Rolling Stone lists it as #245 of its 500 greatest songs of all-time.
The song first appeared on John’s 1972 album Honky Château and became a hit single, rising to No. 2 in the UK and No. 6 in the US. On 21 October 2016, the song was certified Silver by the British Phonographic Industry for sales of 200,000 digital downloads
The song was inspired by the short story “The Rocket Man” in The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, and echoes the theme of David Bowie‘s 1969 song “Space Oddity” (both recordings were produced by Gus Dudgeon). But according to an account in Elizabeth Rosenthal’s book His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John, the song was inspired by Taupin’s sighting of either a shooting star or a distant aeroplane.
The song describes a Mars-bound astronaut‘s mixed feelings at leaving his family in order to do his job. Rosenthal’s account goes on to relate that the notion of astronauts no longer being perceived as heroes, but in fact as an “everyday occupation”, led Taupin to the song’s opening lines: “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Zero hour: 9 a.m. And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.”
Musically, the song is a highly arranged ballad anchored by piano, with atmospheric texture added by synthesizer (played on the recording by engineer Dave Hentschel) and processed slide guitar. It is also known for being the first song in John’s catalog to feature what would become the signature backing vocal combination of his band at the time, Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone.
“Rocket Man” was ranked #242 in the 2004 list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was later changed to #245 in the list’s 2010 revision.
Another song called “Rocket Man” (and also based on Bradbury’s short story “The Rocket Man”)Pearls Before Swine on their 1970 album The Use of Ashes. In an interview in Billboard magazine, Taupin acknowledged that the song, written by Tom Rapp, had been a direct inspiration for his own lyrics. Rosenthal’s account indicates that Rapp’s version was inspired by the writings of noted science-fiction author Ray Bradbury. Due to some similarities in Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” some presume this song might also be an allusion to David Bowie‘s character Major Tom. Bowie himself made the connection during live performances of “Space Oddity” in which he called out, “Oh, Rocket Man!”
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The first stanza of “Rocket Man” was thought of by Bernie Taupin whilst he was on the motorway heading to his parents’ home; he had to “repeat it to himself for two hours,” which was “unfortunate”, but in later interviews he said that since it gave him a hit, it was all worthwhile.
The song has been a staple of John’s concerts. Among numerous other performances, John played “Rocket Man” at the launch site of Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.
The song includes the line, “”And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then”. As the website Schmoop commented, “The phrase “high as a kite” is a common idiom almost always used to refer to drug use. There’s nothing to suggest that lyricist Bernie Taupin really intended the double entendre, but the song did come out at the peak of stoner ’70s culture.