Life on Mars (song)

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"Life on Mars?"
Bowie LifeOnMars.jpg
Cover of the 1973 UK single
Single by David Bowie
from the album Hunky Dory
B-side"The Man Who Sold the World"
Released22 June 1973 (1973-06-22)
RecordedAugust 1971
StudioTrident, London
Songwriter(s)David Bowie
Producer(s)Ken Scott
David Bowie singles chronology
"Let's Spend the Night Together"
"Life on Mars?"
Music video
"Life On Mars?" on YouTube
Audio sample
"Life on Mars?"

"Life on Mars?" is a song by English singer-songwriter David Bowie. It was first released on his 1971 album Hunky Dory and later released in 1973 as a single. The song has cryptic lyrics by Bowie and prominent piano by Rick Wakeman. As a single, "Life on Mars?" reached number three in the UK Singles Chart and stayed on the chart for thirteen weeks. A music video was filmed by Mick Rock to promote the single release.

In 2015 Neil McCormick, chief rock music critic of The Daily Telegraph, ranked the song as number one in his "100 Greatest Songs of All Time" list.[2] In 2016, Pitchfork named it the best song of the 1970s.[3]

A 2016 mix of "Life on Mars?" appeared on the compilation album Legacy (The Very Best of David Bowie) and was released as a single. The mix, by its original producer Ken Scott, is 'stripped down' and has only strings, piano and Bowie's vocals. A special music video to promote the compilation was also released, the original director Mick Rock re-cutting his 1973 video, using out-takes and other documentary sources to create a new version.


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", the song 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.[4]

Bowie noted that Rick 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.[4] The liner notes for Hunky Dory indicate that the song was "inspired by Frankie".[4]

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."[5]


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.[4] 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.[6]

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."[6]

Music video[edit]

Mick Rock filmed and directed a promotional video backstage at Earl's 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, and it became the singer's fourth music video. In 2016, it was remastered and retouched by Rock.[citation needed]


When released as a single in 1973, it reached no. 3 in the UK and stayed on the chart for thirteen weeks. The song re-entered the UK charts at no. 55 over 30 years later, largely because of its use in the original British television series Life on Mars.[6] It also belatedly became a top 10 hit in France in 2013. In June 2015, Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph ranked "Life on Mars?" as no. 1 in his "100 Greatest Songs of All Time" list,[7] describing it thus:

Gloriously strange sci-fi anthem. A stirring, yearning melody combines with vivid, poetic imagery to accomplish 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 then carries you away to a place resonant with intense, individual emotion. The magic and mystery of music and lyrics. It is something to behold.[7]

According to Acclaimed Music, it is the 96th most celebrated song in popular music history.[8]

In a 2012 poll, "Life on Mars?" was voted Bowie's best song. Digital Spy, who conducted the poll, stated it has "perhaps become David's signature song – filled with surreal cut-up lyrics inspired by William Burroughs, it married vivid imagery with a tender, heartbreaking melody".[9]

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by David Bowie.[10]

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


According to biographer Chris O'Leary:[11]

Other appearances[edit]

"Life on Mars?" has been released on a variety of Bowie compilation albums:

Live versions[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

The song has appeared in several television series. The BBC television drama Life on Mars used both the name and the song itself as its basis. The song was used extensively throughout the programme and its spin-off, Ashes to Ashes. The song was used also in the American and South Korean version of Life on Mars. In the episode "The Waters of Mars", of the British television show Doctor Who, takes place in the first human base on Mars, named "Bowie Base One".

Jessica Lange sang a rendition with a deep German accent on the fourth-season premiere of the FX television program American Horror Story: Freak Show.[12] Playing a character whose surname is Mars, Lange wears an ice-blue trouser suit and heavy matching eye shadow in her performance, echoing the Bowie video.[12] Both the song and the performance are anachronistic, given that the season takes place in 1952, nearly 20 years before Bowie released the song. She performs the song again in the episode "Pink Cupcakes", and an instrumental version is played at the end of the season finale, "Curtain Call", where Mars is getting ready to sing.[citation needed]

In the 2019 Watchmen television episode "An Almost Religious Awe", a dark ambient piano cover of "Life on Mars" by is used in the end credits, after the reveal that Doctor Manhattan is not really on Mars as had been reported.[13]

The song has also appeared in several film soundtracks. 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.[14] "Life on Mars?" is included on the soundtrack to the 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray as Steve Zissou.[15] The song is played as Zissou 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 cappella by 10-year-old Emily.[15] "Life on Mars?" is included on the soundtrack to the 2006 film Factory Girl.[15] "Life on Mars?" is used in the 2012 British film Hunky Dory, sung by the character Davey (Aneurin Barnard).[16]

In 2018 the song was played by the radio of Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster during its launch aboard the Falcon Heavy's maiden flight.[17] A cover version by the English singer Yungblud was used at the end of NASA TV's live coverage of the landing of the Mars 2020 rover.[18]



Chart (1973–2016) Peak
Australia (ARIA)[24] 67
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Wallonia)[25] 40
Euro Digital Song Sales (Billboard)[26] 7
Finland (Suomen virallinen lista)[27] 12
France (SNEP)[28] 3
Ireland (Irish Singles Chart)[29] 4
Italy (FIMI)[30] 33
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[31] 95
Portugal (AFP)[32] 63
UK Singles (OCC)[33] 3
US Hot Rock & Alternative Songs (Billboard)[34] 12
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan)[35] 44
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[36] 48
West Germany (Official German Charts)[37] 39


Region Certification Certified units/sales
Denmark (IFPI Denmark)[38] Gold 45,000double-dagger
Italy (FIMI)[39]
sales since 2009
Gold 25,000double-dagger
United Kingdom (BPI)[40]
sales since 2004
Platinum 600,000double-dagger

double-dagger Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.


