It’s not like the fact that “Rocket Man” is “Space Oddity” Mk II is exactly a secret. There’s a mash-up that pretty easily combines both songs and makes the overlap pretty explicit. John himself played both “Rocket Man” and “Space Oddity” as a tribute to Bowie after his death, segueing from one to the other. If he’s prepared to do that, well, there’s not really a lot left to say on that subject. Both strike a distant, melancholic tone, though “Space Oddity”’s loss is literal whereas “Rocket Man” is more concerned with the ennui that comes from an ordinary job, even when that job is flying off to Mars and leaving your family behind.
In Elton John’s song, space travel is ordinary, boring even, and the worst thing that has to be contended with is loneliness. In David Bowie’s it’s a strange, discombobulating place which eventually leads to the protagonist drifting off forever. The strange otherworldliness of “Space Oddity” would become one of Bowie’s defining characteristics and lead to a string of characters and personas in the 70’s that he cycled through with alarming regularity, slewing off one only to adopt another at a dizzyingly creative speed. For “Rocket Man” and Elton John… not so much.
And it is worth remarking on how strange a song for Elton John “Rocket Man” actually is. It’s one of his best known songs, it lends its name to the biopic of John’s life, and is was his second huge hit after the runaway success of “Your Song” propelled him into the public consciousness. Yet it’s an outlier in his back catalogue – there’s no other song in Elton John’s practically endless list of writing credits that’s quite like “Rocket Man”. In terms of single releases it is preceded by straight-down-the line “Tiny Dancer” and followed by the lopsided horns of “Honky Cat” and “Crocodile Rock” (the latter of which would become John’s first U.S. Number 1).
None of those songs suggest the distant longing of an astronaut obliged to leave his family behind for the coldness of the Martian surface. It’s not that there aren’t any other songs in Elton John’s back catalogue that deal with loss – there’s mountains of them – but they tend to be far more personal and confessional so “Rocket Man” still occupies a unique, and singular, place in his pantheon of songs. Sci-fi epics just aren’t Elton John’s thing. And there’s no “Ashes To Ashes” equivalent for “Rocket Man” either. Whoever the lost, lonely protagonist of this song is we never get to revisit him.
In a way that adds to the poignancy – there will never be an emotionally cathartic release as we find out what happens to him, or his abandoned family. There’s just this one outing. Elton John’s 70’s singles split fairly evenly in terms of style – there’s the piano troubadour journeyman of “Your Song”, “Candle In The Wind” or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and there’s the up-tempo stompers of the “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, “The Bitch Is Back” and “Pinball Wizard” variety. “Song For Guy” is full of loneliness and loss but it’s nothing like “Rocket Man” at all. It remains a weird outlier.
And in honesty it’s better for it. The very fact that “Rocket Man” stands alone can’t help but fuel its uniqueness and this make it more interesting as a result. The album it’s taken from, Honky Chateau, is well-regarded in John’s discography but again there’s nothing on it that really tallies with “Rocket Man”. There’s a lot of cod-funk and brass (the follow-up single “Honky Cat” stands a perfect example), some blues, the usual handful of ballads, that sort of thing. It’s a focussed, well-constructed album. What it is not is a paean to space exploration. Yet despite this being so unusual there’s no denying how well John is able to land the song.
The lyric – by Bernie Taupin, of course – suggest the musical route John takes the instrumentation down, but the sparse, spartan arrangement goes a long way to helping sell the ennui that’s so explicit in the lyric. In particular, full credit to bassist Dee Murray whose yawning, stretched-out bass lines both suggests the slow, zero-gravity environment of space and sounds like pod bay doors slowly opening – the best moment being just at the end of the first verse and the way it leads the listener in an almost stately fashion into the slide-guitar that delivers us to the chorus. And that slide guitar is a lovely piece of texture as well, unusual for an Elton John song but deployed here as a strikingly effective lead-in and overlap on the chorus throughout the song. John’s own piano lines are similarly minimal – the flourishes and embellishments are kept very much to a minimum and the audio space within the song is given a real opportunity to breathe. There’s minimal vocal flourishes too – despite the occasional jump on lines like “Hiiiiiigh as a kite by then” the vocal is mostly restrained. This isn’t a song that calls for vocal acrobatics, and anything more than those little jumps would shatter the mood the song so carefully constructs for itself.
