The origins

David Bowie wrote brief notes on each of the songs on Hunky Dory, which were used in press advertisements around the time of the album’s release. For ‘Life On Mars?’ he wrote: “This is a sensitive young girls reaction to the media.”

The back cover of the album, meanwhile, stated in Bowie’s handwriting that the song was “inspired by Frankie”. This was Frank Sinatra, a connection which went back to 1968.

In the months after Bowie’s debut album failed to set the world alight, his manager Kenneth Pitt sought out foreign songs for which he might write new English lyrics. One such song was ‘Comme D’Habitude’ by Claude François, Gilles Thibault and Jacques Revaux. in February 1968 Bowie rewrote the French lyrics and titled the new work ‘Even A Fool Learns To Love’, and recorded two demos.

Bowie and Pitt made plans to record the song, yet their efforts came to nothing after the song’s French publisher objected. They had hoped that the song would be recorded by an established star, rather than an unknown from south London. Instead, Canadian singer-songwriter Paul Anka wrote a new set of lyrics and retitled it ‘My Way’, which in 1969 became Frank Sinatra’s signature song.

‘Life On Mars?’ was a reworking of the chords for ‘My Way’. In 2008 Bowie’s song was included in the compilation iSelect, initially given away with the Mail On Sunday newspaper. Bowie wrote notes on each song, and for ‘Life On Mars?’ gave an account of how the words and melody came.

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 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. Nice.

Rick Wakeman 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.

David Bowie
Mail Online

Bowie’s demo of ‘Life On Mars?’ was released in the 2022 box set Divine Symmetry.

Although Bowie indicated that the words and melody came quickly, his handwritten lyrics, as displayed in the David Bowie Is exhibition, contain a different set of words which do not easily scan with the final melody. This early version, with its references to God and a ‘sub human race’, share the same Nietzchean preoccupations as other Hunky Dory songs such as ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.

There’s a shoulder-rock movement and the trembling stars
And a great Lord sighs in vain
What can you buy when there’s no-one to tell you
What a bargain you made
Is there life on Mars

Just a worker and his dog in the pink light
Just a savage on half-time
What can he see when there is no-one to turn to
For the opposite side
Is there life on Mars

Just a laugh and a line
Just joke of the time
It’s an evergreen
Just a book and a pen
And the biggest amen
That you’ve ever seen

Just a kiss in the face of a sub human race
It’s an evergreen
And I’m looking at you while you’re looking [unclear]
And I’m looking at you while you’re [unclear]
which record I made

David Bowie's handwritten lyrics for 'Life On Mars?'

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