It was 1971. Just one year before he became the glam king/queen known as Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie was on to something.
His sound had changed dramatically from folky pop singer to hard rock maestro in a short time, and on the album “Hunky Dory,” he fully embraced the theatricality and sexual ambiguity that he would continue to mine in 1972 as a Spider from Mars.
In one sense, the album is schizophrenic, but that’s only because Bowie tried his hand at mashing up so many styles. Lyrically, he’s singing about “Changes,” “Pretty Things,” and “Kooks.” What could be more in line with that than a “Life on Mars?”
“Life On Mars?” has everything: a sweeping production with strings, high melodrama, obtuse lyrics, and a hell of a great melodic guitar line from Mick Ronson. Apparently, BBC Radio 2 called the song “a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dalí painting.”
In fact, one of the best uses in cinema of a pop song occurs in Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” where the entire song is played as the film’s epilogue over one stagnant shot.
According to The Complete David Bowie, at the time of “Hunky Dory”‘s release in 1971, Bowie 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.”
Well that’s more specific than I ever got with it. The beauty is that the tune does have this eloquent grandiose kind of sadness to it, and maybe that’s what I’ve always responded to.
The Great Songs series so far: