Written by Bernie Taupin and Elton John
Sometimes songs are literally what they mean. Many have speculated Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” off 1972’s Honky Château, was about drug use. You could, perhaps, glean such metaphorical contexts within lyrics about space and being “high as a kite,” as John croons on the opening stanza. But there’s an even grander, more universal meaning if you take a straightforward interpretation.
In 2016, collaborators Bernie Taupin and Elton John spoke about the song’s inspiration in a video as part of an ongoing The Cut series. “It was a pretty easy song to write the melody to, because it’s a song about space, so it’s quite a spacious song,” noted John.
Contrary to popular belief, Taupin was not riffing off David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (from his 1969 self-titled record), which explores a similar theme ─ but instead author Ray Bradbury’s short story called “The Rocket Man,” found in his 1951 collection “The Illustrated Man.” “[That story] was about how astronauts in the future would become sort of an everyday job. So I kind of took that idea and ran with it,” explained Taupin, who also, according to Ultimate Classic Rock, later quipped: “It’s common knowledge that songwriters are great thieves, and this is a perfect example.”
In mid-1971, Taupin, who had moved to the United States a year prior, was visiting his parents. Making his way up to Lincolnshire, England, the song’s opening lyrics sprang into his mind, so he wove through back roads as quickly as he could, repeating the lyrics over and over in his head. Soon, he arrived and jotted down what would blossom into one of pop’s most iconic ballads.
Ironically enough, producer Gus Dudgeon, has worked with The Beach Boys, Mary Wilson, and Voyager, among others, produced both aforementioned tracks. “Once Elton had done what he had to do, which was play the piano and sing, he left,” Dudgeon once described. “Whatever you hear on the records that’s over and above the essential construction of the song is down to myself and whoever else was working in the studio.”
“I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife / It’s lonely out in space / On such a timeless flight,” John laments of the gravitational pull back to his normal existence.
“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,” he warbles on the chorus, production zipping like a rocket through the cosmos. Guitar and piano appears to root him in his never-ending orbit, yet other instrumentations and synths zig-zag across the skyline overhead. Its lushness is equally grounding and simplistic.
“I’m a rocket man / Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone,” he sings.
With Rolling Stone, John gave a direct answer to the song’s hit appeal and endurance through the decades. “It had an acoustic guitar on it, it was a different song for me – it was a simpler sound. I’d moved into a house, I was becoming successful, I was so confident, musically. Everything was to do with the music – touring, recording, radio interviews, photo shoots and ‘What are we going to do next?’”
With the second verse, Taupin taps into the notion that one day being an astronaut would be as normal as any occupation. “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids / In fact, it’s cold as hell,” remarks John. “And there’s no one there to raise them if you did / And all this science I don’t understand / It’s just my job five days a week.”
The album’s lead single, “Rocket Man” became a Top 10 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. If you need any further evidence of its legacy, the soaring piano ballad became the name of 2019 biopic starring Taron Egerton and directed by Dexter Fletcher.