The first thing to say about David Bowie’s Life On Mars? is don’t forget to remember the question mark and always try and remember it’s also (somewhere) known as (Is There) Life On Mars?
It’s also worth saying that there’s probably nothing left to say about Life On Mars? because, as anyone who has ever bothered to launch a laptop search will realise, it’s pretty much already been said.
Yes, it might only be a “God-awful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair” but it’s worth 101 questions with barely a clear cut answer to any serious Bowie fan.
On the one hand its title sits easily in the performer’s sci-fi canon which includes Space Oddity of course and its later to become a junky Major Tom (in Ashes To Ashes), Starman, Loving the Alien, Hallo Spaceboy and even The Man Who Sold The World. On the other hand it was a hit two years after first featuring on the Hunky Dory album whilst Aladdin Sane was topping the long player charts and only three months before the re-issued novelty island item The Laughing Gnome was to reach number six.
But more than 40 years down the line we are still asking is there life on Mars (the planet) just as often as fans are asking what does the song actually mean. Because it must mean something right? Well, one thing seems to be sure (apart from the fact that it’s a young Rick Wakeman providing the distinctive piano), it’s not about Mars.
Strangely, it also seems likely that without Frank Sinatra’s My Way, Life On Mars? may never have happened at all.
In 1968, Bowie wrote the lyrics Even a Fool Learns to Love, set to the music of a 1967 French song Comme d’habitude, composed by Claude François and Jacques Revaux. Bowie’s version was never released, but Paul Anka bought the rights to the original French version and rewrote it into My Way, the song made famous by Frank Sinatra in a 1969 recording on his album of the same name. The success of the Anka version allegedly prompted a clearly “pissed off” (his words) Bowie to write Life On Mars? as a parody of Sinatra’s recording. The liner notes for Hunky Dory indicate that the song was “inspired by Frankie”.
Not as easy to realize as the invitation to “look at those cavemen go” being a reference to Alley Oop by The Hollywood Argyles (whose line-up included legendary producer Kim Fowley), whilst Lennon being “on sale again” is either a reference to the former Beatles solo offerings or perhaps a mistranslation of Lenin!
Clearly much confusion then (not to mention the lawman “beating up the wrong guy,” or those bully boy sailors “fighting in the dance hall”).
Maybe he was just employing lyrical cut-ups much as author William Burroughs did with his novels? Maybe as one reviewer suggested the song was written after “a brief and painful affair” with actress Hermione Farthingale? Bowie more or less agreed. While on tour in 1990, he introduced the song by saying “You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song.”
It’s also a theme song, apart from featuring in umpteen big and small screen productions it inspired the long running tv series of the same name (and its sequel was, of course, Ashes To Ashes) and one of two numbers which Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong has shortlisted for his funeral (the other being Take This Job and Shove It by Johnny Paycheck).
One thing’s for sure if the young girl who is “hooked to the silver screen” had chosen a better film to watch when her dad booted her out to the cinema we might have been robbed of another timeless gem. And Neil McCormick, chief rock music critic of The Daily Telegraph, would have had to find another song to rank as number one in his “100 Greatest Songs of All Time” list
|22 June 1973