My knees were shaking, my cheeks aflame....
Released in April 1971
Recorded at Trident Studios, London
Running time 41:13
Perhaps even more overlooked than its predecessor, Space Oddity, this was by far Bowie's "heaviest" album. Led Zeppelin and Free were strutting all around in 1970-71 so I guess Bowie felt the need to go heavy too. Pity that his reedy voice couldn’t really match the heavy backing in the way that Robert Plant’s or Paul Rodgers’ could, though. Nevertheless, this is still a little-mentioned gem. Musically it is excellent, Tony Visconti's production similarly so. Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey from the future Spiders From Mars are in place now, with Visconti on bass. This was, to all intents and purposes, despite the album's lack of hit singles, the start of Bowie's classic seventies period that would lead to super-stardom in a matter of years.
1. The Width Of A Circle
2. All The Madmen
3. Black Country Rock
4. After All
5. Running Gun Blues
6. Saviour Machine
7. She Shook Me Cold
8. The Man Who Sold The World
9. The Supermen
The album's music is a pretty relentless attack of blues rock mixed with a bit of slightly psychedelic folk rock. Mick Ronson's guitar leads the way with some excellent riffing and yes, Bowie's voice is affected and the lyrics often bizarre, psychological and futuristic but there is still a lot of appeal to the album's unsettling feeling. Apparently, according to Tony Visconti -
"the songs were written by all four of us. We'd jam in a basement, and Bowie would just say whether he liked them or not."
The impression was that Bowie would swan around, tired actor-like, coming and going and occasionally putting some idiosyncratic lyrics to the music. Bowie himself has disputed this, getting annoyed at the suggestion that he didn't write all the songs in their entirety, musically and lyrically. That said, however, he also said that the Young Americans album was created in a fashion similar to the one Visconti described, albeit with a probably more committed Bowie. Either way, I guess it doesn't really matter, because the finished product is actually highly cohesive and credible.
On to the music itself. The new 2015 remastering is top notch. It has a great bass sound on the wonderful, drawn-out intro to the truly magnificent, eight minute The Width Of A Circle . This one of Bowie's first true drawn-out beguiling classics. The drums and Tony Visconti’s impressive bass are to the fore on this track. It builds up slowly with some enticing bass and crystal clear acoustic guitar before some seriously heavy drums kick in, followed by Mick Ronson's marvellously cutting guitar, which is all over the track. It is definitely Bowie's heaviest number thus far.
Lyrically, it is the usual encyclopaedia of references, pronouncements and images, including mystic philosopher Kahlil Gibran and Bowie telling us that "God's young man too". It is a veritable cornucopia of all sorts of stuff and multiple changes of musical pace and ambience.
A memory of it, for me, as a young Bowie fan in the seventies, was seeing the documentary Cracked Actor, I think, advertised with a clip from Hammersmith in 1973 of Bowie singing the line "my knees were shaking, my cheeks aflame.." from this song.
Insanity is a theme that runs right through the heart of this album and it is central to the sad, haunting All The Madmen, initially backed by flute and acoustic guitar but breaking out with some solid drums, heavy rock guitar and that big, rumbling Visconti bass again. Bowie has said that it was written directly about, and for, his half-brother Terry.
It was another heavy track that clearly showed Bowie's new direction. It also has an impressive synthesiser riff (Mick Ronson plays both lead guitar and synthesiser). There is something of The Beatles' late sixties work in the chants and noises in the final fade out.
Black Country Rock. Another heavy backing is to be found on this T. Rex-ish rock number. Bowie intentionally wanted to sound like Bolan. At the time he felt himself the inferior of his friend and wanted to musically emulate him. Visconti contributes a rubbery bass line, especially near the end.
On After All the subject of mental health is visited again, even more so, in this quirky, asylum-inspired acoustic number, with its oddball, haunting "oh by jingo" chanted refrain. The Space Oddity stylophone makes a re-appearance. There is a very Beatles-esque pipe organ (moog synthesiser?) part in the middle. It is a genuinely disturbing song in many ways, full of atmosphere, though, and seems to be another example of Bowie's post-hippy disillusion. Running Gun Blues has Bowie starting in a plaintive voice similar to that he used in the 1966-67 period until it launches into a chugging piece of solid, heavy rock. Ronson's strong guitar lines and some muscular drums kick it firmly along.
Saviour Machine "fades in" and is another heavily-backed rock song but with some of the feel of the Space Oddity material about it, together with a vague hint of Big Brother from Diamond Dogs, particularly in the saxophone (?) break in the middle. Ronson's guitar solo is very early seventies in its style. Again, it is full of excellent guitar, bass and drums. Bowie's voice, despite its high pitch, is also getting stronger and stronger and able to cope with this heavier rock sound.
She Shook Me Cold was definitely album's heaviest track. It is influenced by Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, while there are hints of Led Zeppelin in there, in more than just the title. Apparently Bowie recorded it as a concession to Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey, who were into this sort of heavy jamming thing. The guitar and drum interplay at the end is excellent and by far the heaviest passage of any Bowie track.
The Man Who Sold The World was a change in pace and style from the rest of the album, being a catchy melodic rock number with a hoarse-sounding, echoey vocal from Bowie, some infectious "cheese-grater" percussion, stunning bass lines and an addictive refrain. What was it all about? There are many theories. My late mother, who was a Bowie fan in her late forties at the time, insisted it was about Jesus Christ. I have not seen that interpretation anywhere, but I kind of like my Mum's take on it, and could see what she meant - "you must have died alone, a long long time ago...". Hmm. Maybe.
The Supermen* is a mysterious, brooding, atmospheric track to end the album on. Bowie would return to acoustic, folky rock for the next album, Hunky Dory, and we would never hear him play material like this again.
There was also a re-recorded version of The Supermen that was laid down in 1971:-
This is a re-recording, from 1971, of the final track on 1970's The Man Who Sold The World album. It doesn't have the big, rolling, tympani-style drums of the original nor the sonorous backing vocals. Neither is Bowie's vocal anywhere near so mannered or theatrically high-pitched. This alternate version is pretty Ziggy in many ways, featuring gentle acoustic verses and a far more melodic, tender vocal from Bowie before a big Mick Ronson guitar interjection leads into a robust, solid, riffy chorus. It is very Spiders in its instrumentation and indeed, this is the version Bowie would subsequently play live. Which do I prefer? Both have good points, but if I had to make a choice at gun-point, it would always be this rocky alternate version.
*Incidentally, I much prefer the black and white “high kick” cover that we had in the UK when this was re-released in 1972 to the “man in a dress” one now used. That was the one I grew up with, like the 1973 cover of Space Oddity. Yes I know the picture is from the Ziggy era, but for me the album is always that black cover with the circle of vinyl wear showing through. That is how I remember is when I retrospectively got into it in the summer of 1973. The US cartoon-ish cover artwork featured opposite is, quite frankly, bizarre. Apparently, Bowie had used this image before, in his Beckenham Arts Lab days. The black and white cover seems to suit the album's ambience much better, I feel.
Below is a clip of Bowie performing The Width Of A Circle at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973.