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The Great Songs: David Bowie – Life On Mars?

by Eric Melin on October 20, 2010

in Columns,The Great Songs

Here is a link to the song’s official music video, for which embedding has been disabled.

David_Bowie_Hunky_DoryIt 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.”

Bowie_Life-On-MarsI couldn’t have said it better.

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:

The Great Songs: Big Star – Thirteen

The Great Songs: The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset

The Great Songs: The Jayhawks – Blue

The Great Songs: Pavement – Summer Babe

The Great Songs: The Zombies – Care of Cell 44

The Great Songs: The O’Jays – Back Stabbers

The Great Songs: Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure

The Great Songs: George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

The Great Songs: Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

The Great Songs: KISS – Deuce

The Great Songs: The Flying Burrito Brothers – Hot Burrito #1

The Great Songs: The Flaming Lips – Do You Realize??

The Great Songs: Pink Floyd – Astronomy Domine

The Great Songs: The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up

The Great Songs: Marvin Gaye – Let’s Get it On

The Great Songs: Slayer – Angel of Death

The Great Songs: Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Beyond Belief

The Great Songs: The Replacements – Unsatisfied

The Great Songs: Cheap Trick – Surrender

The Great Songs: Guided by Voices – Motor Away

The Great Songs: The Louvin Brothers – Knoxville Girl

The Great Songs: Badfinger – Baby Blue

The Great Songs: Ray Charles – That Lucky Old Sun

The Great Songs: Television – Marquee Moon

The Great Songs: Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Cortez the Killer

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes for The Pitch. He’s former President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, and Truck Stop Love . He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ohara November 16, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Most of Bowie’s great work was done in 70s. Hunky Dory remains by all time second favorite. Second only to Diamond Dogs.


2 Eric Melin November 17, 2010 at 9:04 am

Interesting–Diamond Dogs is a good one, but Ziggy and Hunky have always been my Top 2 from his early 70s stuff. I also like the late 70s Berlin/Eno stuff a lot too. Totally different, but it sounds like nothing else that’s ever been created–even today!


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