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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
front man, Billie Joe Armstrong, has stated he would like this song to be played at his funeral.
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