How ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ laid the foundations for David Bowie’s dominance
During the 1970s, David Bowie became one of the most important musicians to emerge from the 20th century. The singer had a decade in which he spent his time flitting between different art forms, genres, costumes and personas all with the integrity that suggested he would become one of the most revered performers of all time. But, if you were to check the decade prior, you would not have found David Bowie but Davy Jones, the precocious folk singer with a penchant for the elaborate.
It wasn’t until 1970 when Bowie, along with the help of his longtime producer and friend Tony Visconti, pulled together an album like no other, the imperious The Man Who Sold The World. Its position in the pantheon of rock music is guaranteed if only for one fact; it became the foundational stone upon which the illustrious temple of Bowie was built. It launched his career and, perhaps most importantly, gave the singer license to create the work that would inspire a nation and himself, first and foremost.
Working with ‘Essex Music’ as a teenager in the sixties, Bowie was thrilled to be a part of such a promising company, a label that had a direct hand in the rise of The Who, The Rolling Stones and, later, Bowie’s own glam rock counterpart, Marc Bolan — it would be how the pair would meet for the first time. However, it wasn’t until the introduction of Tony Visconti that things got interesting. The American had also been drafted into the Essex Music fold and, when owner David Platz sent the singer to the producer, nobody could have predicted the long and happy partnership they would enjoy.
Visconti recalled what Platz had told him to Starzone magazine: “‘We’ve got this young man and we don’t quite know what to do with him. He writes every song in a different style.’ I was already involved with Marc Bolan at the time, and David Platz continued to say: ‘Since you seem to be the expert with these strange people – I’d like to see what you can do with David Bowie.'” The duo got to work immediately and became the winning combination behind Bowie’s 1969 launchpad song ‘Space Oddity’.
“In those days, [Bowie] would do anything to get a hit record,” continued Visconti, highlighting both of their disinterest in the song inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey “I loved his songs, but I was trying to get him to concentrate on one style of writing, as I felt that it was his undoing that he was writing in so many different styles.” That focus came during one of Bowie’s most hectic times, personally. He and Visconti were living with their partners at Haddon Hall, which not only included genuine turrets but even a first-floor gallery. Though the rent was cheap, the foursome struggled to eat and were forced to buy food collectively.
It focused the two musician’s minds and they were quick to realise that life as a solo performer was not only more difficult, but far more taxing. They attempted to build a band around Bowie and drafted in a certain Mick Ronson to fulfil the role of guitarist. He was so impressive upon his first meeting with Bowie that he joined the Starman for a BBC session the very next day.
“We just sat around in his flat,” recalled Ronson to Starzone. “I picked up a guitar and jammed with him. He said, ‘Hey, do you wanna come down to this radio show and play with me… ‘ So we went down to this radio show and I played along with him. After that he was, ‘Well, how about coming along and playing with me all the time…’ So I agreed, and that was pretty much straight after the show. He said something like, ‘How about going back to Hull, packing your bags and coming down to work with me’, that was about it. So I did and came down to live in Haddon Hall.” The next was slowly filling with a band that Bowie could call his own.
Ronson, a supremely talented musician, was able to pick up the chord changes of Bowie’s songs without any trouble meaning recording a new record could begin quickly. Ronson also recruited drummer Woody Woodmansey from his previous outfit The Rats and, even later, Visconti was replaced by Trevor Boulder of the former Hull group. The Spiders from Mars had finally arrived and they’d evolved from rats.
The organic nature of the group also transitioned into the recording process itself. Visconti has previously revealed how laid back Bowie has always been when making music, never truly letting himself be overawed by the subject, Bowie has always taken his time when in the studio. “His method’s pretty much the same as we set on The Man Who Sold the World in 1970,” recalled Visconti in the same interview. “It’s just that he writes at the very last minute. He doesn’t get all nervous about going into a studio beforehand. He has to actually get into the situation of being in a recording studio before he can do anything. At the beginning of albums, he’s pretty laid back, smokes a lot, reads the newspaper.”
Adding: “David’s a great believer in chemistry. There’s no chemistry when he’s sitting alone at home, but he has this way of getting very interesting people together and then to interact. That is his method.”
That means that the band’s involvement in creating the mystique of Bowie is much more vital than many people anticipate. Speaking with The Quietus, Visconti once said of the singer: “One of Bowie’s great attributes is that he allows his musicians to do their thing. He would often give any of us a kernel of an idea and let us ride with it to our specific abilities.” It’s the keen eye of an expert visionary to be able to guide and direct people so effectively. It’s also a pleasant reminder that within Bowie’s multiple persona changes was always the idea of collaboration or, perhaps more accurately, a reflection.
The album isn’t exactly jam-packed with killer hits like some of Bowie’s work. In fact, for the large part, especially when reflecting on the singer’s stunning back catalogue, the album is fairly, well, ‘normal’. A slight folk-rock sound is interspersed with clever lyrics and the end of the sixties existentialism that half of the world was feeling at the time. As well as somehow capturing the trepidation of a new decade, there’s another trick on this album that pays dividends.
Across nine tracks, Bowie lays out his vision of the future. He would be mystical, like on the title track of the album, he would be personal, such as the song about his schizophrenic half brother on ‘All the Madmen’ and he would continue pushing himself to experiment, such as on the opening song ‘The Width of a Circle’ which blends the previously separated sounds of folk and psychedelia. It’s a track in which we hear the first notes of Ziggy Stardust, as the seeds for one of Bowie’s most famous creations begin to take root. It may be one of Bowie’s stepping stones to greatness but it is one of the most sturdy leaps he ever made.
The Man Who Sold the World will never be regarded as one of Bowie’s greatest albums, due in no small part to his huge and impressive canon of work. But it should rightly be regarded as one of the first moments the world got a taste of the musical hero to come. It was the first twinkle of the Starman’s creative journey to the top.