"The Man Who Sold the World" is a song written and performed by David Bowie. It is the title track of his third album, released in the U.S. in November 1970 and in the UK in April 1971. The song has been covered by a number of other artists, notably by Lulu in 1974, and Nirvana in 1993. The song was reworked by Bowie, featuring a heavy bassline, güiro as percussion and a notably darker mood, for performances in concerts between 1995 to 1997, including the 1995 MTV Europe Music Awards. Bowie later returned to playing the original version in the 2000s.


 [hide*1 Inspiration and explanation

Inspiration and explanation[edit]Edit

The song's title is similar to that of Robert A. Heinlein's 1949 science fiction novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, with which Bowie was familiar.[1] However, the song has no similarities to the story in the book. The persona in the song has an encounter with a kind of doppelgänger, as suggested in the second chorus where "I never lost control" is replaced with "We never lost control".[2] Beyond this, the episode is unexplained: as James E. Perone wrote,

Bowie encounters the title character, but it is not clear just what the phrase means, or exactly who this man is. … The main thing that the song does is to paint – however elusively – the title character as another example of the societal outcasts who populate the album.[3]

In common with a number of tracks on the album, the song's themes have been compared to the horror-fantasy works of H. P. Lovecraft.[4] The lyrics are also cited as reflecting Bowie's concerns with splintered or multiple personalities, and are believed to have been partially inspired by the poem "Antigonish" by William Hughes Mearns:[5]

Last night I saw upon the stair

A little man who wasn’t there He wasn’t there again today Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

In the BBC Radio 1 special programme "ChangesNowBowie", broadcast on 8 January 1997, Bowie was interviewed by Marianne Hobbs and was asked about the song. Bowie commented: "I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for. Maybe now that I feel more comfortable with the way that I live my life and my mental state (laughs) and my spiritual state whatever, maybe I feel there's some kind of unity now. That song for me always exemplified kind of how you feel when you're young, when you know that there's a piece of yourself that you haven't really put together yet. You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are."[6]

Other releases[edit]Edit

  • "The Man Who Sold the World" appears as a B-side on the American single releases for the songs "Space Oddity" (1972) and "Life on Mars?" (1973). It also appears on various Bowie compilations.
  • Bowie performed the song live in 1979 with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias on Saturday Night Live. A portion of this show is included in the film The Nomi Song.
  • A re-recorded version produced by Brian Eno appears as a B-side on the 1995 CD single for the song, "Strangers When We Meet". This version also appears on the bonus disc that followed some versions of Outside - Version 3.
  • A live version recorded at BBC Radio Theatre, London, on 27 June 2000 was released on the bonus disc accompanying the first releases of Bowie at the Beeb in 2000.
  • A November 2003 live performance from the A Reality Tour is featured on the A Reality Tour DVD, released in 2004, as well as the A Reality Tour album, released in 2010.
  • A portion of the song appears on the conclusion of Season Five, Episode Seven of the TV series Fringe. The episode is "Five-Twenty-Ten."

Cover versions[edit]Edit


"The Man Who Sold the World"
Single by Lulu
B-side "Watch That Man"
Released 11 January 1974
Format 7" single
Recorded 1973
Genre Glam rock
Label Polydor
Writer(s) David Bowie
Producer(s) David BowieMick Ronson
Lulu singles chronology
"Make Believe World"


"The Man Who Sold the World"


"The Man with the Golden Gun"


The song was covered by the Scottish singer Lulu in 1974, who, according to biographer David Buckley, performed it in "a sleazy, almost Berlin cabaretstyle".[7] Lulu would recall Bowie inviting her to a concert he gave after which he met her in his hotel room saying: "I want to make an MF of a record with you [because] you're a great singer." Lulu - "I didn't think it would happen but [Bowie] followed up two days later. He was übercool at the time and I just wanted to be led by him. I loved everything he did. I didn't think 'The Man Who Sold the World' was the greatest song for my voice, but it was such a strong song in itself. I had no idea what it was about. In the studio Bowie kept telling me to smoke more cigarettes, to give my voice a certain quality."[8] Bowie produced the Lulu recording of "The Man Who Sold the World" with Mick Ronson during the Pin Ups sessions and also contributed guitar, saxophone and backing vocals. The remainder of the band included Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mike Garson on piano, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums.[9]

Lulu's "The Man Who Sold the World" was released as a single on 11 January 1974 having been introduced by Lulu on the TOTP broadcast of 10 January 1974: the track only made its Top 50 debut (at #27) on the chart dated 16 January 1974 following a reprise performance by Lulu on 24 January 1974 TOTPbroadcast with a third TOTP performance by Lulu on 7 February 1974 broadcast facilitating a boost from No. 13 to No. 5 on the chart dated 9 February 1974. In her TOTP performances in support of "The Man Who Sold the World" Lulu has been characterized as "dressed and sounding exactly like a diminutive Bowie".[10]

Lulu cover chart positions
Chart (1974) Position
Belgian Singles Chart (Ultratop)[11] 24
Netherlands Singles Chart[11] 10
Irish Singles Chart[12] 8
UK Singles Chart

(Official Chart Company)[13]


Richard Barone[edit]Edit

The song was covered by American singer Richard Barone in 1987 on his proto-Chamber Pop album, Cool Blue Halo. Using cello, acoustic guitar and symphonic percussion in a live setting.


"The Man Who Sold the World"

"The Man Who Sold the World" cover

Song by Nirvana from the album MTV Unplugged in New York
Released 1 November 1994
Recorded 18 November 1993 at Sony Music Studios in New York City
Genre Alternative rock
Length 4.20
Label DGC Records
Writer David Bowie
Producer Alex ColettiScott Litt, Nirvana
MTV Unplugged in New York track listing
"Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam"


"The Man Who Sold the World"


"Pennyroyal Tea"


In his journals, Kurt Cobain of the American grunge band Nirvana ranked the album The Man Who Sold the World at number 45 in his top 50 favourite albums.[14] A live rendition of the song was recorded by the band in 1993 during their MTV Unplugged appearance, and it was released on their MTV Unplugged in New York album the following year. The song was also released as a promotional single for the album,[15] and received considerable airplay onalternative rock radio stations. It was also thrown into heavy rotation on music video stations such as MTV. Nirvana regularly covered the song during live sets after their memorable acoustic performance up until lead singer Cobain's death in 1994. In 2002 the song was re-released on Nirvana's "best of" compilation album Nirvana.

Bowie said of Nirvana's cover: "I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering The Man Who Sold the World" and that "it was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool".[16] Bowie called Nirvana's cover "heartfelt," noting that "until this [cover], it hadn't occurred to me that I was part of America's musical landscape. I always felt my weight in Europe, but not [in the US]."[17] In the wake of its release, Bowie bemoaned the fact that when he performed the number himself he would encounter "kids that come up afterwards and say, 'It's cool you're doing a Nirvana song.' And I think, 'Fuck you, you little tosser!'"[18]

Nirvana cover chart positions
Chart (1995) Position
Belgian Singles Chart (Ultratop)[19] 40
Canadian RPMSingles Chart[20] 22
French Airplay Chart[21] 34
U.S. Modern Rock Tracks(Billboard)[22] 6
U.S. Mainstream Rock Tracks(Billboard)[23] 12
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Airplay[24] 39
Chart (2012) Position
U.K. Rock Chart (Official Charts Company)[25] 18
Chart (2013) Position
French Singles Chart (SNEP)[26] 149

Other covers[edit]Edit

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