On My Way to Life on Mars

In 1968, Claude François had a big hit in France with “Comme d’habitude”:

Paul Anka* liked the tune so much he bought the American publishing and recording rights. Perhaps more important, he acquired the adaptation rights so he could strip the original lyrics and write new ones for Frank Sinatra to sing over a slightly changed melody:

Meanwhile in the U.K., a young, pre-stardom David Bowie was asked by his music publisher to translate the French lyrics to English. As he laughed on VH1 Storytellers, he failed miserably. However, he later adapted the tune for his own song, “Life on Mars” (the clip is cued to Bowie telling his story, but it is worth going back to the beginning to hear him sing it) . . .

. . . which he notes was later covered by, Barbra Streisand, not very well in his estimation. I’ve got to agree, but judge for yourself:

The song later lent the title to the British crime/sci-fi show Life on Mars . . .

. . . and its American adaptation, . . .

. . . but was not the opening theme for either. I guess they felt it was more important to explain and/or remind viewers of the show’s convoluted concept each week.  (The song did appear on the show’s UK soundtrack album and another Bowie song provided the title for the show’s U.K. sequel, Ashes to Ashes.)

“Life on Mars” was one of several songs sung by Jessica Lange in season four of American Horror Story. Her German character, Elsa Mars, gave it a very Kurt Weill, Weimar cabaret sound:

(She also sang Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” another song associated with Sinatra.)

“Life on Mars” appeared more recently in the “god-awful small affair,” HBO’s Vinyl. Although sung by black Trey Songz, it was lip synced by white Douglas Smith, . . .

. . . just one of so many things wrong with this show.

* If you are at all interested in Paul Anka, or early ’60s teen idols in general, I highly recommend seeing the short documentary Lonely Boy. Peter Watkins consulted it while making the film Privilege, a fascinating fictional, Marxist take on the ’60s rock scene that I’ve always felt must have inspired Bowie. Patti Smith later sang the movie’s theme on Easter.

note — I must give Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie credit for reminding me of the origin of Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”


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