In the studio

As with much of the album, the music was mostly arranged and recorded by Bowie’s band, with the lyrics and vocals added once the music was recorded.

This was also the first time Woody had ever seen or played a güiro, the scratchy percussion instrument. Mick’s iconic guitar part is instantly identifiable. I bowed my Ampeg Baby Bass on the upward scales of the choruses. Again we created a counterpoint backing vocal ending in the round and round part of the ending.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was the only song on the album to be recorded on an eight-track machine; the rest had the luxury of twice as many multitracks.

According to Tony Visconti, Bowie wrote the lyrics and recorded his vocals on the final day of mixing the album, at Advision Studios on 22 May 1970.

Bowie’s vocals were double-tracked, with a phasing effect added during the mixing stage. Due to the limited number of tracks available, Bowie’s original vocals were wiped, and the phased vocal track was dubbed onto the multitrack master.

It is haunting, eerie and simple. We couldn’t bear to leave it too simple so David’s double track vocal was tape phased, not an easy task because you need at least one track free to pull off this stunt. For economic reasons this was the only song recorded on eight-track (all the rest were recorded on 16-track). We could’ve said, ‘Oh, forget it, it’s too hard to do’, but we persevered with engineer Eddie Offord.

Once we were satisfied with the intensity of the phasing we had the daunting task of flying it back onto the master tape and there wasn’t a spare track. We had to erase the master, unphased lead vocals, to dub back on the phased lead vocal. No easy task. The trial and error wax pencil markings on the tape and the critical timing it took to hit the play button at the right moment was nerve wracking. It took something like 25 tries in each verse and there was no going back since the lead vocal was wiped on the first try. It eventually worked, obviously.

Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

The release

‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was first released on the album of the same name, on 4 November 1970 in the US, and 10 April 1971 in the UK.

The song was the b-side of the ‘Life On Mars?’ single in the UK in 1973, and the on the same year’s ‘Space Oddity’ single in the USA, Canada, Australia, Chile, South Africa, Spain, and Turkey.

In Venezuela the song was issued as a single, with ‘Life On Mars?’ on the b-side.

Bowie re-recorded the song in 1995. It was first released on the single ‘Strangers When We Meet’, where it was described as a “live version”, perhaps due to it being based on the live version from the Outside Tour. The recording also appeared on a bonus disc with the 1996 reissue of 1.Outside.

Live versions were also included on the albums and DVDs Glastonbury 2000 and A Reality Tour, and on the bonus disc with early copies of Bowie At The Beeb.

On 8 January 2020, on what would have been Bowie’s 73rd birthday, two new releases were announced: the Is It Any Wonder? EP and the ChangesNowBowie album.

Is It Any Wonder? was a set of six recordings, unveiled on consecutive weeks in January and February 2020. The first of these was a version of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, recorded in November 1996, which had first been broadcast on the BBC Radio 1 show ChangesNowBowie on Bowie’s 50th birthday, 8 January 1997.

This recording was dropped for the physical release of Is It Any Wonder? in March 2020. It was replaced with the ‘Live Eno Mix’ of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, previously released in 1995.

The ChangesNowBowie recording, meanwhile, was included on the album of the same name, released for Record Store Day on 18 April 2020.

A live version from the Earthling Tour was released in 2021 on Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97).