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The Story Behind The Song: How Elton John’s classic ‘Rocket Man’ was created

The musical pair Elton John and Bernie Taupin has been one of the most celebrated duos in the history of rock music. There was a certain ease in the manner they came together, the way they worked and produced magic. Their journey started in 1967 when both John and Taupin answered an advertisement by Liberty Records, printed in the UK music paper the New Musical Express.

They were initially hauled in and teamed up by the label as songwriters, writing songs for various artists and even John working as a session musician in the projects of The Hollies and The Scaffold. The opportunity to release John’s debut album came after hanging around and holding on for two years. The chart-busting single ‘Your Song’ that was released the following year made their partnership exclusive.

One of the classics that the duo produced was ‘Rocket Man’ or ‘Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time’), as it was officially titled. The song featured in John’s 1972 album Honky Chateau and was released as the lead single from the album. As with most of their work, Taupin crafted the lyrics while John made it vibrant through his composition.

Space curiosity was at its peak during the time of the production of the song. When it was released, the Apollo 16 Mission landed men on the lunar surface for the fifth time. The song narrates the tale of a young boy called Doug, whose astronaut father is sent to space frequently as a part of an exploration programme that requires him to take three months journey at a regular interval. Although Doug feels his father’s absence, he still aspires to be like him one day. The father, on the other hand, has mixed feelings about this entire adventure. It breaks his heart to leave his family behind, but the call of the stars and endless void tempts him as well: “You don’t know what it is. Every time I’m out there I think, if I ever get back to Earth I’ll stay there; I’ll never go out again. But I got out, and I guess I’ll always go out.” He commits to one last mission that ends with dire consequences.

Taupin talked about the influence behind the song in 2016, explaining: “People identify it, unfortunately, with David Bowie’s Space Oddity. It actually wasn’t inspired by that at all; it was actually inspired by a story by Ray Bradbury, from his book of science fiction short stories called The Illustrated Man. In that book, there was a story called The Rocket Man, which was about how astronauts in the future would become a sort of everyday job. So, I kind of took that idea and ran with that.” However, John admitted to being unaware of this fact: “Do you know, I never knew that?”

Ray Bradbury’s story was the basis of another song of the same name that pre-dated John’s record and was released by the folk group Pearls Before Swine. In their song, the child can no longer look at the stars admiringly after being disillusioned by his father’s death. Taupin openly admitted to borrowing ideas from Pearls’ 1970 song, saying: “It’s common knowledge that songwriters are great thieves, and this is a perfect example.” 

The opening lines, which read: “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Zero hour: 9am. And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then,” was conceived by Taupin while he was driving to his parents in Lincolnshire, England. Anxious that he’ll forget the lines, he drove some back roads as fast as he could to put it down on paper. Until he reached their house he had to “repeat it to himself for two hours,” which was “unfortunate” but also worthwhile given the magnanimous status the song achieved.

A ballad rooted in piano, the song added extra textures through an atmospheric synthesiser and processed slide guitar. The synthesiser was played by the recording engineer David Hentschel while the backing vocals featured Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone, the trio that was to become signature backing voices in John’s other songs. It was produced by Gus Dudgeon, the same person who worked with Bowie on his 1969 release ‘Space Oddity’.

Not only did the song become John’s biggest hit at that time, outcharting ‘Your Song’, his first top 10 entry but also survived the years by becoming Platinum certified by The British Phonographic Industry in 2019 for the sales of 600,000 digital downloads as well as streaming. The song became so popular that Elton John’s nickname took after it, and so did his 2019 biopic starring Taron Egerton.