Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: 23 March; May 1970; 12 November 1971
Producer: Tony Visconti
Engineers: Ken Scott, Gerald Chevin, Eddie Offord
Released: 8 April 1971 (UK); 4 November 1970 (US)
The Man Who Sold The World
Aladdin Sane (30th Anniversary edition)
Live Santa Monica ’72
Bowie At The Beeb
The Width Of A Circle
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, vocals
Tony Visconti: bass guitar, vocals
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums, timpani
‘The Supermen’, the closing track on David Bowie’s third album The Man Who Sold The World, was inspired by the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
I wrote a song called ‘The Supermen’ which was about the Homo Superior race and through that I got interested in Nazism. I’m overwhelmed at their methods – diabolical. I have no room in my head to entertain their theory, the gross effects, the terrible disregard for human life, especially for particular races and religions. You knew Roman Catholics were next. The Pope bought Hitler off. It was the whole thing about the Magic Wine. Hitler wanted to develop an Aryan race. For what reason? To fight Homo Superior. He was dreadfully afraid of Homo Superior and his aims to develop a race of Aryan people was a misrepresentation of that good feeling of Homo Superior. Because if it was such a depressed era, spiritually and morally that it came out all wrong. I’m sure Hitler could have gone the other way. But mind you this is a mad planet, it’s doomed to madness. We might have freaked the world so much, twisted it off its axis, its practical and mental axis so much that the way these new children could be influenced by their grandparents might have ticked something off in their head that you may well find that we have given birth to Homo Superior prematurely.
Interview, March 1973
One of David Bowie’s obsessions in the early 1970s was Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch or superhuman. Bowie read Nietzsche’s translated works Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good And Evil in early 1970, and was intrigued by the notion of a superhuman with its own morality and enhanced abilities.
In Nietzsche’s 1883 book Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), the titular protagonist proclaims the Übermensch to be the ultimate goal that humanity can set itself, a position of self-awareness and power which cast off god and religion in favour of higher ideals. As Nietzsche later wrote in Ecce Homo: “The word Übermensch [represents] a type of supreme achievement, as opposed to ‘modern’ men, ‘good’ men, Christians, and other nihilists”.
‘The Supermen’, that was the seed of an idea of Homo Superior I was toying with. The coming of the New Man. I’ve written a lot of songs around that theme and only today I got an insight into another vehicle by which Homo Superior would arrive here. They were taping a show at WABC AM, one of the public service shows, and the Jewish Defense League people were being interviewed. There was a guy sitting on a piano bench in the studio. He’s taking Hebrew lessons with the fellow who’s the head of the JDL. It was Bob Dylan, who has gotten very involved with his Jewish heritage.
Ain’t that a mindfucker? As you can see there is food for thought. The “revolution” might not be so much of a political thing when it does come, but a race survival thing, as it surely is becoming here as part of the black/white struggle. If the population explosion goes on at the rate it’s been going, the politics of the whole thing will drop out and will become a matter of a race revolution. Whether that will produce a race of Homo Superior, we shall see. This idea is only vaguely seeding itself in my head at the moment, just today, and yesterday. I’ve got to think about it a lot more before I write about that particular idea. That was purely a mystical thought, a humanoid that lived forever, even though his gods were dying. It’s a murderer, a guy capable of murdering someone who found a way to kill people; he would be the new god.
Bowie toyed with the idea of the Übermensch on several songs of this era, including Hunky Dory’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. ‘The Supermen’ was his first significant foray into the subject, although he later confessed to not fully understanding the theories.
I was still going through the thing when I was pretending I understood Nietzsche… A lot of that came out of trying to simplify books that I had read… and I had tried to translate it into my own terms to understand it, so ‘Supermen’ came out of that… It’s pre-Fascist.
BBC Radio 1
Who knows? Maybe I’m insane too, it runs in my family, but I always had a repulsive sort of need to be something more than human. I felt very very puny as a human. I thought. ‘Fuck that. I want to be a Superman.’ I guess I realized very early that man isn’t a very clever mechanism. I wanted to make myself better. I always thought that I should change all the time … I know for a fact that my personality now is totally different to what it was then. I took a look at my thoughts, my appearance, my expressions, my mannerisms and idiosyncrasies and didn’t like them. So I stripped myself down, chucked things out and replaced them with a completely new personality. When I heard someone say something intelligent. I used it later as if it were my own. When I saw a quality in someone that I liked. I took it. I still do that. All the time. It’s just like a car, man, replacing parts.
Rolling Stone, 12 February 1976
Bowie’s lyrics also evoke the fantasy mise en scène of ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, in which a boy shares a magical symbiosis with the surrounding mountains, and the village is reduced to rubble as the boy dies. The mountain giant of Bowie’s earlier song paved the way for the ancient supermen whose “nightmare dreams no mortal mind could hold”.
When all the world was very young
And mountain magic heavy hung
The supermen would walk in file
Guardians of a loveless isle
Bowie was gifted the driving guitar riff by Jimmy Page, when they met at a 15 January 1965 recording session for the Manish Boys’ ‘I Pity The Fool’ and ‘Take My Tip’.
When I was a baby, I did a rock session with one of the bands, one of the millions of bands that I had in the ’60s – it was the Manish Boys, that’s what it was – and the session guitar player doing the solo was this young kid who’d just come out of art school and was already a top session man, Jimmy Page. And he just got a fuzz box and he used that for the solo. He was wildly excited about it and he was quite generous that day and he said, ‘Look, I’ve got this riff but I’m not using it for anything, so why don’t you learn it and see if you can do anything with it?’ So I had his riff, and I’ve used it ever since! [laughs]. It’s never let me down.
ChangesNowBowie, BBC Radio 1, 8 January 1997
Page was just 21 years old at the time of the Manish Boys session, but was already making a name for himself as a formidable session guitarist.
He was this kid who just left art school and was the youngest session man in the world, fifteen or sixteen. He was a fresh faced kid who had a real joy for playing. The Led Zeppelin thing … it’s hard to put the two together. He taught me a wonderful riff which became ‘The Supermen’.
Seconds magazine, August/September 1995
Bowie evidently retained a liking for Page’s riff, for not only did he deploy it on ‘The Supermen’, he also reused it on the Earthling track ‘Dead Man Walking’.
‘Dead Man Walking’ was written straightforwardly… The guitar riff is the very first one anyone taught me: Jimmy Page came to a recording session I did with one of those groups I had in the mid-60s. He was Shel Talmy’s session guitar player. He said, ‘try this’: it was really effective. ‘I can’t use it: you can have it.’ It became ‘Supermen’, and was revived on this one.
Earthling press release, 1997
Initial copies of the German edition of The Man Who Sold The World segued the ending of ‘The Supermen’ with a reprise of four seconds from the introduction of ‘Saviour Machine’.
David and I had an agreement to try and create the most startling, evocative electronic effects when we wanted to follow that route. It was a kind of sonic one-upmanship that was going on in those days. The biggest compliment anyone could give you was, ‘How did you make that sound?’ We came up with outrageous sonic landscapes like ‘The Supermen’, which was kind of prescient for the sound that Queen eventually came up with – not only the vocal style, but the high-pitched backing vocals and the guitar solo too. The Man Who Sold The World was a primer for many generations to come.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley