Rocket Man: Elton John; Kate Bush; William Shatner

Hello there! Our song this week is Rocket Man, a remarkably successful pop tune written by Bernie Taupin and Elton John. We will review the original performed by Elton John. We will then discuss a cover version by Kate Bush, and we will review a “spoken-word” cover by William Shatner.

Elton John, Rocket Man:

Elton John was born Reginald Dwight in a suburb of London in 1947. In 1967 Dwight adopted the stage name “Elton John” as a composite of Elton Dean, saxophonist in his first band, and blues singer and mentor Long John Baldry.

Both of Dwight’s parents were musically inclined. His father had been a trumpet player in a semi-professional big band. His parents had an eclectic record collection, and Elton remembers becoming hooked on rock ‘n roll after first hearing Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.

Here is a photo of a young Elton John performing in Los Angeles.

At age 11, Elton John was awarded a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Elton’s recollection is that although he was able to play many compositions after hearing them just one time, he was not a diligent student and was not particularly attracted to classical music. Elton subsequently left high school at age 17 to pursue a career in pop music.

Bernie Taupin and Elton John, California, 1973. Photograph: Ed Caraeff.

A unique feature of Elton John’s career was his decades-long collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. A photo of the two collaborators is shown at left.

The two were introduced in 1967 when each of them answered an ad for musicians in the British magazine New Musical Express. When Elton arrived for his first meeting, he was handed a sheaf of lyrics by Taupin. He wrote the music for several of these and mailed the packet back to Taupin.

So began a four-decade music-lyrics collaboration which Elton
cheerily describes as “probably the strangest relationship in pop history”: in 46 years, the two have never written a song in the same room, and John never reads Taupin’s lyrics before setting them to music. “I just go into the studio, look at the lyrics for the first time when I put them on the piano, and go. If I haven’t got it within 40 minutes, I give up. It’s never changed, the thrill has never gone, because I don’t know what I’m going to get next. I don’t know what’s going to land in front of me.”

Following the first big Taupin-John hit Your Song in 1970, Elton John embarked on an incredibly productive and versatile career. During the 70s he came out with one blockbuster album after another. As a team, Taupin and John produced ballads, rocking tunes and funky cross-over hits.

The song Rocket Man (the full title is Rocket Man: I Think It’s Going To Be a Long Long Time) is one of the best-known songs in the vast Elton John-Bernie Taupin catalog.
It is widely considered one of the greatest recordings in music history, and by many accounts one of the most beloved songs ever recorded. Rolling Stone lists it as #245 of its 500 greatest songs of all-time.

Rocket Man appeared on Elton John’s 1972 album Honky Chateau. It became a big single hit, reaching #2 on the British pop charts and #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 listings. In the song, an astronaut muses about his life as he is preparing to blast off into space.

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine A.M.
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then

I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

[CHORUS] And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh, no, no, no.
I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

Since the song describes the experiences of an astronaut, many people have compared it to David Bowie’s 1969 Space Oddity. However, Bernie Taupin had a unique vision, where astronauts were no longer considered intrepid heroes, but simply workers in a routine occupation. Thus the line “and all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week.”

Here is Elton John performing Rocket Man at Royal Festival Hall in 1972.

I think this is a fabulous performance. Elton is in great form – his voice is strong and clear, his piano playing is impeccable, and one can see why this tune is so unforgettable.

At this point, the single Rocket Man had not been released. This video also features one of the first appearances of the “Elton John Band.” Many of the musicians backing up Elton John have been with him for decades. This includes lead guitarist Davey Johnstone, who joined Elton John for the Honky Chateau album in 1972 and who has worked with him ever since. Johnstone is in charge of musical arrangements for Elton’s backing band.

Also appearing here are bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, who joined the Elton John band in 1970. Murray continued to play with Elton until his death from a stroke in 1992 at age 45. In 1974, percussionist Roy Cooper joined the Elton John band, and has now worked with Elton for over 40 years.

As a side note, the final line of the chorus, “Rocket Man, burning out his fuse up here alone” is one of the most widely misunderstood lyrics in all of rock music. There are dozens of different misinterpretations of that line.

