Elton John over the years
Former hellraiser Elton John is a picture of domesticity with his partner David Furnish and their son Zachary. The couple are keen to have more children. Photo: Getty Images
THE complimentary magazine in my hotel room features Sir Elton John on the cover. Inside, it claims that the singer's current show at Caesars Palace, The Million Dollar Piano, represents a back-to-basics approach. This perhaps tells you more about Las Vegas than it does about the show, which, after all, opens with the fanfare from Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, features the titular piano — covered with 68 LED screens that variously light up with colours reflecting the mood of each song, appear at one point to transform it into an aquarium and at another display the face of Kiki Dee — and comes complete with a gift shop selling not just the usual T-shirts and CDs, but Elton John feather boas, Elton John playing cards and scented candles and underpants with the words "I'm Still Standing" emblazoned over the crotch.
Backstage, John's dressing room is the size of a small flat. There are dozens of shelves displaying a vast collection of figurines, a selection of aftershaves and colognes that would shame a department store and, in the toilet, a ceramic liquid soap dispenser in the shape of a large penis. In the middle of it all, nursing a mug of coffee, sits John himself, who turns out to be about as unassuming as it's possible to be for a man wearing what appear to be golfing shoes encrusted with multicoloured jewels.
"If you listen to someone young and fabulous, it gives you adrenalin."
It goes without saying that unassuming is not an adjective frequently associated with Sir Elton John.
Peter Mayes (left) and Nick Littlemore of Pnau count Elton John as a fan.
The public perception of him is still shaped by his partner David Furnish's remarkable 1997 documentary Elton John: Tantrums & Tiaras, which depicted a man with a fuse so short as to be microscopic — at one particularly memorable juncture, he loudly threatened to abandon an entire tour and go home because a fan had shouted "Yoo-hoo!" at him while he was playing tennis.
And yet he is charm personified: friendly, uproariously funny, engaged and engaging. Indeed, he's so likeable that it's weirdly easy to forget who you're talking to, at least until he says something that reminds you that you're in the presence of a man who's sold more than 250 million records, such as when he casually mentions that he has the biggest private collection of photography in the world.
He looks in remarkably good nick for a 65-year-old man who plays 120 shows a year and, aside from an annual, month-long summer break, "doesn't really take time off". If he's not performing live, he's recording. If he's not recording, he's writing musicals or running his management company, which boasts Ed Sheeran, Lily Allen, James Blunt and hotly tipped Brooklyn hipsters Friends on its roster. Then there's his film company — he's planning a biopic of his life story, scripted by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame, possibly starring Justin Timberlake in the lead role — and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Elton John and Pnau.
The pace occasionally takes its toll — a few days after we meet, he's hospitalised with pneumonia and forced to cancel several Las Vegas shows — but as he points out, it's nothing compared with his workload in the early '70s, when he toured the US constantly and released seven albums in five years: 1973's 31 million-selling double album Goodbye Yel-low Brick Road was recorded in 17 days.
Then again, that's probably just as well, given the well-documented effect that kind of schedule had on him: at the height of his success, in 1975, he attempted suicide, in suitably flamboyant style, by taking an overdose of diazepam and throwing himself into a swimming pool while shouting, "I'm going to die!" He claims his desire to work hard actually saved his life in the '80s, when he was ravaged by cocaine addiction and bulimia, going for days without sleep or washing, gorging on cockles and ice-cream, then throwing up. "Even though I was the No. 1 star in the world at that time, I still felt like an outcast . . . I didn't know who I was off stage," he says.
Today, John is in such great good humour that he's even tempered his views about some of his bugbears: there is no sign of his supposed feud with Madonna and he's even relatively equivocal about the deleterious influence of Simon Cowell's TV empire. (The last time an interviewer canvassed his opinions on the subject of Cowell, he suggested, "I'd rather have my cock bitten off by an Alsatian than watch The X Factor.")
The other reasons for his ebullience are sitting quietly on the sofa in his dressing room: Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes, better known as Australian electronic duo Pnau. They are the latest recipients of John's celebrated capacity for musical patronage, his interest piqued when he heard their self-titled 2008 album while on tour in Sydney and declared it, with typical understatement, the greatest record he'd heard in 10 years.
Alone among his superstar peers, John seems to spend as much time proselytising about young artists as he does plugging his own records. "If you listen to someone young and fabulous," he says, "it just gives you so much adrenalin, adrenalin that I had when everything was going my way in the '70s." He still gets sent a list of new album releases every Monday morning and buys four copies of anything he likes the sound of: one for each of his homes. He checks the British charts on a daily basis.
Furthermore, he acts as a kind of unofficial publicist for younger artists — today he raves about the forthcoming Hot Chip album and Alabama Shakes — and is a mentor to everyone from Rufus Wainwright to Lady Gaga. He is, he says, currently a little concerned about the latter. "I look at Gaga and I think, 'How does she do it?' I talk to her mum and dad about it. They worry. She is frail and she doesn't eat when she should do, and she's a girl, and it's tougher for a girl. She works really hard. She will be in Denmark one night and Saudi Arabia the next. I know how tiny she is and I do worry about her, yes."
Last time I met him, I was in the company of a Scottish dance producer called Mylo, who looked a little gobsmacked when John blithely informed him he'd bought more than 100 copies of his debut album in order to give them away as presents. This time his interest has extended beyond simply doling out Pnau's CDs to his friends, although he's done that, or signing them to his management company, although he's done that, too.
Four years ago, he handed the Sydney duo the master tapes from his early '70s albums and told them to do whatever they wanted with them, a turn of events that the duo still seem a little stunned by. "We just kind of lost our minds at that point," Mayes says, quietly. Littlemore nods: "It took us eight or nine months before we could even touch anything."
The duo were doing OK in Australia, they say, but after John took an interest, things changed considerably. They moved to London at his suggestion. Littlemore's collaborative project with Luke Steele of indie band the Sleepy Jackson, Empire of the Sun, sold more than 1 million copies of their album Walking on a Dream. They worked with Robbie Williams, Ellie Goulding and the Killers. Littlemore is currently engaged with both the new Mika album and the latest Cirque du Soleil show Zarkana, due to fetch up in Las Vegas in August. ''I used Elton's name to get me the job,'' he deadpans.
''Well, yes, I wanted him to do it,'' John says, ''because I thought it would be a horrific thing to do.''
''You were right,'' Littlemore says. ''Dead right.''
''It was a nightmare, but it made you stronger as a person and a better writer,'' John says firmly.
And then there's the new album. It's not the first time in recent years that John has returned to his early-'70s catalogue. Indeed, he's returned to it again and again, in a way that suggests he's keen to remind the world that behind the extravagant sunglasses and platform shoes there lurked a serious singer-songwriter, releasing a follow-up to 1975's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in 2006's The Captain and the Kid, and collaborating with his early inspiration, Leon Russell, on 2010's The Union. Even so, his collaboration with Pnau is a bold move and one you can't really imagine, say, his long-standing friend and fellow star of Caesars Palace, Rod Stewart, sanctioning.
For his part, John is keen to point out he's a long-standing lover of electronic music (an obsession that apparently began in the late '70s, when he listened to German pioneers Kraftwerk while smoking ''a big joint'' and ''thought I'd found God'') and that it wasn't merely an act of munificence on his part. ''I saw the talent there and I thought they can do something really fresh and introduce my music in a different way to people. This is so much more about getting the records downloaded by some 15-year-old kid in Nottingham who might then say, 'I'll go and listen to another Elton John track'.''
If he boggles slightly at the duo's methods, which involved unpicking dozens of his songs and then reshaping their constituent vocal and instrumental parts into new songs - ''I can't comprehend how they did it, it's like the f---ing Sistine Chapel to me'' - he is understandably delighted with the results: the album variously sounds like euphoric house music, disco and, in the case of a track called Telegraph to the Afterlife, something not unlike Pink Floyd (''It's like, pass the bong,'' he chuckles). ''I'm hearing my music in a different way and I love it, but I wouldn't love it if I was hearing the old shit it was before, because I'd be bored to tears.''
This summer, they're playing together in Ibiza at the behest of the DJ Pete Tong, a state of affairs that seems simultaneously to horrify and amuse him: one minute he's saying that he ''might go down like a turd in a punchbowl'', the next that it's going to be great and he's planning on wearing a fishtail dress for the occasion.
''I've never been to Ibiza,'' he says. ''I've got my house in France, so I never really go to places like Ibiza, and also I don't take drugs, and it's part of that culture, isn't it? You have to go to a nightclub and get stoned. The last time I went to a nightclub was in London about 10 Christmases ago, and I felt so old. I felt like the Queen Mother coming down the steps. All I needed was a Dubonnet and soda in my hand.''
Indeed, there are moments when you're reminded that for all his loudly expressed love of dubstep producer James Blake, John is a pop star from another era. He doesn't own a computer or an iPod or a mobile phone. ''So I couldn't get hacked!'' he cries with delight. ''No, in one way, I wanted to be hacked, because I f---ing hate …'' Then he thinks better of it and his voice trails off. ''Well, you know what I think.''
Then his mood brightens again. There are more immediately pressing things to attend to: a million-dollar piano to play, a small boy to bath. He has another album finished and ready for release called The Diving Board: just him with a bassist and pianist. He talks, a little speculatively, about slowing down when his son Zachary reaches school age. But the thing is, he has never enjoyed his career more.
''If I was burnt out and just doing it to pay the bills, then it would be different - I would be very resentful of it - but this is the time when I'm actually enjoying it the most. I know when I come off-stage, I'm going to be happy. I can go to bed. I don't have to stay up all night doing drugs. I'm going to get up in the morning and see my little boy and see my partner. We have a life. You think, 'How the f--- do you do it?' but actually, you do. You just manage to do it.''
■Elton John vs Pnau's Good Morning to the Night will be released next month through etcetc. eltonversuspnau.com