The following article by Hank Bordowitz appeared in the March 1981 issue of InMusic magazine...
Sting - Not just a name; it's a verb too...
In the most recent instalment of the 'Star Trek - The Motion Picture' series, there is a recurring phrase: "Share your pain, and let us all grow stronger through the sharing." Modern life teaches us that pain is to be buried, hidden, expurgated bit by bit on the analyst's chair (none of 'em use couches anymore). Contemporary life is too hurried; none of us has the time to deal with the psychological paraplegia of intense emotional pain.
With 'The Soul Cages', Sting boldly deals with this notion. Careful listening here does not make for easy listening. On a superficial level, this is very pretty music. Lyrically, however, it tests a lot of old scars to see if they still hurt; some of the pain is quite fresh. At the age of 37, Sting became an orphan, losing both parents within half a year. Some of the pain runs deeper.
One theme that crops up again and again - escape from the hopelessness of the world - reflects where Sting comes from. Born 40 years ago into the ship-building, coal-mining north of England, he was smart enough to see the treadmill and ambitious enough to step off.
'The Soul Cages' is also rife with sea images, harkening back to one of the artist's first recollections: living by the sea port. His recollections triggered the album's lyrics. "I asked myself 'What's your earliest memory?'", Sting recalls of the process that started him toward writing the album. "Easy," the answer came back, ' A great, big bloody ship.'"
This sets up a dichotomy: there's Sting the rock star, with houses on several continents, friends among the horsy set of England, the theatrical set in New York, and the natives of the Amazon rain forest. Then there is Gordon Sumner of Newcastle, the oldest of four children. His father was a milkman, his mother a hairdresser. He needed Sting to effect his escape.
Sting was 'born' around the time Sumner was seventeen. He played bass at night in local Newcastle jazz bands, while attending teacher's college by day. The Newcastle Big Band's 1972 local release (just try and find a copy) features bassist Gordon Sumner. A local player gave him the nickname "Sting," because the young bassist favoured yellow and black striped rugby shirts. The locals, who were prone to dress more conservatively, felt this gave Sumner a bee-like appearance.
He continued playing nights, even after graduating and commencing to teach fourth grade at St. Paul's First School. By the time he was 22, he was married and a father. He started playing with a band called Last Exit (not to be confused with the German/American venture of the same name, with Bill Laswell and Peter Brotzmann). This band put out an album in 1975 called 'Whispering Voices'. The singer and bass player on the record is a fellow named "Sting".
Increasingly disenchanted with teaching, he moved to London. Modelling and playing when he could, he hooked up with the drummer from the last version of Curved Air. Stewart Copeland was seeking out musicians for a new band. They got together with guitarist Henri Padovani, and in January of 1977 - at the crest of the British Punk wave - they started rehearsing and looking for gigs.
About a month later, they went into a recording studio and cut 'Fall Out'. The single cost them about $300 to record. Copeland's brother, Miles. was starting a record company and pressed up 2,000 copies of the single. They sold out almost immediately, and by the Spring of 1977, "The Police" found themselves on the independent charts in the UK.
In the meantime, the band got a gig as the backing band for groupie-turned-singer, Cherry Vanilla (the pink-haired poet). Together they toured the UK, opening for Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. A few weeks later, the Police played their own set, supporting Wayne County and the Electric Chairs through Holland.
These were not very lucrative gigs, and the life was pretty much hand-to-mouth. Worse yet, a sense of musical frustration was building in the band. Padovani had the slash-and-burn, absolute beginner mindset of the punk movement. Copeland and Sting's background had made them somewhat more musically sophisticated than that (rumour has it that Copeland played some of the more intricate guitar on 'Fall Out'). This clash of styles came to a head when Sting and Copeland were invited to open a Paris show for the reunited Gong. There they jammed with guitarist Andy Summers (neé Somers), under the name Strontium 90.
Somers was about a decade older than Sting and Copeland. He had worked with the Animals, Soft Machine, Neil Young and others. He had the equipment and chops one would expect of a long-time, working professional, including delay units and other effects. His sound merged with the modified reggae/rock Copeland and Sting had been playing. They asked Somers to join the Police. Two months later, Padovani left.
