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Life On Mars?

Song: Life On Mars

Songwriter: David Bowie

Singer: David Bowie

It was a sense of revenge... because I was so angry that Paul Anka had done My Way that I thought, right, I'll do my own version!” - David Bowie talking about Life On Mars?

Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold. When David Bowie's English lyrics for the French song Comme d'Habitude were passed over, and Paul Anka took the glory with his My Way lyrics, Bowie used the chords and some “snatches of melody” as the basis for his own song. Life On Mars is now widely accepted as Bowie's greatest song, and one of the finest rock songs of all time (although I hate the term “of all time” when it refers to an art form that's only been around for half a century...)

David Bowie describes Life On Mars as “my kind of modern take on My Way”, “very French” and influenced by the great French-speaking Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel. Indeed Bowie states that a great deal of his music derives from this “European take on melody against American music”, a “soaring European kind of quality over this fundamentally American black rhythm and blues thing”.

It's fascinating how two songs which are superficially so different, can be so closely connected. The perceived difference is probably accentuated by the vast generation gap between the pre-rock'n'roll be-suited Sinatra, and the androgynous, glam, art school rock of David Bowie.

On closer analysis, however, we find that Life On Mars borrows it's opening chord sequence from My Way. Both these great, melodramatic songs start low key, with the same chromatically descending bass line. The structure of Life On Mars is simple enough. The opening section leads into the bridge whose lyrics are the same in both verses (“But the film is a saddening bore...”), and whose chord sequence is based on a rising chromatic scale. Bowie uses some augmented chords to achieve this rising chromatic scale, which is strongly emphasised in the arrangement. (I'd say he was rather proud of it, and justifiably so.)

The chorus pivots on a very high and strained B flat (on “Sail-ors” etc. and the final word “Mars”). It is also notable for the F major – F minor change just before the line “It's the freakiest show”.

Being a David Bowie song, the lyrics of Life On Mars are also very much out of the ordinary. Although much has been made of their weirdness, the first verse and the repeated bridge and chorus are not difficult to understand. A girl, probably a teenager, leaves a family argument and seeks relief in the cinema, only to see scenes of conflict reminiscent of her own trouble life. The hook line “Is there life on Mars?” is a despairing rhetorical question: is there any way out of this crazy world?

I imagine Bowie, faced with the age-old songwriter's dilemma – “how do I extend this idea into a second verse?” – began to play with the cinema connection (in the line about Mickey Mouse), and then just allowed himself to freely associate bizarre Dadaist images without any conscious symbolism or meaning. I've seen various theories about the meaning of the second verse, but David Bowie, with his avante garde artistic interests would certainly not be averse to letting his subconscious run riot. The result is a very colourful, enigmatic second verse which somehow heightens the drama of the piece.


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