Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most. Note: The interviews in this article were conducted before David Bowie’s death on January 11, 2016.
When David Bowie started to record The Man Who Sold The World in spring 1970, the 23-year-old musician was already at a career crossroads. The previous year, he had a U.K. chart hit with “Space Oddity,” but an early 1970 single, “The Prettiest Star,” featuring Marc Bolan on guitar, was a chart failure. Early, ambitious electric shows he played with his new backing band, The Hype—which featured everyone onstage sporting homemade superhero costumes—were similarly greeted with skepticism, if not outright hostility.
Released in November 1970 in the U.S. and April 1971 in the U.K., The Man Who Sold The World did little to change Bowie’s commercial fortunes. There were no singles released from the album, and it charted in both countries only after a post-Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars reissue. Still, the LP was pivotal in his development as a musician and proved to be a springboard to future, greater heights—especially because the record introduced two new musicians into Bowie’s orbit: guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Woody Woodmansey, who had initially met as bandmates in a Hull, U.K., group called The Rats, and would later be part of the Spiders From Mars.
Ronson came to London in early 1970 to be a part of The Hype at the invitation of then-drummer John Cambridge. The guitarist paid the favor forward several months later after Cambridge left the group, recruiting his old pal Woodmansey to fill the vacant drummer slot and perform on The Man Who Sold The World. “When I first met him, I don’t think I’d heard any songs,” Woodmansey tells The A.V. Club. “I knew there was a guy called David Bowie, but that was all. I’d never heard any music. He was more in the folk area, and we were kind of hard rock, so the two didn’t really go together. I wasn’t a fan of folk music as such.
“But when he played some of the songs he’d written and recorded and demoed, you went, ‘Oh, this guy can write.’ You didn’t like everything he’d done, but you could hear the potential. You could hear when he was really on the ball. As a frontman, even sitting in his lounge when he was playing the songs to you, you went, ‘This guy’s confident. He knows what he’s doing. He knows how to put a song across,’ and you get it.”
The Hype also featured bassist Tony Visconti, who had previously produced Bowie’s 1969 self-titled album, and had worked with T. Rex, The Move, and The Moody Blues. He and the rest of The Hype (and Bowie) lived together at a mansion called Haddon Hall, and converted a basement wine cellar into a rehearsal studio, where they worked for several months before recording The Man Who Sold The World.
“Since we had no distractions, no money, this was our life,” Visconti tells The A.V. Club. “So we lived this album. We took this extremely seriously, and by the time we went into the studio, we knew the songs that we had rehearsed. And yet we still didn’t have enough material. But as a band, we were so tight that we wrote several songs in the studio, like ‘Black Country Rock.’ That was, like, a 10-minute jam session that turned into one of the really great songs on the album.
“I mean, we couldn’t have done that with session musicians,” he continues. “It was very smart of David to want a band. We had both talked about it: ‘We need a band. We just can’t go in the studio with just anybody.’ The most important thing about the album is that we were a band.”
Besides creative chemistry, these band members brought different sonic influences to Bowie’s world and The Man Who Sold The World. Although Woodmansey and Ronson were somewhat green—”It was the first time Mick and I were actually in a proper big London studio with a real producer,” the former recalls—they had vast live experience performing covers and originals indebted to heavier, blues-influenced artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds, and Cream. This electric influence loomed large over The Man Who Sold The World: The pair even told Visconti to go listen to Cream’s Jack Bruce and model his bass playing after him.
From a practical standpoint, having a stable band also ensured The Man Who Sold The World would be finished: Bowie had recently married first wife Angie, and was occasionally absent from the studio. “He was still kind of lovey dovey, and he wasn’t around a lot, so he would just give us the chords and say, ‘Well, this is kind of how it goes, and I haven’t got the lyrics finished on this yet, so just put it together,’” Woodmansey recalls. “So we would just go in the studio and really just jam until we played the chords and throw in ideas. Everybody’s influences helped create the whole thing.” Visconti adds that this scarcity didn’t mean that Bowie didn’t pull his own weight, however. “When he did come into the studio, he had the goods,” the producer says. “He delivered. It was just a bit disarming, sometimes, to know, like, ‘Where’s our lead singer?’ And we couldn’t even find him in the building. But all in all, we were totally satisfied with the results.”
The Man Who Sold The World is greater than the sum of its parts. The LP opens with the 8-minute “The Width Of A Circle,” with Visconti’s prominent bass burbles matching wits with Ronson’s frenzied guitar strokes. “Black Country Rock” is just as its name implies, a loose-limbed hard rock song with a loping vibe. “After All” is marked by alien synthesizers and shaky-voiced gang harmonies creepily intoning, “Oh, by jingo,” like a chorus of the damned, while Woodmansey’s tangled timekeeping drives the sprawling “She Shook Me Cold.” The comparatively sparse title track, meanwhile, boasts psychedelic-warped vocals and almost tropical percussion.
The Man Who Sold The World definitely feels like the first time Bowie became capital-B Bowie—but he paradoxically found this distinctive, unique voice because of his bandmates’ support. “When I listen to his music before we joined him, there were good musicians on it, there were good producers on it,” Woodmansey says. “But I think he was trying to find, ‘Where’s my direction? Is it in musicals? Is it in folk? Am I just a guitarist? Where is the best vehicle for what I can do?’ And I don’t think he really found it.
