My Pop Life #183 : Rocket Man – Elton John

Rocket Man   –   Elton John

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine AM
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone


You’re not supposed to post the lyrics of a song in their entirety on the internet because copyright but if that’s the case why are there all those lyrics sites, all with the same mistake ?  As I gently age, with spurts of buckling and recovery, I find my mind grows dim, for things seem more mysterious to me now than they were forty five years ago when I was fourteen years old and grooving to Elton John in my bedroom, in particular this classic and the B-side which was, brilliantly enough, two songs :  Goodbye, and Holiday Inn.  Swoon.  The magic year of 1971, when my ears suddenly opened further, deeper, stronger and every tune held different mysterious beauty, had just passed and now we were in the spring of 1972 and I was on a musical jam roll.

We were in Hailsham.  I had a record player in my bedroom.  It was a luxury, like the view over the fields, and the broom-handle thumps on the kitchen ceiling reminded me of this privilege from time to time.  Rocket Man of course was a masterpiece, a song so perfect that I couldn’t stop burbling about it to my Nan, up visiting from Portsmouth, playing it to her downstairs on the record player while she looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.  She’d looked at me before like that, an old-fashioned look perhaps it’s called, but this time I noticed and felt my power.  I was fourteen after all, bursting out all over the place.

“Listen to this bit Nan –

‘ and all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week…’

and of course by then I had done two and a half years of fucking science at school and found it baffling, like the smoke signal from the Vatican.  Talk about mysterious.  Perhaps it was the teachers, but perhaps MORE it was me.  Science ?  Nah.

Not for me.  Not my bag.  Not clever enough to understand it and perhaps it was never explained to me properly.  It is the basis of our civilisation after all – engineers and builders, along with medicine and war.    And in the song, when he sings all this science I don’t understand, the music goes all weird and synthesised and jagged suddenly with a staccato chord on the piano to punctuate the oddness.  Like science that you don’t understand, I explained to my Nan.  She looked at me.

Now I understand that it’s the producer’s job to do that sort of thing.  Like the two lines before that :

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,

in fact it’s cold as hell” 

when the song empties out (like Mars, he added unnecessarily) and it’s just Elton and the piano – no drums  – then one slide guitar note on cold as hell to emphasise the emptiness.  It’s completely brilliant, very simple, like brushstrokes on canvas, the effect is concise and emotional.  Modern art is thus made.  And Gus Dudgeon, who produced this song was a genius in the studio, whatever he touched turned to gold around this time : Osibisa’s ‘Woyaya‘, John Kongos’  Tokoloshe Man, Audience’s House On The Hill, much of the Bonzos output, but he was known best for his work with Elton John.

And on the B-side was this stunning song Goodbye which haunted me then and still haunts me now.   Elton of course is a genius, his singing voice is quite superb and his music is exquisite, especially in the 1970s.   I’ve always loved piano pop more than any other kind of music, so Elton is on the high end of a list which includes Fats Domino, Ben Folds, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Marvin Gaye, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Dr John, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Brian Wilson, Fats Waller, Little Richard, Randy Newman, Georgie Fame, Alan Price, Harry Nillsson, Rufus Wainwright and so on and so forth.  But it’s the lyrics on this one folks.  I’m not a big on lyrics kind of guy.  Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  I’m a music kind of guy.  Chord changes and harmonies.  Some people are both, I know.  Maybe I am both, but I’m mainly musical, not lyrical.

But Bernie Taupin though.  What a lyricist.  Check this –

And if you want a drink, just squeeze my hand and wine will flow into my land and feed my lambs

He’s gone all William Blake there.  He’s young, they both are, they’re trying stuff. What’s he on about ?  Post-nuclear holocaust ?  Jesus Christ on the cross ?

And now it’s all over the birds can nest again

But by the end of the song, a mere one minute 40 seconds after it started, Elton’s singing I’ll Waste Away over and over again.  Meaning ?  Who knows ?  Allow it to be mysterious.  Not everything is to be named numbered and explained. Categorized. Collected.  Scored.  Understood. Filed, Forgotten.  I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme.

