David Bowie’s classic proto-metal third album gets a new stereo facelift from its original producer
David Bowie’s early career was a muddled affair.
After a series of unnoticed mid-sixties singles from various short-lived bands through which he flitted, his ill regarded first solo album landed with a folky whimper. Two years later he finally charted with “Space Oddity” but when the song reappeared on his second self-titled album, public interest had already waned.
Ultimately it was Bowie’s fusion of the yin and yang of his third and fourth albums–the acid-rocking The Man Who Sold the World and the more tuneful Hunky Dory–that yielded a success formula, resulting in his subsequent worldwide stardom as Ziggy Stardust.
In 1970, Bowie was so imbalanced by his inability to follow up on the success of “Space Oddity” that he briefly gave up on being a solo artist and decided to form a band. The Hype was the prototype for the more realized alter ego glam characters in The Spiders From Mars, and included two of the same members. Rainbowman, Hypeman, Gangsterman, and Cowboyman were short-lived characters, but the musicians who played them remain immortal.
American bassist and producer Tony Visconti had worked with Bowie on the album that was later reissued as Space Oddity. He saw Bowie’s potential, and was interested in forming a heavy band in the vein of Cream. Guitarist Mick Ronson was Bowie’s pick; Ronson eventually brought along drummer Woody Woodmansey. Cream may have been the vision but the resulting band sounds closer to early Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
Because The Man Who Sold the World was darker and heavier than any Bowie album before or since, it was the first I gravitated to. Of course I’d heard his radio hits. And I’d enjoyed watching the Goblin King in Labyrinth juggle his balls (though personally I lean hard toward Dark Crystal, and Neverending Story). My mother dug Bowie; like many Americans of her generation, she pronounced it “Boo-ie.” Our family watched the edited concert video of the Glass Spider tour that ABC aired in 1988.
So for anyone who finds Bowie’s pop catalog to be on the lite side, or for any fans that simply haven’t delved into his murky early period, The Man Who Sold the World is a gift and a revelation. Here his fascinations with Kafka, Nietzche, and Aleister Crowley are on full display. He observes the brutality of the Vietnam War without flinching. And all the while his backing band absolutely crushes.
For decades, aficionados have debated whether Visconti mixed his own bass too loud. Granted, Ken Scott engineered the album, and he worked with the Beatles from A Hard Day’s Night through the Love soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil. Scott’s work on Abbey Road pushed the boundaries of how a rock album could sound.
In 1970, rhythm sections were largely relegated to the background. Few groups besides The Who and Led Zeppelin were working hard to tip that scale. Lovers of low end relished Visconti’s mix. Others found it heavy-handed, or even unlistenable. To me it was and is perfection. Kurt Cobain agreed, marking The Man Who Sold the World #45 on his list of top 50 favorite albums.
The album was issued in the U.S. in 1970 with a cartoonish sleeve graphic loosely based on a photo of John Wayne. In early ’71 the UK release featured an iconic photo of Bowie reclining in a dress. The ’72 reissue cover is a stark black and white photo of a high kicking Ziggy Stardust—that’s the LP I’ve owned for decades. Parts of continental Europe even got a fourth cover image, with Bowie’s head attached to a giant hand, making him out to be some mythical beast, which I suppose he is.
In 2020, Tony Visconti went back to the master tapes, creating a brand new stereo remix of the album. Parlophone also hired the original artist Mick Weller to restore his cowboy cartoon sleeve. The album’s working title Metrobolist returned as well, a nod to Fritz Lang’s classic silent sci-fi film, and a means to keep buyers from confusing a remix with a remaster.
For the aforementioned chasers of bass, stick with the original LP, or pick up the universally acclaimed 2015 remaster. That’s the way the album was made to sound. If you don’t own any version whatsoever, or you’re enough of a fan to want to hear Visconti’s facelift, Metrobolist is worth a listen and some shelf space.
The album sounds as good as it ever has: drums are gifted more sonic space, the old-fashioned hard-panned stereo fields are corrected, and a lot of the subtleties of the mix are brought to the forefront. It’s a classy, respectful treatment of the material, too generally subtle to be revelatory or controversial. For better or worse, Visconti’s bass no longer feels over-emphasized. Fanatics will mostly notice fine details, such as Bowie’s count off on “The Man Who Sold the World” or the refocusing of the layered psychedelic transition at the 4:20 mark in “The Width of a Circle.”