They started gigging as a trio that Summer. In the fall of '77, German proto-New Age fusionist Eberhard Schoener asked them to join him in the studio, and they recorded 'Video Flashback'. The new Police defied categorisation. They had the right configuration to be a punk band, but they had entirely the wrong sound. Nor were their reggae affectations quite up to speed (literally) for the burgeoning - but still underground - two-tone ska movement. They were more fond of Miles Davis than the MC5 or the Ramones. They knew their scales and rudiments, The complexity of even their early music reflected this unique musical identity.
Needless to say, times were tough. Soon after recording their debut album, needing to make some money, they were signed to portray a trio of punk rockers for a Wrigley's gum commercial. The ad required that they all dye their hair blond, an affection Sting continues to this day. Of course, the Wrigley's gig ruined any vestige of credibility they had on the punk/new wave scene.
By Spring, however, things were looking up. Miles Copeland, now managing the band, got them a deal with A&M. He was so convinced that they were going to be huge, he opted for less of an advance - it had only cost them some $6,000 to make the record - in lieu of a higher royalty rate. This was the first in a series of Miles' unorthodox, but ultimately successful, strategies on behalf of the Police. While they broke new ground for bands to come, Miles and The Police also went out of their way to avoid the business mistakes that were the bane of bands past. As Sting summed it up to Rolling Stone's Jim Henke, "We were ambitious. The opportunities presented themselves and we took 'em."
However, at the time the group's first single, 'Roxanne', was released in the UK, it might have seemed downright foolhardy to have given the money away. The band was committed to play with Schoener and were in Germany when they should have been promoting their own record. The single passed quietly.
By that Summer, Sting - who had turned the Wrigley's spot into several other commercial opportunities - got into his first film offer, the major supporting role of the Ace Face in Franc Roddam's film version of The Who's 'Quadrophenia'.
By the Fall, he had finished shooting his part. A&M put out another single, 'Can't Stand Losing You.' The band did some TV work in support of the record, and it rose to a modest #42 on the UK charts. Then, Miles unleashed another of his nonconformist stratagems for the band: Fully a month before their debut album was due to be released in America, he sent the band to New York, rented a van and equipment and sent them on a cheap and nasty tour of the United States. They drove the van, set up their own gear and lived a s meanly as possible.
"The first time I arrived from London," Sting recalled for Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis, "they drove us to the Bowery (in New York City). The streets were steaming and full of bums - you know where CBGB's is, it isn't one of the best streets. I thought, 'Man, this is incredible, it's like Hades!' And the club was even worse. We got on stage and we tore the place up."
They did a lot of that on the tour, despite internal dissension and audiences of sometimes less than ten people. "We played to three people in Poughkeepsie, New York," he added in the RS interview. "Two of them happened to be DJs."
Late that Fall, the LP 'Outlandos d'Amour' came out in both the US and UK. The tour had its effect: rather than an unknown quantity, by the time the record came out, the Police were a known name. The album became a college radio staple that year in America. By Spring of 1979, it broke the British top 10 and American top 30. The group went back for a sanctioned, supported tour of American clubs, playing music from 'Outlandos' and the newly recorded 'Reggatta de Blanc'. A&M, sensing something big, re-released the first two singles, 'Roxanne' and 'Can't Stand Losing You'. 'Roxanne' hit #32 in America, #12 in England.' Can't Stand Losing You' was kept off the top of the UK chart by The Boomtown Rats' phenomenally successful 'I Don't Like Mondays'.
With all this behind them, when 'Quadrophenia' opened in the Summer of 1979, Sting was no longer the commercial actor who plays with a rock band that made the film, but a certifiable (and marketable) pop star. His acting in the film was creditable enough that he got a spate of film offers, including the role of the villain in the forthcoming James Bond film. While film was something he wanted to pursue, he was too involved with the success of the Police at that point, and declined the offers.
Indicative of how the band's fortunes had changed over the course of 18 months, the first single from 'Reggatta de Blanc' - 'Message In A Bottle' - hit the top of the UK charts two weeks after it was released. The album reached #25 in America and topped the English charts for a month.
