The Man Who Sold the World
"The Man Who Sold the World" is a song written and performed by David Bowie. It is the title track of his third album, which was released in the US in November 1970 and in the UK in April 1971. The song has been covered by a number of other artists, notably by Lulu, who had a UK No. 3 hit with her version in 1974, by Nirvana, whose 1993 performance of the song for the television program MTV Unplugged introduced it to a new audience, and by Midge Ure, whose 1982 cover of the song was featured in the 2015 video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
|"The Man Who Sold the World"|
US picture sleeve
|Single by David Bowie|
|from the album The Man Who Sold the World|
|Recorded||18 April – 22 May 1970|
|Studio||Trident & Advision, London|
The song was reworked by Bowie, featuring atmospheric synths, a new bassline, techno-style drums and a notably darker mood, for performances in concerts from 1995 to 1997, including the 1995 MTV Europe Music Awards. Bowie later returned to playing the original version in the 2000s.
Inspiration and explanationEdit
The person in the song has an encounter with a kind of doppelgänger, as suggested in the second chorus where "I never lost control" is replaced with "We never lost control". Beyond this, the episode is unexplained: as James E. Perone wrote,
Bowie encounters the title character, but it is not clear just what the phrase means, or exactly who this man is. ... The main thing that the song does is to paint – however elusively – the title character as another example of the societal outcasts who populate the album.
In common with a number of tracks on the album, the song's themes have been compared to the horror-fantasy works of H. P. Lovecraft. The lyrics are also cited as reflecting Bowie's concerns with splintered or multiple personalities, and are believed to have been partially inspired by the poem "Antigonish" by William Hughes Mearns:
Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away...
In the BBC Radio 1 special programme "ChangesNowBowie", broadcast on 8 January 1997, Bowie was interviewed by Mary Anne Hobbs and was asked about the song. He commented: "I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. Maybe now that I feel more comfortable with the way that I live my life and my mental state (laughs) and my spiritual state whatever, maybe I feel there's some kind of unity now. That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you're young, when you know that there's a piece of yourself that you haven't really put together yet. You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are."
Other releases by BowieEdit
- "The Man Who Sold the World" appeared as the B-side on the American single release of the song "Space Oddity" (1973 rerelease) and British single "Life on Mars?" (1973). It also appears on various Bowie compilations such as Sound + Vision (1989), The Best of David Bowie 1969/1974 (1997), Best of Bowie (2002), The Platinum Collection (2006), Nothing Has Changed (2014), and Bowie Legacy (2016).
- Bowie performed the song on Saturday Night Live in December 1979, with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias. A portion of this show is included in the film The Nomi Song, and the full performance was included in the touring exhibit "David Bowie Is".
- A new drum n' bass studio version of the song was recorded by Bowie and mixed by Brian Eno and appears as a B-side on the CD single "Strangers When We Meet" (1995). This version also appears on the bonus disc that followed some versions of Outside – Version 3. It was this arrangement that appeared in Bowie's 2016 stage musical, Lazarus.
- Bowie's 25 June 2000 performance of the song at the Glastonbury Festival was released on Glastonbury 2000 (2018).
- A live version recorded at BBC Radio Theatre, London, on 27 June 2000 was released on the bonus disc accompanying the first releases of Bowie at the Beeb (2000).
- A November 2003 live performance from the Reality Tour is featured on the concert film A Reality Tour (2004), as well as the live album A Reality Tour (2010).
- A remastered version of the song appears in the box set Five Years (1969–1973) (2015).
|"The Man Who Sold the World"|
A-side label of the UK single
|Single by Lulu|
|B-side||"Watch That Man"|
|Released||11 January 1974|
|Lulu singles chronology|
The song was covered by the Scottish singer Lulu in 1974, who, according to biographer David Buckley, performed it in "a sleazy, almost Berlin cabaret style". Lulu would recall Bowie inviting her to a concert he gave after which he met her in his hotel room saying: "I want to make an MF of a record with you [because] you're a great singer." Lulu – "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." Bowie produced the Lulu recording of "The Man Who Sold the World" with Mick Ronson during the July 1973 Pin Ups sessions and also contributed guitar, saxophone and backing vocals. The remainder of the band included Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mike Garson on piano, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums.
