Reissues: Life On Mars?

Given Lorde’s tribute to Bowie at the BRIT Awards, it feels like the right time to revive this grand dame.

It was one of the book revisions that took seemingly forever to finish, and then it wound up being not that different from the blog entry. Just a touch more concise, I suppose, and a few new quotes and such. I’ve swapped in the book’s paragraphs on the chords, etc., as the original entry was clunky. If you want to see the warts-and-all version, it’s back here.

Originally posted on 23 March 2010, it’s “Life On Mars?”

Life On Mars?
Life On Mars? (live, 1972).
Life On Mars? (rehearsal, 1976).
Life On Mars? (Tonight Show, 1980).
Life On Mars? (live, 1983).
Life On Mars? (broadcast, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Net Aid, 1999).
Life On Mars? (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Glastonbury, 2000).
Life On Mars? (Parkinson, 2002).
Life On Mars? (live, 2005).
Life On Mars (The Bad Plus, 2007).
Life on Mars? (Lorde, 2016).

This song was so easy. 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. 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.

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

Nice indeed. “Life on Mars?,” as fits its cinematic lyric, has become the Citizen Kane of Bowie songs—the youthful masterpiece, the epic, the best thing he ever did. Popular television shows have been named after it, people have gotten married to it.

It (quite literally) is Bowie’s own version of “My Way”—longtime readers may recall Bowie’s chrisom child “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” his attempt to write English lyrics for Claude François’ “Comme d’Habitude.” Bowie’s translation was trumped by Paul Anka’s, which turned François’ stoic Gallic lyric into a grandiose self-assessment, perfect for Frank Sinatra’s late imperial phase. Bowie was nettled by the snub though, and a few years later he rewrote the song as “Life On Mars?”—brazen enough in his theft that he wrote “Inspired by Frankie” on the LP cover.

An anomic heroine

A sullen teenage girl goes to the movies, gets stood up by her friend and dejectedly takes her seat. She’s the subject of the song, not the typical rock ‘n’ roll object of beauty or lust or distraction. In a few lines, Bowie captures a teenager’s life, its slights, its cosmic sense of injustice, its losing war against tedium, its restlessness (he starts nearly every line with a conjunction), its uneasy cynicism. The movie screen flickers to life, showers the girl with images. The song becomes the screen, its pre-chorus is an extended trailer—soaring strings, thunderous piano, ascending chords—for the refrain, one of the most shameless, gorgeous melodies he ever wrote.

And the song also captures a teenager’s ability to suddenly and completely lose themselves in art, to a degree we can never quite do again. It’s what happens in the song as well. Bowie constructs an 8-bar bridge designed to build anticipation in the listener—the strings, the pounding piano, the rising chords in each new bar—and then makes good on his promise: the chorus, with Bowie vaulting nearly an octave to a high B-flat and ending with another high Bb, held for a brief eternity.

The careful imagery and the intricate design of the first verse—its movie theater setting, its mousy heroine—vanishes in the second, replaced by a string of jokes (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” made Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey crack up in the studio), esoteric references and gibberish (“my mother, my dogs and clowns”). A cynic would argue that Bowie didn’t have a second verse and just free-associated in the studio [voice of 2016: a cynic would be partially wrong, as there were further verses written, but Bowie rewrote them at some point before recording]; a more charitable interpretation is that the second verse is from the point of view of the movie screen itself. Blank and fecund, the screen offers nothing but a string of disconnected, vivid, absurd images: the masses scurrying from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads (from a hip summer holiday destination to an old-fashioned one), Mickey Mouse, “Alley Oop” (from which Bowie stole the “look at those cavemen go” line ), crooked cops and honest robbers.

It could be a curse on modern life, in which a discontented girl is stunned into silence by colors and noise, or it could argue that even the basest pleasures have nobility in them. I’d say “Life on Mars?” turns out to be a love song after all—the girl in the stalls, the screen providing her cheap dreams, and the song that unites them.