“He started to find it on The Man Who Sold The World. It was like the rock thing, and at that point [Bowie] had a band behind him that could put something together and let him do his thing. We really did that through all the consequent albums. It was like he would play songs to us and we figured out the best way of making them rock, to be really simple about it.”
The Man Who Sold The World foreshadows what Bowie would eventually go on to accomplish. Musically, it presages the swaggering electric disorientation of Ziggy Stardust and 1973’s Aladdin Sane, but its emphasis on sequencing and mood, as well as deliberate songcraft, informed 1971’s Hunky Dory. Thematically, The Man Who Sold The World‘s songs reference alienation and disillusionment, the idea that the mainstream suppresses those who don’t fit in. Plus, it often delves into dark, paranoid places, between its references to mental illness and war—prescient topics that would become more prevalent as the 1970s unfolded—and warns of religion’s oppressive powers.
“It was a strange album. It was a lot of sci-fi, we were into science fiction,” Woodmansey says. “A lot of the songs were that, and some of them were very dark. There was one track about a guy with a rifle that was just like a sniper killing people, and that’s actually more current now than it was then. A lot of the album is. And it was also kind of the forerunner to some of the tracks that came out later on Hunky Dory and Ziggy. Some of the subjects were the same but they were probably more commercial and more accessible. They were easier to understand. With The Man Who Sold The World, I think you had to listen to it and get into it then figure out what it was about.”
The Man Who Sold The World is an immersive album, a record best experienced in sequence; it’s not a record built around a commercial track primed for radio or the charts. (That the title track became a hit with Lulu in 1974—and, much later, was elevated even more by Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged cover—felt almost like a fluke.) In hindsight, it’s clear the LP helped usher in a decade where complex records with intricate instrumentation and elaborate storylines dominated. Not only were these kinds of ambitious albums encouraged—they became the norm, especially in classic rock. Although prog rock’s origins stretch back into the ’60s, it’s perhaps no accident that the genre’s heyday occurred right after The Man Who Sold The World hit stores. For the first time, Bowie predicted—if not dictated—where music was heading.
“David wrote some of his best songs on the album,” Visconti says. “Not a single among them, except maybe ‘The Man Who Sold the World,’ which Lulu had a single with, but we didn’t care. It wasn’t that important to get a single. Albums were just coming into their own as great art statements. This is, the album was far better than the single, far superior than the single. It had integrity; it was artistic; it was uncompromising.”
Bowie was still making these kinds of album-length artistic statements in the twilight of his life, as evidenced by his critically acclaimed new studio album, Blackstar. Visconti produced this record as well, and says that the studio process—and his creative relationship—with his long-time friend and collaborator wasn’t much different today than it was 45 or so years ago. “Especially with The Man Who Sold The World, we were impressed by The Beatles, like everyone else was,” Visconti says. “And we, as a joke, said, ‘Let’s make this record our Sgt. Pepper. And we used that joke at the beginning of every album. Which means, ‘Let’s do something completely different. Let’s be uncompromising.’ All our pre-album conversations would be like that: ‘What can we do that’s different? What do we bring to the table this time?’
“He also prefaces every album with, ‘This is just an experiment. We might never release this,’” the producer adds. “He did that with Low, and ‘Heroes,’ Scary Monsters, said that every time—’Just in case it doesn’t work out.’ He’ll only announce an album after he’s been in the studio, because he wants to have that safety net. If it sucks, the public’s never going to hear it. If it’s something great, if we actually did pull something amazing off, you will know about it. So our relationship hasn’t changed; it’s always been this way.”
In recent years, the rhythm section of Visconti and Woodmansey have reunited under the moniker Holy Holy to perform The Man Who Sold The World live in concert. (The group, which features Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory as frontman and guitarists James Stevenson and Paul Cuddeford, is currently on a U.S. tour through January 21, which is continuing despite Bowie’s death.) During the late 2015 interviews with The A.V. Club, both men were overjoyed to be finally performing The Man Who Sold The World live—Visconti departed the band after recording, which meant the quartet who recorded the LP never toured behind it—and to elevate its visibility as one of the most important parts of Bowie’s canon.
“A lot of the voices at that time were your classic rock voices like Paul Rodgers, Roger Daltrey, Stevie Winwood,” Woodmansey says. “They all had a similar kind of voice. Bowie was very English, and it wasn’t what you would pick out as a rock ’n’ roll voice. But he had this amazing ability to communicate and use his voice in strange ways and different ways. And it worked. That had started to come out on [The Man Who Sold The World], and it made us stay with him for the rest of the adventure through the whole Ziggy period.
“He was decided, ‘I‘m going to do my thing without any compromise. I’m not going to try and be like anybody else or be influenced as such. I’m just going to write about what I want, and I’m going to do it in a way that I like.’ And from my viewpoint, probably 90 percent of the time through all his albums, he’s kept that viewpoint: ‘I do what I want to do, and I’m not really bothered if anybody else is doing it, or whether they like it or whatever. This is me being true to myself.’”