Sorry I took your time.

The innate drama of the lyrics appealed to me greatly as a 14-year old glam-rock softy.  Sometime I wish I was back in 1972 with my poor Mum banging around the house either with or without her 2nd husband John Daignault, listening to records up in my bedroom. (My and Paul’s bedroom I should say.  We would turn out the light and talk for about an hour every night, both lying down talking at the ceiling.  About everything.  Precious moments.  Healing hours.)  We’d play football outside, watch TinTin and Blue Peter, Crackerjack and Morecambe and Wise.  Top of The Pops.  Match of the Day.  The Big Match on Sundays with Brian Moore.  Chart countdown  with Alan Freeman at 4pm.  Took the bus to Polegate every morning, then the train to Lewes for school.  No important exams.  Just lessons, football, girls, friends. Simple.

Oh well.

Rocket Man though jeez what a song.  It’s the twin brother of Space Oddity of course with the lead astronaut figure singing the song, both songs about loneliness in the end and space, too much space.   Both songs produced by Gus Dudgeon, a few years apart .  Fantastic melody, and fade out :
And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
Many many years later – let’s say 2009 when I was living off Mulholland Drive with my brer Eamonn Walker, a stupid big view of Warner Brothers, Universal and Studio City and the San Fernando Valley (The Valley) stretching down to the ocean beyond.  A local member of the wide Beach Boys family circle aka Adam Marsland announced that he was hosting an Elton John night on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice Beach with his band.  Did anyone want to sing a song?I jumped down his throat and picked Rocket Man and was lucky enough to get the nod.  I sang it at home a couple of times then drove down there.  No rehearsal as I recall or maybe there was a run-through?  The rather fantastic Evie Sands was in the band on guitar.    Other mates turned up : Stevie Kalinich (see My Pop Life 169), Alan Boyd,  Tracy Landecker and some people I recognised a bit.  I delivered the song as straight as I could, just down the line, no interpretation, as Elton as possible.  People clapped.  It was an honour.
Then in 2005 Jenny had been performing in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in the West End and on tour with Sharon Osbourne & Lisa Riley.  She had a laugh with them, and Sharon liked her and thus we got invited to the Osbourne’s Christmas Party that year, somewhere behind Harrods.  Ozzie was shuffling around being rude to people and at one point I passed Elton John on the staircase.   I was so utterly nervous/selfconscious and tongue-tied that I completely ignored him, and as I walked up I could hear him going “Well, Really !” as if he was used to people going ahhhh I love you.  Which is pretty much what I should have done. <sigh>  Later on, upstairs I hooked up with David Walliams again (see My Pop Life #7) after many years, but never got to speak with Elton John.  My loss.  Jenny had met him earlier that evening before I arrived and had a nice chat…
Elton at Hove Cricket Ground
We saw him live a couple of times – Wembley in the 90s and Hove Cricket Ground in the noughties.  Brilliant both times.  The real deal.  Such a roster of great great songs.  He wheels them out time after time, knowing that we want to hear Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Bennie & The Jets.  I often think about success and what it means.  For an actor it means no privacy in public, but plenty of choices in work, new stuff all the time.  For a musician there is also no privacy but the work is essentially playing those 20 songs every night, with a few new ones.  When we saw Elton in Hove after about an hour he announced that he was playing a handful of new songs and that to pre-empt the inevitable rush for the toilets he actually suggested that we could all get up and go to the toilet or get a drink – and literally hundreds of people did just that.  “Sorry” said Elton, “We have to play some new stuff otherwise we’d all go completely mad“.   He had two of The Family Stone (as in Sly & The) as his backing singers – Lisa and Rose Stone.  They covered the high notes on the rearranged hits.  It was a fantastic show.
Late September 2012 a small crew – me, Jono Smith (who shot Sus) and Chris Williams with Diane Frangi on stills are shooting a promo for my documentary idea ‘Unsung Heroes’ about the session musicians of the UK Hit Factory 1963 – 1975, inspired by the film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  Probably emotionally echoing my own feelings as a character actor, out of the limelight, yet integral to the production I felt like I wanted to lift some of these musicians into a visible place, if only for 90 minutes.  One of the characters I’d lined up was Ray Cooper, legendary percussionist with Elton and others, and one of the producers on Withnail & I at Handmade Films. Spoken to Ray on the phone about it – he was out of the country for the promo dates.  Anyway.  By the time we’d shot five or six days worth of stuff the film was called Red Light Fever, after the nerves which afflicted those musicians who couldn’t take the stress of studio work, being handed sheet music and told to play a solo over bar 36 and so on.  None of the living legends of the studio I interviewed – drummer Clem Cattini, bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Chris Spedding, guitarist Alan Parker, singer and arranger Barbara Moore – suffered from Red Light Fever, but it was still a good title.  I wanted to get these interviews before they all died – James Jamerson the Motown bass player is not in the Motown film for example.