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

It starts with a cold opening—a single piano note, a rest, two sung notes to kick-start the verse (“It’s a/god-awful”), the latter becoming a rhythmic motif (“But her/friend is…,” “She could/spit”). A harmony vocal appears, a third below Bowie’s lead; Bolder deepens “sunken dream” with a bass fill. By the pre-chorus, a sense of movement has become relentless. All of its players are conscripted: strings and bass slam downbeats; Rick Wakeman’s piano drums out chords; Bowie vaults from a D to a high B-flat (“fo-cus on/SAI-LORS”) as a last flourish. Yet the refrain plays another game of suspense. After his opening gymnastic, Bowie feigns as if he’s losing strength, as he hits the next Bb briefly (“OH man”) and his next leap is a shorter interval, from E to B (“law-man”). It’s all a ruse: his final jump is his grandest—holding a three-bars-long Bb on “MARS!” The whole song is a clockwork. Everything has led up to this glorious indulgence. All that’s left to do is replay the whole sequence and close with fireworks.

There’s a parallel game in the song’s structure. The verses are comfortably in F major, with a C7 chord (“told her to go”) shuttling back home to F (“but her friend”) but at the close, a now-C9 chord jarringly leads to A-flat chords (“lived it ten times”). The pre-chorus becomes a battle for control between waning F major and B-flat, which assures its victory with a triumphant B-flat that opens the refrain as Bowie leaps to sing its root note. Bolder’s bass prepares the ear: in the pre-chorus, his rising chromatic line (inching up from Eb to E, from F to Gb) heralds the transition; in the refrain he tacks things down, keeping to the roots of the newly-established Bb key.

Ronson’s cascading string arrangement was based in part on the descending bassline that Bolder had worked out in rehearsals, while in turn Woodmansey’s drums respond to the strings—he does some tympani-like fills to match the staccato string bursts, and even ends the track by quoting the tympani of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a Bowie perennial by this point—similar tributes are in “Width of a Circle” and “The Supermen”). Wakeman, playing the same piano that Paul McCartney used for “Hey Jude,” offers a secondary melody line for much of the verses. Ah, you can spend hours on the details: the lovely double-recorder accompaniment in the second verse; or Ronson’s gorgeous,vibrato-filled guitar solo that links the chorus and the verse.

“Life on Mars?” naturally gets a Hollywood ending: sweeping strings, the 2001 drum fanfare and a fadeout. But we still hear Wakeman’s piano in the distance, playing a bit of his chorus line, until a phone rings, someone mutters and we’re left awake and alone.

Recorded June-July 1971; released as a single by RCA in June 1973 (RCA 2316; it hit #3 in the UK, helped by the Mick Rock promo). While a huge hit in the UK, it was never that popular in America, oddly enough. Bowie performed it occasionally during the Ziggy tours of ’72-’73  and in’76 and then retired it until a Tonight Show performance on 5 September 1980 that has, for me, Bowie’s finest vocal for the song. Also revived in 1983, 1990 and the last tours. It’s been regularly covered over the years, even by Barbra Streisand. The version by The Bad Plus (from Prog) is highly recommended.

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.

78 Responses to Reissues: Life On Mars?

  1. smfifteen says:

    “A cynic would argue that Bowie didn’t have a second verse and just free-associated in the studio…” One of the exhibits at the V&A Museum show was a set of handwritten lyrics to this song. From my brief up-close inspection (the crowds allowed no more than that) I remember it having a few completely different verses to the final version. Despite searching online, I’ve never found any reference to these.
    Until now: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/12092387/David-Bowie-1947-2016-life-and-career-in-pictures.html?frame=2513079

    • col1234 says:

      yes, that’s mentioned in the book: someone sneaked a photo of it for me back when the exhibit was in London

    • Thank you! What I wouldn’t do for more pictures from that exhibit…all the notebook pages on exhibit were incredible!

    • Jasmine says:

      The original lyrics really change the whole feel of this song. They place it much more into the overall Crowley-esque feel of HD – sub-human race, a great Lord sighs in vain etc.

      Bowie must have thought the recorded version gave a more ironic and personal feel to the disillusionment he presumably felt (or wanted to convey).

