I did a thing this week: I catalogued every record I own in Discogs. I have 93 releases on vinyl. It’s not a ton, but it’s enough to start taking a closer look at some of those records, particularly ones I picked up in grab bags and from boxes on the curb, things I have expressly for the purpose of filling out a collection.
Happily, when browsing my collection on Discogs, I noticed the link that brings you to a random release from the collection. Every week I’ll be grabbing a random record, listening to it, and writing about it, because…well, because why not?
This week: David Bowie’s iconic The Man Who Sold the World.
* * *
The picture that would eventually become the commonly-accepted American cover for The Man Who Sold the World once the Bowie canon was released on CD is an odd one; David Bowie in a “man’s dress” was certainly a statement in the early ’70s, but it seems oddly muted and domestic today. while it makes sense that the cover might have made American executives nervous in the ’70s (hence its relegation to UK-only status), by the time the ’90s came around, its dull color palette and tame, posed look allowed it to fade into the background almost too easily when presented alongside Bowie’s many other iconic album covers. Okay, maybe Michael Weller’s cartoon was a little too “’70s schtick” to attract much attention, the black and white stage photo was a little too “unofficial bootleg”, and the German cover was a little too “bad acid trip”.
OK, maybe it’s not so surprising that “Bowie in a dress” ended up becoming the album cover of record for this one.
That said, the German cover, despite the off-putting orange-ish red color that dominates it, may well be the most interesting of the variations, throwing a surreal fantasy spin onto the vaguely celestial aura that Bowie’s to-that-point solitary hit had granted him. It was also a novelty in its construction; what starts as a standard square 12″ record sleeve unfolds into a beautiful circle — perhaps a reference to album-opener “Width of a Circle” — that offers Bowie as hand-shaped pegasus, ready to flick away a small, insignificant earth. It’s almost too on-the-nose in its foreshadowing imagery, even if nobody at the time had any idea of the phenomenon that Bowie would become.
Thanks to Record Store Day 2016, this cover has another chance to shine, this time printed as a picture disc in a clear plastic sleeve. It’s a beautiful record, one of the nicest-looking pieces in my own collection, and it doesn’t sound half-bad either. It is Bowie, after all.
The Man Who Sold the World is the sound of Bowie breaking into good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll, with some early metal stylings a la Led Zeppelin. That said, the only place where the pure rock really works is on opener “Width of a Circle” which, despite sounding like two songs tenuously squished together, is the closest that this album comes to a real groove, something you could leave on in the background and absentmindedly rock out to while doing something else. “Width of a Circle” is a fantastic eight minutes, and the version offered to us on this LP is the remastered one where you can actually hear the vocals (a revelation after spending years listening to the Rykodisc version).
Bowie rocks out elsewhere, but it’s clear he’s still figuring out how to do so. “Black Country Rock” is the lowlight of side A, and it’s a cute Marc Bolan sendup, but it never quite gets going despite Bowie’s cute wordplay and playful vocal mannerisms. Side B starts with a block of three more songs that offer loud guitars and fine melodies but also suffer from an awkward sense of rhythm. “Running Gun Blues” is an anti-Vietnam screed that shocks with its violent imagery but never achieves the momentum it strives for, “Saviour Machine” is a parable of sorts that sounds big, epic, and somehow totally forgettable, and “She Shook Me Cold” is about as clinical and unsexy as a song about a sexual encounter should have any right to be. There’s nothing in particular wrong with these tracks, but they are a reminder that while Bowie has a near-unlimited library of unforgettable anthems, he wasn’t perfect, and had plenty of deep cuts that have rightly been lost to obscurity.
That said, when Bowie slows down a bit, he’s brilliant as you’d expect. “All the Madmen” is a loving tribute to insanity (and probably a comment on society that I’m not prepared to parse right now), “After All” is as downcast as he ever got, and “The Supermen,” while not a quiet track, is very patient in its build to multiple climaxes within the space of a mere three and a half minutes. Then, of course, there is the brilliant title track, a song whose melodies and words are beautiful enough in the context of this album to make you forget, just for a moment, that Kurt Cobain’s performance of it twenty-odd years later actually managed to eclipse Bowie’s.
(I feel like I should mention: In general, I have never been a tremendous fan of Nirvana. That said, Cobain’s performance of “The Man Who Sold the World” is one of my own defining memories of ’90s music, his heartfelt and loose vibe actually a more affecting read than Bowie’s comparatively stilted original.)
I already mentioned that the mix on this edition is indeed the remastered audio of some of the more recent reissues; for the most part, the vinyl mix sounds fantastic. There is a little bit of extraneous noise on side B, which is not unique to my copy if a cursory internet search is to be believed. That said, a little bit of vinyl scratch is good for the soul, and for the most part, it sounds extremely crisp and full for an album from 1970.
Look, I get it. If you love Bowie, you’ve heard all these songs before, and you don’t need another copy of music you already have. There are no bonus tracks, there are no little hidden goodies. Its only real selling point is that it looks nice.
I’ve bought re-printed versions of books before, too, just because they look nice. They feel nicer in your hand. They give you a new perspective on the music. For a certain segment of the music-buying public, this is enough. Putting it on the turntable, this edition feels special. I’m glad it’s in my collection.