The odds are stacked against albums. Even if you’re lucky enough to be a record released during that point in history when people were actually likely to buy you in large numbers,  even if you were created by a global superstar at the height of their powers, the odds are that, in the long run, you’ll sell, and be listened to, about as much as Englebirt Humperdink’s Greatest Hits. Time can be simply beastly in the way it treats an album, especially if it wasn’t quite fortunate enough to be the breakthrough. Pity Pink Floyd’s Meddle (1971) as it competes with Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) for a place in the public consciousness, or muster up some sympathy if you can for Nirvana’s first, Bleach (1989), doomed to a cold existence in the shadows of Nevermind (1991). It’s just not fair, especially when the album being forgotten is just as musically satisfying as its more popular sibling, who only staked their spot in history through good timing and relentless self promotion. It’s wrong, and we must rectify it.

For your consideration: David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World (1970). Though this varied, and surprisingly tough, record is afforded some degree of longevity by virtue of its’ residing within Bowie’s decade long creative streak that ran from 1969’s Space Oddity through to the dawn of the ’80s with Scary Monsters, it was unfortunate enough to be born just before Bowie’s first classic trilogy of the ’70s, consisting of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Alladin Sane. It is these albums that contain the staples of countless ‘Best of Bowie’ compilations, and which have hogged the limelight to the detriment of their less storied predecessor. This madness must stop.

Simply put, The Man Who Sold The World is an outstanding album that any artist would be proud to have in their back catalogue, and one that arguably best explores Bowie’s hard rock inclinations, though perhaps somewhat to the detriment of his pop aspirations that are more fully realised on subsequent releases. What sets it apart is its delightful combining of   Bowie’s more wispy, theatrical prog-folk affectations with the rough but steady throb of a thoroughly garagey, and live, ensemble sound. Right from the wailing feedback and guitar harmonies that open the eight-minute-long proto-metal whirl of ‘Width Of A Circle’, it is clear that this album will reach far and rock hard.

It is this combination of glammy pretension with a brutal chug that is most characteristic of the album, weaving a thread from scruffy rumblers like ‘She Shook Me Cold’ and ‘Black Country Rock’ through the more intellectual and varied, although appropriately heavy, compositions like ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, ‘All The Madmen’ and ‘Saviour Machine’, which embrace Bowie’s proggier side with more complex time signatures and aspirationally intellectual lyrics. Although hardly crystal clear, the rowdy, band oriented production is what keeps a fairly diverse song selection sounding deceptively cohesive, with the more theatrical overdubs delivered in a rougher fashion closer to the sound of Bowie’s live performances of the fertile period that would follow this album’s release.

So why was The Man Who Sold The World not the big breakthrough then? If it’s such a stellar album, then why is it forever (not) remembered as Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust‘s awkward older brother, the one who just sits in his room all day reading manga and trying to learn the guitar part to ‘Enter Sandman’? The first hurdle is in the melody department. This album is perhaps the best example you could find of an album full of melodies that are diverse and intriguing for as long as the album as playing, but which, as soon as the headphones are off, trickle out of your ears and are forgotten. They are not hooky; they do not stick with you. Although featuring far more in the way instrumental fireworks than its successors, it just didn’t have the pop smarts, in terms of both composition and production, that made those albums’ best tracks stubbonly refuse to stop being hummed.

Similarly, while The Man Who Sold The World is certainly not wanting in reckless energy, it lacks the intent of later albums; it feels like the result of enthusiasm rather than inspiration, something particularly ervident in the lyrics department. Although always capable of an interesting perspective or concept, Bowie’s lyrics have always been workmanlike, no matter how much they may aspire to a literary dimension. This is not to say they are without merit, but you just never get the feeling that he really really meant what he singing, rather than merely thought it would make a neat lyric. This may be somewhat a result of his mannered singing style, but whatever the reason, Bowie’s albums have always needed a supportive context, an idea for them to stand on, be it Ziggy Stardust‘s storyline, or the chilly, mechanical vibe deliberately explored on the so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of albums in the late 1970s. The Man Who Sold The World is an excellent album, but it doesn’t have that sense of purpose possessed by its more famous siblings.

Maybe then records are like people; the key to success is often as much, if not more, attributable to self-confidence rather than inherent quality. While albums like Stadium Arcadium and Born In The USA are busy being tagged in three hundred Facebook photos a night, the Freaky Styleys and Nebraskas of the world spend a quiet night home watching The Godfather Part II with the Director’s Commentary on. That’s not to say that either is more worthy than the other, just that some records have that winning charm, the people skills that mean they’ll be heard and remembered for years to come, while their quiter siblings are doomed by their introversion to a lifetime of obscurity. Yes, that’s the way of the world, and yes, you can’t do anything to change it, but have a heart. Don’t forget wallflowers like The Man Who Sold The World; approach one, ask them what they’re up to nowadays, and if you take a little time to listen to their reponse, you’ll most likely find your investment is handsomely repaid.

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