Sensor Scan: Rocket Man

Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man” is usually read as a very poor imitation of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Both songs explore the mundane reality of space travel and both came out just as the wave of public interest in outer space and spaceflight had crested and was beginning to roll back (though “Space Oddity”, at least the original version, was far more timely in 1969, with “Rocket Man”’s 1972 release date already making it feel curiously dated, though do recall “Space Oddity” was re-released that year too) and, to top it off, both songs were even produced by the same guy: Gus Dudgeon. And of course, the critical consensus goes, no-one is going to call Bernie Taupin an especially poetic, captivating or moving songwriter, and David Bowie is, well, David Bowie.

But this misses, I feel, a big part of the nuance “Rocket Man” actually displays. Yes, I’ll come right out and say it: This is pretty clunky song, and there are a fair few embarrassing verses and questionable lines. But I’ll also freely admit this is one of my favourite pop songs, and while I’m well aware my taste in music can be described as “eclectic” at best and “suspect” at worst, just hear me out for a bit. First of all, that chorus has got to be one of the most achingly beautiful things ever recorded, and that’s really all “Rocket Man” needs to become an instant classic, because in pop the hooks and chorus are unabashedly the most important parts of the song. Secondly though, “Rocket Man”’s origins are a bit more interesting than most people tend to give them credit for, as it was inspired both by a Ray Bradbury short story of the same name and Taupin witnessing a meteor or faraway airplane when looking up at the sky at night. Far from echoing David Bowie’s indictment of (or at least very mixed feelings about) the Space Age on “Space Oddity”, what “Rocket Man” is actually about is a world where rocketry, at one time the most exciting and fashionable technology around, is so commonplace and mundane that astronauts become like truck drivers.

This is what takes “Rocket Man” from being curiously out of time to being very much of its time: In the mid-to-late 1970s pop culture in the United States had a particular fascination with truck drivers and trucker culture, brought upon by a number of movies from this period glamourizing the lifestyle and the widespread popularity of CB radio. With the 1970s fuel crisis in full swing, many people, but especially truckers, used CB radio to coordinate fuel runs to stations that had the best gas prices and to organise protests against new regulations. Truckers were seen as, in a sense, bringing back lost “American” values of rugged cowboy individualism (never mind the fact this assumption had zero historical precedent and is due more to the popularity of John Wayne movies: The fact is it existed) and, as a result, truck drivers, CB radio, and the distinctive language of slang they used, became very fashionable.…

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