It’s hardly surprising that the creators of the 2019 Elton John biopic settled on the name Rocket Man. The 1972 single of the same name has come to encapsulate the pizass and craftsmanship of the iconic singer, and, 50 years after its release, it still stands up not only as an excellent piece of pop songwriting but as a poignant insight into the lonely side of rock stardom.
‘Rocket Man’ was released as the lead single grom Honky Chateau, an album dominated by explorative lyrics set to purified piano arrangements. At the end of the day, the legacy of Elton John is also the legacy of his beloved musical collaborator Bernie Taupin. Together they formed one of the most successful songwriting duos in pop history, and Rocket Man was perhaps their finest hour.
The track was inspired by a Ray Bradbury story about a lonely boy called Doug, whose absentee astronaut father is sent to space at regular intervals as part of a space programme. The tale explores the father’s mixed feelings about being so far from home for work and inspired the folk group Pearls of Swine to write their own version of ‘Rocket Man’ in 1970, two years before John and Taupin. This track – about a child who struggles to look at the stars after the death of his father during a space mission – gave Taupin the idea to write a version narrated not by the son but by the father.
In Elton John’s version, we enter the father’s tortured psyche as he debates whether to go on one last mission. There is something so touching about the contrast between his heroic space-age occupation and his domestic worries. “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,” Elton sings, “In fact, it’s cold as hell / And there’s no one there to raise them / If you did.” This contrast has led many to argue that ‘Rocket Man’ is actually an analogy for the way rock stars are forced to isolate themselves from their friends and family for the sake of their work. The allusions to space travel, mars, etcetera bring to mind the likes of David Bowie, who, incidentally, John was accused of ripping off with this track.
At the time of its release, ‘Rocket Man’ was such a hit for Elton John that it quickly became his nickname. John became the titular rocket man of Taupin’s lyrics, the solitary traveller forced to sacrifice stability and domesticity for the sake of his career. Indeed, when John entered the soviet union in 1979 to perform a series of concerts there, he was listed as a “cosmonaut”.
Both the song ‘Rocket Man’ and the accompanying term have been used for various political and consumerist purposes since the track’s release. Both Samsung and Volkswagen used it in their adverts, while President Donald Trump reportedly incensed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by referring to him as “rocket man” because of a nuclear missile program. “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself,” he is reported to have said. The Economist magazine did the same thing with his father in 2006 when they decided to put a photo of Kim Jong Il on the cover of their July 8th, 2006 issue under the headline “Rocket Man”.
50 years later, the majority of ‘Rocket Man’s’ layers of nuance seem to have fallen away. Today the track seems to speak of ambition, of that Icurarian impulse to soar to the highest heights. I wonder if this hints toward the real reason Elton John’s 1972 single continues to be as popular today as it was all those years ago. Like all great feats of songwriting, ‘Rocket Man’ is both universal and deeply personal, capable of reflecting the fixations of the speaker and those that unite its listeners.