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"The Man Who Sold the World" is a song written and performed by David Bowie. It is the title track of his third album, which was released in the US in November 1970 and in the UK in April 1971. The song has been covered by a number of other artists, notably by Lulu, who had a UK No. 3 hit with her version in 1974, and Nirvana, whose 1993 performance of the song for the television program MTV Unplugged introduced it to a new audience.

The song was reworked by Bowie, featuring a heavy bassline, güiro as percussion and a notably darker mood, for performances in concerts from 1995 to 1997, including the 1995 MTV Europe Music Awards. Bowie later returned to playing the original version in the 2000s.

Inspiration and explanation

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".[1] Beyond this, the episode is unexplained: as James E. Perone wrote,

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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.[2]

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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.[3] 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:[4]

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 Mary Anne Hobbs and was asked about the song. He 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."[5]

Other releases by Bowie

Bowie personnel

Cover versions


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The song was covered by the Scottish singer Lulu in 1974, who, according to biographer David Buckley, performed it in "a sleazy, almost Berlin cabaret style".[6] 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."[7] Bowie produced the Lulu recording of "The Man Who Sold the World" with Mick Ronson during the July 1973 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.[8]

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 26 January 1974 following a reprise performance by Lulu on 24 January 1974 TOTP broadcast 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".[9] Lulu performed the song in the second season finale of French and Saunders.

Lulu's chart positions
Chart (1974) Position
Belgian Singles Chart (Ultratop)[10] 24
Netherlands Singles Chart[10] 10
Irish Singles Chart[11] 8
UK Singles Chart (Official Chart Company)[12] 3

Lulu Personnel

Midge Ure

Midge Ure covered this song in a 1982 studio release. This version is featured as the title song of the 2015 video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Richard Barone

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.


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.[13] 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,[14] and received considerable airplay on alternative 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".[15] 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]."[16] 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!'"[17]

On 14 February 2016, surviving Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Pat Smear teamed up with Beck to perform "The Man Who Sold the World" at a pre-Grammy Awards party, in tribute to Bowie, with Beck performing the vocals.[18] In 2017, to mark what would have been Kurt Cobain's 50th birthday, the Phonographic Performance Limited released a list of the top twenty most played Nirvana songs on the TV and radio in the UK in which "The Man Who Sold the World" was ranked at number six.[19]

Nirvana's chart positions
Chart (1995) Peak
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[20] 40
Canada Top Singles (RPM)[21] 22
French Airplay Chart[22] 34
Poland (LP3)[23] 1
US Alternative Airplay (Billboard)[24] 6
US Mainstream Rock (Billboard)[25] 12
US Radio Songs (Billboard)[26] 39
Chart (2012) Position
UK Rock and Metal (OCC)[27] 18
Chart (2013) Position
France (SNEP)[28] 149

Nirvana personnel


"Metrobolist" was the album's original title, planned for release by Bowie as a gatefold presentation, with hand drawn title accompanying cartoon-style drawings front and back, opening up to display a double sleeve photo-spread inside. But the only substantial evidence "Metrobolist" was ever proposed as a Mercury record company product are labels with the title “Metrobolist” printed on surviving tape boxes.[29]

Other covers


  1. King, Maureen, "Future Legends: David Bowie and Science Fiction", in Script error: No such module "citation/CS1".
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  3. Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: p. 38.
  4. David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story: p.100; Allmusic review. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
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  6. David Buckley (1999). Op. cit: p. 196.
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  8. Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Op. cit.: p. 118.
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  10. 10.0 10.1 Lulu - The Man Who Sold the World - peak chart positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  11. Lulu - Irish Singles Chart peak positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  12. Lulu - UK Singles Chart peak positions Retrieved 3 November 2013.
  13. Kurt's Journals - His Top 50 Albums. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
  14. Nirvana - The Man Who Sold the World Retrieved 5 May 2014.
  15. St Thomas, Kurt and Smith, Troy. Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects. St Martin's Griffin (2004). pp. 191. ISBN 0-312-20663-1.
  16. Script error: No such module "citation/CS1".
  17. Nicholas Pegg (2000). The Complete David Bowie: pp. 138-139.
  18. Beck and living Nirvana members honour David Bowie at pre-Grammy party Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  19. 20 most-played Nirvana songs revealed to mark Kurt Cobain’s 50th birthday Retrieved March 3, 2017.
  20. "Script error: No such module "WLink".&titel=Script error: No such module "WLink".&cat=s – Nirvana – The Man Who Sold the World" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  21. "Top RPM Singles: Issue 7984." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
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  24. Script error: No such module "WLink"./chart-history/MRT "Nirvana Chart History (Alternative Airplay)". Billboard.
  25. Script error: No such module "WLink"./chart-history/RTT "Nirvana Chart History (Mainstream Rock)". Billboard.
  26. Script error: No such module "WLink"./chart-history/HSB "Nirvana Chart History (Radio Songs)". Billboard.
  27. Template:Digits/111/ "Official Rock & Metal Singles Chart Top 40". Official Charts Company. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
  28. "Script error: No such module "WLink".&titel=Script error: No such module "WLink".&cat=s – Nirvana – The Man Who Sold the World" (in French). Les classement single.
  29. Five Years (1969–1973) companion book (2015) p. 8.
  30. Louisa Buck, "Jeremy Deller's English Magic", The Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2014.
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External links

Template:David Bowie singles Template:Lulu Template:Nirvana (band)

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