1970 - When Bowie Learned How to Sell the World
This article is dedicated to the beautiful new picture disc LP of The Man Who Sold the World, a 2016 Record Store Day exclusive limited edition of 5,000 from Rhino that features the original 1970 German cover art. Grab one, and jump into the river holding hands.
When people are asked to mention one of David Bowie's many on-stage personas, most can think of a few. For many, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke come to mind. Others may reference his Berlin years with Iggy Pop wearing great jackets, his quizzical '90s foray into the world of drum & bass (again, great jacket tho), the Zima-fueled dad rock of Tin Machine, the sharp white suit of the Serious Moonlight tour, or the tights and hypnotic balls of Labyrinth. The last image David Bowie ever projected, as the occult-obsessed Lazarus of final LP Black Star (released two days before his death and containing many references to his terminal illness and oncoming demise), may go down as one of one of his most notable and memorable in the years to come... a truly remarkable trick for a 69 year old rock star to perform, especially with a heavy knock at the door. But David Bowie behaving remarkably had become unremarkable by the end of his career, which is a testament not only to his talent but to his work ethic. While the Beatles did little more than insert a few lyrics and don some colorful outfits in order to become Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Stones did even less per request of Lucifer, Bowie was a bit more method in the way he went about formulating and portraying his characters.
Obviously he largely borrowed from himself: a fear of flight, a cocaine diet, and a blinding amount of sex will go a long way towards assisting anyone who desires to play a detached paranoiac. That said, to lean too heavily on David Bowie's personal story when interpreting his music would be a mistake. Ziggy Stardust was not just the Nazz with God-Given Ass, but also a tribute to the make up, costumes, and acting techniques of Japan's Kabuki and Noh theater traditions. Ziggy's Messianic qualities could easily be attributed to a wink at the unhinged fervor inspired by bands like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and T-Rex in the UK. Bowie's next major character, Aladdin Sane, was a composite of the frantic independent Americans that both inspired and terrified Bowie during his first tour of the USA (you may recall the lyric 'no one needs anyone, they don't even just pretend' from "I'm Afraid of Americans"). In fact, the iconic lightning bolt painted across Aladdin Sane's face (that now regretablly adorns everything from vodka to cat memes) was derived from Elvis' "TCB" logo.
It's quite evident that there's a good deal of glass onion to peel when it comes to Bowie's most famous personas, but just as an amateur glass blower can't make a sweet water pipe bearing Jerry Garcia's likeness on his first try, Bowie's ability to sell his characters was learned, and the hard way. Early attempts as a rock'n'roll sax god in the Konrads, or as a twee folk troubadour fell flatter than the plastic they were pressed upon, and by 1969 Bowie had 9 unsuccessful singles under his belt, and more and more room to store them there. Perhaps this is why he decided to enter the novelty singles market with "Space Oddity", a well timed release that spoke of countdowns and astronauts just as NASA's Apollo missions were reaching their signature achievement. "Space Oddity" was a hit song, and time has since declared it a classic, but things did not appear that way for Bowie and producer Tony Visconti as it toppled its way back down the charts like a rag doll falling over itself.
Having already played their novelty card, Bowie and Visconti reached out for a little bit of star power, and roped in Marc Bolan of T-Rex to feature on Bowie's next single, "The Prettiest Star". In 1970 Bolan was piping hot... in the UK he was the hottest thing since the Fab Four... but even his mighty axe was unable to generate any interest in whatever Major Tom had up his sleeve. It was apparent that Bowie had very little time to strike before his expiration date, and that "Space Oddity" was every bit as much an albatross as it was a notch in his belt. Desperate for some positive attention, Bowie gathered a group together, a proper band called The Hype, and performed an incendiary set dressed in superhero costumes. Let's just say that crowds didn't love it, because it hurts to say that they in reality were laughed off the stage.
No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater... the truth was that the band Bowie had assembled was an expert group of performers. This counted double for The Hype's guitarist, Mick "Ronno" Ronson, a prodigious talent who was beginning to make a name for himself working with the likes of Elton John. Ronson possessed a searing signature sound that landed somewhere between a crying alien baby and pulled taffy on the electromagnetic spectrum. While Bowie decided not to join the Hype as they pursued a single for Vertigo Records rechristened as 'Ronno' ("4th Hour of My Sleep"), he did decide to recruit them as his backing band when sessions began for The Man Who Sold the World in 1970. Here he learned a trick that he relied on for the rest of his career: lean really, really hard on your band. Hiring trusted musicians to largely inform the sound of his records enabled Bowie to focus on what he did best: lyrics, imagery, and performance. When Bowie had previously ran the show musically, his tendency to mimic turned his releases into a grab bag of different sounds... "the Dylan song", "the T Rex song", "the Beatles song", etc. But by assembling this group of serious players and letting them rip, he finally had a sound he could call his own (even if it wasn't), a muscular and energetic rock that effectively channeled his lyrical themes of dissociation, magic, and hedonism. Take "The Width of a Circle" as a case in point; the interplay between Mick Ronson (guitar), Woody Woodmansey (drums), and Tony Visconti (Bass) is truly electrifying, and Ronson takes a healthy solo for himself in the 3rd minute, and an iconic repetitive descending riff works its way into the song. It is this instrumentation that elevates what could have simply been another forgettable Donovan/Dylan exercise from Bowie. In another genius move, on "Black Country Rock", the band takes a Ray Daviesesque folk song and weaves a dynamic arrangement every which way around the lyric until the song becomes a hornet's nest of guitar, and all drink to the death of the clown.
The music was there, but Bowie knew after the Hype's live show reception that he could not have another publicity misstep. Wanting to play off the ominous nature of the music, Bowie first tapped cartoonist friend Michael Weller to do the UK cover. Weller's design featured a would-be shooter standing in front of a clocktower. While interesting and more than a little creepy, Bowie thought twice and had an alternate cover done up: a portrait photograph of himself in a "man's dress" designed by London favorite (and inventor of the kipper tie) Michael Fish. The soft androgynous nature of the photo played wonderfully against the wiry fury of the music. In addition, the dress cover put Bowie and his bold personality front and center, rather than burying him as a voice on his own album. It also must be noted that in 1970 a man in a dress was no small controversy for the general record buying public. Bowie finally had his first winning combination. He continued to wear the dress during promotional press for the album, and when The Man Who Sold the World was released in November 1970, critics from the NME, Rolling Stone, and Melody Maker buzzed with adulation. The androgynous imagery, the cryptic occult lyrics, the handsome face, the furious rock'n'roll beneath it all... They were sold.