Monday, August 4, 2014

I Met A Man Who Wasn't There: Lulu: "The Man Who Sold The World"

Or, the power of Bowie in the age of crisis.  Lulu attended one of Bowie's concerts, he invited her backstage and said he wanted to do a single with her; and so this happened (b-side is "Watch That Man").  Lulu had been through a lot by this time, including her Eurovision hit (a number two, as you'll recall) and an early and rather poignant marriage to Maurice Gibb, which was over by the time this was released.  So she is at something of a loose end - she has by this time also gone and done an album at the new studio Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, New Routes (following dutifully in the footsteps of La Springfield) and another called Melody Fair -  in Europe she was more or less a hit more in Germany than in the UK, where she was the pantomime star in Peter Pan.  Neither of her albums charted, but I can imagine Bowie wishing she would do something a bit more modern, and since at this time Bowie was the thing (Lulu thought he was "ubercool" herself), a cover version was obvious.

But this song?  Nothing about it is obvious.  Lulu herself didn't understand it but sang it anyway with a kind of toughness and raw quality that acts as a natural bridge between Bowie's version and the justifiably definitive one by Nirvana.  In this version, she is staring, masculine, unamused; this creep on the stair is making her nervous, sure, but her "gazely stare" is expectant, defiant, even.  The man (and she is dressed as a man) has sold the world, she laughs and shakes his hand, but then roams...someone died, didn't they?  Did millions die?  Death is part of life, and yet here death seems to become this man, somehow.  Or is this a kind of death-in-life?  "We never lost control" the song says, not ever saying who "we" are.  Lulu's controlled voice brings the song to life in a way that makes it sound as if the man really did sell the world, and now she is looking in the mirror somehow and seeing herself in that figure on the stair; as if a hidden part of herself has confronted her, and her assertions of control are all she has against this uncanny double.

 We die, we live, and yet do we know who we are?  Lulu's flat "Who knows?  Not me" are a solid wall here, and Bowie's saxophone lends it a kind of creepiness that makes this slightly reggaefied cover unnerving, which is presumably what Bowie wanted.  The pauses and echoes of the original are gone, all is centered on Lulu's voice - and does it alter the song, hearing a woman sing it?  Is this a woman meeting her male self, her repressed side?  Or is The Man here really The Man, content to let you think he's your friend, even though you've never really met him before?  There are puzzles within puzzles here, but Lulu was smart enough to let the song stand for itself, and it was a #2 hit on the Radio Luxembourg chart, where the loucheness of the song altogether was indeed welcome and modern.

Lulu is still an underrated singer and it would be most welcome if she could record a new album a la Petula Clark's Lost In You*; from what I could tell from the Commonwealth Games, she is still full of the genial toughness and eagerness to break new ground, even if all they wanted was her to sing "Shout" one more time.

Next up:  the (partial) invention of Radiohead. 

*It would be almost asking her too much to do this, wouldn't it?  And yet, I think it could work....

1 comment:

Mark G said...

At the time, I was massively disappointed that L&B didn't make a whole album of realigned Bowie classics. Instead it was "Man with the golden gun" (bit rub), and "Take your mama for a ride" (bit good) and a bit of Chelsea Record-ness.