Space Oddity was Bowie’s first big hit in 1969.
The following year, I was captivated by a space-themed song that was getting frequent spins on Top 40 radio, a song titled “Rocket Man.”
No, it wasn’t the Elton John/Bernie Taupin hit song of the same name. That one came out in 1972.
This mournful song was performed by a group called Pearls Before Swine.
My father was a rocket man
He often went to Jupiter or Mercury, to Venus or to Mars
My mother and I would watch the sky
And wonder if a falling star
Was a ship becoming ashes with a rocket man inside
My mother and I
Never went out
Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out
Or to escape the pain
We only went out when it rained
Written by Tom Rapp, the song appeared on "The Use of Ashes" album, and was reportedly penned the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. In fact Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime writing partner and lyricist, said it was Rapp’s song that inspired his.
According to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post, Bernie Taupin was asked in a Billboard magazine interview about whether he and John had stolen “Rocket Man” from David Bowie. Taupin denied that, saying, “We stole it from Tom Rapp and a band called Pearls Before Swine.”
They’re actually much different songs, even if the ideas are similar, and you can’t copyright an idea.
Both songs speak to the lonliness of space travel and have sad overtones. Taupin’s lyric mentions how much the astronaught misses his family, while Rapp’s tune is from the point of view of the family members who miss the dad who never returned from his travels.
The downbeat tone of both songs is in contrast the successes the space program was enjoying during those years. So it this case, art wasn’t exactly immitating life.