      The mother and clowns reference which started on the David Bowie back cover and is famously on the Ashes to Ashes video is interesting, very personal to him.

      The Evergreen reference is suggestive of being perpetual, always relevant, rather than evergreen trees. I think Bowie has a big joke with this word on Dollar Days.

  2. Jason Das says:

    Lorde and friends did and excellent job.

    I love the song but half the lyrics do feel casually phoned in. I think he could have done better on this one.

    This song is strange for me because it’s now firmly a greatest hit and used in all sorts of movies, TV shows, tributes, etc. But I never heard it before I heard Hunky Dory in full, and for at least a decade I knew it as just one of many songs from Hunky Dory that weren’t Changes—same as Kooks, Queen Bitch, Eight Line Poem, and all the others unknown to the general public.

    I’m not sure if this is a personal obliviousness or if really did have a renaissance some time in the aughts?

    • MC says:

      I think Bowie’s regular performances of the song in his last few years of touring probably did a lot for its public profile. It was also a prominent part of his live-on-TV comeback in 2005. Plus it finally got compiled on the Singles and Best Of Bowie collections of the 90’s and the 2000’s: I think it was somewhere in that period that it got elevated in people’s minds as the Greatest Bowie Song. (And for good reason – it’s certainly in my Top 10.)

    • col1234 says:

      along with “Queen Bitch,” LoM gets the biggest “production” number in The Life Aquatic, too

    • billter says:

      I think, and could be wrong, that LoM was a hit single in the UK, but not in the US, and thus much better known there than here, at least until recently. My experience was similar to yours – I came to it as an album track. But for Brits it may have been more of a known quantity.

      • Paul O says:

        I (in the US) used to play “Life on Mars” over and over again under the influence (my friends and I loved the “film is a saddening bore” crescendo). This would have been 1972-3. I just couldn’t get enough of tracks 1-4 on side 1 of Hunky Dory.

    • MikeB says:

      It always struck me as odd that it would get passed over in earlier compilations. It’s such a standard of his, and a top ten single in the UK. When it appeared on Best of Bowie and Nothing Has Changed, I felt it was a wrong righted.

  3. ““Life on Mars?,” as fits its cinematic lyric, has become the Citizen Kane of Bowie songs—the youthful masterpiece, the epic, the best thing he ever did.”

    Looking at the poll numbers for favourite Bowie songs on this site, it seems that attempts to make a successful ‘epic’ is what people like most about Bowie’s songs. Whether it’s a big epic sound (Heroes, Moonage Daydream, Life On Mars), an intricate epic song structure (Station to Station, Sweet Thing Suite, Space Oddity) or emotionally epic lyrical themes, (Five Years, Teenage Wildlife, Young Americans); Bowie’s epics (when they come off) can indeed be glorious.

    • David Sokol says:

      Love all the analysis of this and I’ve always loved every verse in this song. The first return to the mouse reference with Mickey Mouse growing up a cow is brilliant and so charmingly english to my Canadian ears. I quickly became an obsessive Bowie fan after discovering him in grade 7 – 1975. There were no other Bowie fans amongst my peers and nothing on the radio beyond Fame. Hunky Dory was my favorite album at that time and though I didn’t know which songs might have been hits in some parallel universe, LOM always felt like a hit to me. As for favorite lyrics and lines there are far too many to mention. i will say that I have never been able to listen to the chorus of Quicksand – Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief, knowledge comes with death’s release, ahahahah…. – without getting a chill down my spine.

  4. ofer says:

    to call the second verse lyrics anything but pure genius is crazy to me. the heart of the song is in it’s second verse, were it turns against itself and exposes itself to be just as artificial as the movie the girl is watching. and the one liners are incredible: “lennon’s on sale again” is amazing, and “it’s on america’s tortured brow that mickey mouse has grown up a cow”, funny as it may be, is one of the single greatest lines bowie has ever written.

    (by the way, i’d really be interested in hearing other people’s favorite bowie lines, as iv’e got a kind of personal ranking of great bowie one liners).

    • Jason Das says:

      Call me crazy, then! But I am glad to see love for them from others.

    • Landon Brown says:

      I’m inclined to agree, and think the abundance of ‘mouse’ imagery forms some of that connective tissue between the two verses.
      – The girl with the mousey hair is bored and disillusioned, both by life and the film before her;
      – Mickey Mouse, perhaps the most iconic childhood screen figure ever, now represents a bloated, commercialized parody of that initial youthful wonder;
      – and the mice in their million hordes, the common folk, who this girl will presumably grow up to resemble, are now on strike – not for a better livelihood – but this time for fame, which they too have been wrongly convinced is now the most important commodity of all.

      • smfifteen says:

        Beautifully put.

      • Ofer says:

        Great analysis, man

      • Patrick says:

        As a Brit, “From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads ” is one of my favourite DB lines. Just very evocative of a certain “Englishness”.
        Also for me, there’s a sense of Eliot’s The Waste Land in the fragmentation of the lyric, where the mythical merges with the mundane, yet held together with a narrative voice. Although I think I read that by the time he had met Burroughs , IIRC, he denied to him, knowing T S Eliot’s work , which I find hard to believe.
        And how prescient that that the workers struck for “fame” and Lennon and later he would write and perform “Fame” with Lennon.

      • Patrick says:

        Oh and that Mick Ronson arrangement and production.
        Bloody marvellous!

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      “I’m the cream of the great Utopia dream, and you’re the gleam in the depths of your banker’s spleen” is one that always puts a smile on my face.

    • Jasmine says:

      Favourite lines – well, these aren’t exactly one-liners, but I love them. One day they may sound epic, another day they can mean something to me personally other days they just sound good!

      At the moment – this:
      I’m a blackstar, way up, on money, I’ve got game
      I see right, so wide, so open-hearted pain
      I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes
      (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

      And this:
      If the money is lousy
      You can always come home
      We can do the old things
      We can do all the bad things
      If the food gets you leery
      You can always phone

      Always this:
      Once there were mountains on mountains
      And once there were sunbirds
      to soar with
      And once I could
      never be down

      And always this:
      She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
      In her frock coat
      and bipperty-bopperty hat
      Oh God, I could do better than that

    • Paul O says:

      Too many favorite lines…

      Just playing that latest record
      Waiting for the telephone to ring
      Wiped out and bitter with a bag clutched in her hand
      All the cars sound like they’re pulling in the drive
      No, no, no
      I see her now, a little tear running down her cheek
      Lost, let down, looking for me
      I want to race down her street
      And knock hard on the door
      Until she breaks down into my arms
      Like a treasured toy and I feel her pain
      I’ll be so strong, again and again

  5. Matthew says:

    Until I read this blog I never considered that it might be about someone actually going to the cinema, I always assumed that all the references were allegorical. Life as a film. Will listen again now.

  6. Sparkeyes says:

    Ideas for who was on the ‘phone?
    Favorite for me is Frank Sinatra’s lawyer…

    • smfifteen says:

      Don’t know the caller, but here is some fascinating detail about it: http://www.buzzfeed.com/johnnyr6/6-things-you-may-not-have-known-about-david-bowie-arl4#.wpDdBe44E

      • djmac says:

        “It was a really good take, and suddenly this phone which was in the bathroom at the side of the studio started to ring, and it was picked up on the piano mics which were right by the door of this bathroom, and we had to stop the take,” said Scott. “And Mick Ronson, who happened to be in the studio, was just cursing and swearing like mad because we had to stop it. So we went back to the beginning of the tape, started to record another take again, and I don’t know if they just started earlier, or if they played it faster, or what, but it turned out that we didn’t erase over the complete earlier take. We didn’t even realize it until we did the strings, and they’re just sustaining at the end, nothing else is playing, and then suddenly the piano came back in, and then the phone comes in, and then you hear Rono cursing and swearing.”

        HA!!! YES!!!! Thanks so much for this! The phone at the end is one of my many favorite things about LoM! I always love the silly minutiae of recordings and songwriting and that’s why knowing this bit and why this blog is so great!

