I’m starting a project that (hopefully) will include fingerstyle guitar arrangements of classic rock songs. For some reason I thought I would have a go at David Bowie’s classic song “Life On Mars?”, a song that I had been listening to a great deal at the time. I very quickly realized that the song is a lot more complex that I thought and trying to arrange it for solo guitar would be significantly trickier that I first thought given my relative inexperience in such arranging. I hope to get back to it after getting a bunch more songs under my belt but for now it’s on the back burner list.
“Life On Mars?” was first released on Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory but it’s strange backstory started in 1968. Bowie was commissioned to write English lyrics for the Claude François French song “Comme d’habitude”. After his lyrics were rejected, songwriter Paul Anka rewrote it into “My Way”, which became a hit for Frank Sinatra in 1969. Annoyed at the success of “My Way”, Bowie used the song as a template and wrote “Life on Mars?” as a parody of Sinatra’s recording.
Other tidbits about the song: the amazing piano part of “Life On Mars?” initially was going to be played by actor, comedian, musician Dudley Moore. In the end, the piano was played by keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who at the time was a member of the Strawbs and who had played Mellotron on “Space Oddity”. Wakeman, of course, went on to become a prog-rock legend with Yes.
Besides Wakeman on piano, the band consisted of guitarist Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Woodmansey on drums. Ronson, who passed away in 1993, was one of the great journeymen of rock music. After Bowie, he co-produced Lou Reed’s “Transformer”, worked with Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter and others. It was Mick Ronson who wrote the song’s phenomenal string arrangement. The arrangement was the first that Ronson had ever done and was composed on the floor of the studio restroom.
One final oddity: the song was covered by Barbra Streisand on her 1974 album ButterFly. Bowie was not impressed, saying in 1976, “it was bloody awful. Sorry, Barb, but it was atrocious.”
To give you an idea of the hornet’s nest I stepped into when I took this on for solo guitar, the video below (from the You Tuber 12 Tone) is a deep dive into the musical nuts and bolts of “Life On Mars?”
Understanding “Life On Mars?”
And of course, the song itself. Classic.
David Bowie – Life On Mars? (Official Video)