On 11 March 1970, Bowie and Hype performed at the Roundhouse in London, part of the week-long Atomic Sunrise festival. He shared a bill on the night with Genesis. Bowie’s set was captured on 16mm film, although the audio was later lost.
‘The Supermen’ was the only song from The Man Who Sold The World performed by Bowie at his first Glastonbury Festival appearance on 23 June 1971, where it opened his set.
It was also the opening number on 29 January 1972, when Bowie kicked off the Ziggy Stardust Tour at the Borough Assembly Hall in Aylesbury, England. It remained part of the live set throughout much of the tour, although it was performed less frequently during the later dates.
On 1 October 1972 Bowie and the Spiders performed at The Music Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. It was the first of three shows on the tour which were taped for a prospective live album, with other recordings made at shows in New York and Los Angeles.
Two weeks later, on 13 October, Bowie and Mick Ronson worked at RCA Studio B in Nashville, where they made mono and stereo mixes of ‘The Jean Genie’ for single release. They also mixed the Boston recordings of ‘The Supermen’, ‘Life On Mars?’, ‘Changes’, and ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’.
The live album project was shelved when Bowie’s attention became focused on Aladdin Sane in early 1973. However, the Boston recordings of ‘The Supermen’, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ and ‘Changes’ were included in the 1989 Sound + Vision box set, and all four were included on the 30th anniversary reissue of Aladdin Sane.
Among the shows recorded for the mooted live album was Bowie’s 20 October 1972 performances at the Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica, Los Angeles. The first of these was broadcast live by local radio station KMET-FM. The full recording was released on 30 July 2008 as Live Santa Monica ’72.
‘The Supermen’ was also performed during the Earthling and A Reality tours.
In the studio
David Bowie and Hype first recorded ‘The Supermen’ on 23 March at Advision Studios, during the same session in which they taped the single version of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’.
The sessions for The Man Who Sold The World took place in April and May 1970, at Advision and Trident Studios. ‘The Superman’ was the final song taped, and selected as the final song on the album.
I definitely remember doing this at Trident, it was the last song recorded. Woody was also whomping those timpani drums, another first for him. The backing vocals were really fun to do, they were sung by Mick, David and me, a kind of precursor to Queen’s backing vocals. Do I detect some throat singing in there? Hmm. I love the instrumental. Mick’s harmonized guitar sound sweet and powerful. He certainly arranged that section.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
Woody Woodmansey’s use of timpani was perhaps designed to echo Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a piece of work inspired by Nietzsche’s book of the same name. The opening fanfare was famously used by Stanley Kubrick in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Finally, the theme of ‘The Supermen’ comes from Friedrich Nietzsche; I wanted to feel like a superman when I played it, almost like Thor with his war hammer. I did feel that way, too. I also backed up the drums with tuned timpani, which I loved playing.
Those subjects – Nietzsche among them – would come up in conversation with Bowie, but we didn’t really dwell on them. He’d say that this song was about the future of man, where machines have developed their own consciousness. These were wild concepts.
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie, 1971
‘The Supermen’ was recorded again during the sessions for The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. On 12 November 1971 the Spiders From Mars recorded one take of ‘Soul Love’, and two takes apiece of ‘The Supermen’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, and ‘Lady Stardust’.
One of the takes of ‘The Supermen’ from this session was released in 1972 on the triple LP Revelations: A Musical Anthology For Glastonbury Fayre. The album retailed at £3.99, but subsequently became a collector’s item.
On 25 March 1970, two days after the first attempt at a studio recording of ‘The Supermen’, David Bowie and his band recorded the first of four versions for BBC Radio 1.
The session, for Sounds Of The 70s, was presented by Andy Ferris, produced by Bernie Andrews, and taped at London’s Playhouse Theatre. It had Bowie and Mick Ronson on guitar and vocals, Tony Visconti playing bass guitar, and John Cambridge on drums.
Four songs were recorded: ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, and ‘The Supermen’. Although not broadcast at the time, this version of ‘The Supermen’ was included on the four-LP reissue of Bowie At The Beeb in February 2016.
This was the final Bowie recording on which John Cambridge featured. He struggled with a “tricky little bit” in ‘The Superman’, and the following month was ousted from the band.
I just couldn’t get it right and even Mick [Ronson] was saying, ‘Come on, it’s easy,’ which makes you feel worse.
Alias David Bowie, Peter & Leni Gillman
The second BBC recording was made on 3 June 1971 at the BBC Paris Studio in London. This was for In Concert, presented by John Peel and produced by Jeff Griffin. It was first broadcast on 20 June.
This session had a fuller line-up: Bowie on vocals, guitar and keyboards, Mick Ronson on guitar and vocals, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mick Woodmansey on drums, Mark Carr-Pritchard on rhythm guitar, and George Underwood, Dana Gillespie, Geoff MacCormack on vocals.
The third BBC radio version of ‘The Supermen’ was for Sounds Of The 70s, presented by Bob Harris and produced by John F Muir. The recording was made at the T1 studio in Shepherds Bush, London on 21 September 1971, and first broadcast on 4 October.
This session was a stripped-back affair, featuring just Bowie and Mick Ronson. They performed six songs: ‘The Supermen’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Eight Line Poem’, ‘Kooks’, ‘Fill Your Heart’, ‘Amsterdam’, and ‘Andy Warhol’.
This version of ‘The Supermen’ was not broadcast at the time, although it was released on Bowie At The Beeb in September 2000.
The final BBC recording was made 26 years later at SIR Studios on 520 West 25th Street, New York City. This was for the ChangesNowBowie show, and featured Bowie on vocals, Reeves Gabrels on guitar, Mike Garson on piano, Gail Ann Dorsey on bass guitar and vocals, and Zachary Alford on drums.
The session was first broadcast on the BBC Radio 1 show ChangesNowBowie on his 50th birthday, 8 January 1997. The recordings were issued on compact disc and vinyl as ChangesNowBowie for Record Store Day on 29 August 2020.