Barbara Moore in 2012
Barbara Moore lives in Bognor Regis, just down the road from us in Brighton and we ended up filming her twice because the fellas fell in love with her.  She’ll appear in another post but for now, the story she tells me that first afternoon in her beautiful conservatory is of meeting Elton John in Olympic Studios in Barnes in the late 1960s.  She’d walked past an open door and heard this beautiful piano and vocal coming out – and there was this scruffy fella playing something.  She popped her head in the door and said “That sounds nice” or something similar.  Reg said thanks (for it was he) and said that he was going in to try and sell some of his songs to a producer and get a deal.  “Good luck”  she said. At lunchtime that day in the local pub she asked him how it had gone – he wasn’t too confident, but she then asked if he could join her choir for the afternoon because she was a voice short, someone had let her down.  He said OK, because that’s how he was earning money in those days.
 It was probably two years later that her phone rang.  “Is this Barbara?” said the voice.  “I need some help with a song, would you come down to the studio tomorrow?”   She agreed, and then arranged and led the choir on Border Song which appeared on Elton John’s 2nd LP, entitled simply ‘Elton John‘.  A standout track which Aretha Franklin covered – adding (Holy Moses) to the title – to greater success than the original, although it is now seen as an Elton classic.  The backing singers were Madeline Bell, Tony Burrows and Roger Cook, all of whom were slated to be interviewed for Red Light Fever  – Jenny and I met Madeline Bell for lunch the following Christmas in London (she lives in Spain).  She had been co-lead singer with Roger Cook of Blue Mink, a band created by session musicians including Alan PArker and Herbie Flowers ! with hit singles – Melting Pot, Banner Man, Good Morning Freedom.  Roger Cook was the songwriter behind I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing and many others – some of which Tony Burrows sang on – the session voice of Edison Lighthouse, White Plains, The Pipkins, The Flowerpot Men and The Ivy League and who infamously got banned from Top Of The Pops for appearing three times in one show with three different bands.  “People will think it’s a fix” said the BBC.  But he was the singer on all three songs!  As you can see already, it was a very tight, very small world, and a film exploring it all would be such fun.
Addison Cresswell
What eventually happened after editing the footage forever on my laptop was that Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison Cresswell took my five minute promo, (paid for by Latest TV, a new venture in Brighton run by Bill Smith) and made various people in TV Land watch it.  Addison I knew through Luke and we’d met a number of times, in pubs, at Luke & Jo’s Boxing Day parties, New Year’s Eve parties and he’d invited me to his office one day for a meeting to discuss this doc.  Addison had immense power in UK TV world because he managed all of the main comedians in the UK, including Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Michael McIntyre, Jonathan Ross and Kevin Bridges and had the ear of all the producers.  His style was all swagger and front, larger than life, a Rocket Man indeed and he was very good at his job.  Only BBC4 came back with an offer of £10k, all in for the show once it was complete – they’d buy it, but they wouldn’t fund it.  I couldn’t possibly make it for no money, so we waited for other responses over Christmas 2013, still planning and lining up interviews such as Madeline Bell and Ray Cooper.   Then Addison died at home of a heart attack on December 23rd, a death which shocked me to my bones, causing devastation to his family and shock throughout Brighton, his friends and colleagues, his clients and the TV industry as a whole.  He was 53 years old.   So so sad.  The Boxing Day social was cancelled and a giant hole filled the landscape where Addison had stood.  He was an extremely warm and generous man underneath his bark and laddish flex.  Something that perhaps I appreciate having had a few laddish years myself in my youth.  Addison’s love of his brother Luke, my friend, was also visible and echoed my own feelings for Paul and was the reason why he gave me so much of his time.  He is hugely missed.

