The valence band and core-level X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy was used to probe hydroxyapatite films formed on the surface of stainless steel. These films formed on steel may find application in medical implants. The key to the successful adhesion of the hydroxyapatite films is shown to be the initial formation of a thin, oxide-free etidronate film on the metal. It was not found possible to prepare the hydroxyapatite films directly on the metal surfaces. Since hydroxyapatite is a key component of bone and teeth, it is likely that the coated metals will have desirable biocompatible properties. The hydroxyapatite film was exposed to air, water, and 1M sodium chloride solution as representative components of the environment of the film in the human body, and these exposures led to no detectable decomposition of the film. The thin hydroxyapatite and etidronate film on the metal show differential charging effects that caused a doubling of the peaks in some core level spectra. The valence band spectra proved especially valuable in the identification of the surface chemistry of the films, and these spectra were interpreted by comparing the experimental spectra with spectra calculated using band structure calculations which showed good agreement with experiment. The calculated spectrum of etidronic acid was found to be significantly different to that of etidronate. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.