Getting these Rocket Man lyrics wrong is sufficiently common that this was parodied in a 2011 commercial, shown here:

The commercial presents people butchering the lyrics to Rocket Man, including “burning out this useless telephone,” and “burning up the room with cheap cologne.” Finally a couple is shown riding in a Volkswagen Passat, where the car’s premium audio system allows them to hear the lyrics correctly, and to realize that “provolone” is definitely wrong.

Over a nearly 50-year span, Elton John has established one of the greatest, most prolific and enduring careers in rock music. He
has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years (1970–2000) he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100. His single “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”/”Candle in the Wind 1997” sold over 33 million copies worldwide and is “the best-selling single of all time”. … In 2008, Billboard ranked him the most successful male solo artist on “The Billboard Hot 100 Top All-Time Artists” (third overall).

The period from 1970 until about 1990 was what I call Elton John’s ‘manic phase.’ In addition to his phenomenal productivity, Elton trotted out some of the most flamboyant costumes in the music industry.

Nothing seemed too outrageous for Elton – gigantic embossed glasses; feather boas; powdered wigs; ruffles and lace; you name it, Elton appeared in it. In 1988 some 2,000 items of his memorabilia were auctioned off at Sotheby’s and raised $20 million.

During that period, Elton John’s tremendous productivity and over-the-top antics were fueled by a voracious cocaine habit. Elton has also stated that he was dealing with an eating disorder, at the same time that he was sorting out his sexual preferences and indulging in drugs.

In a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine he admitted to being bisexual. He married Renate Blauel in 1984, but following their divorce four years later he came out as gay. In 1993 he began a relationship with Canadian advertising executive David Furnish. They entered into a civil partnership in 2005 and were married in England in 2014, and they are the parents to two sons.

This relationship seems to have brought stability and happiness to Elton. Below is a photo of David Furnish and Elton John with their two sons Elijah and Zachary Furnish-John.

Elton John has been an outspoken and articulate advocate for the LGBT community and in particular for AIDS sufferers. He has been quite courageous about combatting public prejudice in this area, particularly since his advocacy might have negatively affected his career.

Elton has professed great sympathy for people affected with HIV/AIDS, in part because he considers himself incredibly fortunate not to have contracted the disease during a period when he was extremely reckless about unprotected sex.

Elton was a vocal supporter of people like teenager Ryan White, who contracted and eventually died from AIDS and who was the victim of considerable prejudice. His Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research and HIV/AIDS research and education.

It would take an entire blog post just to list Elton John’s myriad honors and awards. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998. He is currently the Queen’s “go-to guy” for important royal events, including Princess Di’s funeral in 1997 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012.

Here are a few more of Elton John’s honors and awards:
He has received six Grammy Awards, five Brit Awards … an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award, a Disney Legend award, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.

At age 70, Elton John continues to perform today. He is one of the most successful pop stars of all time. Rock on, Mr. Rocket Man!

Kate Bush, Rocket Man:

Kate Bush is a British singer-songwriter, producer and actress. She has a fascinating history, in that she is considered one of the greatest female musicians in the United Kingdom, whereas she is relatively unknown in the U.S.

Below is a photo of Kate Bush addressing her fans at the Kate Bush Convention in 1980.

Kate Bush was something of a child prodigy. She was born in 1958, and while she was attending a Catholic school in a London suburb, her parents produced a demo tape containing about 50 of her songs. The tape was circulated to several record companies.

This effort was initially a failure. However, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour was sufficiently impressed by the material that he underwrote professional recordings of several of these songs. The result was that the EMI group put the 16-year-old Ms. Bush on retainer.

In 1978, Ms. Bush released her first album. One of the songs from that album, Wuthering Heights, reached #1 on both the U.K. and Australian pop charts, and established her as an emerging star.

Over the next few years, Kate Bush released a number of albums that followed a pattern. Her records were generally best-sellers in the U.K., and she won a number of prestigious British awards for her work. However, she had very little commercial success in the U.S. and her records failed to make a dent in the American market.

