You’re face… to face… with the man who sold the world! It’s an eerie, jarring lyric. One befit of the Halloween season. Terrorizing and horrifying. But what does it mean? Written by David Bowie and made globally famous by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World,” is rich with thought and musical prowess.
Let’s dive into the history and the meaning of the song below.
Meaning and Origins:
Written by Bowie, the song is the titular song to the British artist’s third album, released in 1970 in the United States and six months later in the U.K. According to lore, Bowie recorded his looming, outer-space-like vocal for the song on the final day of mixing the album.
The song’s music revolves around a guitar riff from six-string player Mick Ronson. But its lyrics are thoughtful and create a sense of impending doom. They were inspired by poems, including the 1899 “Antigonish” by writer William Hughes Mearns.
Despite its popularity now, the song was largely forgotten after its release in the early ’70s. It was never shared as a single by Bowie. In 1973, the song was covered by the Scottish artist Lulu and that 1974 version, which was produced by Bowie and Ronson and had a more vaudevillian feel, hit No. 3 on the U.K. singles chart. More recently, in 1993, Cobain covered the song in the band’s now-famous MTV Unplugged release, featuring acoustic instruments.
The song’s original recording, however, featured Bowie on acoustic, Ronson on electric guitar, Tony Visconti on bass, Woody Woodmansey on drums, and Ralph Mace on Moog synth.
And according to Chris O’Leary, Bowie wrote the lyrics for the song in the reception area of the recording studio while Visconti waited in the mixing booth. Once finished, Bowie quickly recorded his verses with Visconti adding a “flange” effect and then mixing the song right then.
Of the last-minute writing, a frustrated Visconti said in 1977, “This was the beginning of [Bowie’s] new style of writing—’I can’t be bothered until I have to’. When it was finished, on the last day of the last mix, I remember telling David, ‘I’ve had it, I can’t work like this anymore—I’m through…David was very disappointed.”
Visconti’s frustration wasn’t creative as much as practical, worrying about budget and schedule. Of the sessions, Bowie told BBC in 1976, “It was a nightmare, that album. I hated the actual process of making it.”
In terms of the song’s meaning, the track comes in a lineage of prominent work titled “The Man Who Sold…” whether talking about the moon in a sci-fi novella or the Earth in a 1954 DC comic book. There is also the 1968 Brazilian satire, The Man Who Bought the World.
For Bowie, whose song isn’t necessarily thematically connected to these works, the feeling of the song has a sense of annoyance with himself for letting his world be rocked by fame. He’s given up his privacy, his control. His private life is public now. In this way, he’s the man who sold himself out.
There are many possible interpretations of the larger theme and the smaller details of the song—Lulu herself once confessed she had no idea what the song meant—but some believe the song has to do with a distracted ignorance of what’s happening around the singer. Bowie may even encounter a second person in the song who is like him—hence, he sings, “We never lost control.”
But perhaps that meeting is only in his mind, since his “twin,” of sorts, “died alone, a long, long time ago.”
While the song has been covered by hundreds of artists, from Lulu to your next-door neighbor, the most well-known rendition of the song today is by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana in their MTV Unplugged session.
In his journal, Cobain ranked the album from which the song appears at No. 45 of his top 50 favorites. Seattle drummer Chad Channing introduced Cobain to the record. Instead of playing their commercial hits for the MTV show, Nirvana went with more obscure songs, including lesser-known covers. The MTV version peaked at No. 3 on the channel’s most-played videos in 1995.
“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,” Bowie said of the Nirvana cover. “It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool.”
He also said the song was “heartfelt” and “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].”
Bowie later shared that he would play the song at his shows and younger fans would say it was cool he was playing a Nirvana song. Said Bowie, “And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!'”
Yet another bit of his creative life bought and sold…
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