Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ under the microscope – why is it so good?

4 April 2019, 12:05

By Sofia Rizzi

We’ve picked apart one of Elton John’s most famous songs, and tried to work out what makes it so special (hint: it’s a lot to do with a very juicy pedal steel guitar slide).

Before the new Elton John film Rocketman hits the cinemas next month, we’re taking a dive into the original Elton-and-Bernie classic, ‘Rocket Man’.

Let’s start from the beginning

0:03 – With no introduction to the song, we jump straight into the verse. It's just Elton's vocals and a piano accompaniment at this point, so it feels personal and intimate. The vocal line is simple and similar to normal dialogue – think an operatic tenor's recitative section before he launches into his glorious aria.

0:17 – Notice how the melody develops on the words 'And I'm gonna be high as a kite'. Elton is word painting here; the rise in pitch reflects the astronaut's soar up to space.

High as a kite
Picture: IMSLP

0:30 – The bass guitar enters here on the words ‘I miss the earth so much’ and we get a whole new dimension of sound, as it opens the song up from an acoustic piano monologue to a much bigger picture. The bass also serves a functional purpose – the vocal line is often syncopated and stresses the off-beats, and the solid bass gives us a continuous feel of 4/4 time.

0:45 – Enter the hi-hat. It's like the tick of a countdown clock. Something is definitely building up here, but we're not exactly sure where it's going yet.

0:52 – Ascending bass line... double time hi-hat... what's going on?

0:57 – Wait for it, WAIT FOR IT...

0:59 – CHORUS DROPS.

via GIPHY

0:59 – The chorus hits and we move into B flat major (the relative major key of G minor). There are now backing ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aah’s’, a drum kit, and a strumming pedal steel guitar that gives a country-style feel to the music.

1:13 – Can we take a moment to appreciate that pedal steel guitar slide? If you could hear zero gravity, it would sound just like this. Come on Elton, you're just too cool.

1:55 – The second verse begins and everything drops out except for Elton and his trusty piano. It's suddenly stripped back and the change in timbre really makes us focus on the lyrics.

1:59 – But it isn't a duplicate of the first verse – the bass guitar is still there to add a little extra to the mix.

2:06 – What is that noise? It sounds like a weird wind sound effect, and it's making us a little uneasy.

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2:16 – That ascending bass line is back, and we're all ready for the chorus to come in...

2:23 – ... but it's just Elton teasing us. However, there is a cool new synth melody added here, based on bare-sounding open fifths and octaves.

2:44 – OK, now we're getting to the chorus. The hi-hat never lies.

2:50 – *applause for guitar slide*

via GIPHY

3:20 – There's so much going on here – Elton's vocals, the ‘ooh's’ and ‘aah's’, percussion, strumming guitar, bass guitar keeping us grounded.

3:46 – ‘And I think it's going to be a long, long time’ is repeated over and over, slowly fading away. It sounds like the music is getting further away from us, and it really paints the picture of an isolated Rocket Man singing a million miles away. And with that fade, the song ends.

Are we happy, are we sad? Are we supposed to know how we feel? Excuse us as we listen to the song on repeat to work it out.