Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
The Apollo space program was still in progress in 1972; Apollo 16 launched on April 16th of that year. Two days earlier, Elton John released “Rocket Man,” a look at a world where the occupation of astronaut came not with built-in heroism, but with the drudgery of any job, where going back to the old grind held more heavy sighs than shouts of triumph. That may have been the message, but it was easy to miss behind the ascending slide guitar and the soaring sing-along chorus, as top ten charts worldwide went on to prove.
“Rocket Man” is strong enough that covers of it are as much touchstones as the original; Kate Bush brought her reggae version into the charts, and William Shatner’s spoken word version is now legendary. It’s always going to be interesting to hear what the next cover artist has done to it. These five examples have taken five intriguing paths on the way to making the song their own.
Samuel James – Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
Samuel James is a Maine man who can play guitar and sing the blues like nobody else in the state and damn few in the rest of the world. He does wonders with his acoustic rendition of “Rocket Man,” turning it into an easy conversation accompanied by playing that’s impossible not to nod along to. Prepare yourself for a treat here.
My Morning Jacket – Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
My Morning Jacket was just getting started when they recorded “Rocket Man” in 1999 for a label promo disc. It’s since appeared on Chapter I The Sandman Cometh: Early Recordings, an MMJ odds ‘n’ sods comp, and on the first volume of the Californiacation soundtrack series. And why shouldn’t Jim James & company want to make sure it doesn’t slip between the cracks? With results like this, it needs to echo even longer than James’ vocals do.
Naked Eyes – Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
Naked Eyes got twice as many hits out of their synth-pop sound as any one-hit-wonder ever did, but after “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me” and “Promises, Promises,” the puddle dried up. In 2007, eight years after the death of keyboardist Rob Fisher, vocalist Pete Byrne revived the band name for the album Fumbling with the Covers, a collection of cover songs light as a bed sheet. He makes “Rocket Man” a bedroom ballad, designed to be an excellent soundtrack for observing the stars through a skylight with the one you love.
Gerald Collier – Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
Gerald Collier’s cover of “Rocket Man” comes from another B-sides and outtakes collection, 2007’s How Can There Be Another Day?. Here, the song gets the alt-country treatment; if this version ever does get played by astronauts in orbit, I hope that crew has a few ice-cold brews to accompany them around the planet – both they and the song deserve them.
Fastbacks – Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
One more clearing-out-the-closet collection, the Fastbacks’ Truth, Corrosion and Sour Bisquits from 2004 featured a cover of “Rocket Man” that first appeared on one of Pravda Records’ K-Tel tribute albums, 20 More Explosive Fantastic Rockin’ Mega Smash Hit Explosions!. Unlike a number of other artists on that collection of ’70s pop cheese (not a judgement), they treat John’s version as near-scripture, with only a half-strangled guitar at the end serving to push the envelope further into the stratosphere.
Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids, but Amazon’s the kind of place to buy the original “Rocket Man.”