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Life On Mars?

by

David Bowie



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

The lyricism is very abstract, though the basis of this song is about a girl who goes to watch a movie after an argument with her parents. The film ends with the line "Is there life on Mars?" Bowie has labeled the song "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." The lyrics also contain imagery suggesting the futility of man's existence, a topic Bowie used frequently on his early albums. (thanks, Joey - Athens, GA)
Bowie came up with this after he was asked to put English lyrics to a French song called "Comme d'habitude." Paul Anka ultimately bought the rights to the original French song and rewrote it in English as "My Way," later made famous by Frank Sinatra. "Life On Mars?" uses practically the same chords as "My Way" and the Hunky Dory linear notes state that the song is "inspired by Frankie."
In 2008, Bowie recalled writing this song to the Mail on Sunday: "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. Rick Wakeman [of prog band, Yes] came over a couple of weeks later and embellished the piano part 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 band Bush used the line, "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" as a tribute to Bowie in their song "Everything Zen."
This was released as a single in 1973, two years after it appeared on Hunky Dory.
The song was recorded in Portuguese by Seu Jorge for the soundtrack of the 2004 film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Anni-Frid Lyngstad, formerly of ABBA, recorded a Swedish version titled "Liv pa Mars?"
If you listen closely to the end of the original recording of this song, you can hear a telephone ringing. (thanks, Paul - Montpellier, France)
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain often performs this song at live shows. They claim it is a "song about plagiarism" and that it "wasn't our idea." The first verse is played straight as Jonty Bankes sings. As Bankes sings the second verse, George Hinchcliffe sings "My Way" until the bridge ("But the film is a sadd'ning bore") when Peter Brooke-Turner sings lines from "For Once in My Life." Then through the chorus Hester Goodman sings from "Born Free" while Dave Suich sings The Who's "Substitute." Watch it here. (thanks, David - Mesa, AZ)
Mick Rock directed the song's official video. It was filmed backstage at Earls Court in London in 1973. It features Bowie in a turquoise suit and makeup, performing the song against a white backdrop.
The BBC television series, Life On Mars, was named after this, while its sequel, Ashes to Ashes, was also named after the Bowie song of the same name.
Green Day front man, Billie Joe Armstrong, has stated he would like this song to be played at his funeral.
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Comments (43):

Trivia time - Rick Wakeman used the same piano that Paul "Macca" McCartney used on Hey Jude.
- jim, glasgle, Botswana
I think Bowie was probably influenced in writing of Mars by the NASA Mariner missions of the late 60s and early 70s. The last was in 1971 probably around the time this song was written. Point I would make Mariner=Sailor. So even thought the two lines seem rather disconnected, they aren't - sailors fighting on the dance floor, but the issue of life on Mars is being addressed by Mariner (also a "sailor"). Of course, the meaning of the song hits one more directly - here are idiots on this planet full of life trying to harm each other, while we are addressing the issue of whether there is any life on another planet as though it is highly important. There is an irony there if you wear the right "relativity" goggles.
- david, London, United Kingdom
Pretty straightforward, in my opinion. Two halves or "acts." The teenage girl goes to the movies again and again to escape an unhappy atmosphere at home. The film is a bore because she's seen it so many times, yet the melancholy mood suddenly changes to a bright, shining, happy feeling as soon as the movie hits the screen at "Sailors..." Even though what is shown isn't reality, and is in fact absurd, it's better than the dreary day-to-day reality.

The second act extrapolates the same idea onto society as a whole, specifically American society called out by name. The theme of escapism applies to society in general. I can't quite reconcile all the various references cited in the lyrics, but the repetition of the mouse theme is interesting: mousy hair, Mickey Mouse, the mice and their million hordes. Even though the same movie was written 10 times or more, we get a temporary life from the dreary rat race of modern life as soon as the images fill the screen.

