Life On Mars?

Album: Hunky Dory (1971)
Charted: 3
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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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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 wasn't released as a single until 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Paul - Montpellier, France
  • Mick Rock, a photographer who shot the covers of Lou Reed's Transformer album and Queen's Queen II, directed the song's official video, which he filmed backstage at Earls Court, London, in 1973. Bowie appears in a turquoise suit and makeup, performing the song against a white backdrop.

    Rock ended up producing two more versions of the video, first in the '80s when he treated it with a bleached look, then in 2016 when the Parlophone label commissioned him to do a new edit. "The new version is my favorite, because there are all kinds of things you can do technically, including playing around with the colors and lots things," Rock told Songfacts.
  • 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    David - Mesa, AZ
  • The BBC television series, Life On Mars, was named after this song, 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 said he would like this song to be played at his funeral.
  • This was featured on the first episode of the TV series American Horror Story: Freak Show, where it was sung by Jessica Lange's character. The series is set in 1952, but used music recorded much later, similarly to how Baz Luhrmann incorporated contemporary tunes into the films Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby.

    Ryan Murphy, who created the show, says that he looked for music by artists who were oddities themselves, and proud of it. Bowie fit the bill and approved use of the song, as did Fiona Apple, who allowed her song "Criminal" to be used in the next episode.
  • English rocker Yungblud performed "Life On Mars" with Bowie's longtime keyboard player, Mike Garson, at the virtual A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day tribute concert in January 2021. When NASA's Perseverance rover successfully touched down on The Red Planet a month later, the space agency's YouTube channel played Yungblud's cover.

    Yungblud also recorded a song called "Mars" for his second album, Weird!, which he released in December 2020.

Comments: 48

  • Titan from Adelaide, South AustraliaTo Gordon from Logansport, as this song was released on the 'Hunky Dory' LP that came out in 1971 it would've had to have been written in either '70 or '71 which means that the Lennon reference could not have been about their collaboration on 'Fame' as that didn't occur until '74
  • Teri from Sydney, AustraliaI think this song is about disconnection. The girl with the mousy hair has no choice but to watch TV (and hence she watches the world go by without her) because her friend is nowhere to be seen. I liken this to the way we have become in our relationship to social media....much is fake (like the glitzy movies of yesteryear) and we escape into it. We survive by avoiding - hence we wonder what worlds can we conquer (Mars?) or what worlds can we escape into (drugs maybe?) rather than dealing with the problems still rife here on earth of disconnection and misunderstanding (beating up the wrong guy). I think Lennon/Lenin was another cleverly ambiguous line - Lennon had just released Working Class Hero - and Lenin was the father of all that socialist stuff.
  • Kev from UkBowie Is "To the girl with the mousy hair"

    Warhol is probably "her friend is nowhere to be seen". a symbol for celebrity lifestyle.

    "The clearest view" is his view from inside the media machine

    The fake Celebrity lifestyle is "a saddening bore For she's lived it ten times"

    "See the mice in their million hordes" are those brainwashed by the media illusion

    "I wrote it ten times or more" he is now part of the illusion machine

    All you have to do is substitute the girl for Bowie himself and it all becomes clear. It has to be someone inside the media machine. Who else could "live it" or "write it".

    "You got your mother in a whirl, not sure if your a boy or a girl" - "With your long blond hair and eyes of blue all I ever got from you was sorrow"

    Its all fake news folks, the media is a lie. Celebrity lifestyle, weapons of mass destruction, bad bad trump he talked to a Russian its Orwellian. but the mice in a million hoards buy into it.
  • Markantney from BiloxiJan 2016,

    His Live Version is On Point. His best song to me, easy.

    You can't rest in enough Peace for me David Bowie. I really appreciated how dudes like you, Peter Gabriel/Genesis, Mercury/Queen, Elton,...changed the game, even If I didn't like some of your "Changes".
  • Carlo Massarini from RomeThe line " workers have struck for fame, cause Lennon's on sale again" is an ironic pun on "Working Class Hero", the 1970 song on Lennon's Plastic Ono Band Lp.
  • Jim from Glasgle, BotswanaTrivia time - Rick Wakeman used the same piano that Paul "Macca" McCartney used on Hey Jude.
  • David from London, United KingdomI 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.
  • Bob from Bw92116, CaPretty 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."
  • Gordon from Logansport, InNO. 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 from Logansport, InRegarding 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".
  • Anon from Las Vegas, NvYes, 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 from Las Vegas, Nvi 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.
  • Tev from East China, MiI 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"
  • Andrew from Inverness, United KingdomI 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.
  • John from Mesa, AzSee 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 from Mesa, AzThis 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!
  • Thale from Buskerud, NorwayIt'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?
  • Morgan from Dublin, IrelandIt'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 from Dublin, IrelandIt'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)
  • E-clown from Perpignan, FranceAbout "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.
  • Kristie from Vanvouver, Bcim 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.
  • Thomas from Perth, Australia"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.
  • Rachael from Caledonia, IlThis 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?
  • Aaron from Parma, MiCan't believe that no one has mentioned that Barbra Streisand covered this song on her "Butterfly" album in a grand, bombastic form.
  • Pascal from Avignon, FranceAbout the chords : they seem much different from those of "Comme d'habitude"/"My way". But Bowie may have borrowed some of them.
  • Stefan from Hertford, Englandthe 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.....
  • Airman from Portland, Orthis 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.

  • N from Staten Island, NyRegarding 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!
  • Ruby from Sydney, AustraliaLife 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!
  • Max from London, EnglandA 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?
  • Ken from San Diego, CaThis 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.
  • Jack from Bournemouth, EnglandThe 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.
  • Frank from Arlington, SdI 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.
  • James from Lexington, KyActually, 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.
  • Brian from Milford, Maany significance to "'Cause Lennon's on sale again"?
  • Colin from Bradford, EnglandThere 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.
  • Rach from Durham, EnglandThis is bowie...seriously don't look into life on mars... next ule all be trying to find the meaning behind "the laughing gnome"
  • Tom from St. Louis, Mowhat does the reference to lennon in the lyrics mean?
  • Mike Hunt from Swindon, WalesThe 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
  • James from Northampton, England'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
  • No One from Bodmin, EnglandObviously 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.
  • John from Levittown, NyThe line "look at that caveman go" is from the song Alley Oop.
  • Linda from Oudenaarde, BelgiumThis 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.
  • Josh from Las Vegas, Nvi think it means america's sad because he (mickey mouse) sold out
  • Patty from Hemet, CaDoes the line "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" have an significant meaning?
  • Jon from New York, NyYou 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)
  • Jeremy from Warren , RiWhere can I get that portuguese version?
  • Tom from Springfield, VtLove this song. Great lyrics, great tune, great Bowie.
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