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Feud! David Bowie” v. Elton John

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume this isn’t the first time you’ve encountered something comparing Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (1969) with Elton John’s “Rocket Man (1972).” Did the one influence the other? Did Elton rip off Bowie? Was Bowie annoyed? Elton John wrote of Bowie in Me, his autobiography, that he “loved his music” but that there was “something distant and aloof about him” and that he “honestly didn’t know what the problem was, but there clearly was a problem.” Elton wrapped up this brief discussion of Bowie’s dislike for him by concluding, “in fairness, he was absolutely out of his mind on coke…”

But Bowie might have had more of a reason than “Rocket Man” to dislike Elton John. Elton’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin, admitted that “Bennie and the Jets” was at least partially inspired by Bowie. While Elton John was officially in the closet, Bowie, at least in the early 70s presented himself as gay or bisexual. They both dressed in outrageous costumes, but while both kept the feather boa industry in business, Bowie’s outfits had a sexual edge, while Elton’s were ready for prime time (think, Donald Duck). Elton John, who actually sold more records than Bowie, might have looked like a mainstream version of Bowie, which might have been annoying to the man who would later write the line, “same old thing, in brand new drag comes sweeping into view.”

Two songs I have never read as having any connection are Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” (1971) and Elton’s “The Bitch is Back” (1974). But, coincidentally or not, the two songs have certainly similarities. Both use the word “bitch” to apply to gay men— in Elton’s case, himself (though he was still officially closeted in 1974). The “bitch” in both songs is extravagant and flashy, and while Bowie vows, “I can do better than that,” Elton sings, “I’m better than you.”

Both Elton John and David Bowie were notorious cocaine addicts. They were in their depths of their addictions in the mid-70s, yet Elton’s song professes that “the bitch is back; stone-cold sober, as a matter of fact.”

So, if I were David Bowie, it might creep into my head that Elton John’s song was taunting him. Again, I’ve never read that, but Bowie would, from time to time, make snippy comments about Elton John before settling the musical score in 2013 with the obscure song, “Like a Rocket Man.” “Like a Rocket Man” is about cocaine addiction, written by Bowie after years in recovery. Unless he was up to chemical shenanigans that thus far have gone unreported, he was stone cold sober, as a matter of fact in 2013. I’m assuming so, too, was Elton John.

In the song, Bowie has “Little Wendy Cocaine” seducing the narrator and getting him to speed through the dancehall “like a rocket man.” It is impossible to imagine Bowie just happening to use the term “rocket man” to describe a cocaine addict without knowing its association not just with Elton John, but with the song that was so often compared to “Space Oddity” that Bowie himself would sometimes shout, “oh, rocket man” during live performances of his own song.

To date, Elton John has not issued a musical retort, and “Like a Rocket Man” was relegated to The Next Day Extra, which is essentially an album-length bonus disk accompaniment to The Next Day. It’s almost as if Bowie wanted to deliver the message to a very limited audience — perhaps an audience of one. So, if there was a feud, it ended in a fizzle. But Bowie had the musical last word.

The Divine Symmetry series compares Bowie songs to other songs with some sort of similarity, intentional or otherwise. The term is borrowed from Bowie’s song, “Quicksand.”

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