Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ Turns 50

Elton John and Bernie Taupin (1967)

The song, written by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin, went on to become their musical anthem

Photo: Elton John began working with song-writing partner Bernie Taupin in 1967. (Supplied)

Sir Elton John’s signature song Rocket Man has stood the test of time.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Greg Ryan )

30 April 2022 |  Matt Neal | ABC News

Rocket Man changed Elton John’s career almost overnight — 50 years on, it remains an anthem

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
‘Til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh, no, no, no
I’m a rocket man
Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone

When it came time to name the 2019 film about the life of Elton John, there were a few of his songs worthy of being the title — I’m Still Standing, Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, Sad Songs, Your Song.

But really, when it came down to it, it had to be Rocket Man, the closest thing John has to a signature song.

Released 50 years ago this month, Rocket Man came at a vital time in John’s then-burgeoning career, saving him from being written off as a one-hit wonder.

There’s also a fitting similarity between the song’s main character and the singer — over the years John definitely risked it all and flew too high before “burning out”, Icarus-like, and crashing back down to Earth.

That’s the notion that Rocket Man conjures up, even if its actual meaning is somewhat more prosaic.

‘Zero hour, 9am…’

Bernie Taupin began writing lyrics for Elton John in 1967, kicking off one of the most unique and fruitful songwriting collaborations in music history.

But by 1972, their partnership had produced only one major hit — the 1970 single Your Song, which went top 10 in the US and the UK, and number 11 in Australia.

Follow-up singles Friends, Levon and Tiny Dancer fared less well, with the latter a top 20 hit in only Australia and Canada.

In the wake of a hectic 1971 in which John released three albums (the studio effort Madman Across The Water, live recording 17-11-70, and the soundtrack to little-seen film Friends), Taupin and John, along with John’s touring band, decamped to Château d’Hérouville near Paris in January 1972 to make what would become the album Honky Chateau.

The single for Elton John’s Rocket Man was released in April 1972.(Wiki Commons)

In his autobiography Me, John explained that the genesis of Rocket Man was as regular and everyday as almost every other collaboration he and Taupin had — the same bizarre mix of the mundane and the magical.

“Bernie writes the words, gives them to me, I read them, play a chord, and something else takes over, something comes through my fingers,” John wrote.

“I’ve never sat down with one of Bernie’s lyrics and nothing has come out.

“I don’t know why. I can’t explain it and I don’t want to explain it.”

At Château d’Hérouville, Taupin would sit at his typewriter in a room by himself, “bash out his lyrics”, as John put it, “and leave them for me on the piano” for John to find in the morning and put to music over breakfast.

On the first morning in the chateau, John had turned three sets of Taupin lyrics into songs before the band awoke.

Among them was Rocket Man.

Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)

Taupin’s lyrics were inspired by a Ray Bradbury short story titled The Rocket Man, in which an astronaut has to regularly leave his wife and child to make trips into space, with Taupin taking the novel approach of imagining the life of an astronaut as “just [a] job, five days a week”, as opposed to the heroes of the time.

New guitarist Davey Johnstone was sceptical that John and Taupin could work so fast, so John played the three songs for him.

Rocket Man immediately jumped out to Johnstone, who asked John to play it again.

“He didn’t add a solo or do anything that a regular lead guitar player might do,” John wrote of that moment.

“He used a slide and played odd, lonely notes that drifted around and away from the melody — it was great.”

John told Rolling Stone that Rocket Man felt different to anything he’d done previously.

“It had an acoustic guitar on it … it was a simpler sound,” John said.

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James Porteous

James Porteous is an author, photographer and researcher. Clipper Media News is a daily publicatioin featuring news and views you can use.

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