Lulu's "The Man Who Sold the World" was released as a single on 11 January 1974 having been introduced by Lulu on the TOTP broadcast of 10 January 1974: the track only made its Top 50 debut (at #27) on the chart dated 26 January 1974 following a reprise performance by Lulu on TOTP two days earlier on 24 January 1974, with a third TOTP performance by Lulu on 7 February 1974 broadcast facilitating a boost from No. 13 to No. 5 on the chart dated 9 February 1974. In her TOTP performances in support of "The Man Who Sold the World" Lulu has been characterized as "dressed and sounding exactly like a diminutive Bowie".
Lulu performed the song in the second-season finale of French and Saunders in 1988.
|Belgian Singles Chart (Ultratop)||24|
|Netherlands Singles Chart||10|
|Irish Singles Chart||8|
|UK Singles Chart (Official Chart Company)||3|
|"The Man Who Sold the World"|
"The Man Who Sold the World" promo single from the album MTV unplugged in New York
|Promotional single by Nirvana|
|from the album MTV Unplugged in New York|
|Recorded||18 November 1993|
|Studio||Sony Music, New York City|
|Nirvana singles chronology|
|MTV Unplugged in New York track listing|
In his journals, Kurt Cobain of the American grunge band Nirvana ranked the album The Man Who Sold the World at number 45 in his top 50 favourite albums. A live rendition of the song was recorded by the band in 1993 during their MTV Unplugged appearance, and it was released on their MTV Unplugged in New York album the following year. The song was also released as a promotional single for the album, and received considerable airplay on alternative rock radio stations. It was also placed into heavy rotation on MTV, peaking at number 3 on MTV's most played videos on 18 February 1995. It also peaked for two weeks at number 7 on Canada's MuchMusic Countdown in March, 1995. Nirvana regularly covered the song during live sets after their memorable acoustic performance up until lead singer Cobain's death in 1994. In 2002, the song was re-released on Nirvana's self-titled "best of" compilation.
Bowie 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. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool". Bowie called Nirvana's cover "heartfelt", noting that "until this [cover], it hadn't occurred to me that I was part of America's musical landscape. I always felt my weight in Europe, but not [in the US]." In the wake of its release, Bowie bemoaned the fact that when he performed the number himself he would encounter "kids that come up afterwards and say, 'It's cool you're doing a Nirvana song.' And I think, 'Fuck you, you little tosser!'"
On 14 February 2016, surviving Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Pat Smear teamed up with contemporary Beck to perform "The Man Who Sold the World" at a pre-Grammy Awards party, in tribute to Bowie, who had died the month prior, with Beck performing the vocals. In 2017, to mark what would have been Kurt Cobain's 50th birthday, the Phonographic Performance Limited released a list of the top twenty most played Nirvana songs on the TV and radio in the UK in which "The Man Who Sold the World" was ranked at number six.
A louder electric guitar cover appears on the band's "Live and Loud" set list.
|Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)||40|
|Canada Top Singles (RPM)||22|
|European Hit Radio Top 40 (Music & Media)||29|
|Iceland (Íslenski Listinn Topp 40)||2|
|US Alternative Songs (Billboard)||6|
|US Mainstream Rock (Billboard)||12|
|US Radio Songs (Billboard)||39|
|US Alternative Top 50 (Radio & Records)||5|
|US Rock Tracks Top 60 (Radio & Records)||12|
|UK Rock and Metal (Official Charts Company)||13|
|US Top Rock Tracks (Radio & Records)||66|
|1998||Kerrang!||United Kingdom||20 Great Nirvana Songs Picked by the Stars||20|
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