For the second single, the band took advantage of yet another burgeoning promotional tool. While touring America, they go permission to visit the Kennedy Space Centre in Houston. It seemed the natural place to film a video of their new single, 'Walking On The Moon'. The single also topped the UK charts.
The Police became a pop phenomenon, and Sting was the focal point of the group. He wrote all the singles and sang lead. The group's success had turned their front man into an internationally recognised entity. He took on another acting assignment, playing Just Like Eddie in the Chris Pettit film, 'Radio On'.
Early in 1980 Sting played a homecoming show as the Police ended their world tour; the group did two concerts for the Northumberland Association of Boys Clubs, the first in the musician's charitable use of their stardom.
The band took a well deserved break through the Winter, and went back into the studio in July. The single 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' topped the UK charts for a month, and when the album 'Zenyatta Mondatta' was released, it also topped the charts for a month.
While they were a phenomenon at home, the Police remained something of a cult band in America - until the second single from 'Zenyatta Mondatta' was released. With the unlikely title of 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da', the group had its first certifiable international hit. Not nearly as inane as the title would indicate, the song trod similar ground to that covered by the Who's 'I Can't Explain' - a young man turns aphasic in the face of a woman. As the Police toured the world, the song went top 10 all over the planet.
'Zenyatta Mondatta' presented a group in musical flux. The reggae affectations were giving way to a more progressive, though still very direct sound. Yet Sting's voice and Summers' effect-laden guitars left no question as to what group this was.
Ironically, at the 1980 Grammy awards, the instrumental title track from Reggatta de Blanc, earned the band the first of their five awards. On the telecast, the group were featured performers.
After the Grammy triumph, Sting took a little time off to pursue acting. He made a TV play for the BBC called 'Artemis 81'. When the band went to Montserrat to make their new album, BBC cameras were there also. A special on the making of the album - a follow-up to the previous year's live BBC documentary, 'The Police In The East' - aired at Christmas.
Sting continued to demonstrate his growing political consciousness. His solo acoustic version of 'Roxanne' was one of the highlights of the film and the recording of 'The Secret Policeman's Other Ball', a documentary that captured a benefit concert for Amnesty International.
'Ghost In The Machine' was released in the Fall of '81. Again, all the hits - 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,' 'Spirits In The Material World' and 'Invisible Sun' - were written by Sting. The last one, a comment on the situation in Northern Ireland, put Sting's social awareness into a musical context, in a departure for the band. It was one of many on the album. There was little left of the raw, reggae-influenced sound that informed 'Outlandos'. 'Ghost' was slick and distinctive.
'Zenyatta' earned the group two more Grammy awards in 1981, 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' won Best Rock Vocal Performance. For the second year, they took Best Rock Instrumental, for 'Behind My Camel'.
Sting started to work more outside the band. He took a starring role in 'Brimstone & Treacle'. His music made up more than half the soundtrack - three tunes with the Police, and six by himself. Among these was a minor British hit version of the 1929 music hall number, 'Spread A Little Happiness'. Additionally, he recorded two solo cover versions for the soundtrack of 'Party, Party'. That year he also divorced his wife, Frances Tomelty.
Perhaps it was this personal turmoil that was reflected in the next set of songs he did with the Police. 'Synchronicity' kicked off with the hit 'Every Breath You Take' - a treatise on obsession. The album was embraced by the pop audience worldwide, topping the US charts for 17 weeks, and spawning such its as 'Wrapped Around Your Finger', 'Synchronicity II' and 'King Of Pain'. However, there were signs of strain. With the exception of Andy Summers' 7/8 excursion into the oedipal Beefheart of darkness - 'Mother' - everything on this album was written by Sting.
The 1984 Grammy's were prescient in a way. The Police won Best Song of the Year for 'Every Breath You Take'. 'Synchronicity' took best Rock Performance honours. However, Sting also took home his first solo Grammy, ironically in the same category of the group's Grammy debut - Best Rock Instrumental - for the theme from 'Brimstone & Treacle'.
While there was never a formal announcement, all three members of the band started pursuing other interests. The Police disbanded. "In our final year, it was very clear to me that for the sake of sanity, for the sake of dignity, we should end it," Sting told DeCurtis. "We had the big song of the year, the big album of the year, the big tour of the year. We were it. We'd made it - everything we attempted, we'd achieved to the power of ten. That was time to say, 'Now we're off.'"
