti, Moog synth player Ralph Mace, and drummer Woody Woodmansey, with Bowie writing words and overdubbing his vocals at a later stage.
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.
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy