Have You Heard? – (13) “The Man Who Sold The World” by Bowie, Lulu and Nirvana

It’s an odd trio.  You wouldn’t naturally put them together. But the “Man Who Sold The World” unites them.

The song was originally by David Bowie, the title track of his 1970 album.  This was just a bit before Bowie really became famous.  In the UK that came with Ziggy Stardust, which then worked back to “Hunky Dory” which came out in 1971.  I didn’t discover “The Man Who Sold The World” album until the mid-eighties, so I think  it’s fair to say that I heard Lulu’s version before the Bowie original, as Lulu got onto Top of the Pops with it in 1974.

We’re talking a long time ago here! My teens.

The Bowie album is challenging, quite unsettling. He hadn’t quite developed his pop touch. “The Man Who Sold The World” is the best track. A brilliant tune with a spooky guitar motif that runs through the song.  There’s a minor key sound to it which conveys that sense of, what? Hopelessness? Oblivion? Sleaze? All of these things.

Here it is. The template.

Lulu was a Scottish pop singer with a really soulful voice, who made her name in the sixties with songs like “Shout” (the Isley Brothers tune) and a wonderful theme tune to the film, “To Sir With Love”.  That’s so good I’m going to include it here.

Her version of “The Man Who Sold The World” came completely out of the blue, but I remember absolutely loving it.  It came out about the same time as Bowie had released his covers album, “Pinups” and not so long after the magnificence of “Aladdin Sane”. The first “Diamond Dogs” track, “Rebel, Rebel” was on its way.  So this was a period of absolute brilliance in Bowie’s history and Lulu rode the wave. Her version was less eerie than Bowie’s, but more soulful, with a soaring saxophone leading the way. It was “Young Americans” before “Young Americans”.

Lulu in the seventies became a real household entertainment figure, with her Saturday evening variety show. Then she faded from view a bit, but she made a comeback in the 2000’s. Here’s another of her versions of “Man Who Sold The World”, from 2003, with that sax prominent.

And then there was Nirvana.  Kurt Cobain and the band did a MTV Unplugged show in 1994 and they played “Man Who Sold The World”. This might well be the best version of all. It has the spooky feel of the original, as well as the hard edge of Nirvana. Captivating.

A great song, truly enhanced by the covers.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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7 Responses to Have You Heard? – (13) “The Man Who Sold The World” by Bowie, Lulu and Nirvana

  1. dc says:

    one of his best songs? i don’t think it’s even the best song on that album- width of a circle and all the madmen are far more compelling. to sir with love is a cracker though – agree with that one.

  2. John S says:

    Glad we agree on one thing! I’ll stick to my guns on “Man Who Sold The World”. It’s probably Lulu’s fault. I just loved her version when it came out in ’74.

  3. I think you’re right about Nirvana’s version being the best. I love it.

  4. Interesting! I’d never heard the Lulu version (or of Lulu for that matter). Can’t say I much like her take on it though. In her original I can feel like I can ‘hear’ her smiling, and it doesn’t fit with the song. She did manage to work that out in the 30 years later version though. And the sax is definitely a worthwhile addition. If I had to choose, I probably go with Bowie – nobody does eerie like he does.

  5. ADE_Aurelija says:

    I never heard Lulu’s version before. But I can’t say, I enjoyed it that much (neither early one nor the one from year 2003).

    Interesting post,though.I really enjoy finding different takes on songs, which is why this post reminded me that I should probably do a new post of “Original and Covers” in my own blog.

  6. John S says:

    I think you maybe need to have grown up with Lulu to appreciate her covers, but I do love the way the saxophone is at the fore in her interpretation. In a Bowiesque way. Look out for my Bowie top ten – coming soon!

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