Life on Mars (song)
"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. 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.
|"Life on Mars?"|
Cover of the 1973 UK single
|Single by David Bowie|
|from the album Hunky Dory|
|B-side||"The Man Who Sold the World"|
|Released||17 December 1971 (album)|
22 June 1973 (single)
|David Bowie singles chronology|
"Life on Mars?"
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. In 2016, Pitchfork named it the best song of the 1970s.
A 2016 mix of "Life on Mars?" appeared on the compilation album Legacy (The Very Best of David Bowie) and was released as a single. The mix, 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. In notes for iSelect, a compilation that accompanied a June 2008 issue of The Mail on Sunday, 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 Rick 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. The liner notes for Hunky Dory indicate that the song was "inspired by Frankie".
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."
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. 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.
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."
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, and it became the singer's fourth music video. In 2016, it was remastered and retouched by Rock.
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. 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, 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.
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".
All songs written by David Bowie:
- "Life on Mars?" – 3:48
- "The Man Who Sold the World" – 3:55
- David Bowie – vocals
- Mick Ronson – electric guitars, Mellotron (for recorder sound), string arrangement
- Trevor Bolder – bass guitar
- Mick Woodmansey – drums
- Rick Wakeman – piano
"Life on Mars?" has been released on a variety of Bowie compilation albums:
- A live version recorded at the Boston Music Hall on 1 October 1972 was released on the bonus disc of the Aladdin Sane – 30th Anniversary Edition in 2003.
- Another live version, recorded at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on 20 October 1972, was first released on the album Santa Monica '72, before becoming officially available in 2008 on Live Santa Monica '72.
- A live performance recorded on 23 March 1976, in a medley with "Five Years", was included on Live Nassau Coliseum '76, which was released as part of the 2010 reissues of the Station to Station album, on the 2016 collection Who Can I Be Now? (1974–1976), and as a stand–alone album in 2017.
- A concert performance recorded on 12 September 1983 may be heard on the live album Serious Moonlight (Live '83), which was part of the 2018 box set Loving the Alien (1983-1988) and was released separately the following year. The filmed performance appears on the concert video Serious Moonlight (1984).
- A recorded-for-television performance on 23 August 1999 may be heard on the album VH1 Storytellers (David Bowie album).
- Bowie's performance of the song at the Glastonbury Festival on 25 June 2000 was released in 2018 on Glastonbury 2000.
- A November 2003 live performance was released on the A Reality Tour DVD in 2004 and subsequently included on the A Reality Tour album released in 2010.
- An 8 September 2005 live performance recorded with Arcade Fire at Radio City Music Hall in New York City at the 2005 Fashion Rocks event. He was introduced by Alicia Keys and is accompanied by longtime pianist Mike Garson. A recording was subsequently released via iTunes.
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. 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. 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. "Life on Mars?" is included on the soundtrack to the 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. 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. "Life on Mars?" is included on the soundtrack to the 2006 film Factory Girl. "Life on Mars?" is used in the 2012 British film Hunky Dory, sung by the character Davey (Aneurin Barnard).
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- In 1974, Barbra Streisand released a version of the song on her album ButterFly. In a 1976 Playboy interview, Bowie was asked what he thought of her cover: "Bloody awful. Sorry, Barb, but it was atrocious."
- On 31 January 1975 The King's Singers recorded an arrangement of Life on Mars? by Christopher Walker at Abbey Road Studios, which was released by EMI as a single, and on the group's albums "Keep on Changing" and "For Your Pleasure".
- Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who achieved international success as one of the members of ABBA, recorded a Swedish version titled "Liv på Mars?" (with Swedish lyrics by Owe Junsjö), included on her 1975 solo album Frida ensam.
- The London Symphony Orchestra released an orchestral cover of the song on their 1977 LP Classic Rock.
- A version by Arid lead singer Jasper Steverlinck and the Kolacny Brothers reached number one in the Belgian charts in 2002, later it was added to the album Songs of Innocence.
- Seu Jorge covered the song in Portuguese on the acoustic guitar in the 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Jorge, who also plays the character of Pelé dos Santos, performs this and other Bowie songs live, in character during the film.
- Following Bowie's death in January 2016, the song was recorded by Nicholas Freestone, organ scholar at St Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire, who posted the video of his performance on Facebook and YouTube. The video became a viral hit.
|Europe (Euro Digital Songs)||7|
|Finland (Suomen virallinen lista)||12|
|Germany (Official German Charts)||39|
|Ireland (Irish Singles Chart)||4|
|UK Singles (Official Charts Company)||3|
|US Hot Rock Songs (Billboard)||12|
|Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)||48|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||400,000|
sales+streaming figures based on certification alone
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- Pegg 2011, p. 144.
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- Video, Telegraph; Jan 2016, video source YouTube / stalbanscathedral 9:07AM GMT 12 (12 January 2016). "Cathedral organist's rendition of David Bowie's Life on Mars moves internet to tears". www.telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
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- "The Irish Charts - All there is to know". Irishcharts.ie. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
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- "Swedishcharts.com – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". Singles Top 100.
- "Swisscharts.com – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". Swiss Singles Chart.
- "Italian single certifications – David Bowie – Life on Mars?" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 14 November 2016. Select "2016" in the "Anno" drop-down menu. Select "Life on Mars?" in the "Filtra" field. Select "Singoli online" under "Sezione".
- "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.