David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar
Mick Ronson: electric guitar, vocals
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums
The opening song on David Bowie’s third album The Man Who Sold The World, ‘The Width Of A Circle’ was his first creative leap forward in the 1970s: Biblical lyrics which alluded to gay sex, end times, mysticism and madness; and music which jettisoned the folk rock stylings of his previous album, and promoted guitarist Mick Ronson and heavy rock to the fore.
In 1971, during his first US trip, Bowie gave an interview to Zygote magazine. The publication folded before the interview could be used, and the exchange finally emerged in 2016 after Bowie’s death. In it he spoke about the meaning behind several of his songs.
‘Width Of A Circle’ covers a period from when I was about 17 to just before I recorded this album. Jesus, my next album is going to be totally different from either of these two. I can’t relate to Man very easily because I’m still pretty near to it and I’m still having something of a difficult time at the moment. It’s much calmer again and it’s back to that, but with a different edge because now I’m happy, and I really mean it now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
Bowie had originally intended The Man Who Sold The World to be half electric, half acoustic, in the style of Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. Although the idea was quickly abandoned, ‘The Width Of A Circle’ is known to be one of just three songs brought to the sessions which were written for acoustic guitar.
Mick Ronson and the rhythm section’s elevated status was perhaps most evident in the multi-part, eight-minute arrangement of ‘The Width Of A Circle’. A true ensemble performance, it was longer than that performed by Bowie in the previous months, and featured several parts: the hard rock opening, with Ronson’s extended guitar solo; a slower second section underpinned by strummed acoustic guitar; the ‘Turn around, come back’ part in triple time; and finally a repeat of the second section.
Bowie had already written most of the first song, ‘Width Of A Circle’, before we went into the studio. It was one of the few songs that was almost complete when we went in. Drums-wise, it was just a case of me finding the right beat. The second part of the song, which has a different tempo, didn’t exist until we came up with it through jamming in the studio. Bowie added a melody and vocals to that part later.
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David Bowie recorded ‘The Width Of A Circle’ on two occasions for BBC radio, both of which predated the studio recording for The Man Who Sold The World.
The first was for an edition of The Sunday Show, taped on 5 February 1970 and broadcast three days later. Bowie was backed by Mick Ronson on guitar, Tony Visconti on bass, and John Cambridge on drums.
It was Ronson’s first appearance as Bowie’s guitarist, although he had previously contributed guitar and handclaps to ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’ in the summer of 1969. Ronson was invited to join Bowie’s band on 4 February, the day before the BBC session.
The quartet recorded a total of fifteen songs for the show, although a version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ was not broadcast. The others were ‘Amsterdam’, ‘God Knows I’m Good’, ‘Buzz The Fuzz’, ‘Karma Man’, ‘London Bye Ta-Ta’, ‘An Occasional Dream’, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Janine’, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’, ‘Fill Your Heart’, ‘The Prettiest Star’, ‘Cygnet Committee’, and ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’.
Six of the songs were released on Bowie At The Beeb in September 2000: ‘Amsterdam’, ‘God Knows I’m Good’, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’, ‘Cygnet Committee’, and ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’.
The first BBC recording of ‘The Width Of A Circle’ was the shortest of all Bowie’s officially-released versions, lasting just 4:42. After the performance he was interviewed by presenter John Peel, who asked if he planned to perform live with the group.
Well, looking at them, no! Yes, we’re going to do some gigs. Are we Michael? Michael doesn’t really know – he’s just come down from Hull and I met him for the first time about two days ago through John the drummer, who’s worked with me once.
Ronson later spoke of his lack of preparation prior to the recordings.
I didn’t know any of the material – I was really nervous. I just followed David, watched his fingers on the guitar. I guess it worked OK because he wanted to work with me again.
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The second BBC recording was for Sounds Of The 70s. It was taped on 25 March 1970 and broadcast on 6 April, with the same line-up as the previous session.
This time only four songs were recorded: ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’, and an unbroadcast ‘The Supermen’.