And the final line is the same in each act: "Is there life on Mars?" as a cry of desperation... our life here sucks so bad, can we go somewhere else? The theme of escapism from the dreary day-to-day reality reminds me a bit of Lennon/McCartney's "A Day in the Life" insofar as the theme only. The line about "Lenin's on sale again" or "Lennon's on sale again" ... I'm guessing that was deliberately set by David as a pun, that it could be interpreted as either Lenin or Lennon. And for many years after I bought the album I thought he was singing, "There's lemons on sale again."
- Bob, bw92116, CA
NO. Forget that last comment I made. Reference to something else! (?) The album of Lennon's in 1971 was "Imagine", that had sold very well, with the (infamous, to me) Title cut "Imagine".
- Gordon, Logansport, IN
Regarding the mentioning of "Lennon" in the lyrics. I'm only guessing, here, but....depending on when this song was aired, when? 1974? Could the Lennon reference be to the hit song "Fame" from 1975, (or '74?) when Lennon duetted with David Bowie on this song. Plus, Lennon came out with his album "Walls And Bridges" in '74, which contained the hit single "Whatever Gets You Thru The Night".
- Gordon, Logansport, IN
Yes, if you were a young girl with family problems and mousy hair ( like my sister-in-law, K.), you could find some meaning in the 1st verse (she did)
but the 2nd verse is totally unrelated, with vaguely political but quite obscure lines like "rule britannia is out of bounds to my mother my dog and clowns" that i would challenge any Bowie fan or professor of poetry or political science to explain. again, i love the song, the use of the random imagery and the sound of the words.
i'm a bit envious, too. i could never have written the lovely line" it's about to be writ again" so perfectly the Queen's English, and 70's hip at the same time, because i was raised and educated in america.
policemen everywhere, then and now were always "beating up the wrong guy", a line which again brilliantly plays to the revolutionary anti establishment tastes of the times, but retains that (intended) vagueness, so that , i suppose, the weekend dress-up hipsters of the 70's who would later become the uptight suit wearing money grubbing Thatcherist conformist squares of the 80's would not be put off. Clever lad, Bowie.
"look at those cavemen go" fits with "sailors fighting in the dancehall"(sounds like a headline from a small town paper), but as john pointed out above, consciously or not, Bowie lifted it from another lyric. cut and paste. cheeky, clever, brilliant lad. but almost always a bit removed and ironic, going all the way back to "major tom" and forward to let's dance, agian, both of which i love, but never made me feel sad for the astronaut, nor want to put on blue shoes and dance.
i rest my case.
- anon, las vegas, NV
i must agree with Ken. I think he just cut and pastes tidbits from here and there, and adds a few lines of his own.
people read meaning into the lyrics, but i think bowie just had a nice musical riff in his head, and finished the song
with a bunch of random words to fit the music. that said, i love the song. the melody, the singing, the lyrics too, even though they are, like
most of Steely Dan's, intentionally obscure so as to have "universal meaning", "multi-layered imagery" . Anyone can read into the song whatever meaning they
want. The song is (i'm certain) devoid of any real intended meaning.
- anon, las vegas, NV
I always thought it was Taking a look around at clowns in the freakiest show (ths planet earth) and throwing your hands in the air and saying :IS THERE LIFE ON MARS" in the same way eric idle's universe song ends "and pray that theres inteligent life some where up in space cause their bugger down here on Earth"
- tev, east china, MI
I take the song as ironic. Bowie sings about the sad state of affairs on planet earth, unwanted pregnancy, violence etc. - and thinks that maybe we should confront the problems on our own small planet before we think about exploring life on Mars or any other planet away from this troubled one. "Is there life on Mars" is a frustrated question meaning is life worth a hoot on earth. Don't let us walk before we learn to run type of thing. Check youtube for a solo with piano performance at the fashion awards to see the ironic nature of this song.