  7. Alon Shmuel says:

    It is one of the first Bowie songs I knew, as it was the second track on my first Bowie LP: 1980 K-Tel’s Best of Bowie. The edit on the album cut out the coda, so I only learned of its existence 10 years later, when the Ryko CD was released (I wasn’t too fond of Hunky Dory then, nor now).
    The song is really great, I think it’s the first time that Bowie shows his vocal capacities (on most of the other tracks on the album he sounds like Mickey Mouse). Bowie goes all the way in the grand finale, and doesn’t ruin it with a wink like he did later with Rock’n’Roll Suicide. The arrangement is great, Wakeman’s piano is a indeed a second soloist. I didn’t realize those were recorders on the second verse, I always though it was an electronic instrument.
    The 1980 Tonight Show performance, together with the best live performance of Ashes to Ashes, makes me wonder if the cancelled 1981 tour could have been Bowie’s greatest.

  8. roobin101 says:

    I love this song, my four-year-old loves this song – everybody should love this song. Lyrically about something very particular and has almost infinite meaning – it’s the question, are people conscious like I am conscious?

    Small question: I have a sheet music book at home with a guitar chord chart for this song that seems to break down at points. It doesn’t even describe some chords, just list weird finger positions. What is the last chord of the bridge, the one that comes under “as I ask her to focus on…?”

    • col1234 says:

      the Hunky Dory: Off the Record band score (the most accurate i could find) has the end of the bridge as: Faug5/A (“spit in the eyes of”) Bbm (“fools as they”), Db7/Cb (‘ask her to focus on’) Bb (saaailors)

    • Tyrell says:

      Chris’s description is correct, both in his answer and in the blog entry.
      The bridge is based on two accords, first on Ab, then on Db but they are in the second inverse (you have to play them on the piano like Eb-Ab-C and Ab-Db-F). Both accords have the same movement, the bass goes in each line one half note higher (Eb-E-F-Gb and (Ab-A-Bb-B) and in the last lines they have a seventh note as well. So under “as I ask her to focus on” it is indeed a Db7/Cb=B.
      This song is actually full of as- and descending half note moves, it is quite an amazing piece of songwriting.
      If someone takes the time with an instrument to find out the chords in the Bowie songs one will quite soon realize how an inventive songwriter he was, even in his early twenties. (Actually I think his songwriting in the ’64-’69 period is very underrated, he wrote already in this period quite amazing songs, full of surprising and unusual chord changes.)
      E.g. when I recently spent some hours with Oh You Pretty Thing I was amazed how unbelievably, unexpectedly cleverly and well written that song (too) is. Not to mention Ashes to Ashes which is simply ingenious.

  9. Galdo says:

    The best pop song ever written. Period.

  10. Chris Williams says:

    Any link between Lennon and Fame?
    This was the first song for me when it was a single, although I had “Drive-In Saturday” by then. “Life On Mars” is the only song I could consider my favourite ever when asked in late 2011 and why the band I was given for my birthday was named after the first line.

  11. I have always thought it cosmic that “Lennon” and “fame” are coupled here, just as they were later in “Fame.” Bowie’s story about John singing “-ame!” in their 1975 session and himself “just adding an ‘F'” …is this one of DB’s first explicit verbal allusions to his earlier work?

  12. Ellie Arroway says:

    I agree with others that this song is ‘epic,’ not just in its place in Bowie’s catalog (now, at least), but in its scope and grandeur within the song (Bowie’s vocal performance, for one).

    To me, the imagery makes me consider whether not just teenage life, but modern life in general, is a series of celluloid images and advertisements that are almost hard to tell apart from the relationships and interactions of ‘real life.’ Bowie yet again presaging the age of illusion..

    I do, however, have one GIANT question that I have never been able to work out in all my poring over the lyrics (and appreciating my fellow fans’ contributions):

    What does it have to do with life on Mars???