For some reason Bowie’s original desired track order has been published but never employed. Thankfully digital technology makes it a cinch to craft a playlist; I’m not sure I ever want to hear it any other way ever again. It’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t want the album to end with “After All.” In fact that’s the one song Visconti didn’t bother to remix. Whether you choose to believe that’s because it was perfect in the first place, or that the master tapes were misplaced, is up to you.
Going in ‘machete-order,’ “The Supermen” is the perfect Side One kickoff. Woodmansey’s drums now step into the spotlight from the word go. This song delves into the power of the gods of yore, setting the stage temporally in the nightmarish, mist-shrouded past. The band grooves hard, with Bowie crooning, “No death for the perfect men!” – a fitting epithet for an album that still rules fifty years after it was initially ignored by the public.
“Saviour Machine” fades in second, reaching top volume quicker in the new remix than it did in the original. Black Sabbath’s Iron Man killed the people he once saved. Conversely Bowie’s supercomputer ends war, feeds the poor, then actually implores its worshippers to destroy it and seize their own destiny. “Don’t let me stay…my logic says burn so send me away.” Talk about benevolent circuitry!
Bowie takes on the persona of a soldier gone postal in “Running Gun Blues” bolstered by a series of heavy riffs. Ronson busts out his slide mid-song with tremendous results. On Visconti’s 2020 mix, there are gunshot sound effects added to the initial tom hits, just in case you didn’t get the idea.
Things get even more devastating on “She Shook Me Cold” the most overtly metal tune in Bowie’s entire catalog. This tale of sexual conquest is a blues sung by a man who once met his equal and still pines for that unmatched encounter long after the fact.
Whether you first heard “The Man Who Sold the World” on Nirvana’s Unplugged album, or in its original form, it’s a haunting, melancholy tune that digs deep. In both cases it’s sung by a young icon considering his place in the world, in musical conversation with an older self he may or may not live to meet. Bowie eventually made it there. Cobain obviously did not.
VIDEO: David Bowie performs “The Man Who Sold The World” on Live at the BEEB 2000
No matter which interpretation you take on “Black Country Rock” (could be about the midlands around Birmingham that spawned Zeppelin and Sabbath, could be about appropriation of music genres, could be about mountains of coke…) it’s another joyous rocker that gives Mick Ronson a showcase for his six strings.
“The Width of a Circle” is an eight-minute epic, the opening track on every released version of The Man Who Sold the World, including Metrobolist. This shredding rocker unfurls like a Grimm fairy tale. Bowie evaluates his newfound taste for sexual exploration, finding himself “swept back home in drag” as if it’s part of some Faustian bargain. Hard to argue with the rewards he reaped.
“All the Madmen” must have been close to Bowie’s heart as it’s the lone song from this set that was still being performed live two decades later. His half-brother Terry was a schizophrenic, committed to the same Cane Hill Hospital that is depicted in the background of the cowboy cartoon cover art of the first US pressing, and the new remix. References to insanity abound on this album, but nowhere so overtly as in this tune.
“After All” is simply one of the most beautiful songs from Bowie’s immense discography. This creepy, circus-inflected waltz was favored by the first wave of goth rockers as a profound influence. Crowley’s ghost drifts through, singing, “Live your rebirth and do what you will.” Some argue that it’s only on these early albums that Bowie sings as himself, rather than through the filter of a character he created.
Critics had nice things to say about The Man Who Sold the World, but it did not sell—not, at least, until the success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust ignited a reissue campaign two years later. Tony Visconti eventually returned to produce more Bowie albums, but he did not deign to be a Spider himself. By his account, Bowie spent most of the writing sessions for Metrobolist lying on the couch with his wife, only scratching down lyrics at the last possible second.
No matter how or when he made his contributions, Bowie and his bandmates left us with a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that lives up to every artistic work it paid homage.
And in 1970 terms, in or out of a dress, it’s heavy as balls.