Rock's best frenemies: a history of Rod Stewart and Elton John insulting each other

Elton John and Rod Stewart at Ronnie Wood's concert in 1974 - Hulton Archive
Elton John and Rod Stewart at Ronnie Wood's concert in 1974 - Hulton Archive

While the rest of the music world has reserved a dignified silence on Elton John's January announcement that he would be retiring from live performance, fellow heritage rocker Rod Stewart has not held back in giving his tuppence. 

John will embark on one more mammoth tour before hanging up his sequinned blazer (although one suspects he wears those off-stage, too), playing 300 dates of the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour across the globe. 

Such an endeavour has been sniffed at by the Maggie May singer, however, who at 73 – three years John's senior – has never hinted at retirement. “It stinks of selling tickets”, Stewart told US broadcaster Andy Cohen on chat show Watch What Happens Live, adding that the tour was a “dishonest” ploy to earn money that “stinks of selling tickets”. Stewart finished off by delivering the damning verdict that by making a literal song and dance of his retirement, John was "not rock and roll".

Stewart could never be accused of being two-faced in his approach, however. He also let John know his feelings when the news first broke. “I did email her [Elton] and say: ‘What, again dear?’”, he told Cohen. "And I didn't hear anything back."

Such correspondence, however, is nothing new between Rod and Elton. In fact, the pair have long nurtured a affectionate relationship which is bolstered by public bickering. Their friendship formed in the early Seventies, when they were relative neighbours – John lived with a then-boyfriend near Stewart, and became so close that mutual friend John Baldry, the blues singer, christened them Phyllis and Sharon. The stars adopted the names, Stewart wrote in 2012: "and that’s what we were to each other: Phyllis and Sharon. Or just ‘dear’.”

'Phyllis and Sharon'
'Phyllis and Sharon'

In 1983 both Stewart and John were interviewed together about their friendship. As John said at the time: “We try and publicise the fact that we always have a go at each other in the papers, but in fact we do that for reasons only known to us, really. We're actually very good friends.”

Perhaps such public ribaldry is down to the fact that both are also major rivals. It's easy to see a grain of truth lying under John's quip at the time: “We're alright until we both get in the Top 10”. Such friendly rivalry has, over the past three decades, fuelled a delightful array of public stunts that make the Twitter slanging matches of today's chart-toppers (looking at you, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Meek Mill and Nicki Minaj) look all the more vindictive and petty.

Stewart's Blondes 'Ave More Fun tour in 1978 took Da Ya Think I'm Sexy? from Oslo to Osaka. It was also followed by a sign conjured up by John that read: “But Brunettes Make More Money”.  In 1985, Stewart publicised his Earls Court concerts by floating “massive footballs, the size of blimps” above Earls Court. As Stewart recalled in his 2012 book, Rod: The Autobiography: "Elton hired a sniper to shoot them down with an air rifle”.

'No, I sold more records': Rod Stewart and Elton John
'No, I sold more records': Rod Stewart and Elton John in 1993

As the years went on, the pair perhaps became too preoccupied with wives, ex-wives, husbands, and children to create such ceremony, but continued to keep checks on one another. In 2016, Stewart told Alan Carr: “Our albums came out at more or less the same time and we have been comparing how the sales are... I'm winning.”

Asked if they were still as competitive as in their younger days, Stewart said: “We still are. We text back and forth with each other – how many albums I've sold and how many albums he has sold.” A similar contest exists between who sold the most tickets during their Las Vegas residency years. Stewart maintains he did -  “whatever Elton may tells his audience from the stage”. 

The competition between them doesn't just extend to sales, but gag gifts, too. And on a rock star salary, such things can be entertainingly outrageous. For a while, John started innocuously enough, merely showing Stewart in ludicrously fancy presents: “lavish, thickly jewelled [watch] engraved ‘From Elt’”, and a Steinway piano for Stewart's first wife Alan. 

John and Stewart in 2004
John and Stewart in 2004

This, however, just brought a new level of competition to the friendship. As Stewart recalled: “What do you get the man who has bought himself everything?” He settled on a £300 novelty portable fridge, which Stewart “thought was enough”. John returned the gesture with “A f------- Rembrandt!” Stewart recalled. “I felt pretty small – although not as small as Elton presumably wanted me to feel when he later referred tartly to my present as “an ice bucket.” It was not an ice bucket. It was a novelty portable fridge.”

When John turned 50, Stewart celebrated by buying him “a full-size, sit-under hairdryer like the ones you see in women’s hair salons.” 

John's generosity wasn't indefatigable, though. When Stewart married his third wife, Rachel Hunter, the Rocket Man singer had clearly tired of buying wedding presents: “He marked my marriage to Rachel with a £10 voucher from Boots. On the card he wrote, ‘Get yourself something nice for the house.’”