IF you were able to tear your eyes away from the Olympics at all last week you would have heard about a different type of amazing feat - the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars.
To celebrate, here are Musicology's top five favourite Martian tracks.
Life On Mars? - David Bowie
JUST about every fluffy news piece on the Mars landing was probably soundtracked by this classic Bowie track. What's interesting is that this is the second time Bowie has had the perfect backing track to a significant scientific space achievement - his song A Space Oddity was rush-released in order to come out just eight days before the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. If ever we send a robot to Venus, Bowie will probably be called on to write a suitable tune. Not that Life On Mars? is really suitable for Curiosity's trip except for its epic chorus climax where Bowie belts out the question "is there life on mars?". Otherwise, the surreal lyrics have nothing to do with space travel but are in fact about "a sensitive young girl's reaction to the media", according to a 1971 interview. That key chorus line becomes a desire to escape - the girl wondering if maybe there's somewhere else she can live.
Bowie told The Daily Mail in 2008 the song was "so easy" to write, and came to mind while shoe shopping. The red planet must have held some serious interest for Bowie, who would later release the album Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, which came out in 1972 - after Life On Mars? had already appeared on the album Hunky Dory (1971), but before Life On Mars? was released as a single ('73), which led some people to think Life On Mars? was part of Ziggy's continuing story.
Venus & Mars - Wings
MAYBE Bowie will miss out on doing the soundtrack when we send robots to Venus and Paul McCartney's post-Beatles band will get the gig with the title track from their 1975 album Venus & Mars. The song appears in two sections on the record, opening each side of the record, but unlike Life On Mars? it makes reference to space exploration. In the song's reprise on side two, McCartney sings of "waiting for the transport to come, Starship 21ZNA9", which is not going to go down as one the former Beatle's most memorable lyrics.
It was inspired by reading Isaac Asimov, McCartney later explained. The title of the song comes from the line "Venus and Mars are all right tonight", which is spoken by the narrator's "good friend (who) follows the stars" in the first section of the song and is a reference to astrology. Despite the first section only being about one minute and 20 seconds long, it was released as a single along with Rock Show, which is the song it segues into on the album.
Girl From Mars - Ash
WHILE Bowie's narrator may have wondered if there was life on Mars, the narrator in this cracking grunge-pop tune had already found it. In fact, he was hanging out with a female martian, playing cards and smoking cigars. One of the best things about this song is its conversational chorus - "Do you remember the time I knew a girl from Mars?/I don't know if you knew that". It's so matter-of-fact and almost childishly, giving the song a wonderful naivety to go with its spritely punk riffs and its tale of a mythical girlfriend from Mars.
The track was the first hit for these Irish alt-rockers, almost breaching the UK top 10, and helping catapult their sophomore album 1977 to the top of the British album charts. It remains one of their best tunes and its intergalactic relevance has been backed by NASA, who reportedly used it as hold music on their phone lines. Ash even managed to keep up an interstellar theme with the Girl From Mars b-sides - the second track on the CD single was titled Astral Conversations With Toulouse Latrec while the third song was a cover of the Cantina Band tune from Star Wars.
Mars - Gustav Holst
THIS amazing orchestral piece is the opening section of Holst's stunning suite The Planets, which he wrote from 1914-1916 before finally premiering in 1918. Each of the seven movements of The Planets corresponds with a planet (there's no Earth piece), with the musical themes of each piece relating to its horoscopic nature and that planets supposed influence on the human psyche. In the case of Mars (subtitled Bringer Of War), the planetary name and theme also coincides with the Roman god of the same name, who happened to be the god of war. Hence, the epic piece is bombastic and explosive, featuring rampaging tattoo rhythms and military-like trumpet lines. In fact, it's influence on John Williams' famous Star Wars score is unmistakable, although it should be noted that Holst's The Planets is one of the most influential orchestral suites of the last century.
It's not entirely clear why The Planets starts with Mars - some suggest its to give the entire suite a symphonic structure, others suggest it is because of Mars' prominence in astrology. Interestingly, Pluto was discovered just four years before Holst died, but he refused to compose a Pluto section. Good move, seeing as how Pluto had its planetary status revoked in 2006.
Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon - The Flaming Lips
THE Flaming Lips' much-loved album Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots closes with this psychedelic space-rock groove. With its panning, wobbling bass line, electronic samples, and background Great Gig In The Sky-style vocals, it's a journey worthy of its title. So what does this have to do with Mars? Pavonis Mons is the name of a 14km-high shield volcano on the Martian surface, but as the song is instrumental, we don't learn anything about the mountain through the song. Still it's a nice title, and a very cool track. It earnt The Flaming Lips their first Grammy award, winning in the Best Rock Instrumental Performance category in 2003. They won in the same category for The Wizard Turns On... four years later.
Pavonis Mons is not the largest volcano on Mars - that accolade goes to Olympus Mons, which is 22km high. That volcano has also been paid tribute to in alt-rock form, with Pixies recorded a track on their Trompe Le Monde album titled Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons, which lead singer Frank Black summed up as being "about a little bird who goes to sleep and he has a dream that he goes to Mars".