Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Six). “She Packed My Bags Last Night, Pre-flight. Zero Hour: 9am. And I’m Going to be High as a Kite by Then.”

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.

Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day One). “Ground Control to Major Tom …”

This week’s theme for Song of the Day is ‘Space’, so what better way to start than with David Bowie and his love of all things otherworldly.  The man who would later bring us the glam alien Ziggy Stardust, started writing about space way back in July 1969, with the release of Space Oddity, the first single from his second album David Bowie.  The success of the single on its release in 1969, led the album to be renamed Space Oddity when it was reissued in 1972.

To set the scene, the single was released just nine days before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, leading some to dismiss the song as a cheap shot at cashing in on the impending moon landing.  These detractors included producer Tony Visconti, who despite liking the demo songs for the rest of the album, decided to delegate Space Oddity to Gus Dudgeon.  To realise his vision for his space tale, Bowie looked to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which inspired the song’s title.  Additionally, the slow and barely audible instrumental build up of Space Oddity is similar to the deep bass tone used in Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, which is used predominantly in the film.

In a 2003 interview with Performing Songwriter magazine, Bowie said of Space Oddity:

“In England, it was always presume that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time.  But it actually wasn’t.  It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing.  I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me.  It got the song flowing.  It was picked up by the British television, and used as the background music for the landing itself.  I’m sure that they really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all (laughs).  It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing.  Of course, I was overjoyed that they did.  Obviously, some BBC official said, ‘Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great’.  ‘Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir’.  Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that”.

Space Oddity saw the first appearance of astronaut Major Tom, whom has since become one of Bowie’s most famous character creations.  There has been much speculation whether the space theme of Space Oddity was actually a metaphor for heroin use, with the countdown heard in the song being analogous to the drug’s passage down the needle prior to the euphoric hit.  Bowie spoke of a period of brief heroin before the release of Space Oddity in a 1975 interview with Playboy, saying:

“The only kinds of drugs I use are ones that keep me working for longer periods of time.  I haven’t gotten involved in anything heavy since ’68.  I had a silly flirtation with smack then, but it was only for the mystery and enigma of trying it.  I never really enjoyed it all.  I like fast drugs.  I’ve said that many times.  I hate falling out, where I can’t stand up and stuff.  It seems like such a waste of time.  I hate downs and slow drugs like grass.  I hate sleep.  I would much prefer staying up, just working, all the time.  It makes me so mad that we can’t do anything about sleep or the common cold”.

The idea of Space Oddity being at least partially related to heroin use was made even more likely with the arrival of the song’s first sequel, Ashes to Ashes, from the album Scary Monsters & Super Creeps, in 1980, which stated, “We know Major Tom’s a junkie, Strung out on heaven’s high, Hitting an all-time low”.  Additionally, this lyric is also thought to be a play on the title of Bowie’s 1977 album Low, which charted his withdrawal inwards following his drug excesses in America a short space of time before.

Major Tom was resurrected once again for Hallo Spaceboy.  Whilst the album version from 1. Outside (1995) does not reference Major Tom, when the song was remixed by the Pet Shop Boys and released as the third single from the album, it added the lines, “Ground to Major, bye bye Tom … Dead the circuit, countdown’s wrong … Planet Earth, is control wrong” sung by Neil Tennant in reference to Space Oddity.

On 12th May 2013, Space Oddity was covered by astronaut Chris Hadfield, shortly after handing over command of the International Space Station.  Hadfield, already famed as being the first Canadian to walk in space, released the video of him performing the song on YouTube, which has so far received over 25 million views.  Hadfield’s performance was the subject of a piece by Glenn Fleishmann in The Economist on the 22nd May 2013, which analysed the legal implications of publicity performing a copyrighted work of music whilst in earth orbit.  There was no need to worry as Bowie fully endorsed the cover, taking to Facebook to call it, “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created”.

Other versions of Space Oddity, and arguably the oddest of all, include Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola, released in November 1969, a special version of the song with Italian lyrics.  Two Italian bands, Equipe 84 and The Computers, had already recorded their own Italian versions of Space Oddity.  Feeling that these versions may threaten the chances of Bowie’s original in Italy, Bowie’s record company commissioned Mogol to write the new Italian lyrics.  Mogol came back with a song about a young couple who meet on top of a mountain, the title of which translates as “Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”.  Bowie was highly amused when he found out what the new lyrics meant, saying in an interview for the 1999 biography Strange Fascination by David Buckley:  “I’ve put in all that time singing some bloody love song about some tart in a blouse on a mountain!”