Almost exactly a year after the David Bowie (Space Oddity) album, David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World appeared in November of 1970. Whereas the year before, Bowie was on a more dreamy hippie trip, this new release had a distinctly harder edge with many tracks sounding like the advent of heavy metal. Tony Visconti was back to produce and this time had plenty of input from guitarist Mick Ronson.
First track, “The Width of a Circle” sets the tone early with a heavy Ronson guitar lick along with the dexterous drumming of Mick Woodmansey. Double tracked vocals on the vocals are effective on “All the Madmen” about Bowie’s half brother Terry who at that time had been hospitalized for mental illness. “After All” features a melancholy circus organ that sounds like a waltz for the dead.
No singles were released from the album and most fans under the age of 50 would know the title track better from Nirvana’s version that appeared on 1994’s MTV Unplugged in New York. The famous guitar riff leads into Bowie’s treated vocals and a moog synthesizer adds an ethereal quality to the whole affair. Using a Jimmy Page guitar line given years before, “The Superman” closes out the album.
This is certainly a departure from the previous year as much of The Man Who Sold the World sounds like a hard rock band that Bowie was fronting. Besides the Nirvana cover, the most famous item is the photo of Bowie posing in a dress that was eventually adopted as the final album cover. Still, there is a way forward here where glam gets introduced to the sound and Ziggy Stardust is eventually born.
In 2015, David Bowie started releasing remastered versions of all his albums and spreading them out over several box sets in a project that still continues. The first disc to appear on Five Years (1969-1973) is not his self-titled debut but rather 1969’s self-titled more commonly referred to as Space Oddity. Because of this, our David Bowie review journey will start here and hope to be done by the time we reach retirement age as we work through all the sets….
The standout is the title track and first song to appear on the album. A staggering work that seems teleported from outer space, “Space Oddity” is tailor made for late night rock radio. The lyrics have the listener float among the stars while the guitar hook halfway through is one every rock fan has memorized. A countdown appears in the background and just after it hits “lift off”, the song sets its controls for the sun and explodes into sound. While the rest of the album was produced by long time collaborator Tony Visconti, “Space Oddity” was cast off to Gus Dudgeon who helped create one of Bowie’s best loved songs.
The rest of the album struggles to be as important as the
title track but not for a lack of ambition on some of the longer songs. The
nearly seven minute “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” about an unwashed
hippie dating a rich girl features some great harmonica and horns. Bowie loses
the hippie dream on the unwieldly “Cygnet Committee” that veers in several
directions. Second single “Memory of a
Free Festival” about a festival Bowie played the year before closes out with
the mantra, “sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party”
The remaster brightly highlights the bass on “Janine” and “An Occasional Dream” could easily slide onto a Belle & Sebastian album from the 90s. Elsewhere, a woman steals a can of stewing steak and declares “God Knows I’m Good” and that “God may look the other way today”. The orchestral “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is a bit ridiculous but compelling at the same time. This pretty much sums up Space Oddity as a whole. It has many snippets of music that Bowie would later perfect on future albums so there are not many reasons to return here other than for the title track. Nonetheless, it is an interesting portrait of an artist starting to find his feet.