    It seems to me that this iconic line, the title of the song, is precisely the one that sticks out and doesn’t seem to mesh with the verses. It likely isn’t the title/plot of the movie the mousy girl is watching, since it features a raucous brawl between sailors and law-men.. Or is the line a reference to the notion that our lives have changed so much that it may as well be life on Mars (instead of Earth)? But then why the question “IS THERE life on Mars”?

    I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this! Thanks!

    • Paul O says:

      See roobin101’s comment above: “…it’s the question, are people conscious like I am conscious?”

      • col1234 says:

        agree. & also it does fit in with the run of images in the chorus—the Alley Oop reference, the “lawman”, dance hall, etc. it’s all a vague “old movie” feel and an American old movie feel at that. so the title is part of that: it’s very 50s SF movie trailer language

    • Bjorn 'Tubby' Wilde says:

      Got to admit I’m surprised about the comments here regard the lyrics, its always seemed very straight forward to me…

      At the risk of sounding like an idiot (although hiding behind a pseudonym…)

      Act 1) Girl in cinema ponders whether the characters in the film know its a film or do they think they are real….

      Act 2) Surprise! the girl is a character in the singers song (“Cause I wrote it…….”)

      Act 3) singer thinks of teeming life, hordes on holiday etc……ponders … are we real or is planet earth just a story being read by a martian.

      To me the song is the old trope of the writers characters coming to life to haunt him but with a twist in the end….

      An example of the ‘is this reality’ twist and double twist was done in 1999 for “The Thirteenth Floor”

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      I’ve always felt that it alluded to the statement also posited in song by Monty Python that goes; ” and pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space, because there’s bugger all here down on earth”. Hope that helps….

      • billter says:

        Yeah, SPS, that’s what I’ve always thought. The full line would be, “Is there intelligent life on Mars? Cause there sure isn’t any here.” But that wouldn’t make for a catchy chorus at all. The shorthand is nice and snappy, and doesn’t hit you over the head.

    • Big Biscuit says:

      I also thought there was some irony (if that’s the correct word” in the title. Life on this planet can be so alienating and confusing that it might as well be on another planet….i.e. Mars. Just my thoughts on it.

      • Patrick says:

        I hear the title as this: The film is a “saddening bore seen 10 times or more” so her mind is wandering from the mundane into her own imagination and speculating whether existence is more interesting elsewhere as far removed as you can be, on another planet, just as SF can be an escape from the everyday.

    • David Sokol says:

      I always thought the song could just as easily have been called
      Somewhere Over the Rainbow a song he melodically referenced with its distinctive octave jump Some…Where! though going down instead of up Sai…lors! or Law..man! To me the song is also thematically the same. A young girl with mousey hair longs for a far off place to escape her hopeless dead end existence. i wouldn’t be surprised if this silver screen classic wasn’t the inspiration for this song which (is about to be writ again).SWOTR would be referenced several times in his career. Some…Where is exactly the same as Star…Man! And of course, Just like that Bluebird….

    • Ellie Arroway says:

      Well, when you all put it that way, the title seems rather obvious! (By which I mean to say: thank you all for putting it that way!).

      Reading the responses, I just had a reaction that I’m sure many of you have shared: renewed awe at DB’s brilliance when I finally took notice of something that was staring me in the face all along and that DB crafted with intention for just that effect.

    • Andy says:

      I am so confused about all the confusion about this!! To me it was always very simple and clear: she’s bored by the movie, so familiar and tiresome–so to make it interesting to herself, she pretends it’s a movie called “Life on Mars”–and presto chango, she’s now watching a film about alien life, not just humdrum humans. The lawman isn’t just a stock character anymore, he’s an alien on Mars, behaving like we do, but with the added frisson of being a Martian. “Wonder if he knows he’s more interesting than he appears to be; that he’s in a movie about Martians?”
      I always thought it was a brilliant and simple conceit. Am I alone in this reading? I went back and scanned the first verse and it seems to hold up to me still as this being the moist obvious reading…

      • Andy says:

        Sorry, correction: “watching a movie called ‘Is There Life on Mars?'”.
        Also, apart from the fact that I obviously did not mean “moist obvious,” I also did not mean to imply that any other reading was dunderheaded, or that subtext and deeper meaning were unneccesary or not present–just that they might follow from what I can’t “unsee” as a clear, straightforward premise. And I do realize my bias in that.

