Happy Wednesday and hope this week has been treating you well. I’d like to welcome you to another installment of my weekly feature, in which I’m taking a closer look at songs I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. Over the weekend, I finally watched Moonage Daydream, the Brett Morgen documentary about David Bowie. While it’s not a traditional music documentary or biopic but a collage of concert and other footage from Bowie’s personal archives, I actually liked the film more than I thought. It also inspired this week’s song pick: Life On Mars?
Written by David Bowie, the tune first appeared on his fourth studio album Hunky Dory released in December 1971. It was the first record with Bowie’s new backing band featuring Mick Ronson (guitar), Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums), the group that subsequently became The Spiders from Mars. Life On Mars? was also released as a single in the UK, but only in June 1973 at the height of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. It peaked at no. 3 there.
Life On Mars? has a bit of a history, which started in 1968 when Bowie was commissioned to write English lyrics for Comme d’habitude, a song by French music artist Claude François. But Bowie’s lyrics were rejected and it was songwriter Paul Anka who took the tune and turned it into My Way, which was popularized by Frank Sinatra in 1969. Apparently annoyed about the success of My Way, Bowie used the song as a template and wrote Life On Mars?, intended as a parody of Sinatra’s recording.
Wikipedia notes that Life On Mars? has been described as a “soaring, cinematic ballad.” Combining elements of glam rock, cabaret and art rock, the tune has a pretty complex structure with different chord changes throughout. The string arrangement was composed by Ronson. Rick Wakeman, who at the time was still a member of English folk rock group The Strawbs, played the piano. Soon thereafter, he would join Yes. Here’s a live version of the song, captured in Paris in October 1999.
Critics and biographers have called Life On Mars? one of Bowie’s best songs. The tune has been covered by various other music artists, including Barbra Streisand and Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. After Bowie’s untimely death in January 2016, the song entered the charts in many countries and became a frequent tribute tune for Bowie. Tributes by organist Nicholas Freestone and singer Lorde gained broad popularity.
Following are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:
The lyricism is very abstract, though the basis of this song is about a girl who goes to watch a movie after an argument with her parents. The film ends with the line “Is there life on Mars?”
Bowie has labeled the song “a sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media” and added, “I think she finds herself disappointed with reality… that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.”
The lyrics also contain imagery suggesting the futility of man’s existence, a topic Bowie used frequently on his early albums...
…In 2008, Bowie recalled writing this song to the Mail on Sunday: “This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road. Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice. Rick Wakeman [of prog band, Yes] came over a couple of weeks later and embellished the piano part and guitarist Mick Ronson created one of his first and best string parts for this song which now has become something of a fixture in my live shows.”…
…Mick Rock, a photographer who shot the covers of Lou Reed’s Transformer album and Queen’s Queen II, directed the song’s official video, which he filmed backstage at Earls Court, London, in 1973. Bowie appears in a turquoise suit and makeup, performing the song against a white backdrop.
Rock ended up producing two more versions of the video, first in the ’80s when he treated it with a bleached look, then in 2016 when the Parlophone label commissioned him to do a new edit. “The new version is my favorite, because there are all kinds of things you can do technically, including playing around with the colors and lots things,” Rock told Songfacts. [The first clip is the 2016 version – CMM]
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube