Balding pop stars -- Phil Collins, Van Morrison, and James Taylor seem proud of their balding heads while others rush to cover them up

”A few months ago I was watching Friday Night Videos and I saw three groups in a row with one member who is a client of mine,” the businessman proudly says. ”Three groups.”

Who’s that talking — a rock star manager, a record-company president? Nope, it’s Sy Sperling, president of the Hair Club for Men, a leading national hair- replacement outfit (known for its TV ads featuring Sperling’s famously stiff ”I’m not only the Hair Club president, I’m also a client”). Numerous fortysomething pop stars, like Phil Collins, Van Morrison, and James Taylor, seem proud of their balding pates. But an increasing number prefer the artificial-turf look.

Take the once fuzz-topped Elton John, who debuted his startling new hair weave — a shock of wavy brown locks, complete with shag-earlier this year. Reportedly costing $27,000 (the average weave goes for $2,500), the new ‘do can be seen on the cover of John’s new album, The One. No longer will we be able to use the position of John’s receding hairline to determine how old a photo is.

Ferreting out who is and is not wearing fake strands isn’t easy in the image-conscious rock world. Rumors abound about this metal lead singer or that former lead guitarist with the new-wave band. Generally, says Sperling, ”most of the groups don’t want a lot of publicity for it.” Sperling should know; he won’t out any of the hundreds of musicians he claims have taken advantage of the Hair Club’s nonsurgical, Strand-by-Strand hair-replacement method. (When pressed, he will name one: Johnny Maestro of Brooklyn Bridge.)

There’s no problem spotting Carl Perkins as a rug man, since the rockabilly veteran is featured in print ads for Apollo Hair Systems, a Memphis salon that has been supplying him with toupees for more than a decade. (Perkins’ current model is ”semipermanent — he can take it off whenever he wants,” says Apollo Hair manager Steve Dye.) But what about guys like Paul Simon, an ongoing source of does-he-or-doesn’t-he speculation? (A spokesman for Simon says he has ”no idea” whether Paul sports a rug.) ”He’s not one of our clients, but put it this way,” says Sperling: ”I met him after one of his concerts and he knew who I was. He looked at me and said, ‘Sy Sperling.’ Let’s leave it at that.” Garth Brooks, Mark Knopfler, and Michael Stipe — are you listening?