Bald ambition

Music - Richard Cook explains how the boy from Pinner became the greatest rocker on earth

It was brave of Elton John to use an image of his balding, Seventies self for the cover of Greatest Hits 1970-2002, and interesting that many of the images in the accompanying booklet date from the same period. Vanity demands that most ageing rockers prefer a regular and ruthless updating of their bodywork, especially in the fronting of any kind of retrospective. But it's typical of a man whose formidable ego has always been nicely tempered by a strong dose of self- deprecation. The barnet that now adorns the John bonce has been more like a Beatle mop for the past decade or so. These days, the rather portly singer resembles a toyshop-keeper, his deafening outfits scaled down to suit a middle-aged pixilation, the glasses that once needed windscreen-wipers shrunken to fit a face that still seems to be wearing puppy fat. We can larf, but this funny little fellow was once the biggest rocker on planet Earth.

Elton never really shook off his Middlesex roots ("Not bad for a boy from Pinner," he murmured, when once dining as a house guest with the Windsors). Next to princes of darkness such as Jagger and Richards, he was a teddy bear. His first few records had an almost rural feel to them, and as late as "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" his lyric-writer Bernie Taupin was moping about wanting to leave the penthouse and go back to the farm. Yet Elton all but invented pop-rock as he worked his way through the Seventies. It was an era where white rock was easily subdivided: glitter, heavy metal, progressive, singer-songwriting. Somehow, Elton managed to keep at least a platform heel in most camps (all right, he was never all that progressive). The music was poppy enough to guarantee regular Top 40 hits - in the Nineties, he managed to beat Elvis's record of chart placings in 22 consecutive years. Yet he could deliver, courtesy of the frequently miserable Taupin, the most painfully introspective singer-songwriter music, and he didn't mind pigging out on a double-album as flatulent as the awful Blue Moves (1976).

One of Elton's problems was that he was stuck on a piano stool. Although Jerry Lee Lewis managed to be pretty wild at a keyboard, the best Elton could really do was lean on it and kick up his feet. Rock 'n' roll is mostly about guitars, but you never really notice them on Elton's records - he always makes sure that the piano is bang up there in your face. It's the signature link between everything in this set, from the calculated mooning of "Your Song" to his sole nugget from the new century, "I Want Love". He has a loud and suitably emphatic voice, but he's never figured out how to personalise Bernie's lyrics, and even belters such as "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)" or "The Bitch is Back" have nothing venomous to them.

Not that Taupin has ever been anything less than extraordinarily fortunate to work with such a professional. About the only interesting lyric he's ever written is the one for "Rocket Man", where an astronaut grumbles about his nine-to-five blast-off existence. Elton graced it with one of his most ardent and coolly insinuating melodies. If this was the partnership at its most effective, then most of the rest of disc one passes very sweetly too: it's almost as much of a homage to the late producer Gus Dudgeon as to the musicians. The fresh masterings show how pin-sharp and effective Dudgeon's ear was in putting all Elton's hooks and harmonies in place.

The Seventies made Elton unfathomably wealthy, and in the best rock 'n' roll tradition he spent most of it - often on narcotic abuses of one sort or another, as he has confessed, to an obsessive degree. Luckily, royalties never dry up if the artist hangs in there and his gifts don't desert him. Elton never accessed the heights in quite the same way afterwards, but that was partly because new markets were opening up to him - in films, for instance. Elton is most effective at chest-beating ballads, even if they're seldom his best work. His Lion King music set him up as a soundtrack grandee, potentially as invincible in his way as Randy Newman. Even Mick Jagger's never cracked that one.

Cliff Richard had long been installed as British pop's favourite pantomime dame, but in the Nineties Elton overtook him. As camp as Pontin's and twice as exuberant, the ageing rogue kept churning out records. But the inveterate shopper's public life began to seem bemusingly complex: being part of a male couple, Diana, Aids research, working with (oh, for God's sake) Tim Rice. At this point, Elton's albums stretch right across a library shelf, but there was so little to really remember in any of the later ones that occasional head-turners such as "Sacrifice" sounded like slightly desperate reminders that he was still at it. The "bonus" disc in this set includes some of his many crossover follies - with Pavarotti, Alessandro Safina and George Michael. No point to any of them: it's just that Elton likes working.

It's the simplicity of his music that has always worked the oracle. On a recent Parkinson appearance, he improvised an entire song out of a set of lyrics plunked in front of him, and made it sound serviceable. It's not the product of a jazzman's brilliance, but the polished skill of a music row pro who still knows every conceivable way of letting the three-chord trick work for him.

Greatest Hits 1970-2002 (3 CDs) is released by Mercury/Rocket