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Life on Mars (song)

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"Life on Mars?", also known as "(Is There) Life on Mars?", is a song by David Bowie, first released in 1971 on the album Hunky Dory and also released as a single. The song, with cryptic lyrics by Bowie and prominent piano by Rick Wakeman, has been described by BBC Radio 2 as "a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dalí painting."[1]

"Life on Mars?"
Bowie LifeOnMars.jpg
Cover of the 1973 UK single
Single by David Bowie
from the album Hunky Dory
B-side"The Man Who Sold the World"
Released17 December 1971 (album)
22 June 1973 (single)
Songwriter(s)David Bowie
Producer(s)Ken Scott
David Bowie singles chronology
"Let's Spend the Night Together"
"Life on Mars?"
Music video
"Life On Mars?" on YouTube
Audio sample
"Life on Mars?"

When released as a single in 1973, "Life on Mars?" reached number three in the UK Singles Chart and stayed on the chart for thirteen weeks. A music video was filmed by Mick Rock to promote the single release.

In 2015 Neil McCormick, chief rock music critic of The Daily Telegraph, ranked the song as number one in his "100 Greatest Songs of All Time" list.[2] In 2016, Pitchfork named it the best song of the 1970s.[3]

A 2016 remix of "Life on Mars?" appeared on the compilation album Legacy (The Very Best of David Bowie) and was released as a single. The remix, by its original producer Ken Scott, is 'stripped down' and has only strings, piano and Bowie's vocals. A special music video to promote the compilation was also released, the original director Mick Rock re-cutting his 1973 video, using out-takes and other documentary sources to create a new version.



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 prompted Bowie to write "Life on Mars?" as a parody of Sinatra's recording.[1] In notes for iSelect, a compilation that accompanied a June 2008 issue of The Mail on Sunday,[4] Bowie described how he wrote the song:

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise longue; 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.

Bowie noted that Wakeman "embellished the piano part" of his original melody and guitarist Mick Ronson "created one of his first and best string parts" for the song.[1] The liner notes for Hunky Dory indicate that the song was "inspired by Frankie".[1]

One reviewer suggested the song was written after "a brief and painful affair" with actress Hermione Farthingale. While on tour in 1990, Bowie introduced the song by saying "You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song."[5]


BBC Radio has described "Life on Mars?" as having "one of the strangest lyrics ever" consisting of a "slew of surreal images" like a Salvador Dalí painting.[1] The line "Look at those cavemen go" is a reference to the song "Alley Oop", a one-off hit in 1960 for American doo-wop band The Hollywood Argyles.[6]

Bowie, at the time of Hunky Dory's release in 1971, summed up the song as "A sensitive young girl's reaction to the media." In 1997, he 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."[6]

Music videoEdit

Mick Rock filmed and directed a promotional video backstage at Earl's Court, on 12 May 1973, to accompany the release of the song as a single. It features a heavily made-up Bowie performing the song solo against a white backdrop, in a turquoise "ice-blue" suit designed by Freddi Buretti. It was Bowie's fourth music video.


When released as a single in 1973, it reached no. 3 in the UK and stayed on the chart for thirteen weeks. The song re-entered the UK charts at no. 55 over 30 years later, largely because of its use in the original British television series Life on Mars.[6] It also belatedly became a top 10 hit in France in 2013. In June 2015, Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph ranked "Life on Mars?" as no. 1 in his "100 Greatest Songs of All Time" list,[7] describing it thus:

Gloriously strange sci-fi anthem. A stirring, yearning melody combines with vivid, poetic imagery to accomplish a trick very particular to the art of the song: to be at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning. You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience, and then carries you away to a place resonant with intense, individual emotion. The magic and mystery of music and lyrics. It is something to behold.[7]

In a 2012 poll, "Life on Mars?" was voted Bowie's best song. Digital Spy, who conducted the poll, stated it has "perhaps become David's signature song – filled with surreal cut-up lyrics inspired by William Burroughs, it married vivid imagery with a tender, heartbreaking melody".[8]

Track listingEdit

All songs written by David Bowie:

  1. "Life on Mars?" – 3:48
  2. "The Man Who Sold the World" – 3:55

The Portuguese release of the single had "Black Country Rock" as the B-side.[9]




Other appearancesEdit

"Life on Mars?" has been released on a variety of Bowie compilation albums:

Live versionsEdit

In popular cultureEdit

The song has appeared in several television series. The BBC television drama Life on Mars used both the name and the song itself as its basis. The song was used extensively throughout the programme and its spin-off, Ashes to Ashes. The song was used also in the American and South Korean version of Life on Mars. In the episode "The Waters of Mars", of the British television show Doctor Who, takes place in the first human base on Mars, named "Bowie Base One".

