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How “middle class ecstasy” inspired David Bowie song ‘Life on Mars’

In 1968, David Bowie was working as a lyricist for a publishing company, writing English words for foreign songs. It was while working there that a grandiose French hit by Claud Francois arrived on his desk. “One of the things they gave me was this French song,” Bowie remarked in an interview in 2002. “They said, ‘Do an English lyric to this,’ so I wrote this godawful lyric called ‘Even A Fool Learns to Love’ and it was dreadful, God it was so awful, really very embarrassingly bad. And I sang the lyric to the actual record that they actually sent me from France.” 

This “embarrassingly bad” recording (which you can hear below) was then sent off to the glitzy studios where the Paul Anka’s of this world record and, unsurprisingly, he rejected what was sent. In the end, the track was rewritten by Anka himself, and it became the drunken aunt classic that is ‘My Way’. Naturally, Frank Sinatra’s ubiquitous hit made its way back to Bowie’s ears via the radio, and when he heard it, he was, in his own words: “Really pissed off.” While for the rest of us, it reassuringly adds some order to the universe that fate intervened to ensure nothing as unfathomable as Bowie receiving a songwriting credit for ‘My Way’ could occur, as far as he was concerned, he heard it and thought, “That should’ve been my song”.

With his tail between his legs having been trumped by Paul Anka, the Starman in waiting declared: “OK, I’ll write my own version, so it was ‘My Way on Mars’.” While harmonically, the two songs share strong chordal similarities, you can’t just blast ‘My Way’ into the stratosphere on a whim. Seemingly, however, the universe would send it back to the man who fell to Earth one velvet morning in London. 

In 2008, Bowie explained to the Mail on Sunday how he took the chords of ‘My Way’ and made them extra-terrestrial: “This song was so easy,” he began. “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.”

With his grand retort to rejection falling into place, as though some interventionist other was giving the world two songs for the price of one on the French exchange rate, Bowie hastily headed home. As he continued to explain: “I 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.”

The next step was to invite some friends over to work out some embellishments. “Rick Wakeman [of prog band, Yes] came over a couple of weeks later and embellished the piano part,” Bowie continues, “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 song, and Bowie’s amazement at his own transfigured alchemy of the old French number, seem to fit into the artistic sentiment that Hoagy Carmichael put to words when he remarked: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.” With ‘Life on Mars’, Bowie knows what he meant.

The song carries that same sense of being fished from the ether. It seems bigger than itself, as though there is something profound shrouded within the obfuscated lyrics. Bowie says the song is about “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.” With the song, Bowie would concoct his breakthrough album Hunky Dory, and thereafter he continued to do it his way forevermore.

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