Whilst readers of this blog will know me as the MidCentury Chap, reflecting the breadth of cultural topics I like to encompass, those more familiar with my record-spinning activities at gigs, on Rockabilly Radio and through MixCloud might have wondered where my disc jockey sobriquet ‘The King of the Rocket Men’ comes from. So here’s the story…
As devotees of mid-century cinema probably already know, The King of the Rocket Men was one of many serialized adventure stories shown in cinemas in traditional Saturday morning kids screenings, joining the pantheon of black and white superheroes alongside Flash Gordon and the first screen incarnation of Batman. The series originally aired in 1949, featuring Jeff King as the eponymous hero (played by Tristram Coffin), assisting scientist Dr Millard (James Craven) in his mission to thwart evil genius Dr Vulcan (heard only as a voice and seen as a mysterious shadow) as he tries to eliminate an organization of America’s greatest scientists – the Science Associates. Millard outfits Jeff with an advanced, atomic powered rocket backpack, attached to a leather jacket with a bullet-shaped, aerodynamic flight helmet and a raygun that they had been developing together, turning him into the Rocket Man of the title. One question that was never answered was, given that he was the only Rocket Man, who was he supposed to be the King of?
The Rocket Man image reappeared in future Republic serials, including Radar Men from the Moon and Zombies of the Stratosphere (both 1952) and Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1953), though oddly never referred to as such.
So far, so Saturday morning superhero. The rock’n’roll connection, however, comes from a book by British writers Robert Graham and Keith Baty entitled ‘Elvis, the Novel’, which takes a marvellously tongue in cheek approach to the Elvis story, including a bunch of fantastical deviations on the accepted biography that you just wish could have been true. Some, like Elvis’ recording sessions with the Beatles, and the culmination of his shooting Col Tom Parker live (or dead, to be more accurate) on stage, are pure counterfactual excursions. Others, like Elvis’ invention of the cheeseburger, are just delightfully surreal, but believable enough to make you wish they were true.
One of those flights of fantasy revolves around the young Elvis’ brief career as a cinema usher, during which he becomes obsessed by the King of the Rocket Men serial and begins to visualise himself as the King of the Rocket Men in Memphis (KOTRMIM for short). Having persuaded doting mother Gladys to fashion him the outfit from one of Vernon’s old leather work jackets, old belts for the harness and a combination of plywood and cardboard for the rocket mechanism, he adds a helmet constructed from an old motorcycle skidlid with cardboard cone glued to the top, and takes to the streets of Memphis by night to act out his alter ego. The story reaches its climax as the KOTRMIM decides to reveal his identity to the world (or at the least the regulars at the Memphis Junior Movie Club), by changing into costume and launching himself up the aisle as his on-screen counterpart launches himself from the back of his truck – and if you want to find out how it ends, search out a copy of the book. It’s a great read, mixing hero worship and gentle mickey taking as only the Brits can.
As rock’n’roll obsessed youths, we loved the book and, jaded by the outpouring of naff exploitation of Elvis’ image that followed his death, relished this celebration of the life he should have led. The incongruity of a suburban superhero also appealed and we quickly became, in our own little world, the Kings of the Rocket Men in Hoddesdon and Bishop’s Stortford respectively (abbreviated, of course, to KOTRMIH and KOTRMIBS as appropriate). As life and we moved on, that shared love of the scene and book remained, and letters would often carry the KOTRMI… postscript, adapted to wherever we happened to be living at the time.
When I started DJing regularly, I was loath to do it under my real name as that pops up in various places on the internet in connection with my day job, and I wanted to keep the two separate. And so, the King of the Rocket Men was reborn. Needless to say, it doesn’t come with the outfit – I’m not sure a large space helmet is conducive to accurate record cueing. I’ve since realized, too, that it’s not entirely original (but then again, what is), and that a good friend has for many years been DJing as The Rocketeer, and I would hate it if he or anyone else thought I might be trying to ride his coattails or, worse, pass myself off as him, even if they are completely different superheroes (he’s a very, very good DJ who I hold in total admiration). Fortunately, we live far enough apart for our respective orbits to clash and, although his appearances are a rare treat, he’s so well known and highly regarded that no-one is going to get us confused. On the other hand, the beauty of a ‘nom de disques’ is that it can be as much about a brand as an individual so when we’re running events or radio shows with guest DJs, it feels very much like we’re all working under the mythical KOTRM rather than it all being about me – maybe we’re the multiple Rocket Men the title originally envisaged!
And that, dear readers, is how the King of the Rocket Men turned from a 1949 celluloid hero, to an imaginary diversion for the King of Rock, to an alter ego for a bloke playing old records in Gloucestershire. Tune in next time for another thrilling instalment…