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 Two). “I Always Flirt With Death, I Look Ill But I Don’t Care About It”.

As I talked about yesterday, in songs such as David Bowie’s Space Oddity (David Bowie, 1969), whether space is a metaphor for the effects of heroin, or others drugs, is something that is often debated.  However, on other songs such as The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, their best known single and the second track on their debut album, The Only Ones (1978), the references, whilst still being the subject of debate, are much more blatant.  Though the song is often considered something of a rock standard and various publications have named the song the greatest rock single ever recorded, Another Girl, Another Planet was not a hit when first released.  In fact, the song’s highest chart position was number 44 on the New Zealand chart in July 1981.  The song was re-released in the UK in January 1992, backed with Pretty in Pink by The Psychedelic Furs to promote the compilation album, Sound of the Suburbs.  On this release, the song reached number 57 on the UK singles chart, its highest position to date.  Another Girl, Another Planet was placed at number 18 in John Peel’s all time Festive Fifty millennium edition and when playing it as part of 1980’s Festive Fifty, in which it reached number 28, he introduced it as an “artful little caprice”.

Although this song, with its soaring guitars, perfect three minute pop format and front-man Peter Perrett’s elliptical lyrics could simply be read as a song about the excitement and perils of space travel and having a girl on every planet the narrator passes, something which gives the song some of its huge appeal, dig deeper into the song and the heroin references are plain for all to see.

Another Girl, Another Planet starts with the killer opening lines, “I always flirt with death, I look ill but I don’t care about it”.  To “flirt with death” is an expression normally used when talking about doing something dangerous and life-threatening for personal enjoyment.   Here, to “flirt with death” is about the dangers associated with injecting heroin. “I look ill, but I don’t don’t care about it” straightforwardly refers to the sick look which heroin users are prone to inheriting due to regular usage.  This look has in recent years, thanks to the fashion world, become known as ‘heroin chic’ and is characterised by pale skin, dark circles and angular bone structure due to weight loss.  Interestingly, in Blink 182’s cover version of Another Girl, Another Planet (Greatest Hits, 2005), they change the line to “I could kill, but I don’t care about it”, which could refer to the fact that in the process of ‘cooking’ a batch of black tar, bacterial spores can enter the drug solution.   Once the drug is injected, these spores can damage and even kill the body’s muscle, skin and organ tissues.  Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, perhaps the singer is telling of how he would kill to receive the drug and its hit.

In the following lines, “I can face your threats, Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, the facing of “threats” may refer to side effects and risks associated with taking the drug.  The second of these lines, “Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, finds the singer defiant, telling of how he does not care who knows about his heroin use because of the euphoria he receives from the drug.

The chorus of the song, “I think I’m on another world with you, I’m on another planet with you” finds the singer metaphorically on another planet following the hit of the drug.  Heroin often leads people to hallucinate, so perhaps in this context, Perrett is speaking of how heroin takes him to places that he cannot reach when not under the influence and perhaps hallucinating about women.  It is said that this is a common hallucination when taking heroin.   Alternatively, the “girl” of which Perrett speaks could be a personification of the needle used to inject the drug, with the use of the word “another” being telling of Perrett’s repeated drug use.  Perrett was often compared to Lou Reed, so much so that when listening to an Only Ones recording, the NME’s Nick Kent once believed he was listening to a new Lou Reed recording.  If we were to see the “girl” as a personification of the needle, then we could compare this line to the line, “It’s my wife and it’s my life” in the Velvet Underground’s Heroin (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967).

As the song’s second verse opens, we find the line, “You always get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating”, possibly the clearest heroin reference in the whole song.  Usually, if somebody gets under your skin, they are annoying you.  However, here, Perrett states “I don’t find it irritating”, meaning that he enjoys literally having the needle beneath his skin because he knows that what will follow will be a pleasurable experience.  The following line, “You always play to win” refers to heroin playing to win, i.e. claiming lives and being a very difficult addiction to beat.  The following line, “I don’t need rehabilitating” implies that he does not wish to try to kick the habit and would rather “flirt with death” and allow the drug to win.

The song’s final verse starts with the lines, “Space travel’s in my blood, And there ain’t nothing I can do about it”, Perrett’s declaration that he can’t get clean from heroin and that he doesn’t want to try to.  In the following lines, “Long journeys wear me out, Oh God we won’t live without it”, the ‘long journey’ refers to being under the influence of heroin for an extended period of time.  After coming down from his high, he is worn out.  Note the pluralisation of ‘journey’, which is telling of the repetition of injecting the drug.  The line, “Oh God we won’t live without it” is further evidence of the singer’s defiant stance against stopping taking the drug.  In the song’s coda, the line “Another planet, forever holding you down” is, once again, testament to the grip that the drug has on him.  Additionally, heroin is a downer or depressant:  hence, the repetition of injecting the drug is forever holding the singer down.

When asked whether drugs were an aspiration for him in an interview with Classic Rock magazine in July 2014, Perret replied:

“No, it was just an accident.  I never, ever wanted to devote my life to drugs.  I’d starting smoking joints and they relaxed me.  Because I wanted the best hash, I started meeting people that had the best hash.  Gradually, over a couple of years, I met people, started doing it as a business.  I signed on at college and I used to go in at the beginning of each term, get my grant money and start up dealing, then I eventually met people, started importing it.  Then we went over to importing cocaine – it’s a fraction of the size, much easier to smuggle in, and you’re facing the same risks.  All of a sudden, I’m doing the cocaine that used to knock my head off.  That was about 1975, and after that I tried smack.  That was a big mistake because all of a sudden, that was the best feeling I’d ever felt in my life.  That’s why it’s so dangerous.  It’s silly telling people not to take it.  You’ve got to let them know that the reason it’s so dangerous is because it’s the best feeling you’ve had in your life, and it’s so hard not to want it all the time, and if you have it all the time, eventually it stops working and you need it just to be able to function”.

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!”

Space Oddity: Ten Songs About Space Travel. Apollo 13 is Launched, This Day in History, 11/04/1970.

1.  David Bowie ‘Space Oddity’

(from the album Space Oddity, 1969).

2.  The Only Ones ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’

(from the album The Only Ones, 1978).

3.  Legendary Stardust Cowboy ‘I Took A Trip (On A Gemini Spaceship)’

(from the single I Took A Trip (On A Gemini Spaceship) / Down in the Wrecking Yard, 1968).

4.  The Prodigy ‘Out of Space’

(from the album Experience, 1992).

5.  Ash ‘Girl From Mars’

(from the album 1977, 1995).

6.  Pixies ‘Motorway To Roswell’

(from the album Trompe Le Monde, 1991).

7.  The Carpenters ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’

(from the album Passage, 1977).

8.  REM ‘Man On The Moon’

(from the album Automatic For The People, 1992).

9.  Ian Brown ‘My Star’

(from the album Unfinished Monkey Business, 1998).

10.  The Beatles ‘Across The Universe’

(from the album Let It Be, 1970).