And now that it’s all over
The birds can nest again
I’ll only snow when the sun comes out
I’ll shine only when it starts to rain

And if you want a drink
Just squeeze my hand
And wine will flow into the land
And feed my lambs

For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I’ll be your silver spoon

I’m sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme
Just turn back a page
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away

B-side : Goodbye

My Pop Life #175 : One Better Day – Madness

One Better Day   –   Madness

Further down, a photo booth, a million plastic bags
And an old woman filling out a million baggage tags
But when she gets thrown out, three bags at a time
She spies the old chap in the road to share her bags with
She has bags of time
Surrounded by his past, on a short white line
He sits while cars pass either side, takes his time
Trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear him say
Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes

Was there ever a more disappointing year for pop music than 1984?  Looking back at the album releases and the top singles I am staggered by the unifying theme – great artists releasing substandard material, and very few inspirational youngsters filling the huge gap. Exception and the big album of the year was Purple Rain by Prince, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood dominated the UK radio and singles charts but I bought very little current music in 1984.  I was filling gaps, discovering genres, crate-digging, conducting archeological excavations and sometimes realising that people I’d scorned as a teenager were actually pretty good.  The albums I did buy from 1984, in 1984 :

Goodbye Cruel World  –  Elvis Costello & The Attractions

The Pearl  –  Harold Budd & Brian Eno

Mister Heartbreak  –  Laurie Anderson

Diamond Life  –  Sade

Best of ‘The Poet’ Trilogy  –  Bobby Womack

Keep Moving  –  Madness

Not as many as usual.  Later I would buy Prince, The Bangles, Luther Vandross, Dr John, Franco & TPOK Jazz, Van Dyke Parks, Gilberto Gil, The Judds, Prefab Sprout, Youssou N’Dour, The Style Council, Steve Reich, Run DMC and Pat Metheny, but even with those additions I think you can see how thin on the ground 1984 was musically.  Springsteen made Born In The USA the title track of which became a republican anthem (he didn’t sing it live this year 2016).  Perhaps the date was casting shade.  1984.  Throughout my life we’d all lived under the spectre of George Orwell‘s chilling and prescient novel.   That collection of numbers, that date had loomed like the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey – the other magical sentient The Future.  It always presaged doom, totalitarianism, a jackboot stamping on a human face into infinity.  Now we were here and…well, life went on, like it does.  Like it did in 2001.  And like it will next year.

The big singles were Relax, Two Tribes, The Power Of Love, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, the others were What’s Love Got To Do With It, I Feel For You, Ghostbusters, Any Love, It’s A Miracle, Careless Whisper, Smalltown Boy, Solid, Like A Virgin, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Hello, Take A Look At Me Now, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Do They Know It’s Christmas.

I liked very little of it.  Disappointing : Bowie with Blue Jean, Stevie Wonder (sigh), Elvis Costello’s worst LP to date, ditto McCartney, ditto Paul Weller.