  1. ^ Gallucci, Michael (16 January 2019). "The Best Song From Every David Bowie Album". Ultimate Classic Rock. Archived from the original on 29 June 2019. Retrieved 29 June 2019.
  2. ^ McCormick, Neil. "100 greatest songs of all time". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 30 September 2016. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  3. ^ "The 200 Best Songs of the 1970s". Pitchfork. Archived from the original on 1 July 2017. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d "Sold on Song Top 100 'Life On Mars'". BBC. Archived from the original on 13 January 2017. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  5. ^ "Bowie: Boys Keep Swinging", Melody Maker magazine, 24 March 1990, pp 24–26
  6. ^ a b c Pegg 2011, p. 144.
  7. ^ a b McCormick, Neil. "100 greatest songs of all time". Telegraph. Archived from the original on 24 June 2012. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  8. ^ "Life On Mars? ranked 96th most celebrated song". Acclaimed Music. Retrieved 30 November 2020.
  9. ^ Nissim, Mayer (11 January 2016). "David Bowie 1947–2016: 'Life on Mars' is named Bowie's greatest ever song in reader poll". Digital Spy. Archived from the original on 15 January 2016. Retrieved 23 January 2016.
  10. ^ "Life on Mars?" (Single liner notes). David Bowie. UK: RCA Victor. 1973. RCA 2316.CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  11. ^ O'Leary 2015, p. 187.
  12. ^ a b Stack, Tim (9 October 2014). "'AHS: Freak Show' Exclusive: Watch Jessica Lange's full performance of Bowie's 'Life on Mars'". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on 22 October 2015. Retrieved 26 October 2015.
  13. ^ Monique, Joelle (1 December 2019). "Life on Earth gets a lot weirder, but Watchmen continues to captivate". The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on 2 December 2019. Retrieved 2 December 2019.
  14. ^ "Breaking the Waves Blu-ray – Emily Watson". Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  15. ^ a b c d Pegg 2011, p. 145.
  16. ^ Bevan, Nathan (1 July 2014). "Putting actor Aneurin Barnard on the record with debut song collection". walesonline. Archived from the original on 12 October 2019. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
  17. ^ Spaceflight, Mike Wall 2018-11-03T12:36:01Z. "SpaceX's 'Starman' and Its Tesla Roadster Are Now Beyond Mars". Archived from the original on 1 July 2019. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  18. ^ Daly, Rhian (18 February 2021). "Yungblud's cover of 'Life On Mars' played during NASA Mars landing". NME. Retrieved 19 February 2021.
  19. ^ "David Bowie – Playboy Magazine – The Uncool – The Official Site for Everything Cameron Crowe". Archived from the original on 20 September 2016. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  20. ^ ITV News. "David Bowie tribute organist becomes internet sensation". Archived from the original on 13 January 2016. Retrieved 2 January 2019 – via YouTube.
  21. ^ Video, Telegraph; Jan 2016, video source YouTube / stalbanscathedral 9:07AM GMT 12 (12 January 2016). "Cathedral organist's rendition of David Bowie's Life on Mars moves internet to tears". Archived from the original on 3 January 2019. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
  22. ^ "Military Tattoo kicks off the Edinburgh Festival". Retrieved 23 April 2021.
  23. ^ "Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Cover David Bowie's "Life on Mars" for Watchmen: Listen". Archived from the original on 3 December 2019. Retrieved 10 January 2020.
  24. ^ "Pandora Archive" (PDF). 23 August 2006. Archived (PDF) from the original on 16 April 2019. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  25. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?" (in French). Ultratop 50. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  26. ^ "David Bowie Chart History (Euro Digital Song Sales)". Billboard.
  27. ^ Pennanen, Timo (2006). Sisältää hitin – levyt ja esittäjät Suomen musiikkilistoilla vuodesta 1972 (in Finnish). Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava.
  28. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?" (in French). Les classement single.
  29. ^ "The Irish Charts – All there is to know". Archived from the original on 18 September 2016. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  30. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". Top Digital Download. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  31. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?" (in Dutch). Single Top 100. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  32. ^ " – David Bowie – Life on Mars?". AFP Top 100 Singles. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
  33. ^ "Official Singles Chart Top 100". Official Charts Company.
  34. ^ "David Bowie Chart History (Hot Rock & Alternative Songs)". Billboard. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  35. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". Singles Top 100.
  36. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". Swiss Singles Chart.
  37. ^ " – David Bowie – Life On Mars?". GfK Entertainment Charts. To see peak chart position, click "TITEL VON David Bowie"
  38. ^ "Danish single certifications – David Bowie – Life on Mars?". IFPI Denmark. Retrieved 27 October 2020.
  39. ^ "Italian single certifications – David Bowie – Life on Mars?" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. Retrieved 14 November 2016. Select "2016" in the "Anno" drop-down menu. Select "Life on Mars?" in the "Filtra" field. Select "Singoli" under "Sezione".
  40. ^ "British single certifications – David Bowie – Life on Mars". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 5 June 2020.


External links[edit]