The cartoon caveman who inspired David Bowie

The cartoon caveman who inspired David Bowie

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, we’re picking our favorite comics-related songs.

“Look at those cavemen go.” Swirling masses populate David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?”—a silver-screen junkie, the leader of either the Russian revolution or the biggest band in the world, and a certain cartoon mouse—so some Neanderthals were bound to sneak past the guards. But like that “Lennon’s on sale again” (or is it “Lenin’s on sale again”?) line, there’s more to Bowie’s fighting sailors than meets the eye. “Life On Mars?” is a pop-art canvas, and the cavemen are lifted from the prehistoric panels of V.T. Hamlin—more specifically, a 1960 musical tribute to Hamlin’s fuzzy-faced hero, made famous by an act that was as much of a put-on as Ziggy Stardust.

The gap bridging The Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop” and “Life On Mars?” is Kim Fowley, the recording-studio fixture and future Runaways Svengali who guided Bowie through one of his first trips to Los Angeles. An incorrigible hype man, Fowley essentially ginned up his first chart success, building a fake band around roommate Gary S. Paxton in order to record a country tune about a cartoon caveman. The Argyles were as fictional as the subject of their sole No. 1 hit, but that doesn’t diminish any of the swinging snarl Fowley and Paxton brought to “Alley Oop.” Their take on the song isn’t the most accurate representation of Hamlin’s creation, but it has the properly primitive sound for the character, one that was also suited to the snot-nosed upstarts attempting to replicate Fowley and Paxton’s success in the nation’s garages, rec halls, and high-school auditoriums. Bowie would outpace them all, but not before showing a debt of gratitude within one of his most iconic tracks.


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