In the studio

The recording of ‘The Width Of A Circle’ began in April 1970 at London’s Advision Studios, and was completed at Trident Studios.

We had been playing ‘The Width Of A Circle’ live, but we felt like it needed another section. We ended the first half with a dreamy interlude on acoustic guitar as played live. But after one take we broke into a spontaneous boogie riff. Afterwards we listened to a playback of the boogie jam for a laugh, and we decided to make this a permanent part of the song. We worked on it for another hour or so, without melody or lyrics, but just some vague ‘la-las’ as a guide. We put the track ‘to bed’ with the promise that David would come up with lyrics and melody at a later date. This caused me to feel some apprehension as we were on a tight schedule. But it set the tone for the rest of the album and I constantly asked myself, ‘Will he or won’t he finish these songs on time?’ This, however, worked like a drug for David and most of the songs on the album, like ‘Black Country Rock’, ‘The Saviour Machine’ [sic], ‘She Shook Me Cold’ and ‘All The Madman’ were written well after we’d recorded the backing tracks.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy

The opening verses had been written prior to the sessions, as heard on Bowie’s BBC recordings. Yet inside the studio it became a multi-part beast, with changes in rhythm and tempo, an arrangement which ranged from acoustic strumming to swathes of feedback and hard rock riffing, much of which was improvised during the sessions.

This was one of the earliest songs and we already played it out live. One gig was in Hounslow at an Arts Lab run by Dave Cousins of the Strawbs. The boogie section hadn’t been written yet (‘He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips…’). That happened as a jam in the studio. The drums were usually placed in the middle of the room and Mick and I were on either side of them. David was in an isolation booth playing his acoustic guitar, otherwise you would never hear it over the racket we were making. We recorded live, no click tracks. It didn’t take too long to record, we knew this song well and the jam came together easily although David had to write lyrics for it later. We used backwards reverb in the intro on Mick’s guitar, he’s on the left but the backwards reverb is very audible on the right. The backwards reverb returns again for the dramatic interlude between part one and part three. I have a little bass solo in that section. Backwards reverb comes before the actual sound, it’s very tricky to do.
Tony Visconti, May 2015
Five Years (1969-1973) book

The Biblical hellfire and pandemonium of the song’s lyrics were perfectly complemented by its production. According to producer Tony Visconti, Bowie was detached and often apathetic during the sessions for The Man Who Sold The World, which allowed the band free rein to arrange and produce much of the music.

This man would just not get out of bed and write a song… We just laid down the chords, the arrangement, the guitar solos, the synthesizers, and David would be out in the lobby of Advision holding hands with Angie and going coochie-coochie-coo…

I was totally infuriated with him that I had to work so close to the deadline and of course we had hardly any time left to mix that album. David wasn’t around for most of the mixes, either. He came up with a lot of clever bits, like the little talking section in the middle of ‘All The Madmen’, but really the album was me and Mick Ronson. David just wasn’t there.

Tony Visconti
The Record Producers, BBC, 1982

Live recordings

‘The Width Of A Circle’ became a key song during the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1972 and ’73. The Spiders From Mars expanded its instrumental mid-section into a lengthy hard rock performance, during which Bowie effected a costume change.

Live recordings from that era can be heard on the albums Live Santa Monica ’72 and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. The latter, taped during the Spiders’ final show at Hammersmith Odeon, lasts over 15 minutes. The accompanying film shows the ‘invisible wall’ mime sequence which David Bowie often undertook during the instrumental break.

Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture was released in 1983, and originally contained an edit of ‘The Width Of A Circle’ lasting over nine minutes. The full version was released on the 2003 reissue, and subsequent releases.

‘The Width Of A Circle’ was also performed during the Diamond Dogs Tour in 1974. A recording, from the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia in July 1974, can be heard on the David Live album – the only song from The Man Who Sold The World.

The instrumental introduction for ‘The Width Of A Circle’ was revived several times during the Earthling tour, as an introduction to ‘The Jean Genie’.

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