Friday, December 28, 2007

Rocket Man (I Think It's Gonna Be a Long Long Time)

It's difficult to regard what is arguably Elton's most popular and well-known hit without acknowledging David Bowie's 1969 hit "Space Oddity", of which this seems to be a prequel, and Bernie's avowed inspiration, Ray Bradbury's short story "The Rocket Man", one of the tales included in his The Illustrated Man. I don't know how much Bowie's song was on their minds when they conceived this, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't there.

Lyrically, it's fairly simple, without a lot of the alienation-themed baggage of Bowie's song- an astronaut has mixed feelings about his job and how it affects his wife and children. Taupin comes up with some nicely evocative lines which get this across efficiently.

Instrumentation is pretty much the standard Davey/Dee/Nigel era band, with their excellent harmony on the backing vocals, and augmented by David Hentschel on synths. It's taken at a midtempo ballad style. One of the most effective parts of the song, at least to me, is towards the end when Taupin gets reflective with the lines "And all this science I don't understand/It's just my job five days a week/A rocket man...", Elton pauses for a beat after the word "science", while Hentschel plays a countermelody on the synth, eventually playing longer, more sustained notes to match Elton's held out words as he sings "A rocket- maaan". It's just a small moment, but it makes the astronaut's dilemma all the more poignant and sets up the chorus repetition on the fadeout.

Released in April 1972 in advance of Honky Chateau, "Rocket Man", surprisingly, wasn't a #1 hit- it went to #2 in the U.K. and #6 in the USA. But it's certainly had a long life afterwards, appearing in tons of films and television shows. And who can forget William Shatner's legendary version?

2 comments:

Sean T. Collins said...

I thought I read in one of my many Bowie books that Elton and Bernie owned up to the swipe, but I'm not 100%.

Johnny B said...

Hello, Sean!

I wouldn't doubt that they did, don't see how they could deny it!

That's one thing I wish I had more of when doing this- access to interviews with Elton and Bernie. There are a few at Cornflakes and Classics, and I've read several from back in the day but no longer own the magazines in which I read them. having a resource like that would really help me in writing about these songs...