'Life on Mars?' by David Bowie: The making of the surreal glam masterpiece

6 July 2021, 12:26

David Bowie - Life on Mars?
David Bowie - Life on Mars? Picture: Mick Rock

By Mayer Nissim

'Life on Mars?' is one of David Bowie's best-loved and most-covered songs, and the stature of the surrealist mini-epic has only grown since its first release in 1971.

But did you know how the track had its roots in 'My Way'? Or which future prog icon played the piano on the song? Here's everything you need to know about 'Life on Mars?'.

Who wrote 'Life on Mars?'

Gold's Hall of Fame: David Bowie

Like oh-so many of David Bowie's songs, 'Life on Mars?' is credited to David Bowie alone, but that doesn't mean he didn't have some help making it the classic we all know, with Mick Ronson and Rick Wakeman (Yes, that Rick Wakeman) making vital contributions.

David wrote most of the song in one afternoon travelling from Beckenham High Street to Lewisham with the riff stuck in his head, though he did give the lyrics quite a rewrite before it was eventually recorded.

It was originally released in 1971 on his fourth album Hunky Dory, but got a belated single release in 1973 (backed by the even-older 'The Man Who Sold The World') to capitalise on the burgeoning wave of Ziggy fever.

How was 'Life on Mars?' inspired by 'My Way'?

Pop historians will be well aware that 'My Way' didn't start off as 'My Way'. That song started off as a French hit 'Comme d'habitude' ("as usual"), by Claude François and Jacques Revaux, first released in 1967.

Bowie wrote his own English lyrics to the music, which he retitled 'Even a Fool Learns to Love'. The song was shelved, and Paul Anka bought the rights to the François/Revaux original, rewrote it as 'My Way' and gave it to Frank Sinatra.

DB was clearly a bit bemused and/ore miffed by the whole thing, and borrowed a few of those portentous big band elements for 'Life on Mars?', even scrawling "INSPIRED BY FRANKIE" on the cheeky back cover of Hunky Dory.

Was 'Life on Mars?' written about David Bowie's ex-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale?

David Bowie at a party in 1971
David Bowie at a party in 1971. Picture: Getty

QUIZ: How much do you know about David Bowie?

It's long been suggested that 'Life on Mars?' was written about Bowie's life-changing relationship with dancer Hermione Farthingale (who was the inspiration for 'Letter to Hermione' from 1969's David Bowie/Space Oddity album), but it almost certainly wasn't.

What makes us so sure? Well, although Bowie has acknowledged that 'Life on Mars?' is a love song of sorts, it's also a whirlpool of surreal imagery that takes it way beyond simple "love song for the ex" territory.

What's more, as Hermione herself told the ultimate DB historian Nicholas Pegg: "I don't actually have mousy hair."

QED

So what is 'Life on Mars?' actually about then?

Well, 'Life on Mars?' it is a sort of love song, as we've acknowledged. Over the years, Bowie called it a tale of "Middle-class ecstasy" with "an anomic heroine" who "finds herself disappointed by reality".

In verse one there's that mousy-haired girl, living at home with mum and dad, stood up by her pal at the cinema. She slinks into her seat all the same because she just loves the pictures ("she's hooked to the silver screen") but she's not so keen on this film, because "she's lived it ten times or more".

David Bowie in 1972
David Bowie in 1972. Picture: Getty

The chorus feels like a William Burroughs cut-up movie reel montage of crashing images, with a nod to 1950s hit 'Alley-Oop' chucked in for good measure ("look at those cavemen go").

Then that chaos is taken through to the pretty-impenetrable surrealism of the third verse ("Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" / "Lennon's on sale again" / "To my mother, my dog, and clowns").

So not just a shout out to the ex, then.

What does 'Life on Mars?' have to do with Rick Wakeman?

Rick Wakeman is best known these days for his work with Yes, his lengthy solo career, and maybe his early days with The Strawbs, but he started off as an accomplished session musician playing with everyone from Elton John and Cat Stevens to, yes, David Bowie.

"Rick Wakeman came over a couple of weeks later and embellished the piano part," is how Bowie put it many years later, which undersells just how important those crashing chords and gentle tinkles are to the finished recording.

Those gorgeous strings were the very first arrangement from Bowie's sideman and guitarist Mick Ronson, and they were played to perfection by the BBC session players.

Did 'Life on Mars?' do well in the charts when it was released?

'Life on Mars?' is maybe David Bowie's signature song and the centrepiece of his breakthrough 1971 album Hunky Dory, but it wasn't even released as a single at first (a bit like 'Ziggy Stardust').

But his label soon saw the error of its ways, and as the thirst for all things Ziggy grew, the song was released as a single in June 1973.

It went all the way to #3 in the UK, and while Bowiemania was yet to really hit the US, it got to number 12 on Billboard's Hot Rock & Alternative Songs in the US.

Read more: 10 inspirational quotes from David Bowie

It even popped back in the charts at 55 in April 2007 on the back of series two of sci-fi drama Life on Mars.

Original producer Ken Scott made a new stripped-down mix of the track featuring just those Ronson-arranged strings, Wakeman piano and Bowie's vocals, which appeared on the 2016 Legacy compilation and had a new video directed by Mick Rock, who re-edited his 1973 original.

Who has covered 'Life on Mars?' and did they do it justice?

Alongside "Heroes", 'Life on Mars?' is one of David Bowie's most covered songs. Singers who have taken it on live or in the studio include:

  • Anni-Frid Lyngstad (from ABBA) who did it in Swedish as 'Liv på Mars?'
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the soundtrack of HBO's Watchmen
  • The Mike Flowers Pops
  • The Divine Comedy
  • The Flaming Lips
  • Sharleen Spiteri
  • Frank Sidebottom
  • G4
  • Tony Christie
  • Eurythmics

Most infamously, Barbra Streisand released a cover on her 1974 album ButterFly which David Bowie wasn't exactly keen on. "Bloody awful," he told Playboy a couple of years later. "Sorry Barb, but it was atrocious".

More fittingly, the song was also performed by the Girl character in the Lazarus musical performed not long before Bowie's death, played by Sophia Anne Caruso in London and New York.