It’s exquisitely well-produced as well, which also goes a long way to making the sonic texture of the song feel like its capturing the mood. And it’s produced by – who would have guessed it? – Gus Dudgeon, the man who also produced “Space Oddity”. So he’s got form. But he also knows what he’s doing. The chunky acoustic guitar that backs up Elton John’s piano on the choruses has an unquestionably “Space Oddity” feel about it but it’s no less effective for all that. And judicious use of echo – subtle, but re-enforcing the sensation of space – and synths flesh out the sonic picture just enough to really add definition to the song without swamping it in gimmicks, on-the-nose instrumentation or sound effects. It’s exceedingly effective, and lands the sense of distance every bit as effectively as the lyric or John’s vocal. It would only take one of these elements to be even slightly out of alignment for the whole thing to come across as ridiculous, but Dudgeon know exactly how to keep everything in balance. And the result is one of Elton John’s most strikingly unusual – and effective – songs.
Of course, this is just the beginning. There’s no great need to list off the rest of Elton John’s career because you undoubtedly know it. Drama queen and tabloid staple. Friend to royalty. Never met a charity concert he could say no to. Vastly successful solo artist with a career now spanning almost a full half-century. The sodding “Circle Of Life”. You know how it goes. “Rocket Man” helped – and please excuse the pun here – launch that career and proved to be the consolidating hit John needed after “Your Song” took off. It is, in many ways, one of the key foundations of his career and certainly one of his best-known songs, yet it will always be the path not taken. The one where, instead of the outrageously flamboyant showman and tortured artist, we instead get a thoughtful, considered and deeply remote insight into other characters. Is this as good as “Space Oddity?” No, of course it isn’t. What’s genuinely amazing, though, is just how close it comes to being as good. There’s no shame in being second-place to Bowie, and if “Rocket Man” is forever destined to be “Space Oddity” Mk II – which, let’s be honest, it is – then it’s as good a second place as anyone could possibly hope for.
What Else Happened In 1972?
The Stones release Exile On Main Street, about which enough has already been said. Mahalia Jackson, arguably the greatest gospel singer of all time, dies and 40,000 people turn up to mourn her. Paul McCartney debuts perennial punchline Wings and immediately gets banned by the BBC for releasing “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”. Curtis Mayfield gives us Super Fly so the era of Blaxploitation and Blaxploitation soundtracks has arrived. Abba, who will regretfully not be appearing in this series, are formed and so are Sparks and the E Street Band. David Bowie gives us one of the finest albums ever released, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, and Diana Ross scores an Oscar nomination with Lady Sings The Blues. Aretha Franklin is Young, Gifted And Black, and Lou Reed releases his first, eponymous, solo album while the final dregs of The Velvet Underground call it a day. The biggest song of the year is “American Pie”, which means we’re stuck with it from now until the heat-death of the universe. The second biggest is Harry Nilsson’s screech-a-long classic “Without You”. Mainstay AM Radio time-consumers The Eagles release their first album, and Jethro Tull are Thick As A Brick. Well, at least they’re honest about it. Oh, and Chuck Berry wants to show you “My Ding-A-Ling”, but I really wouldn’t recommend it.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
“American Pie” made it to Number 2 in the UK charts but not all the way, held off the top spot by Nilsson’s “Without You” and, hilariously, the incredibly crap “Son Of My Father” by Chicory Tip. This is mentioned not because there was any chance of covering “American Pie” but simply because it’s very funny. Noted paedophile Gary Glitter got to Number 2 with “Rock And Roll Pts 1 and 2” and while there’s a whole discussion to be had around the sort of environment that allowed Mr Glitter to get away with his crimes it would require someone with better and deeper understanding of this than me to do it justice. Michael Jackson starts his decades-long assault on the charts with, erm, “Rockin’ Robin”, which peaked at Number 2 in the UK. The fifth biggest selling single of the year globally – faux-sophisticated dirge “Nights In White Satin” by the Moody Blues – got to Number 2 in the U.S. but the fact it was such a massive seller but only (only!) made it to Number 2 in the U.S. is literally the only interesting thing about that song.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Kinks – “Lola”
3. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
4. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
5. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
6. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
7. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
8. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
9. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
10. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
11. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
12. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
13. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”