Another single sleeve (and missing the “?” in the title). Released 22nd June, 1973.
Music reinforces memory, and an enduring memory is of discussing the lyrics to Life On Mars? with a friend in the blissful summer of 1973, when the song was in the charts after being released to capitalise on Bowie’s success with his Ziggy Stardust persona. “Blissful” here isn’t rose-tinted nostalgia, that summer gave us two months of heat and sunshine, something British summers don’t always manage; you can see the evidence in the sunlit evening shots of DA Pennebaker’s film of the final Ziggy Stardust concert, and in the field scenes in Penda’s Fen which was being filmed at the time for broadcast the following year. (And while we’re forging links, Penda director Alan Clarke later directed Bowie in the TV production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.)
Weather aside, the summer of 1973 was particularly enjoyable for being the one that separated my last year at junior school (which I enjoyed) with my first year at secondary school (which I loathed); in that respect it was the last perfect summer of childhood after which my home and school life went down in flames. I spent most of July and August with friends: climbing trees, playing on bits of waste ground, and going on long bike rides. I don’t remember much about the bike excursions apart from the one I made with Martin C to Skippool Creek, a tributary of the River Wyre outside Blackpool where old boats are moored. This was the occasion of the Life On Mars? discussion, and it was the discussion that lodges the event so persistently in the memory, an unresolved puzzling over the strangest lyrics we’d ever heard. I mark this moment as the first time I began to regard music as a vehicle for a quality of strangeness that I’ve been pursuing ever since. And I still think of that afternoon when we went to look at the boats every time I hear the song.