‘From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads’: my 2,700-mile bike trip into Bowie’s Life on Mars?

This Thursday marks 50 years since David Bowie’s Life on Mars? was launched as a single. A cornucopia of surreal pictures, a musical cleaning soap opera to drift away with, it nonetheless recurrently seems in lists of the greatest ever Bowie songs – and certainly lists of the best songs by anybody.

Making an attempt to deconstruct this story starring mice, Mickey Mouse and a mousy-haired woman is about as simple as attending to Mars itself. I ought to know as I cycled one of many music’s lyrics – “from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads” – pedalling 2,700 miles in the hunt for a deeper understanding. Different writers have adopted literary footsteps to get into authors’ minds, so why not a music lyric?

My journey really started not in Ibiza however the place the music did: the borough of Bromley. After huffing and puffing 13 miles throughout London, I wheeled by way of Croydon Street Recreation Floor to a rusting Edwardian bandstand. It had seen higher days but it surely had additionally seen greatness, as a result of that is the place Bowie sat and wrote Life on Mars? in 1971. He spun a cosmic yarn from that mousy woman’s disillusionment and her escape by way of the silver display screen, in surreal imagery of cows, clowns and cavemen. Her frustration and can to flee suburban dullness was certainly his personal.

Then aged 24, Bowie was gaining confidence as a author. Commenting on the music’s building he later mentioned: “This music was really easy. Being younger was simple. A very stunning day within the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap’ … Center-class ecstasy.” He took a riff he couldn’t shake again to his flat in Haddon Corridor, Beckenham. “I began working it out on the piano and had the entire lyric and melody completed by late afternoon. Good.”

What he didn’t point out was that the music was born from a type of musical menage a trois with Frank Sinatra and singer Claude François, who wrote a chanson in 1967 known as Comme d’Habitude. Bowie was in London’s Denmark Avenue rewriting European songs for anybody who would take them. When Comme d’Habitude landed in his lap, he turned it right into a music known as Even a Fool Learns to Love. The writer thought it was terrible and the chanson as an alternative handed to Paul Anka, who got here again with My Way. Bowie, pleasure battered however not burst, snatched the chord development and rearranged it with an ascending rock twist.

‘Suburban dullness’ … the Beckenham bandstand where James’s journey – and the song – all began.
‘Suburban dullness’ … the Beckenham bandstand the place James’s journey – and the music – all started. {Photograph}: James Briggs

Having flown to Ibiza, cycled 900 miles across the island after which onward by way of the Spanish and French countryside, I now stood – lactic acid pooling in my thighs – outdoors François’s outdated home in Dannemois, 30 miles south of Paris. Taking the official tour, extra drama got here to gentle. François had died younger after attempting to repair a squiffy lightbulb whereas sitting in his bathtub. After explaining my mission to the tour chief, her eyes lit up: Life on Mars? was her marriage ceremony music. She beloved the simplicity of its opening notes, a piano chord that transported her to her “blissful place”, and simply outdoors “Clo-Clo’s” toilet, we carried out a shaky duet.

Even in our impromptu model, the lyrics tumbled us into Bowie’s unconscious – and the music carries you deeper nonetheless. After the music’s recording session, Rick Wakeman – the pianist who embellished the chords Bowie had performed him on a “battered 12-string” – instructed his associates he’d simply performed on “the very best music he’d ever had the privilege to work on”. Drummer Woody Woodmansey has mentioned the notoriously hard-to-please BBC string gamers had been awaiting instruction, so guitarist Mick Ronson, having written his first ever string association and wildly nervous, rolled a cigarette and defined the way it must be performed. Having given it the as soon as over, the BBC instrumentalists had been so impressed, they carried out it a second time to grasp it. Producer Ken Scott recognised it was destined for greatness too, calling it “the large one” and saving it for the climactic periods for Hunky Dory, the album on which the music appeared in 1971.

Space odyssey … James reaches the final stage of his journey.
House odyssey … James reaches the ultimate stage of his journey. {Photograph}: James Briggs

Bowie’s vocals crown all of it, his B flat prime observe solely a semitone beneath the well-known “vincero” climax from Nessun Dorma. Leah Kardos, musicologist and creator of Blackstar Idea: The Final Works of David Bowie, says the music has at all times been “proof constructive of Bowie’s refined songwriting chops”, with a “central vocal efficiency that’s tender, gymnastic, and camp. There’s not a element misplaced, even right down to the ringing phone that interrupts the ending, snapping you again to mundane actuality.”

