Another Song Post: Life on Mars?

So, I’m having a really wretched day, feeling down, and don’t have the energy for any Very Serious Topics, so you’re getting another music post. I’ll get back to telling you why I’m very, very angry at somebody or who/what I think is stupid another time.

Today, thanks to Slacktavist, I’m going to be discussing the David Bowie song Life on Mars? and several of its covers. The reason why is that it’s not only an amazing song on its own, it’s amazingly versatile.

So, let’s start with the original:

One thing to watch for in this is some classic David Bowie stuff. Bowie is known for the very cinematic way he performs, and the physical comes through in the sound of the song. Life on Mars? sounds like Bowie’s costumes and movements: precise in their own way, but totally out of the mainstream. Look at the way Bowie looks in his: it’s nuts, but the baby blue suit, white shirt collar, and tie with just a hint of red are not particularly radical on their own, yet it becomes provocative when matched against his white face, blue eyeshadow, and bright red hair. Similarly, he doesn’t move a lot, but does a lot of pointing and accusatory looks. He’s blaming us for what he’s describing. The song blames us too, but in a more flippant way. Part of the genius of David Bowie is how he doesn’t just write songs, he puts on a consistent show, much like Alice Cooper only much more subtle.

It’s also important to know that a few years before Bowie had written lyrics to be done over a popular French song’s tune. His version never came out, but Paul Anka also got the rights to the tune and turned it into the song My Way, made famous by Frank Sinatra. So Life on Mars? was partially made to mock the crooner style as a type of revenge.

So, what’s this song about? Well, again, let’s start with some historical context (not as much as we did with Donald, I promise). Life on Mars?  came out on the album Hunky Dory in 1971. This was a very proto-Ziggy Stardust album, and you see a lot of the elements that would later be associated with Ziggy when that album came the next year, such as the space-focused themes and the effort at androgyny. In fact, the latter is even more evident by the Hunky Dory cover art, inspired by a picture of Marlene Dietrich.

This is further complicated by the fact that Bowie’s in-song avatar is a young girl watching television and seeing the things going on around her. Bowie, in 1997, said, “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.”

I would actually go even one step further with this. The bitter disappointment isn’t just at not being able to be a part of this greater world, but also recognizing how far short the current world is. How do you look at humanity in this form and not have the realization that this is your race and it’s not good enough? The accusatory nature both cuts off the young girl from the rest of humanity and blames them for dragging her down by association.

So, we have an idea of what’s going on in the song now. Let’s look at some of the covers. h/t to Slacktavist for the links in this post.

The first is done by Robyn Hitchcock. This is probably the most pure of the covers that are provided here. This takes most of the same sound as the original, specifically focusing on the instruments and the minor progressions. The differences is that the Hitchcock version feels much more antagonistic, like it’s not just glaring at you but stalking toward you. It’s not just bitterly disappointed, it’s mad and it’s not afraid to let you know with much more staccato instrumentation. That it replaces the guitar run at the end with violins I absolutely adore.

The Eurhythmics version is much, much less aggressive, but also more epic. It takes the fairly paired down instrumental mix that Bowie used, focused mostly on piano with a drum just to keep the beat and some sound effects, and multiplies it by an orchestra practically. On one hand, this takes away from the small, simple feeling that the original had: one girl unable to stand against a world much bigger than she is. On the other hand, though, it transforms the song into an anthem, something that cries out to others who feel that same disgust and tells them to not stand for it any longer.

I should also point out that Annie Lennox has the stylistic chops to match Bowie and absolutely can match his way of singing, but she clearly doesn’t have his range, and range is a huge part of a Bowie song. His ability to go from a deep register to one-step-from-falsetto is what makes him unique, even among glam rockers.

The most surprising cover, I think, is Barbara Steisand’s cover for her 1974 album ButterFly. I will credit this as a really good version, no question, especially since the instrumentation is really epic, but Babs’s voice mainstreams the vocal sound, making it sound less like an iconic glam rock hit and more like a Broadway adaptation of same, and she can’t pull off the slur on “show”, though she does try. It’s much like how the Beatles’ The Long and Winding Road  was supposed to be just the four Beatles playing, and the orchestration was added late in the production. This is the polished, orchestrated version, but it loses the purity of the original by basically making a spectacle of it.

But of course, Bowie was not above covering himself. And there are significant differences when he does this song live in different times. In many ways, it’s almost like as time goes on he is refining the song more and more.

For example, in this version from 1980, we see Bowie responding to the bigger, more full versions that had come out in the past decade, especially the Steisand version. He tries adding more sound, relying on the synth to provide the vaguely spacey-sounding effects and making it much more guitar heavy. At least the drums remain a mostly background element, holding up the song but not driving it like the Hitchcock version.

This version from 2000 is probably my favorite. Just Bowie and a piano seems like the way the song was meant to be sung, the way it was crying out to be done. It’s a torturous song about watching the human race in all of its brutality and foolishness and painfully asking if there’s life on Mars, as if giving up on humanity and willing to try something else, but not happily.

Finally, we have this version from 2005. What I find most interesting about this version is that it most sounds like the crooner sound that the original was trying to mock. It has that same vocal up and down, that careless, tenuous connection between the lyrics and the music, and he manages to hold the note for “Mars” really, really well.

There are many, many more versions of this song. Some I like, some I don’t.  The Flaming Lips version, for example, sounds empty to me and the artistic choice to filter the lyrics like that just didn’t work. But the important thing to realize is that it’s still valid because Life on Mars? is a song with a lot to offer, and no limit to the ways it can be approached.

3 thoughts on “Another Song Post: Life on Mars?

  1. What’s always been fun about Bowie is how he covers himself. He’s not afraid to dramatically reinvent prior hits for live performances in whatever style he’s currently working on. He creates new relevence for material that ought to be dated, but just refuses to be. 3rd party covers, and the various styles in which they STILL sound good, are a testament to the longevity of his compositions.

    No discussion of Life on Mars covers would be complete without Seu Jorge’s fun album of acoustic Bowie covers (some featured on the “Life Aquatic” soundtrack, some on their own album.) His cover of Life on Mars is, as expected, fantastic:

    • I really liked the Seu Jorge version of all of the songs on the Life Aquatic soundtrack. In this case, it seems almost like a shoulder shrug rather than having that same accusatory undertone that other versions have to varying degrees.

      And I think you’re right in that Bowie is really good at covering himself in new styles. I think that has something to do with a significant underlying aspect of glam rock as a genre. Since it was as much, if not more, about clothing, persona, and attitude as it was about any consistent musical patterns, there was a lot of wiggle room to be able to make those types of choices. One of the reasons Bowie has remained as a cultural figure and, say, The Glitter Band hasn’t (despite having some really solid tunes) is that he heeded the advice of proto-glam rockers The Bay City Rollers in their song Yesterday’s Hero.

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