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Old 12-04-2021, 02:49 PM   #4 (permalink)
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The Man Who Sold the World (1970)

I'm told this was the album that began the “classic” Bowie period, and also served as his first steps into what would become glam rock and even heavy metal. It also kicks off the long association with the man who would become synonymous with his music, guitarist Mick Ronson. It certainly starts heavily enough, with a big feedback guitar which then powers into a whole hard rock groove recalling the likes of Purple and Free as well as T-Rex. Bowie's vocal when it comes in is harder too, somewhat bitter to a degree. There's some great riffing from Ronson and the piano has taken something of a backseat, as have the other acoustic instruments, such as the flute, recorder and acoustic guitar and indeed cello. Great smoking solo from Ronson as the song really takes off and Bowie is already reinventing himself. From the soft-spoken, somewhat shy raconteour of the last two albums, he's suddenly moving into the role he would describe on his fifth album as a “leper messiah”, and entreating - actually, ordering - us all to follow him on his magical, mysterious, magnificent journey as he explores the limits of his musical talent and creativity: limits which, we were to discover over forty-some years, hardly even existed.

Slowing down now in the middle with what I can only describe as a sawing motion on the guitar (Plankton or Chula or someone can explain it better I'm sure) and the whole song takes on an almost, again, messianic aura before it jumps into a blues groove recalling the twelve-bar blues of the likes of Quo and The Doors. Not quite sure how he managed to fit so much into eight minutes, but I'm exhausted already and it's only the first track! Slowing down again for the big finish, and into “All the Madmen”, on which we hear the return of the acoustic guitar, Bowie going back a little to the folk songs off the first two albums, Tony Visconti's flute piping up before Ronson shoulders all aside with a big nasty electric guitar barrage, leaning into Thin Lizzy territory at times (though this would have been before they developed that sound, so, once again, Bowie and his crew lead the way). The flute, somewhat incongruous but perhaps appropriate in a song about mad people jumps in again before Ronson hammers at the frets again to re-establish order.

Sounds like a violin there but may very well be the Moog, who knows? Answers on a postcard, or in a comment please. Fine group vocal in the closing chorus as it fades down and into “Black Country Rock”, with a deceptively gentle guitar taken out rather quickly by the snarling electric. Very thick bass line running through this, then in total contrast “After all” is a soft, gentle acoustic ballad (well, mostly acoustic) with some gospel-style singing in the backing vocalist department and an almost funereal aspect to it. There's a really nice ... I don't know what is is, sounds like a kazoo, probably Moog, riff running alongside the guitar at times, and a really angelic ending. Something of a manic vocal opening “Running Gun Blues” against an acoustic guitar then some heavy percussion fires the song into life (how the hell did he rhyme “rifle” with “disciple”?) and it becomes another hard rock bluesy thumper.

Another dystopian future explored in “Saviour Machine” with a sort of swaying rhythm and one of Bowie's best vocal performances in my opinion so far. This probably would have benefitted from orchestral backing, but the effects on the synth work nearly as well. Sweet solo from Ronson, augmented by a beautiful arpeggio on the keys, then it's back to hard rock and sexual innuendo (or not really even innuendo; it's pretty overt) with “She Shook Me Cold” before we hit the title track, and the only one I knew before I began this album. I've always loved the mysterious, enigmatic and somehow cold idea of a man selling the world, ever since I heard this on the back of my sister's single of “Life on Mars?” I have no idea what it's about, but the idea totally intrigues me, and the way it's played, that repeating guitar riff, the bossa-nova (?) rhythm, both incongrous and perfectly fitting the song, the lonely, haunted organ sound, to say nothing of the conversation between Bowie and the Man, all strike a real chord with me. Bowie says to him “I thought you'd died alone, a long long time ago?” and with a chuckle of pure malevolence the Man sneers, “Oh no, not me: I never lost control. You're face to face with the man who sold the world.” Freaky. Love the ending, the guitar riff fading out over the kind of mournful, desolate keening chant. Love that song.

That leaves us with “The Supermen” to take the album to its conclusion, and it's brought in on pounding, tumbling percussion with something akin to a continuation of the chant from the end of the title track, a sharp, almost spoken vocal from Bowie with a sense of African tribal chants mixed with gospel in the backing vocals while Bowie rants on and Ronson keeps a tight hold over the guitar for once. Well, for about half the song, then he lets rip with total abandon. Perfect closer.


Width of a Circle
All the Madmen
Black Country Rock
After All
Running Gun Blues
Saviour Machine
She Shook Me Cold
The Man Who Sold the World
The Supermen

Definitely a heavier Bowie album than anything I've experienced up to now. I can see how it's seen as the one that began his career proper, as it were. The arrival of Mick Ronson puts a whole new slant on things, and while Bowie has been accused of not paying too much attention to the music due to being newlywed at the time, I don't see it reflected in what I heard here. But then, he was the consummate professional, and has refuted such allegations, and in the wake of his death I'm not about to bring them up again. Another fine album, looking forward to the next one.

Rating: 8.5/10
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