Forget Nirvana, Lulu’s cover of David Bowie’s ‘Man Who Sold The World’ is the only one you need
Following a lot of messages about our recent feature on the top 10 covers of David Bowie we were alerted to one particularly brilliant cover. While the Starman’s unique artistic output has always encouraged other performers to cover his work, some are more notable than others and one stands out as the most famous to date. Nirvana’s cover of ‘Man Who Sold The World’ is the stuff of legend. But it’s Lulu’s 1974 attempt which has us spellbound from its first sleazy moments.
Now, of course, the beautifully poised live cover of the track from their now-famous 1993 MTV Unplugged set, and the following live album. It elevated Nirvana into the upper echelons of rock’s Mount Olympus. But there’s another rendition of the track which is more in-keeping with Bowie’s style and is a cut above the rest. Lulu is the perfect voice for this track and the video is a seventies dream.
Originally written by Bowie as the title track of his 1970 album, the song has been widely covered by those with a connection with the idea of ‘the outsider’. As such, the performance by Beatles collaborator and British icon, Lulu, took on the track it provided an interesting juxtaposition. After all, especially today, Lulu is considered a national treasure on the British Isles. But it’s her subversive performance of the track both in the studio and on the video, which has us reeling.
While Lulu effortlessly took on the role, the performance, which would look at home in the depths of a sordid Berlin cabaret, came from the mind of Bowie himself. Only 4 three years after releasing the track and in the middle of a particularly fruitful period of producing other albums, as well as the *Pin Up* Sessions. Bowie hatched a plan.
Inviting Lulu to one of his concerts, he invited her backstage for a chat and approached her with the idea “I want to make a motherfucker of a record with you”. The pair were soon working together on what would be a chart success for Lulu. But the ‘Shout Singer’ later admitted: “I didn’t think it would happen but [Bowie] followed up two days later. He was übercool at the time and I just wanted to be led by him. I loved everything he did. I didn’t think ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ was the greatest song for my voice, but it was such a strong song in itself. I had no idea what it was about. In the studio Bowie kept telling me to smoke more cigarettes, to give my voice a certain quality.”
Now, we will admit, as we continue, there will be a slight blurring of the lines of what defines a ‘cover’. Bowie not only produced the song but he was there for backing vocal duty, he employed Mick Ronson on guitar as well as behind the mixing desk, he even played sultry Saxophone on the track. So while we won’t concede that Nirvana’s is an all-round better song, we will concede it is the most original cover.
We can hear you sharpening your pitchforks Nirvana fans, but before you cast judgement or indeed one of the said tridents, please take a few minutes to enjoy this incredible performance of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ from Lulu. It’s stunning, arresting, and a silky smooth affair, filled with enough sleaze to make your weekend feel naughty it remains the best version of Bowie’s iconic song.