I bought this album upon its re-release, on RCA, in 1972 and was not disappointed.
After seeing DB on 'Lift Off' and 'TOTP', performing 'Starman', like thousands of others I was intrigued by the man. Here was the Messiah we had all been waiting for. Following 'Starman' with 'John, I'm Only Dancing', which I rushed out to buy, as well as his then current Album 'Ziggy Stardust', I saw the RCA advertisements for this album and 'Space Oddity'. 'Make room for two new Bowie albums' said the blurb. So I did.
'The Man Who Sold The World' begins with 'The Width of a Circle' projecting the listener into a world of Devil worship, homo-eroticism and schizophrenia, through heavy rock, permeated by Bowie's ubiquitous 12 string guitar. The 'rhythm section' of Ronson, Visconti and Woodmansey assault your ears with throbbing, heavy, yet melodic rock. Bowie'e voice sounds distant and other-worldly as he meets himself, falls into the 'pit of fear' then concludes with a homo-erotic encounter with God! At eight minutes long, this track, itself, is enough to warrant buying the album. This is, indeed, virgin territory for rock music and shows how David Bowie was well ahead of the rest, even in 1970.
The whole album is consistent in its arrangements that make the most of Ronson's mult-tracked guitars, Visconti's throbbing bass and Woodmansey's manic drums. For me, the really pleasing effect is Bowie's casually-strummed 12 string guitar (his trademark) throughout most of the songs. This folky instument gives the whole album its consistency, a connection with its author and a rather 'English' feel, throughout. The arrangements are brilliantly augmented, on several tracks, with an early Moog synthesizer, played by Ralph Mace. This instrument makes Bowie's music even more stark, 'other-worldly' and futuristic, with 'Saviour Machine' showing us what Bowie would be doing four years later with 'Big Brother'. The lyrics on all the songs reek of alienation, fear,madness, uncertainly and extreme solutions to the problems of the world in 1970.
But, for me, the stand-out track is 'All The Madmen', which is Bowie at his most brilliant, original and innovative best. The use of Mick Ronson's descant recorders, backed by his thundering guitar and Mace's wall of synthetic sound really does make your hair stand on end! The varying dynamics and tempi of this song serves to illustrate the subject matter. Starting with just voice and 12 string guitar and ending with an orchestra of heavy rock and synths, backing the demented, sing-along chant of 'Ouvre le chien' ('open the dog'), this track remains the most frightening and memorable Bowie song, ever. The words speak of 'Mansions, cold and grey','taking people away', 'lobotomies' and, most disturbing 'I'd rather stay here with all the madmen, 'cause I'm quite content they're all as sane as me.' Bowie did actually say, in an interview at the time (1972) that 'If I wasn't doing what I'm doing now, I'd either be in the nuthouse or in prison'. The song alludes to Bowie's half-brother, Terry, who was, at the time, incarcerated in a mental institution in Kent, called Cane Hill and this place can be seen, illustrated on the cover of the American release of this album.
The rest of the album is consistently melodic, detatched and 'full-sounding'. There is a heavy reliance on Mick Ronson, at his very best. Other stand-out tracks are: the title track and 'The Supermen', both songs having remained in the Bowie live repertoire for most of his career. That speaks volumes for Bowie's own perceived quality of these songs. This album is heavy rock at its most original, in both the subject-matter of the lyrics and the wonderful arrangements. Having recently married, Bowie left much of the work to Ronson & Visconti, while he ker-noodled with Angie at Haddon Hall. Having said that, when Visconti did manage to get him in the studio, he delivered. Maybe his apparent half-heartedness unwittingly added to the 'detatched' and 'distant' manner of his vocal delivery and the album's overall alienating tone?
This is an album that showcases an artist on the way up. There is no crass commercialism, even though he couldn't have been 'flush' at the time and every playing of the album sounds fresh, every time. 'The Man Who Sold the World' gives us a glimpse of some things that were to come, although Bowie has always been brave anough and orininal enough to change direction, just when he seems to have found a winning formula. Thank Heaven for that. Mediocrity never found him until the 1980s. His next album, 'Hunky Dory' couldn't be more different, but nor is it much less exciting, if less manic.
Buy this album and hear him at his very best.