David Bowie celebrated his 69th birthday on Friday, Jan. 8, by releasing his latest album, Blackstar. Two days later music fans around the globe were shocked by his passing. Reportedly, Bowie had been undergoing cancer treatments, a fact that had been kept out of the unrelenting gaze of the media — itself a remarkable achievement in this day and age. Bowie’s death coming so without warning for most of the world has led to a remarkable outpouring of emotion from both his serious fans and those who maybe haven’t been paying as much attention since his major hit-making days in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s hard to imagine a world where Bowie is not out there confounding expectations by heading in new musical directions or collaborating on projects such as Lazarus, a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth currently running at the New York Theater Workshop.
Bowie’s journey in the public eye started as Davy/Davie Jones (his given name was David Robert Jones), recording in the mid-1960s with a string of British mod/R&B outfits. After a series of worthwhile singles didn’t catch on with the public, a name change was precipitated when the rise of the Monkees made another British Davy Jones a household name. Jones became David Bowie with a couple singles for the Pye label, and then signed with Decca’s new, more “progressive” marque, Deram, in late 1966. A few more singles and his self-titled debut album followed, working in the sort of orchestrated Britpop/folk/music hall milieu labelmate Cat Stevens was cracking the British charts with. Still, for Bowie nothing clicked with record buyers in the U.K. or U.S.; the stateside version of his debut album became an instant collectible.
Bowie resurfaced with the Philips label in 1969 with another self-titled album...and this time, a hit single in the U.K., with the unforgettable “Space Oddity.” The album was released by Mercury in the U.S. as Man of Words/Man of Music, and promptly disappeared. (The disc would become a hit a few years later for RCA, when reissued as Space Oddity.) It’s on this album where part of the “David Bowie sound” begins to come into focus: spacy yet anthemic rock, but mostly still acoustic-based. It’s also notable that an important name appears in the credits: Tony Visconti, who performed on or produced records for Bowie off and on right up through Blackstar.
Intriguingly, despite the lack of success up to that time in the States, Bowie’s third album was released some months earlier here than in the U.K. Appearing on Mercury in both countries, The Man Who Sold the World also sported some really weird cartoon artwork in the U.S.; I would have guessed that it was a creation of Mercury’s notoriously sketchy art department, but according to Wikipedia it was drawn by a Bowie associate. The alternate U.K. cover courted controversy with a shot of the artist reclining in a full-length dress. Neither original release dented the charts, though the U.S. must have sold at least some copies in the cut-out bins if nowhere else, as originals do turn up from time to time (unlike Man of Words/Man of Music, which I’ve never seen a copy of). More common in the U.S. is a ubiquitous pirate version; you can tell if you have a real Mercury copy if the matrix numbers in the record’s deadwax are machine stamped rather than handwritten.
The Man Who Sold the World is the place where Bowie becomes Bowie for this listener. Produced by Visconti, it also brings a couple more important names into the arena: Guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey, both of whom would be part of the “Spiders from Mars” band for the next few years as Bowie became a glam rock superstar. The genesis of that sound is most definitely found on Man..., with a definite tilt away from folkiness toward hard rock, but still with enough of a basic acoustic texture to allow for such songs as the moody and mysterious title track.
While The Man Who Sold the World is not as immediately hooky and involving as Hunky Dory or the breakthrough Ziggy Stardust album, it’s the disc I keep coming back to all these years later, gradually unraveling more of what’s going on in the songs. (It probably helps that I didn’t play it to death as a teen like Ziggy, which is seemingly just part of my brain at this point.) If you haven’t heard it, track it down and give it a spin while you consider the life’s work of Mr. Jones. (Mercury SR 61325, 1970; reissued as RCA LSP-4816, 1972)