Thursday, 14 January 2016

Bowie Track of the Day - "Life on Mars?"

Photo: Denis O’Regan

Photos: Alan Perry

It's summer 1983, I'm nineteen years old, and my school friend Carol and I are very excited indeed - having in our hands, as we did, tickets for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see our idol ("singing falsetto"?) David Bowie live on stage, at last! OK, the Serious Moonlight Tour concert was miles away in Milton Keynes [grim-by-reputation "new town" famous for its concrete cows], but you can't have everything. There was a coach organised by the legendary Roxcene Records in our home town Newport's Kingsway Centre to take us there and back, so no worries. Well... until we discovered that the driver had no clue how to navigate around the "roundabout capital of the world", so we kept ending up at dead ends like Stony Stratford before finally arriving at the Milton Keynes Bowl.

But arrive we did, and what a boggling place it appeared to be! This was my first ever "festival-scale concert". Every other act I had seen (Siouxsie, Gary Numan, Duran Duran, Toyah, Ultravox, et al) appeared in enclosed theatres and venues, so I was quite unprepared for the sheer scale of The Bowl itself; its capacity is 65,000 after all.

Its acres of space is completely covered in grass. There are no seats. Instinctively, Carol and I headed for the centre of this over-sized lawn to be near the stage, and found ourself a place to sit while waiting (for several long hours, as it turned out) for something to happen on stage. There was torrential rain in the week leading up to the concert, so the grass in the arena had been covered with thick rubberised tarpaulin for protection - on the day itself, however, temperatures rocketed, and the rubber was hot to sit on. We didn't mind. We'd suffer for Bowie...

Opening act The Beat [lauded stars of the Ska/Mod revival of '79-'80] as I recall were well past their best, and people (us included) generally ignored them while milling around trying to find some "edible" food from the myriad caravan-based outlets (selling, as they always do, over-priced slop), and tip-toeing through the disgusting swamp that was already developing around the (leaking) toilet blocks. Second support act the Oz band Icehouse (chosen, most likely, to fit with Mr Bowie's apparent penchant for all things Australian during this, his Let's Dance era) were instantly forgettable.

Mr Bowie, however, once he finally got to the stage, was not! Despite having been pushed out of the direct line of sight at the front of the stage by the sheer crush of people who stormed towards the stage the moment the band struck a chord, we still had a good enough viewpoint of our God on stage (as long as the Mohican-wearing punk in front kept his head facing and not oblique to the proscenium arch). Others in hindsight were critical of Bowie's performances at this time - some unkindly compared his slick, suited, Americanised persona to Danny Kaye! - but we were in absolute awe.

Photo: Alan Perry

He played a comprehensive repertoire of favourites, every one of which we adored:
  • The Jean Genie
  • Star
  • Heroes
  • What In The World
  • Golden Years
  • Fashion
  • Let's Dance
  • Breaking Glass
  • Life On Mars
  • Sorrow
  • Cat People
  • China Girl
  • Scary Monsters
  • Rebel Rebel
  • White Light White Heat
  • Station To Station
  • Cracked Actor
  • Ashes To Ashes
  • Space Oddity
  • Young Americans
  • TVC 15
  • Fame
  • Stay
  • The Jean Genie
  • Modern Love
From that very occasion in Milton Keynes, here's an extract from a quaint local news programme about his concert (skip to around 7:15 for actual concert vox pops and footage):

And here, from elsewhere during the tour, our Bowie Track of the Day - Life on Mars?:

Despite the haze of heat and alcohol on the day, and, more importantly the thirty-three years that have lapsed since that fateful concert, I distinctly remember singing (as we did every song he performed, inevitably) every word of this, with that 65,000-strong choir.

From his seminal album Hunky Dory (and there will be more of that in due course during this week of tributes to Mr Bowie, no doubt!), here is Life On Mars? as it is more usually heard:..

It's a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling "No"
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she's hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she's lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show.
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show:
Is there life on Mars?

It's on America's tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
'Cause Lennon's on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a saddening bore
'Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It's about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show.
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show:
Is there life on Mars?

This was life. And, yes - we did feel like we had been "on Mars"...


  1. Just amazing. How about Jessica Lange doing Dietrich doing Bowie with this song on 'American Horror Story: Freakshow"?

    1. When I saw the tour stop in Los Angeles, the opening acts were Madness and The Go-Go's.

    2. Thanks, Umaneo.

      I didn't realise Mr Bowie liked his Ska acts so much - nor that Madness were ever popular in the US. As for American Horror Story: I've never seen it.



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