10 covers of David Bowie’s 'Life on Mars?' totally worth hearing
Even the one he trashed.
David Bowie’s legendary 1971 song “Life on Mars?” has received numerous covers in the past few years, even before his death in January. Shows like Girls, Vinyl, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon highlighted new renditions this month alone. Here are some of the most memorable covers of the Hunky Dory tune.
Chris Martin & Jimmy Fallon
The late-night host has impersonated the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young for gags, but he doesn’t mess around on his real deal cover of Ziggy Stardust. Coldplay’s Chris Martin and The Roots’ Captain Kirk Douglas lend their chops for a perfect instrumental, but the real revelation is Fallon’s unexpectedly impressive vocal delivery.
HBO’s music business drama has recruited a stacked lineup to record covers for its first season. In its sixth episode, Vinyl enlisted R&B crooner Trey Songz to give his take on “Life on Mars?” His version does away with the original’s orchestral swells — and even the guitar adornment Fallon deployed — leaving only the stark piano part and Songz’ economical vocal embellishments.
The young Norwegian breakout — who released her excellent debut earlier this month — covered “Life on Mars?” for the credits on a recent episode in the fifth season of Girls. She brings a chilly sensibility to the song, relying on her quirky voice and mellow keyboards to build tension. It’s a testament to Bowie’s songwriting prowess that such a different interpretation can still soar.
The BRIT Awards chose the 19-year-old performer to pay tribute to Bowie — he’d once referred to as “the future of music” — and she didn’t disappoint. Bowie’s former backing band cycled through a number of his most famed tracks before Lorde stepped out to deliver an entrancing, pitch-perfect performance of “Life on Mars?”
The Brazilian artist acted in Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic and covered multiple Bowie cuts for the role. He later compiled them into an album, and his scaled-back version of “Life on Mars?” could be the best of the bunch. Serenely plucked guitar and lyrics that sound no less poetic in Portuguese than they do in English make Jorge’s rendition essential.
The actress’ cover of “Life on Mars?” sounds traditional enough — until witnessing the bizarro visuals from American Horror Story: Freak Show it accompanied. Barring an Insane Clown Posse rendition, this could be the only version of Bowie’s song that could give a kid nightmares.
Shortly after Bowie’s passing, the Australian singer-songwriter kicked off Triple J’s 2016 slate of Like A Version covers with a stirring take on “Life on Mars?” The traditional take on the song takes on additional weight considering how soon after the Thin White Duke’s death she performed it.
The Flaming Lips
Flaming Lips frontman and notorious weirdo Wayne Coyne has a lot in common with Bowie. Both led prolific, groundbreaking careers, experimented with numerous styles, and became known for outsized personalities. The Oklahoma City band released its surprisingly conservative take on “Life on Mars?” as a B-side to “This Here Giraffe” from the 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic. The cover can be found on Heady Nuggs 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic 1994-1997, the box set documenting the era that the band released late last year.
The jam band has busted out its Bowie cover on more than 20 occasions since introducing it in 1995. Leave your pretentiousness at the door: Guitarist Trey Anastasio gives the cut one of the best six-string treatments around.
Babs included “Life on Mars?” on her 1974 album ButterFly, which also features covers of the likes of Graham Nash, Bill Withers, and Bob Marley. The cover boosts the mild schmaltz of Bowie’s original for a final product he didn’t care for. “Bloody awful,” he told Playboy in 1976. “Sorry, Barb, but it was atrocious.”