Few artists can compete with the iconic myth that David Bowie remains to this day. The late, great Starman developed a following that morphed from a cult fandom of pure creativity into a philosophy that spread across the entire music industry and beyond. Bowie’s songs, so singular in their nature and purposeful in their poignancy, have since been covered by hundreds and hundreds of artists. There’s one track, however, that has always been given a little extra attention.
‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is one of Bowie’s finest tracks. Brooding with menace and the modern world, the track has always felt somewhat extraterrestrial. Considering it was released before Bowie’s famous incarnation, Ziggy Stardust touched down on terra firma, the song provided a blueprint for the singer’s future. Released in 1970, it has been picked up by many artists, including Lulu, who, in 1974, delivered her own unique vision of the track. However, arguably the most impressive display of the material comes from Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.
The Starman’s song was famously covered by Nirvana when Kurt Cobain gave the track a new audience during the group’s 1994 MTV Unplugged performance. It arrested an entire generation when Cobain, equipped with an acoustic setup, electrified the song into a new plane of existence. Removed from the demonic danger of David Bowie, the song transformed into something far more fragile. Bowie opened up about the cover following Cobain’s tragic suicide.
“It’s a very sad rendition, of course,” begins Bowie in his south London drawl, “Because it is so tied up with his own life and death. So it takes on all these different shades for me. I also remember, fairly clear, my state of mind when I was actually writing it, which was, I guess, as near to a mystical state that a 19-year-old can get into. I remember it was at a time when I was sort of studying Buddhism — for my 15 minutes of Buddhism — so, it is interesting that it changed.”
Adding: “It really had two mystical states. The time I wrote it and recorded it and the time when he recorded it and the things that led up to his end thereafter that. So, I guess it still retains, for me, a sense of the mystical.”
In another interview about the song, Bowie once said of Nirvana’s cover: “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’” and that “it was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest.”
He added: “It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”
There’s good reason Cobain picked up the track, a subverted pop sound is something he resonated with most deeply and was enacted on his own seminal record Nevermind. Arguably the moment the rock world really paid attention to the new artist Bowie was becoming in the nineties, the song remains one moment of both Bowie and Nirvana’s career that will never be forgotten.