Extracts from The Man Who Sold The World


"Like the Beatles in the decade before him, Bowie was popular culture's most reliable guide to the fever of the seventies. The Beatles' lives and music had reflected a series of shifts and surges in the mood of their generation, through youthful exuberance, satirical mischievousness, spiritual and chemical exploration, political and cultural dissent, and finally depression and fragmentation. The decade of David Bowie was altogether more challenging to track. It was not fired by idealism or optimism, but by dread and misgiving. Perhaps because the sixties had felt like an era of progress, the seventies was a time of stasis, of dead ends and power failures, of reckless hedonism and sharp reprisals. The words that haunted the culture were 'decline', 'depression', 'despair': the energy of society was running out, literally (as environmentalists proclaimed the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies) and metaphorically. By the decade's end, cultural commentators were already defining the era in strictly negative terms: the chief characteristic of the seventies was that it was not what the prime movers of the sixties had hoped it would be.

"This was not, at first sight, the stuff of pop stardom. The Beatles would have struggled to capture the hearts of their generation had they preached a message of conflict and decay, rather than idealism and love. What enabled David Bowie to reflect the fear and chaos of the new decade was precisely the fact that he had been so out of tune with the sixties. He was one of the first pop commentators to complain that the optimism that enraptured the youth of the West in the mid-sixties was hollow and illusory. His negativity seemed anachronistic; but it merely anticipated the realisation that Western society could not fuel and satisfy the optimism of sixties youth culture. 'Space Oddity' aside, his work of 1969/70 failed to reach the millions who heard the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed or John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, two albums that also tore away the pretensions of the recent past. But even those two records paled alongside the nihilistic determinism of Bowie's first two albums in his new guise as cultural prophet and doom-monger.

"Bowie might have maintained a fashionable gloom for the next decade, and turned his sourness into a calling. Instead, he embarked on a far more risky and ambitious course. Unable to secure a mass audience for his explorations of a society in the process of fragmentation, he decided to create an imaginary hero who could entrance and then educate the pop audience - and play the leading role himself. Since the start of his professional career as an entertainer in 1964, he had used his brief experience as a visualiser in an advertising agency to rebrand himself in a dozen different disguises. Now he would concentrate on a single product, and establish a brand so powerful that it would be impossible to ignore. The creation of Ziggy Stardust in 1972 amounted to a conceptual art statement: rather than pursuing fame, as he had in the past, Bowie would act as if he were already famous beyond dispute, and present himself to the masses as an exotic creature from another planet. Ziggy would live outside the norms of earthly society: he would be male and female, gay and straight, human and alien, an eternal outsider who could act as a beacon for anyone who felt ostracised from the world around them. Aimed at a generation of adolescents emerging into an unsettling and fearful world, his hero could not help but become a superstar. Whereupon Bowie removed him from circulation, destroying the illusion that had made him famous.

"What happened next was what made Bowie not just a canny manipulator of pop tastes, but a significant and enduring figure in twentieth-century popular culture . . ."



"There were precursors: a Robert Heinlein science-fiction tale from 1949 entitled 'The Man Who Sold The Moon'; a 1954 DC comic, 'The Man Who Sold The Earth'; a 1968 Brazilian political satire that flitted across the arthouse movie circuit, The Man Who Bought The World. None of them has an apparent thematic link to one of Bowie's most enigmatic songs, written and vocalised over an existing backing track while the clock counted down for completion of the album to which it lent its name. Its lyrics have proved to be infuriatingly evocative, begging but defying interpretation. (. . .) Like the question of who killed President Kennedy or what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste, the mystery is more satisfying than any solution.

"But not as satisfying as the track, a compact, elegantly assembled piece that featured none of the metallic theatrics found elsewhere on the album ..."



"Changes: emotional, psychological, existential, changes in style and sound, but undeniably, and primarily, physical. This was a song, after all, built around minute shifts of the fingers on the keyboard, a process of experimentation by a man whose technical inadequacies as a pianist liberated him to face the strange if he found it and embrace the obvious just as readily. As he revealed onstage a few months later, he didn't know the chord changes on guitar. He didn't know them on piano either, but he followed his fingers as they crept slowly up and down the keyboard, augmenting familiar shapes, or simply reproducing them a step or two along the ivories. As its title suggested, 'Changes' was constantly changing, sometimes in the left hand (where he followed the diatonic major descent of 'Oh! You Pretty Things' in the chorus, all the way through the bass scale from C to D), and almost always in the right. It was as if the piano accompaniment was scared to rest in one place for more than a couple of beats, in case it would be hemmed in or halted. By restlessly moving, it kept its options open and its spirit alive. Perhaps there was a deliberate irony, though, involved in composing a song called 'Changes' in which the opening chords were repeated - in reverse - over the final bars, so that after several minutes of constant mutation, the pianist's hands began exactly where they had started, tracing the symmetrical shape of a C major 7th chord, with four fingers equally spaced along the keys . . ."



"He was working in a studio run by black entrepreneurs, with mostly black musicians, on music that was inspired by the sound of black America. As a kid, that had been the most seductive part of the myth, before he knew what it meant to be black in this land. Now, after the official end of segregation and the supposed death of discrimination, what was black America, the youngest America of them all? Was it the high, quasi-feminine voice of a sweet soul band? Or the pimp and hustler stereotypes that peopled the so-called 'blaxploitation' movies? What did it meant to process your hair, or shape it into an Afro, using Afro-Sheen? What was the black identity in America, when the black nation was crippled by fantasy just like the white, and divided between the ghetto and the self-improving middle class? Where did that leave soul music? And, as Bowie sang with a mighty octave-and-a-half leap, was there nothing that could make him 'break down and cry'?

"That was merely the last in a series of questions posed by the would-be young American who had grown up surrounded by myths, and no longer knew which to believe or follow. By the end, he was barely coherent, flashing out images and fragments of sentences that didn't run together, as a cacophony of American voices and myths filled his mind. All of this was in the song - material for sociological dissertations and psychological reports, a dazzling series of snapshots of real America and mythical America and Bowie's place in the country and the myth. And none of it seemed to be thought, merely felt, as if it had emerged in automatic writing, and he had found the courage to let it stand as a genuine, unfeigned response to the mystery of what America represented in 1974 . . ."