It’s fair to say that David Bowie’s Life On Mars? has something of a convoluted history. The song’s quality speaks for itself (Bowie biographer David Buckley accurately described it as “a soaring, cinematic ballad”), and its platinum sales figures are well deserved – yet Life On Mars? may never have existed at all if Bowie hadn’t first tried to write a lyric for what later became Frank Sinatra’s iconic anthem My Way.
“That song was so easy… I had it finished by late afternoon”
Life On Mars? was first released on Bowie’s fourth album, 1971’s Hunky Dory, but its origins are traceable back to 1968, when he penned an English lyric for French singer-songwriter Claude François’ classic song, Comme D’Habitude. At the time, however, Bowie’s version of the song went unreleased as – unbeknown to Bowie – Paul Anka had purchased the rights to the original version and rewritten it as My Way, which Sinatra duly immortalised.
Sinatra’s recording of My Way provoked Bowie into writing his own song, which, he later told interviewer Michael Parkinson, he thought could be “something as big as that, and I’ll write one that sounds a bit like it”.
Using My Way as a template in the broadest sense, Bowie came up with the basic structure for Life On Mars? when he was idling away a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine in the London suburbs.
“That song was so easy,” he later told the Daily Mail. “A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’… I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts, but I couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back up to the house… I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon.”
“The finest selection of songs I have ever heard”
Shortly after, when Bowie shared the formative Life On Mars? with his close friends and associates, they were immediately struck by its quality – along with the other freshly-minted tunes which would soon feature on Hunky Dory.
Talking to Bowie biographer Kevin Cann, keyboardist Rick Wakeman explained that he heard the early versions of these songs in “their raw brilliance”, and called them “the finest selection of songs I have ever heard in one sitting in my entire life… I couldn’t wait to get into the studio to record them.”
Bowie and Wakeman were joined by guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey for the Hunky Dory sessions at London’s Trident Studio during the summer of 1971. Hailing from Hull, in Yorkshire, in the north of England, the three musicians collectively became The Spiders Of Mars when Bowie adopted his Ziggy Stardust persona just months later, and they already knew each other’s playing inside out. As the last song to be recorded for Hunky Dory, Life On Mars? also afforded Ronson the opportunity to score his first (and one of his best) string arrangements.
“They took it on and really went with it”
“He was very nervous about it,” Woodmansey later said. “We had a whole string section at Trident with the proper BBC session players who, if one note was not written properly, would turn their noses up and you wouldn’t get a good sound out of them. So Mick was really nervous, but when they played the parts they realised these rock’n’rollers might not be guys we want to be in the studio with, but the parts are good. They took it on and really went with it.”
Ronson’s sublime string arrangement provided the perfect final flourish for Life On Mars?, which, as Bowie’s greatest, melancholy-riven ballad, remains up there with the very best David Bowie songs. Seemingly the work of a composer with a much older head on his shoulders, Life On Mars? was undeniably something special. However, its title has often thrown people off the scent, as Bowie’s lyrics had little in the way of obvious connection to the Red Planet. Indeed, the song’s primary theme was Hollywood fantasy, and it vividly describes a girl who visits the cinema in order to escape reality (“Now she walks through her sunken dream/To the seat with the clearest view/And she’s hooked to the silver screen”).
“There was nobody anywhere near with that kind of style”
Numerous reviews of Hunky Dory singled Life On Mars? out as one of the album’s key tracks (Billboard referred to it as especially “strong material”), but the song’s wider impact wasn’t felt until it was released as a standalone single in the UK on 22 June 1973, at the very height of Ziggy mania. Not surprisingly, Life On Mars? rocketed to No.3 in the British charts, aided by a memorable Mick Rock promotional film featuring a heavily made-up Bowie miming the song against a white backdrop, clad in a turquoise suit designed by Freddie Burretti.
Life On Mars? has since become a staple of career retrospectives such as 1980’s The Best Of Bowie, 1990’s Changesbowie and – in remixed form – 2014’s Nothing Has Changed. Its critical standing also continues to grow (Kevin Cann described it as Bowie’s “1971 masterpiece”) and it has inspired a number of covers, including Lorde’s emotive tribute performance with Bowie’s backing group at the 2016 BRIT Awards, and the dark, ambient reimagining Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross submitted for the HBO TV series Watchmen.
Recording Life On Mars? was “a bit scary, because there was nothing around like that”, drummer Woodmansey told NME after Bowie’s death. “There was nobody anywhere near with that kind of direction or style or anything. So we thought, Maybe this is too far, maybe this is a musicians’ thing, that we like it but nobody else will.”
But, Woodmansey continued, “It was also the first time we realised what his calibre of writing could go to… It had just gone to another level of quality altogether that we didn’t really know we’d done… this was terrific, it was something special.”
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