The Man Who Sold The World is a very important record in David Bowie's career. This is the album in which he leaves behind the hippie troubadour and the psychedelic singer-songwriter of Space Oddity, and begins the path that will lead to the appearance of the androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust. The signs are already here from the ambiguous cover in which he appears posing in a dress to, much more importantly, the appearance of the future captain of the Spiders from Mars, Mick Ronson, and his powerful guitar.
Bowie had first tasted success in 1969 with the single Space Oddity, but the accompanying album was not as succesful and the singer began to fear that his career could remain a 'one hit wonder'. So he decided to form a group, The Hype, with his collaborator and friend Tony Visconti on bass and drummer John Cambridge. But Bowie was looking to harden his sound and for that he was looking for his own Jeff Beck, a guitar ace. In some ways he appeared, in the name of Mick Ronson, and passed the test with flying colors in the re-recording of Memory of a Free Festival, from his previous album, which was released as a single.
Bowie was so happy with his new guitarist that he got rid of Cambridge, at Ronson's suggestion, and signed a friend of his, Mick Woodmansey. With two future Spiders from Mars in the team, Bowie left The Hype to one side and began recording his next solo album. But the recording of this album was going to be affected by Bowie's recent marriage to Angela (Angie) Burnett. Bowie was more attentive to his new wife and his search for a manager than to the album, so Visconti and Ronson were largely responsible for the sound of the album - tending towards some of the things they liked best, close to hard rock and blues rock, such as Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Jeff Beck Group, and in the process, making this the nearest album to the Hard Rock genre of Bowie's career.
That does not mean that this album does not carry his personal stamp from the first minute, with several of his best compositions, his incredible melodies and his particular progressions of chords. Suffice to say that the wonderful The Width of a Circle opened the album, an epic piece in which Bowie begins to take advantage of his excellent new guitarist, whose Les Paul Custom "Black Beauty" from 1968 is one of the great protagonists of the album. More than eight minutes long, and with some masterful riffs and solos, it is the song that is closest to the progressive spirit of the time, but that ‘raw power’ - that is typical of Ronson - also advances punk.
All The Madmen is another marvel in which Bowie's acoustics, possibly his 12-string Hagstrom, mixes perfectly with Ronson's Les Paul. The song touches on a very personal theme for Bowie, the schizophrenia of his brother Terry Burns. Black Country Rock is the closest thing that he ever came to sounding like Led Zeppelin, with a Ronson on fire, although vocally the one who he ends up imitating / parodying is his friend Marc Bolan, especially in the final part of the song. After All on the other hand is one of the strangest songs on the album; a sinister waltz in which Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley shake hands, anticipating Gothic rock by a few years.
The second side opened with Running Gun Blues; demonstrating the enormous change experienced by Bowie's music after the incorporation of Ronson. The song begins with Bowie only accompanied by his acoustics, until at 40 seconds the whole group enters like a bull in a china shop. This is not much of an exaggeration, Bowie had found his particular Jeff Beck, with Ronson having a great time on the slide. Saviour Machine is pure Bowie, a kind of cabaret piece mixed with the hard rock guitar of a Ronson who shows his chops once again. She Shook Me Cold is one of the songs in which the hand of Ronson and Visconti is more noticeable, with some of the hardest sounds of Bowie's career, and Ronson showing that he is on a par with Page and Beck; although in this particular solo he sounds like the Clapton of Cream.
But the two best songs on the second side, and the whole album if we add The Width Of A Circle, come at the end with the title track and The Supermen. The first, one of the great songs of Bowie's career, is built on a great riff by Ronson and contained cryptic and enigmatic lyrics (the singer Lulu, who had great success with a cover version in 1974, acknowledged that she had no idea what the lyrics meant) that would become popular again when Nirvana decided to include a version of it on their MTV Unplugged. On The Supermen, the shadow of Nietzsche's writings mixed with the terror of Lovecraft reappeared. This time the threatening riff did not come from Ronson but from Jimmy Page himself who contributed it while playing on one of Bowie's first recordings with the Mannish Boys, I Pity The Fool.
Thus ended an album that laid the foundation for the sound of Ziggy Starsdust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie was finding himself: the first ingredients of the formula were already apparent here with the wonderful space ballads of Hunky Dory on the nearest future, and when he mixed them with Ziggy, Bowie would be ready to become the ultimate star of the 70s.