Celebrating Elton John’s Rocket Records: A Memorable Cotswolds Invasion

by | May 18, 2023


Celebrating Elton John’s Rocket Records: A Memorable Cotswolds Invasion

In commemoration of Rocket Records’ 50th anniversary, we recall a memorable and spirited launch party that took place in the picturesque Cotswolds town of Moreton-in-Marsh. Let’s look back to the day when Elton John, the music maestro behind Rocket Records, made a lasting impression on this charming setting.

On April 26, 1973, a first-class Great Western Railway ticket arrived, serving as an invitation to the festivities. A specially chartered train, dubbed a ‘football special,’ departed from Paddington station at 6.40pm, carrying excited guests to Moreton-in-Marsh. The train ride promised drinks, delicious food, and music, making it a lively journey. However, the abundant supply of Champagne on board may have caused hazy recollections of the specific refreshments served.

The launch party was organized to mark the birth of Rocket Records, an independent label founded by Elton John, now known as Sir Elton. Prior to this venture, Elton had been signed to DJM Records alongside his lyricist partner, Bernie Taupin. However, disagreements over compensation and guitarist Davey Johnstone’s desire to release a solo album led Sir Elton to establish his own record company. Taking inspiration from Stephenson’s Rocket, the renowned steam locomotive from 1829, and his hit single “Rocket Man,” Sir Elton named his label Rocket Records. Stuart Epps, a versatile professional who had previously worked with Sir Elton at DJM, became the label’s first employee. “Elton’s career was soaring, and he wanted to give back by signing artists to his own label,” recalls Epps.

Much like The Beatles’ Apple organization, Rocket Records actively welcomed aspiring musicians to audition, prompting Epps to scout for an ideal location to hold the launch party. “We wanted somewhere down-to-earth, a place where we could have a lot of fun,” he explains. After careful consideration, Moreton-in-Marsh, an ancient market town in the Cotswolds, emerged as the perfect choice. The selected venue was Redesdale Hall, situated on the town’s High Street, adjacent to the market square. This Grade II-listed hall, serving as the town hall, boasted a reception room downstairs and an upstairs ballroom with a charming stone fireplace, a balcony, and a small stage—a cozy and fitting atmosphere for the occasion.

Redesdale Hall was prepared for the celebration in advance, with Mr. Epps ensuring that everything was in order. As the party train arrived, he positioned a local brass band on the bridge over the tracks, adding to the festive atmosphere. Led by Elton John himself, the jubilant procession paraded through the streets of Moreton-in-Marsh towards the hall, accompanied by the band’s rendition of “Hello Dolly.” The approximately 200 guests, comprising influential figures from the music industry, including radio DJs, pluggers, and members of music publications like NME, Melody Maker, and Record Mirror, were treated to sandwiches supplied by a local butcher.

The opening act on the night was Mike Silver, a folk singer from nearby Uffington, whose debut LP, Troubadour, had recently been released on Rocket. Among the other talent representing the company’s small roster at the hall was a folk rock band from the Sunderland area called Longdancer. They recorded two albums for Rocket—If It Was So Simple, in 1973, and Trailer For A Good Life, in 1974. The band split in 1976, their claim to fame being their guitarist, a ‘crazy young kid’ called Dave Stewart, who went on to form The Tourists and then Eurythmics with Annie Lennox.

Another performer was blue-eyed soul singer Kiki Dee. She had previously been signed by Sir Elton’s manager, John Reid, when he was running the British branch of Motown’s Tamla Records, and she became a Rocket mainstay. Her debut LP for her new label — her third overall — was Loving And Free, released in 1973 and featuring Sir Elton on the piano.

Shots by Michael Putland reveal Sir Elton rocking out in blue-streaked hair, a top hat, platform boots and checked shirt. No set list exists for the impromptu jam session, although one local lady, hired to help set up the bar and greet guests, seems to remember Sir Elton and company romping through a spirited version of the Rolling Stones’s Honky Tonk Women. Guests — and disappointed local children, who were hanging around the hall, too young to join the party — were given a goodie bag that included an 8in, seven-piece aluminium model train set with detachable carriages manufactured by German company Gebr Hildner. Also in the bag was a badge featuring the company logo, which was a smiling train designed around Sir Elton’s fondness for the Revd W. V. Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine.

Once the festivities wound down, the guests were shepherded onto the train back to London. Most of them, if the ones who spoke to us are anything to go by, had absolutely no idea where they’d been. Sir Elton, however, cherished the memory and, some time later, purchased a 1940s painting of Redesdale by L. S. Lowry as a souvenir.

The legacy of the label persevered as Elton John’s resolute vision came to fruition. In a resounding interview with the music press, he articulated the essence of The Rocket Recording Company: “What we are offering is undivided love and devotion, a good royalty for the artist, and a company that works tirelessly.” Determined to chart his own path, Elton pressed forward when DJM hesitated over guitarist Davey Johnstone’s solo aspirations. Alongside his creative collaborator Bernie Taupin, trusted studio maestro Gus Dudgeon, and manager John Reid, Elton established his independent label, which saw the release of the acclaimed album Smiling Face in 1973.

As we mark fifty years since those significant beginnings, Sir Elton John prepares for a momentous transition following his farewell performance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival. Meanwhile, Stuart Epps, a former employee who played an integral role in those early years, has since blossomed into a distinguished producer, overseeing his own studio and label. The journey continues, reflecting the indelible impact of Elton John’s audacious venture and the enduring spirit of those who contributed to its success.