Bowie was absent for much of The Man Who Sold The World. He was a happy newlywed (sometimes going antique shopping with his wife Angela during sessions), was living a mildly decadent life in his new rooms at Haddon Hall, a Victorian mansion in Beckenham, and was busy sacking his longtime manager Ken Pitt and replacing him with Tony Defries, the sort of remorseless borderline-criminal impresario who thrived in the mid-20th Century pop music industry.
Bowie had come up with some rough lyrics and chord progressions for songs, which he gave Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson during album rehearsals at Haddon Hall, but he left Visconti and Ronson to arrange the sessions, play most of the instruments, edit and overdub the tracks, and sometimes even provide titles (“Black Country Rock,” for example). Only at the end, mainly during the mixing stage, did Bowie show up (sometimes having just scrawled out a final lyric) to record his vocals, Visconti and Bowie’s biographers have claimed.
“She Shook Me Cold” in particular is Bowie guest-starring on his own record, as the track is essentially Mick Ronson fulfilling the dream of a struggling provincial guitarist suddenly given the run of Trident Studios—“She Shook Me Cold” is his Cream tribute (its direct inspiration likely being Cream’s live performances of “Spoonful”), with Ronson constructing his own power trio in their image (for example, he encouraged Visconti to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing).
Embodied by The Who, Cream and the Hendrix Experience, the power trio (sometimes equipped with additional lead singer, e.g., Robert Plant) was the child of new technology (louder amps, more guitar effects pedals, better recording techniques) and expanding musician egos. Trios typically dispensed with the rhythm guitarist slot, with often a more aggressive and fluid bass guitar taking the rhythm guitar’s place in the mix (or in The Who’s case, Keith Moon’s drums would sometimes be the lead instrument, while Pete Townshend’s guitar filled in on rhythm).
The trio would become rock’s standard format (The Police, U2, Nirvana, etc.), but some critics argued that as (the now-redundant) rhythm guitarists often had been songwriters and arrangers, their absence led to, as Ian MacDonald wrote, “a degradation of texture and a decline in musical subtlety…the average power trio was in effect an excuse to replace songs with riffs and discard nuance for noise.” (This wouldn’t be Bowie’s fate, as Bowie, as if in retribution for the excesses of Man Who Sold the World, would center his following LP on the piano and acoustic guitar.)
So consider “She Shook Me Cold” a fun, vulgar one-off, Bowie’s accidental voyage into heavy metal. When Bowie arrived to finish the track, he gleefully went along with the pantomime, writing a ridiculous bad sex lyric (“I broke the gentle hearts of many young virgins,” “she sucked my dormant will/mother, she blew my brain,” culminating in a verse of moaning).
The track opens with Ronson’s homage to Jimi Hendrix (cf. the opening of “Voodoo Child”), sliding from his B string to his low E string: the intro kicks off two 12-bar verses that have a trip-and-lurch rhythm and an odd harmonic layout—if the song is in E (as it seems to be), within a measure or so its subdominant and dominant chords appear, jammed together back-to-back (they’re A and B, “uh-PON A hill” in the first line), followed by a retreat directly back to the tonic E chord.
A bridge dominated by Visconti’s bass (he really takes off around when Bowie sings “she took my head”), and the “orgasmic” verse serve as the lead-in to Ronson’s 64-bar, nearly two-minute-long extravagance of a guitar solo, during which, when he’s not trying to outdo Visconti’s bass, Ronson develops some fine riffs (listen to the one around 3:26 in). Afterward all Bowie can do is get out the last verse and crawl off to the shower.
Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970; on side B of The Man Who Sold the World.
Top: Julian Wasser, “Joan Didion sitting inside white Stingray, with cigarette,” 1970.