The Man Who Sold The World

This is an album I used to listen to when growing up in Chennai.

It must have been in high school, or during my early days of college, that Dad bought a stereo system for the house. Installed in a central area of the house for all to enjoy, it included a record player, a combined AM/FM receiver and amplifier, and a couple of good sized speakers that were attached to the wall at ear level. I remember the delivery of the system to the house, and one of the people accompanying the equipment telling me about how The Beatles were experimenting with the use of stereo sounds in those days. Soon enough, I was keeping an ear open to try to discern the differing sounds coming from the two speakers for albums like Abbey Road and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There was a HMV record store on Mount Road that I used to go to regularly to check out the new music albums coming in from the west. Good quality recorded music for the home was only available on vinyl at that time. Consumer cassette decks were just coming into vogue, and they did not deliver the same musical quality as a vinyl record. They had a music room within the music store where you could listen to music, to help you decide whether or not to buy a particular album. A lot of the music I bought from the store was unfamiliar to me. I was listening to it for the first time. I really loved spending time looking at the record jackets. I would buy different genres of music. I think I even bought an album of country music once. I think the cost of a LP record was less than Rs. 50 at that time. I was given a certain amount of money that could be spent on music.

While Dad had indulged us (and especially me) by getting us the stereo system, it seemed like he was not particularly fond of its impact. He especially did not like come home from work to the sound of loud music playing on the speakers. You could see it on his face. We did not need to hear a verbal complaint. The volume of the stereo system would be reduced right away. It was not a time for rebellion.

I remember the fact that vinyl records and the temperatures of Chennai did not go well together. Some of the records would warp because of the heat, and you could easily see what was going on while the records were playing. The needle on the record player is supposed to stay in its place while the record is moving, but this would not be the case with a warped record. I devised a means to try to flatten the records. It involved the use of a big and supposedly flat drawing board from one of my Engineering Drawing courses and a pile of heavy books. I would go to the terrace where the sun could beat directly on the surface of the board, and place the vinyl record on the drawing board under the pile of books. The whole apparatus stayed on the terrace through the heat of the day, exposed directly to the sun. The hope was that the vinyl would become more pliant and straighten out in the heat.

I am not sure that this technique actually worked, but I did detect a certain sense of skepticism in my Dad’s response to my efforts, and a mention that perhaps I did not understand the value of money. Anyway, its all good..

I did not know anything about David Bowie before this time. I do not think his music even made it to the mainstream in the common rooms of the hostels that I visited in college. I am not sure what provoked me to buy this particular album. It seemed to have all the musicality of a mainstream album, but it also had an edge to it that one was not used to hearing. There was a sense that the artist was exploring his craft, and trying different things in his music. The songs were all very different from each other. There was no single overall groove to them. If you were listening to the album for the first time, you could be taken by surprise when you moved from one song to another. Even the musical shifts in the middle of a song could catch you by surprise. It felt unconventional for someone like me whose exposure to contemporary western music was limited to what was broadcast on the radio waves in that part of the world. That stuff tended to be “smoother”. Anyway, the music drew me in and stuck in my head (like spiders from Mars😉). Once I got the album, I must have listened to the music endlessly, and I know that even my younger brother was drawn to some of the songs. Later in his career, David Bowie went on to make music that was more in the mainstream, and therefore more “popular”, but this is the album that I will always remember him for.

For some reason or the other, the song The Man Who Sold the World has been playing in my head very recently. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to indulge myself and listen to the album in its entirety on YouTube. Boy, it really took me back! Hope the album can grow on you too! (Hope the album does not get moved from its current Internet location any time soon.)

The Man Who Sold The World