The fascinating fantasy behind Elton John's Rocket Man

5 May 2021, 11:56

Is it about drugs? Is about astronauts? What inspired the song that gives its name to the Elton John biopic?

Taron Egerton plays Elton John in the 2019 biopic Rocketman - which takes its name from one of the British singer-songwriter's most-loved tracks.

But what’s the song actually about? There are a couple of theories, so let’s pick through them and find out…

When was the song Rocket Man released?

The song’s full title is Rocket Man (I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long, Long Time) and it was released as a single on 3 March 1972. The song later appeared on Elton’s fifth studio album Honky Château, which arrive on 19 May. The single peaked at number 2 in the charts a couple of weeks later, being kept off the top spot by T-Rex’s Metal Guru.

Is Rocket Man a drugs reference?

A lot of people thought that the line in the song that says “I'm gonna be high as a kite by then” meant that the track was riddled with evil drug references, but the actual meaning of the song was more literal, coming only three years after man first walked on the moon in July 1969.

Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin pose for a portrait in circa 1973
Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin pose for a portrait in circa 1973. Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What does Rocket Man actually mean?

Lyricist Bernie Taupin, who collaborated with Elton on all his major hits explained in 2016: “People identify it, unfortunately, with David Bowie’s Space Oddity. It actually wasn’t inspired by that at all; it was actually inspired by a story by Ray Bradbury, from his book of science fiction short stories called The Illustrated Man.

“In that book, there was a story called The Rocket Man, which was about how astronauts in the future would become sort of an everyday job. So I kind of took that idea and ran with that.”

Elton himself, added: “Do you know, I never knew that?”

What was the story The Rocket Man about?

The tale concerns a young boy called Doug, whose father is an astronaut and is sent on frequent, three- month journeys into space. Despite missing his dad, Doug also longs to be a Rocket Man. The father finds that his work is ruining his life, but the draw of the stars is too great: "You don’t know what it is. Every time I’m out there I think, if I ever get back to Earth I’ll stay there; I’ll never go out again. But I got out, and I guess I’ll always go out.”

He commits to one last three-month mission, with tragic consequences…

Ray Bradbury’s tale The Rocket Man was collected in the book The Illustrated Man in 1951; the title comes from the linking section of the book in which the images on a heavily tattooed man’s body tell different stories.

The Illustrated Man was turned into a film in 1969, but sadly The Rocket Man wasn’t selected to be one of the tales told in the film.

Kate Bush famously covered Rocket Man 1991 as part of a John/Taupin tribute album, but the ultimate cover version must be by Star Trek star William Shatner. The Shat was introduced at the 1978 Science Fiction Awards by Bernie Taupin himself, and the actor’s former role as Captain James T. Kirk adds a layer of poignancy to this very special rendition.