One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.
“I didn’t screw it up, did I?” Kurt Cobain, November 18, 1993
“The Man Who Sold the World” is a David Bowie narrative song concerned with, not the anguish of spaceflight, but the anguish of a fractured personality. Yet few people noticed when it was released in 1970 on the poor-selling album of the same name, as the singer struggled to follow through on the success of his “Space Oddity” hit of 1969. It wasn’t released as a single. And it was soon vastly overshadowed by the mighty glam-rock chart attack that came of Bowie doppelgangers Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane: “Starman,” “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “The Jean Genie.”
It was Scottish singer Lulu who scored a hit with “The Man Who Sold the World” in 1974, even though, as she later confessed, she “had no idea what it meant.” She could be forgiven for her lack of understanding in performing it, perhaps, because beneath the phased and compressed vocals of the eerie original were dreamlike depictions of figures speaking “of was and when,” gazing “gazeless stares,” and walking “a million hills,” after having died alone a “long, long time ago.” She was certainly a long way from singing “My heart goes boom bang-a-bang, boom bang-a-bang-bang” at the 1969 Eurovision Song Contest. But she had the powerful voice, if not the conviction, to just about pull it off. She also had Bowie himself on backing vocals and saxophone, producing the song along with his bandmate, Mick Ronson, on guitar.
Lulu therefore postured her way through Bowie’s enigmatic song in the process of bridging the world of British variety (guest spots on the Morecambe & Wise Show, TV specials with Bruce Forsyth) and the world of glam-rock. She was richly rewarded, too, with her first top 10 hit in the UK in five years.
But could it be said that fellow Scot Midge Ure understood the song better on his cover of 1982? The bow-tie-wearing synthpop pioneer and singer, on a break from his Ultravox and Visage duties, recorded “The Man Who Sold the World” solo for the soundtrack of British comedy film Party Party. It was fitting that he should do so, Bowie being the icon of the New Romantic movement he and his Visage collaborators, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, instigated around the Blitz nightclub in London. He wrapped the surreal drama of the song in noirish and futuristic clothes, care of his robotic baritone and his cold-as-steel electronics. In doing so, he assimilated the track into the contemporary synth tradition of dystopian pop songs that ran from Tubeway Army‘s “Are Friends Electric?” to John Foxx’s “Underpass” to, well, Ultravox’s “Sleepwalk.” Even if it didn’t really belong there.
In contrast, English psychedelic band Here & Now demonstrated that the Bowie track could be reinterpreted as some kind of quirky ghost story, with the breezy, ska-style makeover they released in 1983. But what came as some surprise, ten years later, was a stripped-back, rustic, and deadly serious version of the song on MTV Unplugged, featuring a gravel-voiced American singer. It took a while to sink in but, yes, the biggest rock group in the world, renowned for their loud, honest, punk-influenced sound, had really performed an acoustic version of the little-known song by an artist, lest we forget, renowned for artifice, reinvention, and theatricality. And it was easily the best version yet. Because the rock group in question, Nirvana, seemed to know exactly what it was about.
The Seattle band, having just released their visceral third studio album In Utero, certainly didn’t score the greatest-ever cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” out of contrivance. They followed the lead of their alt-rock mentors R.E.M. and grunge rivals Pearl Jam by appearing on the premier MTV show in New York in November 1993. They further knew this required them to sit down to play quiet versions of some well-chosen originals, alongside covers fans might not expect, from genres they might not expect, in a big display of musical authenticity. R.E.M. threw into their set a flower-power song they loved by British garage band The Troggs: “Love Is All Around.” Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain similarly threw in a song he loved by Bowie. He had, after all, ranked its parent LP at #45 in his top 50 favorite albums in his Journals.
Nirvana grouped “The Man…” with other first-person songs such as “Come As You Are,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” “All Apologies,” “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Some of them were written by Cobain, but all of them became about Cobain: the tormented and paranoid rock star, hellishly weary of his fame, his heroin addiction, his chronic ill health, and his assigned role as “voice of a generation.” After a “screw-up” or two in rehearsal, they played the Bowie number not only quietly but brilliantly, with Cobain accentuating the eeriness of the original by making his acoustic guitar howl and whine through a fuzzbox in some unholy kind of way. Cellist Lori Goldston also added to the spectral atmosphere with her playing. But there was no doubt that the crux of the matter lay in Kurt internalizing the lyrics and expressing his inner pain through the song, in a way that seemed to illuminate its essential meaning.
Cobain sang the track like someone broken, hopeless, and haunted. He inhabited the role of the narrator who’s shocked to confront a part of himself he thought lost, at the moment he comes “face to face with the man who sold the world.” Perhaps, to Kurt, the man who sold the world was his younger self, who unwittingly sold his soul when he unleashed Nevermind and became an international youth icon, a mainstream figure, public property, and all the rest. Perhaps the loss of part of himself was the reason for his psychological turmoil and feelings of alienation, which he poured into the lines: “I searched for form and land / For years and years I roamed.” Perhaps, too, it was exactly as Bowie had said of his standpoint in the song in 1997: “when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet,” and “You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are.”
Many have tied themselves up in knots trying to explain Bowie’s cryptic lyrics in relation to Cobain, but there can be no question that “The Man Who Sold the World” became “a Nirvana song” as soon as the band’s extraordinary MTV performance aired in December 1993. The group made it even more their own by playing it (loud) at 31 live shows up until Cobain’s suicide in April ’94, when it found an indelible place in their legacy. The release of the track on the MTV Unplugged in New York album in November 1994 only confirmed its status, as well as its inclusion on Nirvana’s self-titled “best of” compilation in 2002. The song was no longer a glam-rock song or a New Romantic song. It was a grunge song, pure and simple. Who was this David Bowie guy, anyway?
Bowie himself got to see this ch-ch-change in perception, and talked with good humor about how, when he played “The Man Who Sold the World” in concert, “kids would come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I’d think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!'”