Released: 10 April 1971 (UK); 4 November 1970 (US)
David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, organ, vocals
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums, güiro, maracas
The title track of David Bowie’s third album, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was re-recorded in 1973 with Lulu on vocals, and again by Bowie during the 1.Outside sessions in 1995.
I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. Maybe now that I feel more comfortable with the way that I live my life and my mental state [laughs] and my spiritual state whatever, maybe I feel there’s some kind of unity now. That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you’re young, when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet. You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are.
ChangesNowBowie, BBC Radio 1, 8 January 1997
‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was an early working title for ‘Saviour Machine’, another track on the album. Bowie evidently retained a liking for a phrase, and reused it on the newer song.
The album’s producer, Tony Visconti, later spoke about the key roles played by himself and guitarist Mick Ronson in writing and arranging the music.
Bowie is the final author of all those songs. But the band, myself and Bowie lived together during that album and worked a lot closer than just a singer and a session band. Some songs were Bowie’s loose chord structures that Ronson and I would whip together into final backing tracks. In the old days that was called “arranging”. Nowadays that’s called co-writing. For instance, all the guitar and bass parts were written by Ronson and myself, so I was amused to hear TMWSTW by Nirvana playing our exact parts and also seeing my bass part published in Guitar Player magazine with David Bowie given the credit.
Bowie’s lyrics bear a strong resemblance to ‘Antigonish’, an 1899 poem by US writer William Hughes Mearns. It was part of his play The Psycho-ed, and was set to music in 1939 and retitled ‘The Little Man Who Wasn’t There’:
As I was walking up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today.
I wish, I wish he’d stay away.
Bowie’s song adds a new layer of intrigue, since he – the song’s narrator – is the person who wasn’t there.
We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend
Bowie’s song is altogether darker than Mearns’ playful poem, with its preoccupation with identity, insanity and death. He also equates death with “control”, a word which recurs in several Bowie songs – including ‘I Am Divine’, ‘No Control’, and in Ground Control on ‘Space Oddity’.