Bush’s work showed much versatility and intellectual depth. For example, some of her songs refer to novels by authors such as Emily Bronte, James Joyce and Henry James.

Here is Kate Bush in a live performance of Rocket Man.

This is a performance from Dec. 1991 on the BBC TV program Wogan, with host Terry Wogan. This song was Kate Bush’s contribution to the Elton John tribute album Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

I greatly enjoy this cover. The tune is performed with a reggae beat, with a contribution from an ocarina. Kate Bush’s voice is often soft and muted, giving the appearance of fragility. In this respect she reminds me of Stevie Nicks.

Kate Bush’s cover of Rocket Man reached #12 on the British pop charts but did not chart in the U.S. In 2007, this song was named “Greatest Cover of All Time” in a poll by the British paper The Observer. I would guess that relatively few Americans have ever heard Ms. Bush, or are familiar with her cover of Rocket Man.

To give you an idea of Kate Bush’s stature in the British music scene, in 2014
she became the first female performer to have eight albums in the Official UK Top 40 Albums Chart simultaneously, putting her at number three for simultaneous UK Top 40 albums (behind Elvis Presley with 12 albums in 1977, and The Beatles in 2009 with 11 albums.

By contrast, Kate Bush has had only one single make the top 40 in the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. And while Ms. Bush’s “greatest hits” compilation, the 1986 album The Whole Story, reached #1 on the U.K. album listings, it only got to #86 on the U.S. album charts.

One explanation for the fact that Kate Bush is not widely known in America is that she has never toured in the U.S. She made only one appearance on U.S. TV, on Saturday Night Live in 1979.

In fact, Kate Bush has rarely toured at all, even in Britain. She embarked on a tour in 1979, and in 2014 she gave a series of performances at London’s Hammersmith Hall.

Apart from these tours, Ms. Bush has rarely performed live. Various reasons have been offered for her very infrequent live appearances, including
her reputed need to be in total control of the final product, which is incompatible with live stage performance; a rumour of a crippling fear of flying; and the suggestion that the death of [her lighting engineer] Bill Duffield severely affected her.

Despite the dearth of live appearances, Kate Bush has had a long and distinguished career in the U.K. She is the only female artist in Britain to have had albums at the top of the U.K. charts in five successive decades.

At various times, she has collaborated with a number of outstanding musicians, including Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel and Prince.

Kate Bush has also been involved in several films and video projects. In 1993, she directed and starred in a short film The Line, The Cross and The Curve. This was based on her album The Red Shoes, which itself reprised the classic movie.

In 1990, Ms. Bush starred in a film called Les Dogs that was aired on BBC television. She has also written a number of songs that were incorporated into movie soundtracks.

Ms. Bush was named a Commander in the Order of the British Empire in 2003. So, we salute Ms. Bush by saying “there is nothing like a Dame.”

William Shatner, Rocket Man:

William Shatner is a Canadian actor born to a family whose grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Europe who settled in Montreal. Shatner graduated from McGill University where he became interested in the theatre.

Below is a photo of a young William Shatner.

According to his Wikipedia bio
Trained as a classical Shakespearean actor, Shatner began performing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, beginning in 1954. He played a range of roles at the Stratford Festival in productions that included … Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex , Shakespeare’s Henry V, and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great … [Tyrone] Guthrie had called the young Shatner the Stratford Festival’s most promising actor, and he was seen as a peer to contemporaries like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Shatner was not as successful as the others, however, and during the 1960s he “became a working actor who showed up on time, knew his lines, worked cheap and always answered his phone.”

Shatner’s big break came in 1966 when he was cast as Captain Kirk in the TV series Star Trek. At the time, the show was only modestly successful and it was cancelled by NBC in 1969. However, the show has since become a cult classic. Its attention to the different values that might be espoused by alien civilizations captured the imagination of millions.