    • Gigi says:

      Is there life on Mars? Is there more life out there? Is there an escape? Look at in the context of Lazarus, it’s one of those questions …. Is there life elsewhere when we are off this planet.

  13. roobin101 says:

    Given the way I garbled my earlier post I’m probably unconscious. Lyrically the bridge plus the chorus to me is the girl’s running mental commentary on what she is seeing, a collision of objective and subjective, leading up to the vast ultimate question at the end. Asking if there is life on Mars is really what is the significance of life on Earth. This yearning is in the midst of verses about confinement, frustration and bewilderment – am I the only one who sees this and feels this way? Super-teenage thinking but we never really stop thinking these thing as we grow older, we just get on with life…

    But I digress.

  14. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    The girl with the mousey hair also reminds me a lot of the role Mia Farrow played in The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

  15. Big Biscuit says:

    I like the 1980 Tonight Show version a lot also. Bowie wearing his 50’s Elvis red jacket “Jailhouse Rock” outfit and in very good voice.

    • Mike F says:

      The Tonight Show version is excellent. However, I think the wardrobe was inspired by James Dean, not Elvis.

      • Big Biscuit says:

        Have you checked out the Jailhouse Rock photos from the album and picture sleeve single? Red jacket, white shirt and black pants. I believe there are some references around the internet indicating it was Big E inspired given how much of a fan Bowie was.

      • Paul O says:

        It’s the Rebel jacket/white t-shirt/jeans combo (plus hairdo).

        (Elvis’ “Jailhouse” shirt has a collar and his red jacket is collarless with black trim, although it could also be a nod to Rebel.)

  16. billter says:

    The Parkinson version gives me goosebumps.

  17. col1234 says:

    it took Mike Scott of the Waterboys to make me realize there’s been a typo in the Bowie quote since 2010 (and carried over into the book): it’s chaise LONGUE not lounge! ah the curse of my dyslexia.

    • Paul O says:

      Chris, take comfort in the fact that “chaise lounge,” though a bastardization of the original French, has long been considered acceptable by Oxford and Webster’s.

  18. roobin101 says:

    Here’s another good overcomplication. The girl with mousey hair/grey eyes is a good candidate for anima figure in Bowie’s lyrics. The girl in LOM is pondering a montage of male archetypes. Is there life on Mars then becomes what is the meaning of masculinity?

  19. ragingglory says:

    Note a lot of praise for Lorde with Bowies band at the Brit awards, but frankly by fellow country woman cannot sing. Better than gaga maybe but thats not saying a lot.

    • Andy says:

      Agreed she could not sing particularly well, and yet it moved me to tears.

      • Ramona says:

        I agree. Not the most accomplished singer but certainly a heartfelt performance. Couldn’t help but notice that her outfit of black trousers and vest with white shirt evoked Bowie’s style circa 2002 on the Heathen Tour.
        I think the beauty of her performance was in its simplicity.

    • BlaMmO says:

      It was heartfelt, and the band kicked ass. All were purportedly holding back tears, and had practiced some 100+ hours to compose their tribute to ‘the boss’:

      • Patrick says:

        The Bowie band’s medley at the start was so sharp and I really enjoyed that section. Obviously they had already been drilled to the core , from you know who. But sadly the figure to walk on was not the usual.
        I don’t really like Lorde’s voice so that didn’t help though she did Ok I guess.
        I actually got a bit tearful, watching GaGa’s performance, not because it was any good because it was not, but because I was reminded of what a unparalleled back catalogue of great tunes he had as a solo artist and 3 minutes or so would never be enough to do them justice, though his band at the Brits showed her how that’s done.

      • Big Biscuit says:

        I thought the performance had the right attitude and structure. I mentioned elsewhere in regards to Gaga’s “Vegas Medley” that I would have preferred one poignant song with players that were actually part of David’s musical life instead of Gaga spastic, corporate sponsored approach. Lorde delivered that to some degree and I respect her and the organizers for that.

