In early 1970, bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were on the rise, and David Bowie responded by forming his own hard-rock band, Hype, who dressed as superheroes onstage. That didn’t last long: A few weeks after an early show, he was already telling British music weekly Melody Maker that he intended to “retain Hype and myself as two separate working units.” By April, when Woody Woodmansey became the group’s drummer, they soon dropped the Hype name altogether. In 2015, Woodmansey recalled his first impression of Bowie: “This guy was living and breathing being a rock & roll star.”
Bowie had real instrumental firepower behind him for the first time, especially guitarist Mick Ronson, who gave his songs a snarling edge they’d never had before – “You believed every note had been wrenched from his soul,” Bowie later said. He was also figuring out how to merge his love of drama and literature, as well as his voracious offstage sexuality, into his music. “My performances have got to be theatrical experiences for me as well as for the audience,” he told Rolling Stone. “I don’t want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up onstage – I want to take them onstage with me.”
What he didn’t have yet was enough new songs to record, so the band began jamming extensively in Haddon Hall, the Victorian home where Bowie and his new bride, Angela, lived. They worked up a set of massive, dark, dramatic material: The eight-minute “The Width of a Circle” leans toward prog-rock; “She Shook Me Cold” is straight-up heavy metal; and “All the Madmen” obliquely addresses Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother, Terry Burns. A lot of the album ended up falling together at the last minute – Bowie didn’t complete the haunting lyrics to “The Man Who Sold the World” until the final day of mixing.
There were no singles released from The Man Who Sold the World, and the album faded. In 1971, Bowie quipped that it had “sold like hotcakes in Beckenham, and nowhere else.”
But its title track would get new life when Nirvana covered it on 1994’s MTV Unplugged. The following year, Bowie reclaimed the song on tour with Nine Inch Nails, rearranged as a chilly, electronic lament – all the bravado of his first real rock band drained away to reveal a ghostly shell.