And then Haircut 100 split up. ( Joke. )

And then Jerry Dammers and Special AKA released Free Nelson Mandela. (Not Joke)

Flying the flag for musical growth, and one step beyond their previous work The Rise and Fall (1982) was the Madness LP Keep Moving, in particular the song One Better Day, which haunts me even now and can move me to tears.  I’d loved the band since their first single The Prince,  multi-cultural British ska birthed in Camden Town via Jamaica. In those early days their skinhead fans and their whiteness made me feel a little uncomfortable at some of the gigs, although the majority of fans were not skins.  Then, aware of this stain on their pop life, the Madness videos started to include black people and the band rose above it all – for example Embarrassment is about a girl who’s going to have a baby with her black boyfriend.  The other groups who’d come up on the ska-revival Two-Tone wave The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter were all multi-racial anyway, but by 1984 they’d all split up.  Madness were on Stiff Records and this was their last LP with the maverick punk label.  It was their finest record to date – I’d bought them all, and they’d just got better and better.  So had The Undertones, but they’d stopped, so had The Jam and they’d split, so had Elvis Costello and he’d gone a bit over-produced, his songs weren’t to his impossibly high standard.   I’d also bought the collected videos of Madness which we watched endlessly, because they were so full of joy and nuttiness. I’m not sure there are a better collection of videos in pop history.  They made me want to be in the band.  Playing the saxophone.  Doing slightly robotic dancing.  Having a laugh with a gang.  

I’ve always wanted to be in a gang, but never really surrendered to it.  I don’t surrender very easily.  I’ve been in some gangs, but always felt like an outsider in there.  Either a council-estate kid in a middle class environment as a teenager, or an educated kid in a working-class environment.  Or an actor in a football team.  Or an actor in a band.  Or just a weirdo who doesn’t fit in enough.  Must be a choice.  I resist surrender.  Because I do not seek oblivion I will never be an alcoholic or a junkie.  I’m scared of oblivion, of disappearing.  Most of the music I like is controlled.  It’s not messy, it’s not people losing control.  It’s beautiful, melodic, harmonic, sweet.  But I wanted to be in Madness so much.  They influenced the band I was in, Birds Of Tin, but not enough. See My Pop Life #149.

Mike Barson was the musical genius on the piano, but his influence infused every musician, from bass player Mark Bedford (who later guested on Robert Wyatt’s cover of Costello’s Shipbuilding) to gimmick side monkey Chas Smash who went from rude boy dancer to trumpet player, from Chris Foreman on guitar and songwriting to Lee Thompson on saxophone (who I wished I was), from Woody on the kit to Suggs on the lead vocals.  They were tight, musical, lyrically interesting and wonderfully arranged pop songs,  vignettes of British life from Baggy Trousers to Embarrassment, My Girl to House Of Fun. They were probably my favourite band in the early 80s – them and Costello and Talking Heads.

Sloane Square, Chelsea

But if 1984 was a meagre year musically for me,  theatrically it was promising.   Armed with a law degree 😉 – I’d been to Edinburgh three times, got my Equity Card,  played the Donmar in Steven Berkoff’s WEST.    Then in early 84 I’d worked at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with Danny Boyle (directing an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown).   It was an extraordinary piece of work which ran for all of two and half weeks as I recall.  Worthy of a post of its own.   Then in the late summer the 3rd director in the building a brilliant young Simon Curtis invited me to be part of his first production which was to be a play for Joint Stock Theatre Company called Deadlines.  I was thrilled, and it turned out to be one of my most satisfying and rewarding theatrical adventures.  Simon was extremely encouraging, open, intelligent and funny.  I ended up playing six parts and getting a new agent out of it : Michael Foster.   Also cast : Kathryn Pogson, Paul Jesson, Shirin Taylor, Tricia Kelly, Paul Mooney.   Writer :  Stephen Wakelam.  Play : unwritten.

A young Simon Curtis in 1985, one year after Deadlines

Joint Stock was a unique theatre company.  Formed by Max Stafford-Clark and others in the early 1970s, it had become a collective in 1974 while they produced David Hare’s play about China ‘Fanshen’, co-directed by Max and Bill Gaskell.  This meant that every member who had ever worked for the company could attend company meetings and AGMs and vote.  In practice people deferred to Max and Caryl Churchill, both of whom were enthusiastic enough to actually attend meetings.  There was an administrator, but no Artistic Director – each big decision eg – what play shall we do next ? directed by who ? written by who ? was decided on a collective vote.  Some were already plays, but more often the show would be devised by the company.

