So David Bowie’s Life on Mars? was released as a single 45 years ago today. Originally issued on 1971’s Hunky Dory album, his first for the RCA label, a seven-inch single was issued in the UK on June 23, 1973 to capitalise on the Dame’s newfound fame.
The belated 45 (backed with oh-I-do-think-it’s-too-good-to-be-a-B-side The Man Who Sold The World) was regarded as more of a record company cash-grab rather than a statement of artistic intent: Bowie had already offloaded two subsequent albums—1972’s epochal The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and 1973’s Aladdin Sane—that their creator, heavily under the spell of his favourite American alternative rock bands the Velvet Underground and Iggy & The Stooges, wanted to be “much more rock ‘n’ roll” than the previous acoustic singer-songwriter fare from the long-haired lover from Beckenham.
Despite its status as the grand dame of the Bowie repertoire, it’s intriguing how its author never personally rated Life on Mars?.
Perhaps its origins being based around Bowie’s bitterness at being passed over for adapting what became Frank Sinatra’s My Way (a French ditty called Comme D’Habitude) played no small part. Having said that, much of the deliberately oh-so cryptic lyrics are said to refer the heart’s filthy lessons that still rankled him decades on: Hermione Farthingale, the “girl with the mousy” hair, was the first person to break Bowie’s heart.
Life on Mars?, while not exactly a relationship song, shares with Comme D’Habitude a sense of discontent with life and reflection upon it. Actually, the opening lines do suggest a relationship of sorts, “a godawful small affair” that is unacceptable to mum and dad. The girl goes out, like the man in Comme D’Habitude, into a grey and sad world. Her friend (boy or girl?) cannot be found.
Bowie’s song then departs from the script, exploding into a kaleidoscope of images as the mousy-haired girl stares at the cinema screen. Yet this does not rescue her: she sees clearly that the fantasy world of entertainment will do nothing to change the greyness of her world. Mickey Mouse is not a real friend; he grows up “a cow” and whatever that means it’s certainly not flattering.
The song becomes surreal as Bowie does what he does best and plays with reality.
The girl is watching the film. The girl is living the film. The girl’s life is a film. The girl, or the narrator, wrote the film. The film is being “writ again” as we are trapped in our humdrum lives. “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.” indeed.
Look back in ager: Song of Norway was later referenced in the candid video for 2013’s song of sorrow, Where Are We Now? That elephant in the room never forgets
David often struggled with the concept of loyalty (in his career) and fidelity (in relationships) but if you dared depart the Bowie camp of your own volition it dented his often fragile ego, and it was no godawful small affair either.
In 1969, Hermione famously walked out on Bowie and went off to Scandinavia to dance in Milton Lazarus’s musical biopic of Edvard Grieg, the Song of Norway. Life On Mars is a B movie too, cheap sci-fi. It’s escapism but not life, not real life. And by the time the film was released the following year, he’d written the song at his home in Haddon Hall, south London.
“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.”
Although Bowie, clad in that cool ice-blue suit designed by Freddie Burretti, agreed to team up with the Mainman lensman Mick Rock to shoot the now iconic 1973 video for Life On Mars?, he’d put a halt on performing the song in concert earlier that year.
The Thin White one would revisit the track on just one further tour in the Seventies (1976’s Isolar), one in the Eighties (1983’s Serious Moonlight), appearing to finally come to terms with his orchestral offspring in the Nineties.
Despite its beloved signature song status (at least outside the US, where it wasn’t issued as a single), David vetoed putting LOM on the earlier compilation albums in his catalogue as well, which made its inclusion as the opening track on 2008’s personally curated iSelectBowie a rather ironic choice. Though if truth be told, the Mail on Sunday, who initially gave the album away in the British editions of their newspaper, had insisted on David gave them a big hit to front-load the odds and sods project with.
By the way, ever wondered about that telephone at the end?
With its prominent piano by the masterful Rick Wakeman and that incredible, indelible Mick Ronson string arrangement, Life on Mars? went on to become a classic composition, a standard covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Coldplay, and possibly the greatest thing he ever wrote. And not even an unnecessary ‘miss the drummer’ mix on 2016’s Legacy collection can alter that. Legacy was the first Bowie hits compilation the Warner Music Group, who control the bulk of his catalogue, rushed out a few months after the Dame’s death. Whatever the label they’re always cashing in the same star, man.
Postscript: This is the official ‘director’s cut’ for Life On Mars? (2016 mix). Mick Rock: “People like the original video, but I think this version takes it to another level, and I’m interested to see what the fans make of it.” Well, personally I could have done without those jarring b&w bits. What say you?