The Story Behind The Song: David Bowie’s effortless anthem ‘Life On Mars’
On July 22nd, 1973, David Bowie finally released his new single, what is arguably his magnum opus, the brilliant ‘Life On Mars’. Despite the track featuring on the album Hunk Dory almost two years prior, the world was happy to receive the new release for one of the greatest songs that Bowie ever masterminded.
Hunky Dory, perhaps the most integral album that Bowie ever released, signalled a shift towards the art-pop sub-genre and showed the musician’s unstoppable versatility—it would end up being his greatest asset. The album proved that Bowie was much more than just a traditional rock artist and marked the beginning of a career like no other.
While the album failed to achieve commercial success upon its initial release, only shifting 5,000 copies in the first quarter which prevented it from breaking into the UK charts, the material successfully gained recognition in the years that followed. It has been commented that the disappointing results were somewhat down to RCA Records, a suggestion that executives were aware that Bowie was about to create a new character and launch Ziggy Stardust in just a few months time and thus decided to hold off on any major marketing budget. However, following the triumph of Ziggy, Hunky Dory then went on to become a commercial success in its own right, a contributing factor as to why ‘Life On Mars’ was released so long after the record under Bowie’s new guise.
The track itself is allegedly a semi-parody of ‘My Way’, a song made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1969 but originally written by Paul Anka. Back in 1968, Bowie penned the lyrics to his track ‘Even a Fool Learns to Love’ but decided set the words to the backdrop of French song ‘Comme d’habitude’ which was composed by Claude François and Jacques Revaux the previous year. However, Bowie’s version was not released at the time because Paul Anka had purchased the rights to the original French version and rewrote it into ‘My Way’, which Sinatra then made iconic which later prompted Bowie to parody it and then ‘Life On Mars’ was born.
“This song was so easy,” the Thin White Duke told the Mail on reflection of the writing process behind the classic track. “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,” he added.
“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.” A beautiful day to write a classic tune.
He continued: “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.”
The bohemian dream of Bowie’s artistic workspace continues: “I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice. Rick Wakeman 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.”
The abstract lyrics coupled with the thumping music transports the listener to an out of this world experience which answers the question in the song about if there is ‘Life On Mars’, it is a truly perfect song that epitomises the supernatural lure of David Bowie.
It’s the same lure that made him the most fascinating artist Britain has or will ever produce. Let Bowie transport you to another world, below.