David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World is one of the singer’s most underrated records, which is an understandable reaction, given that it fell just between his rise to pop stardom with “Space Oddity” and his apotheotic breakthrough album Hunky Dory, and, outside of the title track, which may as well have the subtitle “Wait, David Bowie covered a Nirvana song?” At least, for those of you who didn’t know that Kurt Cobain was all of three years old when the original song was recorded.
And, now that the album’s 50th anniversary is coming up, there’s going to be a reissue, and it’s one of the rare reissues where a lot of the effort comes in the packaging. Even if we don’t recognise a lot of the songs, at least the cover’s probably going to ring a bell:
Of course, the thing is, it wasn’t always going to look like this. Hell, it wasn’t even going to be called The Man Who Sold the World. This is going to be a complicated story, but here’s the shorter version: Originally, the front cover was going to be a line drawing by his friend Michael J. Weller of a cowboy carrying a gun (who was apparently meant to be John Wayne, even though he doesn’t look it) in front of a building that appears to be a mental hospital, saying “roll up your sleeves, take a look at your arms,” apparently a reference to this song:
It was also going to be named Metrobolist, an homage to Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis. And there was going to be a gatefold with the famous dress photo that’s on the cover to this day. Though there’s some disagreement, with some claiming that this was a later candidate for a cover. If this was the case, it was not a good candidate at the time since executives at Mercury on both sides of the pond were put off by the cover. After several months, Mercury released the album in America with the cartoon cover (though the speech bubble on the cover was rendered blank because the “show us your arms” was a bit too uncomfortable a drug reference for record companies), and changed the title to The Man Who Sold the World without Bowie’s permission, although apparently, some versions on cassette retained the original title. By the end of June 1971, it had sold a total of 1395 copies. Eventually, it would be released in the UK with the dress photo on the cover. Also, as a side note, Mercury’s German division gave it this monstrosity of a cover, and after Bowie hit it big with Ziggy Stardust, it was reissued with a more contemporary cover.
Eventually, however, after Bowie started to put his back catalogue on CD, he decided that he much preferred the dress cover and made that the canonical cover. Of course, he would eventually put the line drawing on the back of the booklet, so anyone who wanted that cover needed only flip over the booklet.
And now, it looks like Parlophone is set to release the album with its original cover (and a gatefold with multiple photos from the same Keith MacMillan Haddon Hall shoot that led to the dress photo) and title, with eight of the nine tracks being remastered (because Tony Visconti considered the 2015 mix of “After All” to be too perfect to change.) There will be no bonus tracks, not even “Holy Holy,” the non-album single that, at one point, Bowie asked Mercury to rename the album after.
The only other point is that 2,020 of these LPs will be released on coloured vinyl, with 1,970 on white, 50 on gold, and the rest on black, all will be randomly distributed. They will be released on November 6, and both the vinyl and CD versions can be pre-ordered here.