Rocket Man, alternatively named Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), from the 1972 album Honky Chateau, is a song composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The song was produced by Gus Dudgeon, the producer of David Bowie’s 1969 breakthrough hit Space Oddity (David Bowie). The song was inspired by Taupin’s sighting of either a shooting star or a distant aeroplane and was inspired by the notion of being an astronaut no longer being a hero, instead being an everyday occupation. This idea can be most seen most notably in the song’s opening lines, “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Zero hour: 9am. And I’m going to be high as a kite by then”.
The lyrics of the song, written as per usual by Taupin, were inspired by the short story, The Rocket Man by Ray Bradbury and featured in his 1951 collection, The Illustrated Man. The story tells of how astronauts are few in number, meaning that they work for high pay. One such “Rocket Man” goes off into space for three months at a time, only returning to Earth for three days to spend time with his wife and son, Doug. Additionally, the song was also inspired by another song called Rocket Man by Tom Rapp, written for his band Pearls Before Swine and featured on their 1970 album The Use of Ashes. The Rapp song Rocket Man was in turn also inspired by Bardbury’s short story.
Due to a number of similarities in Rocket Man, some presume that this song might also be an allusion to David Bowie’s character Major Tom in Space Oddity. Bowie has even made the connection himself during various live performances of Space Oddity in which he called out, “Oh, Rocket Man!”
As with Space Oddity, Rocket Man has been said to use space as a metaphor for a drug high. The line most associated with being a drug reference is “And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then” with ‘high as a kite’ being a common idiom in drug use. There is nothing to suggest that Taupin intended the double entendre but the song was released at the peak of the ‘70s stoner culture.
The first stanza of Rocket Man was thought up by Bernie Taupin whilst he was on the motorway heading to his parents’ home. Taupin had to repeat the line to himself over and over for two hours. Upon reaching his parents house, Taupin has said a number of times over the years that he rushed in to the house and ordered nobody to speak to him until he had written the lines down. Additionally, the song is thought to be a comment on fame and touring, with the line “I’m not the man they think I am at home” perhaps referring to the superficiality of stardom and stage persona.
Musically, the song is one of John’s most grandiose offerings, anchored by piano, with atmospheric texture added by synthesiser, which was played on the recording by studio engineer Dave Hentschel and processed slide guitar. Rocket Man is also notable for being the first of a number of John recording to feature the signature backing vocals of his band at the time, Dee Murray, Nigel Olssen and Davey Johnstone. The song was another resounding success for John, reaching number 2 on the UK singles chart and number 6 on the US Billboard Pop Singles Chart. In 1998, John played Rocket Man at the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.
Rocket Man has been covered a number of times over the years, most famously in 1991 by Kate Bush as part of the Elton John / Bernie Taupin tribute album, Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Bush’s unique reggae-styled interpretation of the song was a great commercial success, reaching number 12 on the UK chart and number 2 on the Australian chart, where it was held off the top spot by Julian Lennon’s single, Saltwater (from the album Help Yourself, 1991). Bush’s version of Rocket Man was voted as the Greatest Cover of All Time by readers of The Observer in 2007.
The B-side of Bush’s version of Rocket Man was a cover of another John and Taupin classic, Candle in the Wind.