Jessica Lange sang a rendition with a deep German accent on the fourth-season premiere of the FX television program American Horror Story: Freak Show.[10] Playing a character whose surname is Mars, Lange wears an ice-blue trouser suit and heavy matching eye shadow in her performance, echoing the Bowie video.[10] Both the song and the performance are anachronistic, given that the season takes place in 1952, nearly 20 years before Bowie released the song. She performs the song again in the episode "Pink Cupcakes", and an instrumental version is played at the end of the season finale, "Curtain Call", where Mars is getting ready to sing.

The song has also appeared in several film soundtracks. The original soundtrack of Lars von Trier's 1996 movie Breaking the Waves features "Life on Mars?" during the epilogue, although the song was replaced by Elton John's "Your Song" on the international DVD release for copyright reasons.[11] "Life on Mars?" is included on the soundtrack to the 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray as Steve Zissou.[12] The song is played as Murray walks stoned to the bow of his boat in solitude as a party continues below deck. "Life on Mars?" is included in the 2005 film Loverboy, first being played on the radio during a conversation between the 10-year-old Emily and Mrs. Harker, and later being sung a cappella by 10-year-old Emily.[12] "Life on Mars?" is included on the soundtrack to the 2006 film Factory Girl.[12] "Life on Mars?" is used in the 2012 British film Hunky Dory, sung by the character Davey (Aneurin Barnard).

Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong has said that he would like either "Life on Mars?" or "Take This Job and Shove It" by Johnny Paycheck played at his funeral.[13]



Chart (1973–2016) Peak
Australia (ARIA)[20] 67
Europe (Euro Digital Songs)[21] 7
Finland (Suomen virallinen lista)[22] 12
France (SNEP)[23] 3
Germany (Official German Charts)[24] 39
Ireland (The Irish Charts)[25] 4
Italy (FIMI)[26] 33
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[27] 3
US Hot Rock Songs (Billboard)[28] 12
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan)[29] 44
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[30] 48


Region Certification Certified units/Sales
Italy (FIMI)[31] Gold 25,000 
United Kingdom (BPI)[32] Gold 400,000 

 sales+streaming figures based on certification alone


  1. ^ a b c d e "Sold on Song Top 100 'Life On Mars'". BBC. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  2. ^ McCormick, Neil. "100 greatest songs of all time". Telegraph. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  3. ^ "The 200 Best Songs of the 1970s - Page 10". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  4. ^ Bowie, David (2008-06-28). "DAVID BOWIE: I went to buy some shoes - and I came back with Life On Mars". Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  5. ^ "Bowie: Boys Keep Swinging", Melody Maker magazine, 24 March 1990, pp 24–26
  6. ^ a b c Pegg 2011, p. 144.
  7. ^ a b McCormick, Neil. "100 greatest songs of all time". Telegraph. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  8. ^ Nissim, Mayer (11 January 2016). "David Bowie 1947–2016: 'Life on Mars' is named Bowie's greatest ever song in reader poll". Digital Spy. Retrieved 23 January 2016.
  9. ^ "Life on Mars". Teenage Retrieved 2 August 2015.
  10. ^ a b Stack, Tim (9 October 2014). "'AHS: Freak Show' Exclusive: Watch Jessica Lange's full performance of Bowie's 'Life on Mars'". Entertainment Weekly.
  11. ^ "Breaking the Waves Blu-ray - Emily Watson". Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  12. ^ a b c d Pegg 2011, p. 145.
  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 June 2012. Retrieved 2011-09-24.
  14. ^ "David Bowie – Playboy Magazine – The Uncool - The Official Site for Everything Cameron Crowe". Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  15. ^ "Albums | Cæcilie Norby". 2015-08-28. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  16. ^ "Live Spirit Live Body". Retrieved 27 January 2016.
  17. ^ .2 Contamination: A Tribute to David Bowie — Various Artists at AllMusic
  18. ^ "Sarah Blasko covers David Bowie 'Life On Mars' for triple j's Like A Version". YouTube. 2012-06-19. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  19. ^ "Wilson & Wakeman official website".
  20. ^ "Pandora Archive" (PDF). 2006-08-23. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  21. ^ "David Bowie – Chart history" Billboard Euro Digital Songs for David Bowie.
  22. ^ Pennanen, Timo (2006). Sisältää hitin – levyt ja esittäjät Suomen musiikkilistoilla vuodesta 1972 (in Finnish). Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava.
  23. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?" (in French). Les classement single.
  24. ^ " – David Bowie Single-Chartverfolgung" (in German). Media Control Charts. PhonoNet GmbH.
  25. ^ "The Irish Charts - All there is to know". Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  26. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". Top Digital Download. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  27. ^ "Official Singles Chart Top 100". Official Charts Company.
  28. ^ "David Bowie Chart History (Hot Rock Songs)". Billboard. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  29. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". Singles Top 100.
  30. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". Swiss Singles Chart.
  31. ^ "Italian single certifications – David Bowie – Life on Mars?" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
  32. ^ "British single certifications – David Bowie – Life on Mars". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 17 January 2018. Select singles in the Format field. Select Gold in the Certification field. Type Life on Mars in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.


External linksEdit