Dexter Wansel’s Life on Mars Brought Funk to the Cosmos
The oft-sampled album mixed science fiction with peppy grooves that celebrated the rise of synthesizers in funk.
Right now, Elon Musk’s personal, red Tesla Roadster is hurtling through the solar system nearly 84 million miles from Earth. The topless sports car, piloted by the aptly named Starman, has been in orbit for two and a half years, in one of the world’s most garish displays of ingenuity and self-aggrandizement.
Though the launch itself was monumental, marking another notch in the history of privatized space flight, I’m equally as intrigued by Starman’s choice of background music. He’s playing “Space Oddity,” the 1969 David Bowie jam born out of America’s interstellar fixation.
I can’t say I’m mad at Starman’s choice of tunes. “Space Oddity” was timely when it was released decades ago at the height of the Space Race. The song arrived amidst an international science contest that has since given way to collaborative efforts like the International Space Station.
Despite the momentous occasion, the lyrics trade fanfare for introspection. “For Here Am I sitting in a tin can/ Far above the world/ Planet Earth is blue/ And there’s nothing I can do,” Bowie’s astronaut sings to end the first verse. This isn’t the fantasy world of Bowie’s “Starman.” “Space Oddity” carries the emotional weight of the launch as a reminder of just how small people really are.
Seven years after Bowie released “Space Oddity,” Dexter Wansel would have a different fascination with space, conveyed on his 1976 album Life on Mars. The Philadelphia native actually took some of his celestial fascination from Bowie. Speaking with Vinyl Me, Please in 2018, Wansel said, “I had heard this David Bowie song called “Is There Life on Mars?” and my answer was yes, there is life on Mars.”
Wansel, however, wasn’t driven by politically loaded concepts like man conquering the cosmos. Rather, he was guided by an ethereal sense of wanderlust, not unlike Ernie’s childlike longing to live on the Moon. In the years since its initial release, Life on Mars, has influenced music production through Wansel’s unique, synth-based instrumentation, which gives a little bit of humanity back to the occasionally incomprehensible idea of space travel.
Wansel wasn’t in direct competition with Bowie but their choice of instrumentation deserves comparison. While Bowie favored guitar chords that faded in and out to audibly replicate the expanse of space, Wansel’s ARP 2600 synthesizer (which was reissued in early 2020) drove the other worldly soundscape of Life on Mars.
At the time, the synth was just starting to find its footing in music. After being refined by RCA during the 1950s, White Noise, a UK music outfit, built out electronic music production on the group’s debut album, An Electric Storm. Like Wansel’s work nearly a decade later, White Noise played up their synth’s (an Electronic Music Studio VCS3) otherworldly sonics, crafting tracks that blurred the lines between physical and digital instrumentation. The album plays like a cultish stage play — moans overlap whispers and guitar strings as the metallic ring of synths fill the empty space between your ears.
Wansel’s album was less experimental. Uptempo cuts like “Stargazer” and “You Can Be What You Wanna Be” are high-stepping strolls down Main Street that are infinitely more approachable than anything on An Electric Storm. Instead, Wansel conflates typically funky aesthetics — horn melodies, string sections and slick bass lines with synthetic cosmic warbles.
What follows are tracks that are unmistakably human while hinting at the extraterrestrial existence. “One Million Miles From The Ground” is less about leaving earth than it is about finding a cosmic escape through love. The title track leaves behind the structure of a heavily thought out narrative in favor of floaty lyrics that lend themselves to an infatuation with space tourism.
Even “Theme From the Planets,” which in 44 years has become the track most synonymous with Wansel’s career (“The Sweetest Pain” from the 1979 album Time is the Teacher is probably a close second), trades in astro-arrogance for a symphony of soul solar-powered soul. The sample feels most complete played in a loop, as it is on Stalley’s “Slapp” or Wiz Khalifa’s “Spotlight,” but the spice of Wansel’s curling synth phrases mean Pete Rock can pepper them into “Play Dis Only At Night” to add cosmic reverb to a typically boom bap arrangement.
Ultimately, Wansel succeeds at leading synths away from their role as ambient mood shifters and psychedelic rock accompaniments. This casually funky structure isn’t bound to an assignment from mission control. Instead, Life on Mars is floating through space at its own, funked up pace.