Space exploration was big in 1972; the song came out around the time of the Apollo 16 mission, which sent men to the moon for the fifth time.
The inspiration for Bernie Taupin's lyrics, however, was the short story The Rocket Man, written by Ray Bradbury. The sci-fi author's tale is told from the perspective of a child, whose astronaut father has mixed feelings at leaving his family in order to do his job. It was published as part of the anthology The Illustrated Man in 1951.
Bradbury's story was the basis for another song called "Rocket Man," which was released by the folk group Pearls Before Swine (fronted by Tom Rapp) in 1970. Taupin says that this gave him the idea for his own "Rocket Man" ("It's common knowledge that songwriters are great thieves, and this is a perfect example," he says). In the Pearls Before Swine song, a child can no longer look at the stars after his astronaut father perishes in space.
This was produced by Gus Dudgeon, who worked with David Bowie on his 1969 song "Space Oddity
." Both songs have similar subject matter, and lots of people accused Elton of ripping off Bowie, something both Elton and Bernie Taupin deny.
The opening lyrics came to Bernie Taupin while he was driving near his parents' house in Lincolnshire, England. Taupin has said that he has to write his ideas down as soon as they show up in his head, or they could disappear, so he drove though some back roads as fast as he could to get to the house where he could write down his thought: "She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Zero hour, 9 a.m., and I'm gonna be high as a kite by then."
From there he came up with the song about a man who is sent to live in space as part of a scientific experiment.
The song can be interpreted as a symbol of how rock stars are isolated from their friends, family and from the real world by those with power in the music industry. Some lyric analysis as part of the rock star isolation theory:
"I'm burning out his fuse up here alone" - Rocketing through space on stage.
"Higher than a kite" - Feeling outside the box called normal.
"Mars" - "The place he is when he's high; don't need to be raising children when you're an addict. It's a "cold" place, being an addict and larger than life when you want to be "Normal" and a "Rocketman" at the same time.
The most commonly misheard lyric in this song is "Rocket Man, burning out his fuse up here alone." This was the centerpiece of a 2011 commercial for the Volkswagen Passat, where folks came up with all kinds of interpretations of the last few words: telephone, cheap cologne, motor home, provolone. A couple in a Passat can correctly interpret the words thanks to the car's premium sound system, and all is well. This wasn't the first time the song was used in a commercial; it was also featured in ads for AT&T.
Elton John named his record company Rocket Records after this song. He started the company in 1973; it was the label that released Neil Sedaka's comeback songs.
There was another song called "Rocket Man" that Bernie and Elton knew about when they wrote this. It was released by a group called Pearls Before Swine and came out in 1970.
When Elton played the Soviet Union in 1979, this was listed on the program as "Cosmonaut."
This was Elton's biggest hit to that point, outcharting his first Top-10 entry, "Your Song
." It had a huge impact on his psyche, as it gave him the confidence to know that he could sustain his career in music.
Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens' nickname was "The Rocket," which led to lots of highlight videos of him pitching in slow motion with this song playing in the background. He earned the nickname because of his outstanding fastball, but later came under scrutiny when the league learned that his rocket fuel may have been steroids. Clemens denied the allegations and was never convicted of steroid use.
Kate Bush covered this in 1991 for an Elton John tribute album called Two Rooms (a reference to John and Taupin writing separately). Her version hit #12 in the UK.
William Shatner performed a spoken-word version of this song at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards, for which he was the host. Bernie Taupin did the introduction. (thanks, John - Lancaster, CA)
At a show in Anaheim, California on August 22, 1998, Jim Carrey joined Elton for a duet of this song. Carey gave a real performance before sitting at the piano and bashing his head into the keys. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
On an episode of the television show Family Guy, Stewie does a spoken version of this song. (thanks, Jesse - Chicago, IL)