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The niche book that inspired Elton John’s most iconic song

Musicians are no strangers to being inspired by different disciplines from across the creative sphere. Throughout the years, going all the way back to the age of classical music, musicians have always had a particular penchant for taking their ideas from literature. Who can be surprised? Literature is a world where there are no real rules, and this has inspired some of the most impactful pieces of art and creative minds to have ever come into existence.

When you note the sheer array of works in literature that are hailed as classic and have added into the canon of popular culture or the common vernacular, you’ll heed our point. In short, literature is a colourful beast, where the imagination flows, and every human emotion is discussed in vivid depth.

Numerous tales have influenced music, and if we take a quick look at some of the most famous examples, we quickly understand that there is an inherent symbiosis between the two fields. 

At different points, European mythologies and J.R.R. Tolkein influenced Led Zeppelin‘s unique esotericism, Lewis Carrol’s opium-laced classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland appealed to Jefferson Airplane frontwoman Grace Slick for their psychedelic masterpiece ‘White Rabbit’, and of course, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë inspired Kate Bush’s 1978 hit of the same name. These are just three examples from an endless list. However, in the modern era, one would argue that there is a specific genre of literature that has influenced music more than any other.

Given its rise alongside the advent and development of technology, this is science-fiction. Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and many modern masters have been inspired by this forward-thinking but often thought-provoking genre.

In tandem with the ’60s space race and the proliferation of technology in everyday life, this comes as no surprise. Musicians have always tried to stay relevant, and discussion of sci-fi themes has often endeared them to fans, portraying the ones who do as progressive, futuristic types. 

Take David Bowie‘s 1969 classic ‘Space Oddity’, for example. His groundbreaking musical composition was backed up by tales of the starman and space, truly marking him out as one for the future. Through the song, he cast off the grey colour schemes of the past and thrust himself into the glittery appeal of the future.

During the 1960s and ’70s, this interest in sci-fi was undoubtedly at its zenith, and it was also shared by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin. In 1972, they released a song that can in many ways be seen as the separate side to the same coin of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. This is none other than ‘Rocket Man’. Its title addressed the spirit of the day, as the fifth mission to put men on the moon, the Apollo 16 mission, occurred in April that year, the same month the song was released. 

Although the lyrical themes of the song are dense, touching on addiction, isolation and all the negative trappings of stardom, explicitly, the song is drenched in science-fiction. Taupin’s lyrics and the song’s title are taken directly from Ray Bradbury’s short story The Rocket Man. Published as part of the anthology The Illustrated Man in 1951, the tale is told from a child’s perspective, whose father has mixed emotions about having to leave his family in order to go to work. When you think about the implications of this and transpose them to that of the ascendancy to stardom, you see the parallels. 

Using the semantic field of space and some other classic science-fiction themes, Taupin’s lyrics perfectly portray the emotions Elton John was feeling at the time. Augmented by John’s iconic, emotional delivery, the song presents itself as much more than the ‘Space Oddity’ rip-off some regarded it as at the time of its release.

Due to its expert appropriation of science-fiction as a metaphor, this has massively contributed to the song’s ever-present nature in popular culture. It is nothing short of genius.