- Andrew, Inverness, United Kingdom
See Bowie made this song because he was tripping on acid and smoking large amounts of weed and heroin. He sings so "crass" abot living his life like a movie but it's not good enough, he has to laugh singing: "Is there life on Mars?" His space oddity and Ziggy lend nicely to this kid dreamer wanting to be an astronaught. Gotta love the spacy imagery. Thx, Sir David Bowie.
- John, Mesa, AZ
This song is designed for mental imagery. That's it! I think the events in history at the time are straightforward and could have been many other choices so just listen to the song and enjoy it!
- John, Mesa, AZ
It's like he's comparing the whole world to a movie, and suddenly someone sees it and wonder if we'll ever know we're in the bestselling show?
- Thale, Buskerud, Norway
It's Lenin, not (John) Lenon as in VI Lenin who lead the communist revolution in Russia. Lenin wrote a great many books up to his death. The idea of "Lenin" and his communist ideology being on sale is meant to be ironic (as is the preceding line of workers struck to fame)
- Morgan, Dublin, Ireland
It's Lenin, not (John) Lenon as in VI Lenin who lead the communist revolution in Russia. Lenin wrote a great many books up to his death. The idea of "Lenin" and his communist ideology being on sale is meant to be ironic (as is the preceding line of workers struck to fame)
- Morgan, Dublin, Ireland
About "The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain" article I suppose it's a joke. Cause it's a non sense to say that. Like it was said before "life on mars" is inspired by "comme d'habitude".The first linesare simple.It was possible to have composed them some months before. But...there is no prove. It's the same problem with beatles songs, some of them are simple and who knows if someone didn't compose them before?
Please, when I say "simple" I say it in a very positive way. Simple like basic pop, clear and incredible great.
- e-clown, perpignan, France
im pretty sure that its not true, but i always thought that the lines 'Now the workers have struck for fame 'Cause Lennon's on sale again' foreshadowed on Bowie's career from when he did the album young americans and john lennon co wrote the song fame.
- kristie, vanvouver, BC
"Is there life on Mars?" is probably a rhetorical question implying that as there's not much happening here on earth, I hope there's life some place else.
- thomas, perth, Australia
This is one of my favorite Bowie songs. Lovely written. But I just have one question [or comment]. Is the phone ringing at the end intentionally, or was it just an accident?
- Rachael, Caledonia, IL
Can't believe that no one has mentioned that Barbra Streisand covered this song on her "Butterfly" album in a grand, bombastic form.
- Aaron, Parma, MI
About the chords : they seem much different from those of "Comme d'habitude"/"My way". But Bowie may have borrowed some of them.
- Pascal, Avignon, France
the song follows Edie Sedgwick's life in the 60's, her father told her to go from home, she was on the silver screen, desperate for fame, John Lennon was on sale. Watch the film Factory Girl with Sienna Miller and it will become clearer.....
- Stefan, Hertford, England
this song is a critique of the american way of life, as a facade, empty of meaning. a girl who becomes pregnant runs to the movies to forget, and sees this emptiness reflected in the movie's characters. she suddenly realizes the meaninglessness of this life, and wonders if there is another life, life on mars.
- airman, portland, OR
Regarding the BBC use of the title "Life On Mars". I've always thought it referred to the fact that to Sam Tyler living in 1973 was like living on Mars to someone from 2006. Great show, we haven't received the 2nd season on BBC America yet here in the US as of July, 2007. BBC America has no new info on their website so I don't know if we will ever see it here!