Star Trek’s cancellation in 1969 marked a low period in Shatner’s career.
Shatner experienced difficulty in finding work in the early 1970s having been somewhat typecast from his role as Kirk. With very little money and few acting prospects, Shatner lost his home and lived in a truck bed camper in the San Fernando Valley until small roles turned into higher-paying jobs.

Shatner refers to this part of his life as “that period”, a humbling time during which he would take any odd job, including small party appearances, to support his family.

Things were not helped when Shatner’s wife divorced him at about the same time as the cancellation of his TV show. However, Shatner eventually rebounded, and he became a pop culture icon as Star Trek’s popularity soared in syndicated re-runs of the show.

Shatner subsequently reprised his role as Capt. Kirk in six Star Trek motion pictures. He has since landed starring roles and acting awards in the TV series T.J. Hooker, The Practice and Boston Legal.

In 1968, while Shatner’s Capt. Kirk character was still on network television, he released a spoken-word concept album The Transformed Man. Roughly half of the cuts utilized Shatner’s classical training and reproduced Shakespearean dialogue from characters such as Hamlet and Romeo. The classical theatre pieces were juxtaposed with spoken lyrics from popular tunes such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Mr. Tambourine Man.

The Transformed Man appeared to be an entirely serious enterprise, an effort to give a serious reading to pop tunes by intellectual lyricists like John Lennon and Bob Dylan. However, the popular response was scathing. Critics pointed to Shatner’s spoken-word monologues as examples of pompous over-acting.

Instead of writing off this effort as a failed experiment, Shatner doubled down on his “spoken-word” genre. In 1978, he appeared at the Saturn Awards banquet, for the year’s best science fiction movies. After being introduced by Bernie Taupin, Shatner gave a dramatic recital of Taupin’s lyrics to Rocket Man.

Here’s the video clip of Shatner’s performance.

William Shatner’s “spoken-word” version of Rocket Man made an extraordinary impact; I can only describe it as unforgettable. Initially, Shatner appears sitting on a stool, taking drags from a cigarette. An orchestra plays the melody in the background, while Shatner recites the lyrics.

Shatner over-emphasizes the line “I’m gonna be high as a kite by then,” lest anyone miss the drug allusions in that phrase. Later, using “Chroma Key” video technology, we see three different versions of Shatner. They are intended to represent three different facets of the Rocket Man’s personality. So we get the cynical hipster smoking a cigarette; a second Shatner exhibiting concern and bewilderment; and a third “swinger” persona.

One has to admit, this is one of the great moments on live television. It has been relentlessly spoofed, presumably because of Shatner’s over-the-top reading. I believe this is somewhat unfair. Whether or not one is impressed by the piece, Shatner made a serious attempt to capture the essence of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin tune.

But Shatner’s performance seems to invite parody. Among other efforts, it has been lampooned by The Simpsons and by comedian Chris Elliot on Late Night with David Letterman.

Here we will show Seth McFarlane’s take-off on Shatner’s version of Rocket Man. In an episode of the TV show Family Guy, baby Stewie Griffin reprises this song, with the voice provided by McFarlane himself.

This is virtually a word-for-word re-creation of Shatner’s performance, even including three different incarnations of Stewie.

Although William Shatner became famous for his spoken-word pieces, he also became a laughing-stock. Shatner could have taken this as a slap in the face; however, he took the criticism in stride, and showed an endearing capacity to laugh at himself.

William Shatner has profited handsomely from his willingness to take a joke. He poked fun at his Capt. Kirk role in appearances on Saturday Night Live and subsequent spoofs in movies like Airplane II and National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1.

Shatner’s character Denny Crane on The Practice and later reprised on Boston Legal was sufficiently self-referential that it is sometimes hard to separate the TV character from the Shatner send-up. For several years now Shatner has been starring (and parodying himself) as the spokesman for Priceline.com.

William Shatner has shown that you can make a ton of money if you have the ability to laugh at yourself. Our hope for Mr. Shatner is that he “live long and prosper.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Rocket Man (song)
Wikipedia, Elton John
The Guardian, Sept. 15, 2013: “Elton John: The G2 Interview”
Wikipedia, Kate Bush
Wikipedia, William Shatner

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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