Classic Rock Wiki

"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:



  • 1 Origins
  • 2 Lyrics
  • 3 Live versions
  • 4 Music video
  • 5 Covers
  • 6 In popular culture
  • 7 Track listing
  • 8 Charts
  • 9 Production credits
  • 10 Notes
  • 11 References
  • 12 External links


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 Sinatrain 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:

David Bowie "Life on Mars?" (1971)



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][]

  • A live version recorded at the Boston Music Hall on 1 October 1972 was released on the bonus disc of the Aladdin Sane - 30th Anniversary Edition in 2003.
  • Another live version, recorded at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on 20 October 1972, was first released on the album Santa Monica '72, before becoming officially available in 2008 on Live Santa Monica '72.
  • A live performance recorded on 23 March 1976, in a medley with "Five Years", was released on Live Nassau Coliseum '76, part of the 2010 reissues of Station to Station.
  • A live performance filmed on 12 September 1983 was included on Serious Moonlight (1983 film).
  • A recorded-for-television performance on 23 August 1999 may be heard on the album VH1 Storytellers (David Bowie album).
  • A November 2003 live performance was released on the A Reality Tour DVD in 2004, and subsequently included on the A Reality Tour (album) album released in 2010.

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.


Anggun - Life on Mars (1998)



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 1974, Barbra Streisand released a version of the song on her album ButterFly. In a 1976 Playboy interview, Bowie was asked what he thought of her cover: "Bloody awful. Sorry, Barb, but it was atrocious."[6]
  • The London Symphony Orchestra released an orchestral cover of the song on their 1977 LP Classic Rock.
  • The song has also been covered by Italian artist L'Aura, Australian rock vocalist Mig Ayesa, Finnish singer-songwriter Hector, American pop musician Michelle Branch, and Brazilian singer Seu Jorge (on the soundtrack of the film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
  • The Flaming Lips did a live cover in 1992 which later appeared on the single "This Here Giraffe".
  • The song has been played many times in concert by the American jam band Phish (with keyboardist Page McConnell and guitarist Trey Anastasio sharing vocals) - most heavily in 1995 and 1996, but most recently on 29 June 2012 in Noblesville, Indiana.
  • Anggun covered the song on her international debut album, Snow on the Sahara (1998), and issued it as a promotional single.
  • A version by Arid lead singer Jasper Steverlinck and the Kolacny Brothers reached number one in the Belgian charts in 2002.
  • Jazz trio The Bad Plus covered the song on their 2007 album Prog.
  • The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain perform it intertwined with "My Way" and "For Once in My Life" among others.
  • In 2009, Japanese rock band VAMPS released a cover as a B-side on their third single, "Evanescent". They later re-recorded the cover for their 2013 world-wide debut album, Sex Blood Rock n' Roll.
  • Anni-Frid Lyngstad, who achieved international success as one of the members of ABBA, recorded a Swedish version titled "Liv på Mars?" (with Swedish lyrics by Owe Junsjö), included on her 1975 solo albumFrida ensam.
  • Steve Hogarth covered the song on the Live Spirit, Live Body album.
  • Yann Tiersen played this song with Neil Hannon on 2 December 1998 as the opening act of the Rencontres Trans Musicales. The concert was recorded and then labeled as his first live album; Black Session.
  • The Dresden Dolls cover the song on the album .2 Contamination: A Tribute to David Bowie (2008).[7]
  • G4, runners up in British The X Factor in its first series released it as a single in 2005 from their debut self-titled album G4.
  • In 2010, Keren Ann recorded a version for We Were So Turned On: A Tribute to David Bowie.
  • A cover was done by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain in 2010
  • Indie artist Circe Link recorded a cover [8] version with Christian Nesmith that was uploaded to YouTube in June 2012.
  • In 2013, Patrick Stump covering the song during the session with Zane Lowe on BBC radio 1.
  • In 2014, Dutch multi-instrumentalist and singer Robby Valentine recorded his version of the song on his Bizarro World EP.
  • 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. In her performance, Lange wears an ice-blue pantsuit and heavy matching eyeshadow, echoing the Bowie video; her character's surname is Mars. Both the song and the performance are anachronistic, given than the season takes place in 1952, nearly 20 years before Bowie released the song. She performed 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.

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][]

  • Ken Scott on "Life on Mars?"
  • Tony Visconti on "The Man Who Sold the World"
  • David Bowie: vocals, piano on "Life On Mars?", guitar on "The Man Who Sold The World"
  • Mick Ronson: guitar, string arrangement on "Life On Mars?
  • Trevor Bolder: bass on "Life On Mars?"
  • Tony Visconti: bass on "The Man Who Sold the World"
  • Mick Woodmansey: drums