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6 Things You May Not Have Known About David Bowie's "Life On Mars?"

Although it's long since earned its status as a classic rock track, David Bowie's 1973 single "Life on Mars?" - taken belatedly from his 1971 album, Hunky Dory - has suddenly received a boost in popularity thanks to its inclusion in the first episode of FX's American Horror Story: Freak Show.

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1. The song came about as a reaction to Paul Anka writing "My Way."

In 1968, Bowie was inspired to put pen to paper and compose English lyrics to the music of the French song "Comme d'habitude," written by Claude Francois and Jacques Revaux. Although he even went so far as to record his song, which he entitled "Even a Fool Learns to Love," Paul Anka had done him one better, buying the rights to the original French song and rewriting it into "My Way." Needless to say, Bowie wasn't exactly pleased about the way things turned out. Although the liner notes to Hunky Dory reference that the song was "inspired by Frankie," Bowie later acknowledged in a BBC Radio interview about "Life on Mars?" that "there were clutches of melody that was definite parodies of 'My Way.'"

2. The piano on the song is played by longtime Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.


In a 2003 interview with Jonathan Ross, Wakeman recalled how Bowie had "invited me around to his house" and explained what he was after. "He'd got his old battered 12 string, (and) he said, 'I want to play you some songs, I want you to learn them, and then I want you to play them from a piano point of view,'" said Wakeman. "He said, 'I've always done stuff from an acoustic guitar point of view, so I want to do all these songs from a piano point of view. I want you to play them in the style you play, and I will make the band and everything work 'round it."

Bowie, who described Wakeman as a "lovely fella," wrote an amusing response to the pianist's comments on his website, noting that "his memory is as loopy as mine in some places" and clarifying that "several songs on Hunky Dory were written on piano – 'Life on Mars?' and 'Changes,' for starters – not guitar. I played my plodding version and Rick wrote the chords down then played them with his inimitable touch."

3. At the end of the song, you can just barely hear a phone ringing and a muffled voice. The voice is guitarist Mick Ronson, and he’s cursing up a blue streak.


Ken Scott had plenty of street cred before he ever worked with Bowie, having engineered a number of Beatles sessions as well as worked on a number of their early solo projects, but when it comes to his work with Bowie, one of his favorite anecdotes involves the very end of "Life on Mars?" In a lecture for Red Bull Music Academy, Scott explained why the conclusion of the song sounds so odd.

"It was a really good take, and suddenly this phone which was in the bathroom at the side of the studio started to ring, and it was picked up on the piano mics which were right by the door of this bathroom, and we had to stop the take," said Scott. "And Mick Ronson, who happened to be in the studio, was just cursing and swearing like mad because we had to stop it. So we went back to the beginning of the tape, started to record another take again, and I don't know if they just started earlier, or if they played it faster, or what, but it turned out that we didn't erase over the complete earlier take. We didn't even realize it until we did the strings, and they're just sustaining at the end, nothing else is playing, and then suddenly the piano came back in, and then the phone comes in, and then you hear Rono cursing and swearing."

4. Barbra Streisand covered the song on her 1974 album, ButterFly. Bowie was, shall we say, not impressed.

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In 1975, a young up-and-comer by the name of Cameron Crowe embarked upon his latest assignment: to interview David Bowie for Playboy. In the midst of the conversation, Crowe couldn't resist asking Bowie what he thought of Barbra Streisand's decision to tackle "Life on Mars?" - along with Bob Marley's "Guava Jelly" and Buck Owens' "Crying Time," among others - on her 1974 album, ButterFly. He did not hesitate to offer his opinion. "Bloody awful," Bowie replied. "Sorry, Barb, but it was atrocious."

5. Brazilian musician Seu Jorge recorded a cover of the song - along with a number of other Bowie tracks - for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

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Although the original version of "Life on Mars?" was used to great effect in Anderson's 2004 film, Jorge recorded a cover of the song, along with several other Bowie compositions, for The Life Aquatic as well, including several which can only be found on the soundtrack's companion album, The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions. If you're wondering, yes, the man who wrote the material was impressed: Bowie was quoted as saying, ""Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with."

6. Doctor Who paid tribute to the song and its composer in the 2009 special, “The Waters of Mars."


During the course of his many travels through time and space, the TARDIS delivers The Doctor - and that's the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), if you're counting - to the planet Mars in 2059. It's hardly a pleasure trip, but while taking a stroll, he stumbles upon the first human colony on the planet: Bowie Base One. The tribute came courtesy of the episode's co-writer, Phil Ford, who reportedly copped to it in whilst trading emails with a Wikipedia contributor. "Yes, I'm a Bowie fan, so how could I miss an opportunity like that?" Ford was quoted as writing. "I think the name of the base was probably the first thing I thought of. Life on Mars. What else would you call it? So cool." It's certainly not the only sci-fi tribute to the song, though...or have you forgotten the series called Life on Mars?

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