David Bowie sang ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ during a handful of concerts in 1972, but thereafter shelved it until December 1979, when he performed it on Saturday Night Live in the US.
It was revived again in 1995, where it was given a makeover for the Outside Tour. This stripped-down atmospheric version was performed on the BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland, and recorded for the ‘Strangers When We Meet’ single.
This arrangement was also used in the 2015 musical Lazarus. It was sung by Charlie Pollack on the Lazarus Cast Recording album.
This arrangement of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was sung again by Bowie for the BBC session ChangesNowBowie, recorded on 7 January 1997 and first broadcast the following day. He retained the song for that year’s Earthling Tour.
Bowie reverted to the original arrangement for his summer 2000 tour, as heard on the Glastonbury 2000 album and DVD. Two days after his festival appearance he sang it again at the BBC Radio Theatre in London. The recording was included on the bonus disc with initial copies of Bowie At The Beeb, and reissued in 2021 as part of the box set Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001).
‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was performed regularly in 2003 and 2004 during Bowie’s final tour. A recording from Dublin can be heard on the A Reality Tour album and DVD.
Nirvana performed ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ during their appearance on MTV Unplugged on 18 November 1993. It was one of six cover versions during the show.
Frontman Kurt Cobain spoke of “the debt we all owe David” during the recording, which was released on their album MTV Unplugged in New York a year later, and on DVD in 2007.
Bowie did not hear Nirvana’s version until after Kurt Cobain’s death in April 1994, but later spoke of his admiration for the performance.
I liked it a lot. It was very painful – and I mean that in the kindest possible way. I didn’t actually get to see [Cobain] do that until he was dead. He stumbled a little bit on the guitar, and there was a plaintive quality in his voice that gave the song characteristics that had not been there before. He played it from a very personal point of view; mine was much more diffident. In fact, I had forgotten all about the song, and not long after that I started doing it occasionally onstage. It made me think, ‘You know, that really is a good song.’
Blender, August 2002
The popularity of Nirvana, and the posthumous success of the Unplugged album, led to a new generation discovering Bowie’s songs. Indeed, according to Bowie, a number of younger fans were unaware that the song was his.
Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the Nineties generation, but then they don’t know the early stuff. I think it’s a surprise when they hear them all at once and think, ‘Did he write that?’ I know that because, in America especially, when I do ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ the amount of kids that come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!’
GQ, October 2000