Flip over Hunky Dory, David Bowie’s breakthrough 1971 album, and you’ll find a few handwritten notes in the margins next to the list of tracks. To the left of “Life on Mars?,” on a diagonal line, Bowie wrote “inspired by Frankie.” Considering Bowie was referring to Frank Sinatra, you’d have to chalk that up as an inside joke.
Later on, Bowie revealed why he tipped his hat to the Chairman of the Board on Hunky Dory’s back cover. It all traces back to Claude Francois’ 1967 hit “Comme d’Habitude,” the song Paul Anka adapted for “My Way,” a track that became synonymous with Sinatra’s legacy.
David Bowie said he wrote ‘Life on Mars?’ in ‘retaliation’ to Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’
Anka, a brand-name songwriter by the late ’60s, heard “Comme d’Habitude” while on vacation in France and decided he wanted to adapt it in English. Once he secured the rights, he began writing after Sinatra told him he might quit the music business. Anka couldn’t believe it, and he wrote his friend a song that would keep him in the game.
Anka hadn’t been the first one with the idea to adapt “Comme d’Habitude.” Earlier in ’68, Bowie had written his own lyrics to the French hit. The publisher didn’t go for Bowie’s version, which sent him back to the drawing board. At the time, Bowie hadn’t seen any of his songs chart.
So when he heard Anka’s powerhouse version sung by Sinatra, he felt more than a little sting. “In retaliation, I wrote ‘Life on Mars?,’” Bowie later explained (via The Guardian). Hence the “inspired by Frankie” on the album cover.
Bowie was not proud of his stab at ‘Comme d’Habitude’
Looking back on his attempt at “Comme d’Habitude” in ’99, Bowie didn’t blame French publishers for going with Anka’s version over his own effort (titled “Even a Fool Learns to Love”).
“I turned in the pitifully awful title ‘Even a Fool Learns to Love,’ which he rejected out of hand, quite rightly,” Bowie said (via The Guardian). “It passed on to Paul Anka, who did his own English lyric. And he called it, simply and effectively, ‘My Way.’” Later in the ’70s, Sinatra and Bowie got to know one another.
Sinatra and Bowie became fast friends in the ’70s
This saga continued into the mid-’70s. By then, Bowie had established himself as a rock star of the highest order (and had a No. 1 U.S. hit with Fame). In Bowie: A Biography, Marc Spitz tells the story of Sinatra and Bowie meeting during sessions for Station to Station (1976).
At the time, Bowie was working in Hollywood’s Cherokee Studios every day. Sinatra started coming in, and the two hit it off immediately. “They became great friends, hanging out in the lounge,” a Cherokee co-owner told Spitz. “David would call and ask, ‘Is Frank in yet?'”
The two even traded notes on recordings and, in one instance, Robb said Bowie sang harmony on one of Sinatra’s tracks. Bowie couldn’t have seen that coming when he made his handwritten note next to “Life on Mars?”