Elton John, NEC, Birmongham<br></br>Kid Symphony, Brixton Academy, London

Saturday night's all right for banking
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It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside. I think it's a form of cultural nausea. But for most of my life, the sight, sound and even the words "Elton John" have made me feel almost physically sick.

But why does the idea of a trip to Birmingham to see this man - number three in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles all-time big sellers, and one woman in the NEC crowd waves a banner boasting that this is her 100th EJ gig, so somebody out there likes him - instil dread to my very core? I can't put my finger on it.

Could it be his politics? I don't think he's ever overtly nailed his flag to any particular mast, or come out with a Phil Collins/Andrew Lloyd Webber statement about leaving the country if Labour came to power (although his friendship with the Princess of Hearts suggests he's not a raving Trotskyist either).

Could it be his appearance? Hell no. The upbeat closing section of "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting", "Crocodile Rock" and "Pinball Wizard" reminds me that Elton John's early Seventies look in particular (ludicrous three-foot platform boots, Dame Edna specs) helped define my larger-than-life idea of what a pop star should be: the sort of vulgar visual excess whose passing I mourn every time I switch on the all-new (deathly dull) Top of the Pops, even though his choice of outfit tonight - a mumsy diamante-cuffed jacked over a pair of silk pyjamas - leaves something to be desired. And while his gappy grin always annoyed me in the "I'm Still Standing" video, I'm in a glass house when it comes to throwing stones at anyone else about fake hair.

Could it be his lifestyle? Not really. I never did see the Tantrums and Tiaras documentary, which I gather can colour one's views somewhat, but as a matter of principle, if we must have pop zillionnaires, then let's at least have them living like Barbara Cartland, spending the GDP of a medium-sized former Soviet republic in florist's bills, going bust, and gaining it all back again, rather than the steady, sensible accountants-with-microphones of today. In any case, that lurid tabloid story about him having his guard rottweilers' voice boxes removed has been discredited, and any man who spends a considerable amount bankrolling his struggling local football club can't be all bad (R Williams take note).

Could it be his music? Male singer-songwriters with pianos aren't really my, er, forte - I never was much of a Billy Joel man either - but I adored Ben Folds Five. And in over three decades in pop, he (or rather, his reclusive songwriter Bernie Taupin) has written a handful of decent tunes. "Your Song", which opened his career and closes this show, is undeniably fine, as is "Song For Guy" (a mere ghost of a song, and understandably unplayed in a cavernous arena gig like this), "Are You Ready For Love" has an irresistible feel-good factor (and its DJ-led revival was inspired), and I even find myself nodding a head to "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues". Plus, he can clearly play. As the camera zooms in on his chubby fingers, tinkling away on his Yamaha grand during a rendition of "Rocket Man" that accounts for comfortably 20 minutes of a two-and-a-half-hour show, you can't take that away from him.

Could it be his permanent, 30-year absence of cool? Maybe we're onto something here. Much as I don't like to think of myself as a hipness freak, I cringed during that scene in Almost Famous when the band Stillwater and their entourage have a bonding moment on the tour bus, singing along with Elton's "Tiny Dancer". Like, don't you Americans know that Elton John is only slightly more acceptable to most right-thinking Brits than Cliff Richard? (It's a feeling I still get when US rap artists cover Sting tunes, or record whole albums of Phil Collins covers.)

"But it's no sackerifaaahce! No sackerifaaahce! No sackerifaaahce aaa'dole!" Eureka. It's been staring me in the face. It's his voice. That horrible, ersatz-Yankee accent - "Goodbaaah, Englun's rowze!" - and that grotesque pub-singer phrasing. That's what has me reaching for the paper bag in the airline seat pocket.

And it goes without saying that "Candle in the Wind '97" was vile, and its record-breaking sales are a testament to the revolting, kitschy sentimentality of the British lower-middle classes, whose overreaction to the accidental death of a woman whose privileged lifestyle laughed in their faces every day for 36 years was depressing to watch. Tonight, I'm surrounded by people who start blubbing and hugging each other, oblivious to the fact that Elton - this, at least, is to his credit - is singing the original, Marilyn Monroe-based version.

As I leave, I'm nearly mown down by security guards escorting reinforced suitcases of cash from the building. Elton might make some of us vomit, but this old coot is laughing all the way to Coutts.

"That's the way I like it, Brixton, I don't wanna live forever!" Well, it's a good start. Anyone who shows a certain swagger and a knowledge of pop history already has me half-onside, and Kid Symphony clearly know their Motörhead.

From that moment onwards, the jury takes its leave. The Leeds band - a five-piece onstage but centred around the duo of Chris Langdon and Pete Denton (formerly of indie types Stock Cube) - were signed by Island, sent to the legendary Rockfields Studios in the Welsh borders, and have been groomed into the next... what exactly? They're all pin-uppable pretty boys with nicely-styled Faces/Cooper Temple Clause hair, and while I don't believe that ugliness equals integrity, melodic pop-punk songs like "Never Been a Rock Star" are a little close to Busted territory for comfort. (Lyrical alarm bells go off when they rhyme "New York City" with "so pretty". We only let Andrew WK get away with that sort of thing.) Oddly, their prime redeeming factor is the keyboardist, whose staccato glam rock piano ("Glass of Champagne" by Sailor, "Airport" by The Motors or anything by Sparks) elevates their tunes above the ordinary.

And they do talk a good talk. "This is our single," says Denton. "If you like it, buy it. If you don't like it, buy it, you might like it." Maybe you had to be there.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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