This is now a forgotten way of life.  All of those Arts Council-funded theatre companies have gone :  7:84, Shared Experience, Joint Stock, Paines Plough.  Slashed by Thatcher’s reduction of the State.  1984 was the year of the miner’s strike, Coal Not Dole stickers, and the rise of cardboard city in Waterloo as new regulations on signing on created a new wave of homelessness, particularly of those between 16 and 20.  Suddenly there were people sleeping in shop doorways in London on The Strand.  Then there was an IRA bomb at the Tory Party conference in Brighton at The Grand Hotel.


one of the greatest band shots of all time: the cover of ‘7’ the 3rd Madness LP

Keep Moving was Mike Barson’s last album with Madness, and he left the band once they recorded a couple of videos – Michael Caine and One Better Day, which was their last for Stiff Records, and funded by the band themselves including Barson, seen playing the vibraphone, who flew in from Amsterdam for the shoot.

Arlington house, address: no fixed abode
An old man in a three-piece suit sits in the road
He stares across the water, he sees right through the lock
But on and up like outstretched hands
His mumbled words, his fumbled words, mock

Arlington House is behind Camden High Street.  It housed – and still houses among it’s more commercial premises – homeless men, and has since 1905.  It was the last of the Victorian workhouses, built by politician and philanthropist Lord Rowton in the 1890s to house London’s working poor.

Camden Lock

I used to shop for music shoes and clothes in Camden Town, whether in Dingwalls (‘The Lock’ in the lyrics) or the Record and Tape Exchange on the High St, or one of the many independent stores in that square mile of post-punk grubbiness.  Over the years I’ve been to many gigs in Camden Palace (Culture Club), The Electric Ballroom (The Vibrators) or Dingwalls (X-Ray Spex).  The Dublin Castle.   More recently at the re-opened Roundhouse or the Jazz Cafe.

When I started acting in Moving Parts Theatre Company in 1981 two of the company’s founders – Ruth MacKenzie and Rachel Feldberg – lived in Oval Road just behind Arlington House with the young director Roger Michell who would later go on to direct The Buddha Of Suburbia, Notting Hill and many other successful films.  I would see him years and years later at Michael Foster’s 50th birthday party and he hailed me “Haven’t you done well !”  I looked behind me.  No, he meant me. I smiled.  “Me?  What about you !!” I realised that seen from the outside, my journey looks good and fine, but what about the invisible thrashing through the undergrowth with a blunt machete to reach a small ledge of safety that no one ever sees ?  Eh ?!?  WHAT ABOUT THAT?

Gentrified many times Camden still retains its scruffy down-at-heel ambience, partly due to scruffy down-at-heel junkies, and partly due to people who want to look scruffy and down-at-heel.  But there have always been homeless people there – see Waterloo, see Soho, see Bayswater. And having been homeless myself for a period of time as a teenager (see My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower) I always felt moved by this song, describing a couple walking the streets of NW1.  Street people.  Nowhere to store their stuff, carrying it all around.  Nowhere to wash apart from the hostel, who close their doors at 8am.  I would be interviewing some of these people for my first play Sanctuary in 2 years’ time, using The Joint Stock Method.  And later, some of them would be invited to The Drill Hall to see the play.

The woman in the video is Betty Bright – Sugg’s wife.  Graham McPherson – Suggs – who wrote the song with Mark ‘Bedders’ Bedford – looks impossibly young in the video, but wears the kind of clothes that I used to try and find, and still do to be fair.  Checks.  Tartans. Doc Martens.  There’s a DM shop on Kentish Town Road next to Camden tube which makes an appearance in The Sun & The Rain video.  I had a pair of red patent leather DMs.  In fact I still have them.  I owe some of my so-called style to Madness Suggs chic, (some to Bryan Ferry chic, some to rock’n’roll and some to Laurel & Hardy).

The chorus is unbearably sweet, given the subject :

She’s trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear her say

‘Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes
The feeling of arriving when you’ve nothing left to lose…’