Wednesday, April 10, 2013

107 Hunky Dory. Life on Mars

Album: Hunky Dory
Artist: David Bowie
Year: 1971
Genre: Pop


  1. Changes
  2. Oh! You Pretty Things
  3. Eight Line Poem
  4. Life on Mars?
  5. Kooks
  6. Quicksand
  7. Fill Your Heart
  8. Andy Warhol
  9. Song for Bob Dylan
  10. Queen Bitch
  11. The Bewlay Brothers

For me there is really only one David Bowie song. I'm hard pressed to pick a favourite song by most artists but with Bowie there is a hands down winner with absolutely no competition. Life on Mars is Bowie's finest moment, it's not just the greatest song on this album it's the greatest song in his entire cannon. He never hit this height before and in all probability he never will again but we should be thankful that he did because Life on Mars is an absolute belter of a tune.

Mars starts with a low key piano intro and Bowie singing in his quiet and contemplative voice. It doesn't take long before the magic of studio technology allows Dave to come in and accompany himself on backing vocals. Extra tension is added by a string section which sounds like it's been scored by someone who is more comfortable writing for cinema than pop music. These aren't violins used for simple backing, they're the sort of strings which are designed to put you on the edge of your seat when the heroine fails to notice the villain creeping up behind her. It builds tension and needs an eventual release which finally arrives when Bowie amps his vocals up to eleven and belts out the line "Sailors fighting on the dance floor!" Which is a magnificent musical climax but a bit of a lyrical anti-climax if truth be told.

The lyrics do tend to give Life on Mars a slightly inaccessible edge to be honest. It's more a string of odd images than a coherent structure. "It's on America's tortured brow, that Micky Mouse has grown up a cow," "Rule Britannia is out of bounds, to my mother my dog and clowns" etc etc. Surreal images work when there's a level of emotional distance but Bowie sings like he's too invested in the words he's emoting which makes listening to lines like "Cause Lemon's on sale again" jar on the ear a bit. It sounds like the lyrics that Paul McCartney puts down as marker words when he's writing a tune in the knowledge that he'll come back again at some stage and actually give the song meaning. It's testament to Bowie's performance and the song itself that it can rise above the lyrics and become something so great.

Shame the rest of the album isn't nearly as good. Ch-Ch-Changes is the other major hit but it does nothing for me and the other songs are fairly dull with nothing that can approach Life on Mars.

Hunky Dory is Bowie's best album mainly because it contains his best song which I was more than happy to revisit and explore in detail. Sadly the rest of the album made me wonder what the attraction is in the cult of Bowie.

Highlight: Life on Mars
Lowlight: Everything that isn't Life on Mars

Influenced by: Whatever Bowie was into at the time
Influenced: Burgeoning glam rock

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "I mean, I never heard this album, but, well, it's gotta be good, I mean, Bowie. Gotta geddit. Someday..."

-I think Amazon prefers it if you actually hear the music before putting up a review. Just a thought.

So is this Hunky Dory or Gunk and Boring? Let me know below.


  1. Disagree insofar as "Life On Mars" is concerned. Don't get me wrong, it's a great song, but I think that he has other great songs in his catalogue, particularly highlights like "Heroes", "Space Oddity", and "Ziggy Stardust". I certainly agree that if not his greatest song it's in the elite few.

  2. I just don't see how this album is dull, per se. Maybe you don't like the other songs (which is okay), but I just don't see how it is dull. Songs like Andy Warhol, Song for Bob Dylan, Queen Bitch, and Oh! You Pretty Things are quite quirky and exciting in my opinion.

    1. They're definitely quirky but I can't say I find them exciting. The quirk is just something I expect from Bowie who is a quirky guy that makes quirky music. There's nothing in them that moves me much especially when they all live in the shadow of Mars. I'd definitely take most of this album over a lot of the other songs on the countdown but I can't think of them as exciting.

      Thanks for your opinion.