http://www.bbcamerica.com/content/122/index.jsp
- N, Staten Island, NY
Life on Mars is about the problems of being gay at the time... Not a big deal to the girl- but parents angry. Her friends has pissed off so she's all alone= 'sunken dream's'. and the life on mars things is hoping there is something bigger than the pettiness of humanity.

Quite an upper!
- Ruby, Sydney, Australia
A new take on what those strage the words in the song could mean - in the recent (April 2007) 'Life on Mars' drama on BBC TV airing for its second series - which by the way has been a huge critical and ratings success here - the Bowie song finally appears. It is at the point when the main character appears to have woken from a coma following a car accident - and has been transported back from Manchester, England in 1973, where most of the action takes place - 1973 is not long after when the song was recorded. The lines 'she walks though a sunken dream' are spoken by one of the characters just before our hero wakes up - the 'sunken dream' could perhaps refer to a coma - perhaps this whole song is actually about a girl in a coma?
- Max, London, England
This is one of Bowie's many Burrough's influenced "cut-up" songs. Bowie and many others, Lennon, Dylan and Paul Simon use this style. Take a newspaper and cut it up into pieces and reassemble it into a jumble. Give it a try it works well.
- Ken, San Diego, CA
The lines
'Now the workers have struck for fame
'Cause Lennon's on sale again'
refer to Lennon's song 'Working Class Hero' on his 1970 John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album.
- Jack, Bournemouth, England
I have long assumed the line is "Lenin's on sale again," since the previous line refers to "workers." (However, by 1971, John Lennon was recording solo, so it could be that.) As to the question, "Is there life on Mars?" I would suggest that, after painting a bleak view of life on Earth, Bowie is asking whether there is an alternative life he could try on a nearby planet.
- Frank, Arlington, SD
Actually, there are three things that the line in question could be: "Lennon's on sale again", "Linen's on sale again", or "Lenin's on sale again". Either way, coupled with the "Mickey Mouse has become a cow" line, it suggests that society has become a tired race to buy the most, and the alternatives (either art or politics, like Communism) have failed.
- James, Lexington, KY
any significance to "'Cause Lennon's on sale again"?
- Brian, Milford, MA
There has recently been a TV drama series shown in the UK called Life On Mars in which a modern day policeman suddenly wakes up to find himself transported back in time to 1973 where he goes on to help solve lots of crimes of course. The series was very successful and I understand a second series is due to be screened soon.
- Colin, Bradford, England
This is bowie...seriously don't look into life on mars... next ule all be trying to find the meaning behind "the laughing gnome"
- Rach, Durham, England
what does the reference to lennon in the lyrics mean?
- Tom, St. Louis, MO
The girls pregnant, her parents have thrown her out and her boyfriends gone.
She seeks to escape at the cinema , but finds that the images on screen are a pale reflection of 'real life'
She comes to the idea that her life is as shallow as the films she watchs and life on mars is her life
- mike hunt, swindon, Wales
''micky mouse has grown up a cow'' to me always symbolises how something as fictitious as a cartoon mouse, created for childrens enjoyment has been twisted into a cash ''cow''
something that profits of the (not literal) prostitution of children.
to me the whole songs is about the destruction of humanities purity seen through the eyes of a girl ''watching a film'' which is a metaphor for life.
the phrase ''is there life on mars?'' to me sums up the isolation that the girl feels watching these horrors (with ''her friend nowhere to be seen''), looking at humanity not as natures moral pinnacle (thats commonly believed) but, still, as nothing more than ''cavemen.''


james beedie - northampton. uk
- James, northampton, England
Obviously the question "Is there life on Mars" is rhetorical. Bowie has steeped his work in religious imagery, bordering on the iclonaclism of the medieval catholic church. In fact, through the eyes of "the girl with the mousy hair", Bowie imagines himself as God, watching humankind act out its eternal tragedy through the aesthetic power of its own invention.
- no one, bodmin, England
The line "look at that caveman go" is from the song Alley Oop.
- John, Levittown, NY
This song has been covered by Jasper Steverlinck & Scala. Steverlinck is the singer of the Belgian rockband Arid. Scala is the name of a very popular choir in Belgium.
- Linda, Oudenaarde, Belgium
i think it means america's sad because he (mickey mouse) sold out
- Josh, Las Vegas, NV
Does the line "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" have an significant meaning?
- Patty, Hemet, CA
You can get the Portuguese version off the Life Aquatic soundtrack - I just bought it and there are some gems on there besides the Bowie/Seu Jorge tracks, of which there are 7 (2 Bowie, 5 Jorge)
- jon, New York, NY
Where can I get that portuguese version?
- Jeremy, Warren , RI
Love this song. Great lyrics, great tune, great Bowie.
- Tom, Springfield, VT
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