Life on Mars (song)

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For other uses, see Life on Mars (disambiguation).
"Life on Mars?"
Single by David Bowie
from the album Hunky Dory
B-side "The Man Who Sold the World"
Released 22 June 1973
(2013 picture disc: 24 June 2013)
Format 7" single
Recorded Trident Studios, London
August 1971
Length 3:48
Label RCA
Writer(s) David Bowie
Producer(s) Ken Scott
David Bowie singles chronology
"Let's Spend the Night Together"
"Life on Mars?"
Hunky Dory track listing
"Eight Line Poem"
"Life on Mars?"

"Life on Mars?" is a song by David Bowie first released in 1971 on the album Hunky Dory and also released as a single. The song—which BBC Radio 2 later called "a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dalí painting"[1]—featured guest piano work by keyboardist Rick Wakeman. When released as a single in 1973, it reached #3 in the UK and stayed on the chart for thirteen weeks. The song re-entered the UK charts at #55 over 30 years later, largely because of its use in the original British television series Life on Mars. Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph ranked it as #1 in his 100 Greatest Songs of All Time list.[2] He also commented on the song:

A quite gloriously strange anthem, where the combination of stirring, yearning melody and vivid, poetic imagery manage a trick very particular to the art of the song: to be at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning. You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience. And, like all great songs, it's got a lovely tune.


In 1968 Bowie wrote the lyrics "Even a Fool Learns to Love", set to the music of a 1967 French song "Comme d'habitude", composed by Claude François and Jacques Revaux. Bowie's version was never released, but Paul Anka bought the rights to the original French version, and rewrote it into "My Way," made famous by Frank Sinatra in a 1969 recording on his album of the same name. The success of the Anka version prompted Bowie to write "Life on Mars?" as a parody of Sinatra's recording.[1] In notes for a Bowie compilation CD that accompanied a June 2008 issue of The Mail on Sunday,[3] Bowie described how he wrote the song:

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.

23 second sample from David Bowie's "Life on Mars?".

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Bowie noted that Wakeman "embellished the piano part" of his original melody and guitarist Mick Ronson "created one of his first and best string parts" for the song.[1] The liner notes for Hunky Dory indicate that the song was 'inspired by Frankie'.[1]

One reviewer suggested the song was written after "a brief and painful affair" with actress Hermione Farthingale. While on tour in 1990, Bowie introduced the song by saying "You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song."[4]


BBC Radio has described "Life on Mars?" as having "one of the strangest lyrics ever" consisting of a "slew of surreal images" like a Salvador Dalí painting.[1] The line "Look at those cavemen go" is a reference to the song "Alley Oop", a one-off hit in 1960 for American doo-wop band The Hollywood Argyles.[5]

Bowie, at the time of Hunky Dory's release in 1971, summed up the song as "A sensitive young girl's reaction to the media". In 1997 he 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".[5]

Live versions[edit]

Music video[edit]

Mick Rock filmed and directed a promotional video backstage at Earls Court on 12 May 1973 to accompany the release of the song as a single. It features a heavily made-up Bowie performing the song solo against a white backdrop, in a turquoise "ice-blue" suit designed by Freddi Buretti. It was Bowie's fourth music video.


One of the cover versions of "Life on Mars?" by Anggun in her album Snow on the Sahara in 1998.

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In popular culture[edit]

The BBC television drama Life on Mars, featuring John Simm and Philip Glenister, used both the name and the song itself as its basis. The song was used extensively throughout both series of the programme, and also of its spin-off, Ashes to Ashes. The song was used also in the American version of the TV series.

In the British television show Doctor Who, there is a space station on Mars named "Bowie Base One" in the episode "The Waters of Mars".

The original soundtrack of Lars von Trier's 1996 movie Breaking the Waves features "Life on Mars?" during the epilogue, although the song was replaced by Elton John's "Your Song" on the international DVD release for copyright reasons.[9]

Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong has said that he would like either "Life on Mars?" or "Take This Job and Shove It" by Johnny Paycheck played at his funeral.[10]

"Life on Mars?" is included on the soundtrack to the 2004 film The Life Aquatic, starring Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. The song is played as Murray walks (stoned) to the bow of his boat in solitude as a party continues below deck.

"Life on Mars?" is included in the 2005 film Loverboy, first being played on the radio during a conversation between the 10-year-old Emily and Mrs. Harker, and later being sung "a capella" by Sosie Bacon (10-year-old Emily).

The song along with another David Bowie song "Heroes" were covered by Jessica Lange on American Horror Story: Freak Show.

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by David Bowie:

  1. "Life on Mars?" – 3:48
  2. "The Man Who Sold the World" – 3:55

The Portuguese release of the single had "Black Country Rock" as the B-side.[citation needed]


Chart (1973–2009) Peak
Australia (ARIA)[11] 67
Germany (Media Control Charts)[12] 39
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[13] 3

Production credits[edit]




  • Pegg, Nicholas, The Complete David Bowie, Reynolds & Hearn Ltd, 2000, ISBN 1-903111-14-5

External links[edit]