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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Life on Mars?": or, when Bowie outdid Frankie

I celebrate and tell the story of my very favorite track from the Starman on the golden anniversary of its initial release.

Fifty years ago today — December 17, 1971 — David Bowie released his fourth studio album, Hunky Dory. The album directly preceded his Ziggy Stardust era, and it marks when Bowie began to develop his glam rock- and art pop-driven style.

Despite its brilliance, Hunky Dory was not largely promoted, with "Changes" being released as its only single. This lack of promotion came because of RCA's anticipation for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which would be released just six months after Hunky Dory. Only after Ziggy Stardust did Hunky Dory receive the attention it did, and finally, just over a year and a half after its release, it was granted its second single.

The track chosen for the single is one whose story begins in France. Back in 1967, Jacques Reveau composed a tune called "Comme d'habitude" (As usual). Claude François and Gilles Thibaut wrote lyrics to it, and François sang it. The song made its way across the airwaves and across the Channel, and David Bowie was soon asked by his publisher, Kenneth Pitt, to write English lyrics to the tune. Bowie's lyrics, titled "Even a Fool Learns to Love," were rejected, but in March 1969, a different English treatment to "Comme d'habitude" was given the green light. The tune had become the Chairman of the Board's signature song, "My Way," with lyrics by Paul Anka.

Bowie was miffed when he heard "My Way," but he eventually realized he could draw inspiration from the song he thought should've been his. Not only did he think he could write something bigger and better than "My Way," but he thought he could start it the same was as "Comme d'habitude." For my money, he accomplished that goal and then some with my favorite track of his entire discography: "Life on Mars?"

Indeed, "Life on Mars?" begins as "Comme d'habitude" does. The two songs share the first seven chords, consisting of two line clichés — in which one note moves by half-step in one direction. The bass note is the one that moves, and in the first line cliché it moves from the tonic of F to D over four measures. That D chord serves as a secondary dominant (a chord that directly sets up a chord other than the tonic) to G, beginning a three-measure line cliché. The tunes deviate in the eighth bar, in which "Life on Mars?" sets up a return to the tonic with a C chord before repeating the same pattern again.

While the first deviation occurs in the verse, it's in the pre-chorus that Bowie makes his efforts to differentiate himself from Sinatra unmistakable. Rather than continuing to move downward with his chords, Bowie reverses the direction and rockets upward all the way through to the chorus. This upward climb is propelled by ascending strings, but I'm more captivated during the section by future Yes pianist Rick Wakeman's work on the signature Trident Studios piano. The crisp, bright tone that also lent itself to hits like "Hey Jude", "Your Song," "All Things Must Pass," and "Bohemian Rhapsody" helps Wakeman's lines cut through the lush arrangement and sparkle on the high end, a quality which only becomes further apparent and appreciable in the chorus even as the strings become even more intense.

Growing in volume and intensity alongside all the other elements is David Bowie's voice. His lyrics begin softly with the story of a young girl's trip to the movies, the disappointment in not seeing her friend there, and the scenes she then watches unfold as she's "hooked to the silver screen." The second verse, meanwhile, switches out the first scene for a critique of capitalism ("It's on America's tortured brow / That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow"), which in a sense does retain an element of discussion around movies. I would have been fascinated to hear how Bowie would have thought of those lyrics once he starred in the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth — which I just learned is being spun off into a Showtime series starring Chiwetel Ejiofor — but alas, such a conversation is sadly impossible.

Bowie gradually makes his delivery more pressing and forward for the pre-chorus ("But the film is a saddening bore..."), before going all-in for the soaring chorus. I absolutely love the entire melody and the arc it takes, and the lyrics, while not straightforward, have always stood out to me. Especially in our current sociopolitical climate, the second half of the chorus gives me a lot to think about:

Take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy
Oh no, wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best-selling show

It's a situation that seems even more plausible now than ever before, considering the attention that's finally being given to police brutality and unjust killings. Cop documentary series and procedurals — one of which from the UK even took its name from Bowie's song — have fascinated the public eye for ages, making Bowie's lyrics all the more chilling as we think about how we've taken certain improper, even inexcusable behaviors by police forces for granted because of our conditioning through various form media.

At last, at the chorus' end, we come to the song's titular question: "Is there life on Mars?" Well, multiple recent NASA breakthroughs courtesy of the rover Perseverance point toward life having been on the Red Planet at one time... but that isn't the purpose of Bowie's question. In the context of the rest of the song, the question strikes me as a plea for an unreachable escape from the lens of the little girl going to the movies. Even in the features she watches, she feels trapped on Earth, and she has a feeling there's something bigger or at the very least different out there — but it will forever remain a dream, etched somewhere in the cosmos.

However, another form of escape is far more reachable. As David Bowie, Rick Wakeman, guitarist Mick Ronson with his two solos, and the other musicians of "Life on Mars?" remind us, music can be an even greater escape than film or any other media. In being auditory, music allows you to fill in the visuals for yourself if you so desire. Some artists take that into their own hands — as Bowie did with a performance video directly by the recently departed Mick Rock — but even with official videos, listeners can still paint their own picture or direct their own mental film soundtracked by music that inspires such visions. "Life on Mars?" certainly inspires me in that way, even if I can't put what I see into words, and that's just one more reason why I'm so fond of it. I could talk about this track and David Bowie's artistry for so much longer, but I think your time would better be served listening to the song again than it would be reading what I have to say about it. Go for another round with "Life on Mars?" or two, or three, or more, and just enjoy everything about it.


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