The lyricist for Elton John's classic hit, 'Rocket Man', was struck by inspiration for the song while driving down an English road in the early 1970s. The opening lyrics appeared fully formed in his mind: "She packed my bags last night pre-flight, Zero hour nine AM".
"With 'Rocket Man,' the first two lines came to me when I was driving along, and by the time I’d gotten home, I’d written the song in my head," Taupin told Rolling Stone back in 1973. "I got inside and had to rush and write it all down before I’d forgotten it."
Released as the lead single from Elton's 1972 album Honky Chateau, 'Rocket Man' reached No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 6 on the U.S. charts, arriving on the scene in a moment when the mere idea of "rocket men" had captured the popular imagination.
The first manned mission to the moon landed in July, 1969, and the last landed back on Earth in December 1972. Within that timeframe, three iconic songs about travelling the stars were released: 'Rocket Man', David Bowie's 'Space Oddity', and Harry Nilsson's 'Spaceman'. Bowie's song was the first to release, just 10 days prior to the actual moon landing, so it's been assumed that 'Space Oddity' was Taupin's inspiration for 'Rocket Man'.
"People identify it, unfortunately, with David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity'. But it was actually inspired by a story by Ray Bradbury, from his book of science fiction short stories called The Illustrated Man. In that book, there was a story called 'The Rocket Man', which was about how astronauts in the future would become sort of an everyday job. So I kind of took that idea and ran with that," explains Taupin in an interview for Elton's Youtube channel back in 2016, which you can watch below.
The musical portion, as usual, came quickly for John, who spent January 1972 at the Chateau d’Herouville in France with Taupin and the band to cut Honky Chateau. John would set up shop at a piano in the chateau's breakfast space every morning, while Taupin would work on the lyrics in his room upstairs. Later in the day, John would record with the band. The iconic pair wrote nine songs in the span of three days this way.
"We were all on the money musically and for me the music always comes first—the music can really express the inexpressible if you let it. It was a pretty easy song to write the melody to, because it’s a song about space, so it’s quite a spacious song," Elton said in 1997.
'Rocket Man', like the rest of the album, was recorded with the core of Elton's touring band at the time, the first time he'd taken them into the studio as his core group of musicians - his label had previously insisted on session players instead. Bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson were joined by versatile guitarist Davey Johnstone, who was only 20 when he played on Honky Chateau. Johnstone would later become a key member of Elton's musical team, playing more than 2,000 shows with him and becoming his musical director.