Bowie had a make-up artist he known as “my Picasso”, a Frenchman named Pierre La Roche who painted Bowie’s shock of blue eyeshadow within the Life on Mars? video and later created the lightning bolt on the duvet of Aladdin Sane. Previous to Dannemois, I’d noticed a settlement excessive within the Ardèche mountains known as Saint Pierre-la-Roche – might the mysteries of Life on Mars? be unravelled from on excessive? Having wheezed eight miles uphill, the reply was “clearly not, you’re an fool”, so I watched the video as an alternative, directed by photographer Mick Rock.

Music movies can age poorly. Rock avoids that with a easy bleached-out background on which Bowie performs in La Roche’s scene-stealing eyeshadow and a pinch-waisted Freddie Burretti go well with, all set aflame by his auburn hair: a defiantly queer look. “When Bowie declared himself bisexual in 1972, the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales was solely 5 years outdated, and the one LGBTQ+ illustration you can discover in common tradition got here within the type of limp-wristed caricatures on comedy reveals like Are You Being Served?,” says Nicholas Pegg, creator of The Full David Bowie. “David kicked down that door and shone a light-weight into many lives.”

The music is as potent as ever. When St Albans cathedral organist Nicholas Freestone played it on the day of Bowie’s demise in 2016, it went viral. Rick Wakeman delivered an emotional rendition on Radio 2 that had folks pulling over to the aspect of the highway to cry. And at that 12 months’s Brit awards, Lorde, whom Bowie adored, staged a powerful version that felt like a baton being handed to the following technology.

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I pedalled onwards from Dannemois to the Honky Château recording studio close to Paris the place Bowie recorded Low. I walked with the ghost of Chopin, and of Bowie taking part in ping-pong with Iggy Pop. The unique Steinbach piano Bowie performed on the album stays. Then it was east to Moscow, the place Bowie landed in 1973 – the 12 months of the music’s launch as a 7in – to seek out his music banned by the Approximate Listing of International Musical Teams and Artists Whose Repertoires Include Ideologically Dangerous Compositions. Right here, a conundrum: may Vladimir Lenin even have been the inspiration behind one other of the music’s lyrics, “Lennon’s on sale once more”?

Lenin on sale? … James reaches Red Square.
Lenin on sale? … James reaches Crimson Sq.. {Photograph}: James Briggs

“Web-based bunkum,” a younger Muscovite waitress within the metropolis’s David B cafe replied. This was all a part of the enjoyable. Bowie as soon as mentioned to his artist good friend Dana Gillespie: “By no means clarify your songs, depart them in suspense.” Pegg readily agrees: “The paradox, the thriller, is vital. He’s actively inviting us to carry our personal interpretations to the desk. Each single one in all us has a barely completely different tackle Life on Mars?”

I saved looking out, taking the identical Trans-Europe Specific Bowie rode on. Then, to Berlin, the place he performed Heroes outdoors the Reichstag in 1987. Legend has it that the music reached either side of the wall, and impressed rumblings of dissent that led to its fall. Then I cycled, goose-pimpled, to Düsseldorf for kosmische and Kraftwerk, which influenced his digital forays, earlier than Amsterdam, and the music of Jacques Brel that impressed Life on Mars? Bowie usually coated Brel’s music Amsterdam throughout concert events – a story of sailors singing, consuming and dancing with intercourse employees. The town’s picture is now on the mend however its seedy dramas stay in Bowie’s lyric: “Sailors, preventing within the dance corridor.”

Underneath the glow of halogen gentle, I sprinted to a different port and took the ferry from the Hook of Holland till Rule Britannia, as Bowie sang, was now not out of bounds. Nonetheless misplaced within the music, and now English rain, it made sense to take a scientific method to its mysteries. I visited Norfolk’s Seething Observatory to see if I might glimpse Mars and reply the title’s query myself. A nefarious overlaying of nimbus clouds saved the music’s secret intact. I conceded defeat, lugging my legs over one remaining bridge into Wroxham and the Norfolk Broads. There I discovered “the mice of their million hordes” Bowie sang of. Vacationers fussing, flopping and frolicking, feeding the geese and themselves; pints, packets of crisps and Pomeranians. Center-class ecstasy.

As I walked into the vacationer info workplace, a lady behind the counter observed my biking apparel. “The place’ve you come from?” she requested. “Ibiza,” I replied wearily. She joined the dots. “You’re kidding? I like David Bowie. I noticed him at Wembley Enviornment as soon as and when it got here to that a part of the music, me and my associates all yelled, ‘… from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads!’ Everybody loves David Bowie, don’t they?”

I believe they do, and 50 years on, his most-loved masterpiece can nonetheless pull you in any route. It’s an open-ended query to be joyously reinterpreted and performed time and again. What a trip.

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