      • Gb says:

        The band sounded tight as hell….and while I think there could have been a better song choice for Lorde’s voice registry, it was a very heartfelt and simple rendition….much prefered over the abismal Gaga and her product placement tribute.
        I also loved that they showed David in all his facets, throught all his years…including the 90’s/00’s…they didn’t get stuck in the 70’s/early 80’s. And the speeches were spot on and said everything that needed to be said.

  20. billter says:

    Listening again this weekend, it really struck me that this is not a rock’n’roll song at all. It’s a cabaret song. It calls for a lavish production number. It’s one Bowie’s most…um…flamboyant numbers, and I suspect it has a slightly different fan base than some of his more guitar-based music. Though there are lots of us that love both.

    Anyway, now that Bowibury is over, start the chant with me: Heat…Heat…Heat…Heat…

    • Paul O says:

      “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is…” Bowie. The majority of his work ain’t what I’d call rock ‘n’ roll per se. What rock is there? Ziggy (not all of it), some tracks on Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs and Scary Monsters, the mid-to-late ’80s rock I’d rather not discuss and Tin Machine. The rest of it is no wave, jazz, folk, pop, soul, funk, disco, drum ‘n’ bass, avantgarde and “cabaret.” And a good thing, too.😉

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Are you kidding??? Here in Melbourne I’ve just put up with 6 frigging months of heat, heat, heat and drought, drought, drought. Summer was officially over a couple of days back, but someone forgot to tell the weather.
      Please join me in a chant of Cold…Cold….Cold..Cold…

    • s.t. says:

      Respectfully, we shouldn’t do any chanting. Chris will write the new posts when he’s ready to do so.

      In the meantime, we’ve got these reissued posts to comment on. Bring on Love You Til Tuesday!

  21. John D. says:

    A fantastic song, Hunky Dory was the first Bowie album I ever bought myself (around 1995 or 96) though I had bought Bowie CD singles before it (Earthling singles). Surprised nobody has mentioned Mantovani’s “Born free” as “Sailoooors” always reminded me of it – or perhaps the instrumentation anyway. Fabulous summary of the song as usual by the best music blogger there is! I love the Parkinson performance from 2002 (and the accompanying interview is a joy as well – he is on incredible form). Sounds like I need to go and listen to the 1980 version.

  22. MC says:

    Great writeup on a magnificent track – one of Bowie’s greatest!

    I felt the Brit Awards tribute hit all the right notes, in every sense. When I heard Lorde would be singing LOM, I was incredulous; I like her, but I wasn’t sure she had the range to pull it off. I was stunned by how good she was. And hats off to Slick, Garson, Dorsey, et al: on of DB’s finest bands.

    Not crazy about the Lady Gaga performance, on the other hand, but it’s not like she didn’t have the chops to pull it off. I think she and Rodgers would have been further ahead if they’d done maybe 2 or 3 songs in their entirety. I wouldn’t have minded hearing her dig further into Space Oddity, say.

  23. Someone fetch a priest says:

    Terrific writeup Chris. Life on Mars is for me Bowie’s best song – your Citizen Kane comparison is very apt since it really is the kind of thing people only produce when they’re young and fearless and magic is just pouring out of them. Artisans with decades of experience and craft can’t compete with being 24 and in the park on a sunny day, at least for some of the creative arts. In his later years Bowie himself must have marveled (despaired?) at his ability at that age.

    I enjoyed many of the comments on the song’s meaning. roobin101’s insight seems accurate – “are people conscious like I am conscious?”

    I was not a fan of the tributes by Gaga or Lorde. I like Lorde as an artist, but her vocal range was not quite right for this song. Credit to her though for having a crack at it on the big stage, especially since LoM is such an obviously difficult number to sing (those octave leaps!). One recent cover I was very impressed by is by the young Norwegian singer Aurora (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efWtQm15SBM). Like Lorde, she is only 19 – LoM remains a song about youth which is best sung by young people.

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