In the studio
‘Life On Mars?’ was among the last of the Hunky Dory songs to be recorded. It was taped on 6 August 1971 at London’s Trident Studios, in the final day of recording, along with the final version of ‘Song For Bob Dylan’.
The master tape reel contains two complete takes with vocals, and around ten incomplete instrumental versions.
Although Hunky Dory was produced by Ken Scott, Mick Ronson took a leading role in the ‘Life On Mars?’ session.
One of the things about recording back then was we made decisions very quickly and very easily. If I didn’t feel that what we recorded was the take, I’d record over it because we didn’t want to have stacks and stacks of reels of tape with alternate takes laying about, so we just kept using the same reel until we got the take we wanted. When we recorded ‘Life On Mars?’ it was just drums, piano, and bass on the basic track, but Ronno was down in the studio giving cues to Rick Wakeman, who was playing piano.
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According to his future wife Suzi Fussey, Ronson “used to write the strings sitting in the toilet. Without even a keyboard. Only by ear. It was quiet in there.” The studio’s bathroom also contained a public telephone which, by a happy accident, appeared on the final recording – although Ronson’s expletive-laden response was faded out.
There was a bathroom attached to the studio that had a public phone in it. Its sole purpose was to allow session musicians to call out during breaks or after the session was finished and so wasn’t meant for anyone to call in on. In fact, no one ever knew the number, so it never rang.
So we were coming to the end of this great take and the bathroom phone that never rang suddenly let out an annoyingly loud jingle that was, of course, picked up by the piano mics and made the take unusable, much to everyone’s intense dismay. We all thought that we could get another take just as good, so the decision was made to tape over the one with the maddening ring on the end. Now, whether the band started to play the song sooner or played it slightly faster, I’m not sure, but it was some time later when we were doing the orchestra overdubs and they were holding their last note at the end of the song that the end part of the earlier take, that apparently hadn’t been erased, blasted out of the monitors. Much to our surprise, it sounded great, so we decided that we had to use it. It’s that earlier take that comes in at the end of the finished song and you hear the previous piano track with the phone ringing and much frustration voices by Ronno in a very colourful way. Unfortunately we decided that I should fade that out fairly quickly though, so as not to cause offence. Censorship right from the beginning.
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Scott described ‘Life On Mars?’ as his favourite on the album, “beyond any shadow of a doubt”. When the musicians were invited into the control room for a playback, they could barely believe what they heard.
I remember when we’d finished it, Ken Scott said ‘Come and have a listen to the mix’. We all went in, and I looked along at the other three – all of us had our jaws dropped.
I think it was me who asked – is that us? I mean, it was good when we’d finished our bits, but it’s always a little bit raw when you’ve just recorded it, and Ken put the sparkle on it. We knew it was good, and we were really proud of it. We just didn’t know if anyone would GET it. It would have to be one of my favourites of the Bowie tracks I played on – along with ‘Five Years’ and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’.
Music Republic Magazine
Not only is this the first David Bowie song I fell in love with, it’s the first song I ever fell in love with. I was six years old (it was 2014 or 2015) and my mother played it in the car and I remember every time we would listen to it she would give me her phone so I could watch the music video. This song is one of the reasons I am a musician today. Thank you David Bowie.