David Bowie’s The Man who Sold the World

David Bowie's The Man who Sold the World

Maniac Squat Records and Academy Events Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey with Glenn Gregory perform David Bowie’s The Man who Sold the World
02 Academy, Liverpool, 18th June 2015

By Rob Harrison

I’m sitting in Lime Street Station watching the fingers on the large clock move slowly round. It’s my first gig in a while but it feels more like a date, I’m beginning to get apprehensive as I finger my costa tea, all those gig memories come flooding back to me.

My reverie is soon shattered by some old bearded guy in the queue who cheekily quips “nobody here has been born before the 21st century”. Yes, we are definitely in a grey area here.

I’m among the beardies and neo-pensioners to review The Man who Sold the World for Nerve magazine after waiting for my stage pass in something reminiscent of the film Almost Famous.

We start to move in.

The Man who Sold the World was born 45 years ago — quite old now but blow the dust off and it reveals itself to still be a worthwhile listen. Visconti, who produced and played on the original, rates it as one of his best Bowie albums but in terms of the Bowie catalogue it tends to get overlooked and stand neglected — until tonight when Visconti and co will seek to redress that.

The album is dark and claustrophobic, the black cover illuminating or not the dark materials within.
David Buckley in his biography of Bowie describes it as gothic rock and roll(1) and in many ways The Man who Sold the World is a precursor to the gothic punk of The Banshees and The Cure with its taboo-breaking subject matter – magic, gay-sex, death and madness.

It’s no coincidence that an album recorded at the end of the sixties is so nihilistic — Bowie rises from the ashes of the hippy revolution and from it a new culture of dystopian style emerges.

So, back to the gig: the band is starting to set up, three guitars (really?), and at this point there are lots of people on stage, making it difficult to see who exactly are the roadies and who are the band. When the roadies do eventually clear off, we still have a lot of people on stage, including two backing singers who keep it in the family — so to speak (Mick Ronson’s daughter and Tony Visconti’s daughter). Three guitars as mentioned, keyboard/synth player, Visconti on bass and Woody at the back on drums. One of the guitarists doubles as sax player too — phew! And last but not least two lead singers, Glenn Gregory (Heaven 17) and Marc Almond (Soft Cell).

The opening riff to Width of a Circle heralds the start of the show and with its eerie feedback the band are sounding good.

The introduction of the three guitars adds more power to the overall sound, and the general orchestration works well — we see the visible hand of Visconti here perhaps?

As an arranger and producer, Visconti is second to none. Apart from being a highly imaginative producer Visconti’s forte is creating a band sound. This he did with T-REX on the Electric Warrior album, made at about the same time, then again with Bowie’s The Man who Sold the World where he began to create the Bowie sound, moving away from the rather fey folkie musicality of the previous album Space Oddity.

The band move confidently through Width of a Circle. Glenn Gregory on vocals with neat suit and shaved head commands the stage, his vocal range is amazing! Not so much Ziggy more The Thin White Duke, showing a linear trajectory from The Man who Sold the World to Station to Station in its various obsessions with the dark side.

The album works really well live. (Visconti originally produced the album with this in mind.) The Supermen is particularly good, with guitarist James Stevenson doing his best Mick Ronson impersonation. In fact Stevenson is slightly underused throughout – this guy has talent and presence.
About three songs in Marc Almond bounces on to the stage to sing After All. Marc’s campy vocal style and Brechtian swagger add weight to the song, teasing out further possibilities in a brilliant Bowie tune. Other standout tracks are: The Man who Sold the World (of course) with its brilliant spine chilling intro intact; All the Madmen with the spoken bit done brilliantly by Glenn Gregory; and Black Country Rock, one of my personal favourites on the album — I was not disappointed!

Once The Man who Sold the World has finished the band move on to cover Ziggy period Bowie.

Marc returns to camp it up again, this time with Oh You Pretty Things and The Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud which he makes his own, and gets the baldy guys in front of me to camp it up along with him (no mean feat!). For Marc this is the hometown gig, as he originally hails from Southport (near enough). He recalls to us the tale of being beaten up by thugs on the train as he was on his way to a Bowie gig in Liverpool, ending up at the gig covered in blood and scars. If you wondered where all those Soft Cell lyrics came from, look no further.

The frantic pace of Moonage Daydream leaves the oldies in a bit of a daze. It’s at this point they start searching for water as the place is now very packed and hot, as the band slam out Bowie hit after hit. We have a good gig situation on our hands meanwhile on stage, James Stevenson does another stunning Mick Ronson impersonation on Moonage Daydream — you know the one where Mick’s foot seems to get stuck on the reverb pedal!

Meanwhile at the back Woody Woodmansey powers away doing all the good drumming bits on the songs, especially during Ziggy Stardust with its various intricate drum patterns. The band also play what appears to be the BBC sessions version of Changes. This night has become quite special all of a sudden.
The Wizard of Oz moment comes at the end, when Woody steps down from the kit to thank everyone — was this little guy with the strong Hull accent really the behemoth behind the drum kit just minutes ago?
So, has Visconti pulled the musical rabbit out of the hat yet again? Well judging by the sea of outstretched hands and happy faces at the end of the gig it would appear so, but not yet, for as I leave the main auditorium a bit knackered after the gig, thinking the band are off for a well earned sleep, I notice a long table with pens and chairs and an equally long line of people clutching albums and stuff. It’s not over yet, such is the life of the rock musician, baby!

1. The quote is from David Buckley — David Bowie The Definitive Story Virgin Press 2005

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