He took a role in David Lynch's version of Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic 'Dune'. He recorded a few tracks with Phil Collins, Miles Davis and Dire Straits. He played the role of Dr Frankenstein in an update of that old legend, 'The Bride'. He acted alongside Meryl Streep, Sam Neill and Tracy Ullman in 'Plenty'. He found a new girlfriend, Trudie Styler, and they had a child.
He also decided to put together a new band. Perhaps to bring things full circle, the band consisted of some of America's best young jazz players - Kenny Kirkland on keyboards, Omar Hakim on drums, Darryl Jones on bass, and Branford Marsalis on woodwinds. They record they made, 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles', broke ground in contemporary pop - not as arch as Steely Dan, it demonstrated that jazz roots could chart. The album walked the fine line between sophistication (if you liked it) and pretentiousness (if you didn't). It was a bold move by any standard. Yet, the record found an audience and spawned the hits 'Love Is The Seventh Wave', 'Russians', 'Fortress Around Your Heart', and 'If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.'
The sessions for the album and the subsequent tour were filmed by Michael Apted. He shot over a third of a million feet of film, which he eventually condensed to a two hour film. A double live album accompanied the film's release. Both projects were called 'Bring On The Night', after a song from 'Reggatta de Blanc' that the Blue Turtles band rearranged.
In addition to the musical changes, Sting's lyrics continued to veer in a more political direction. Certainly 'Russians', however simplistic, is a far cry from 'De Do Do Do'. Sting's assertion that he'd developed his songwriting" away from the subjects of love, alienation and devotion to a more political, socially aware viewpoint (made to 'Guitar Player' during the waning days of the Police, had started to become more evident.
The consciousness affected more than his music. In the era of musical philanthropy, Sting continued to be 'out there', second to none. He was part of Live Aid, The Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope, and Jerry Dammer's Anti-Apartheid concert. He contributed a song to the Special Olympic benefit record (A Very Special Christmas). More recently, he's been very active in trying to preserve the Brazilian rain forests. His visits to the area have embarrassed the government and kindled a friendship between the pop star and one of the native chiefs.
His musical horizons also went through public expansions. As part of Hal Willner's Kurt Weill Project, 'Lost In The Stars', he performed 'Mack The Knife'. A year later, he and Eberhard Schoener put on a night of Brecht and Weill songs in Hamburg. He also continued his jazz forays, playing a set at the Umbria Jazz Festival with the Gil Evans Orchestra.
The Evans Orchestra was featured , backing Sting in their classic arrangements of Jimi Hendrix's 'Little Wing', on his next release, '...Nothing Like The Sun'. This double record extended Sting's jazz excursions, but also acknowledged more of his rock past. Ride with guest stars like Eric Clapton, Ruben Blades (credited with the "Spanish" in 'They Dance Alone' - Sting's paean to those disappeared by the Junta in Chile), and Mark Knopfler. He continued to break new ground, becoming one of the first contemporary artists to record a version of an English album in Spanish and Portuguese. Not the hit factory that his previous records were, '...Nothing Like The Sun' nonetheless generated two substantial singles, 'We'll Be Together' and 'Be Still My Beating Heart', and sold a million or so copies.
The growing breadth of Sting's musical tastes presented him with another role to play. He founded Pangaea Records (distributed through Miles Copeland's IRS - the same label that released 'Fall Out' over a decade previously and put out music that he personally found interesting. These projects ranged from re-releasing the contemporary jazz musings of Kip Hanrahan, to the stark tangos of Astor Piazzola to his own version of Stravinsky's 'Soldier's Tale'.
His interest in Brecht and Weill also took a new turn. In 1989, Sting made his Broadway debut in 'Three Penny Opera'. While the production garnered just lukewarm reviews, Sting's presence in the show attracted crowds.
As the '80s drew to a close, Sting's musical directions were less than clear. Shortly after the Broadway show closed, the director, John Dexter, died. Not long after that, one of Sting's co-stars Ethyl Eichelberger succumbed to AIDS. Sting had recorded through his mother's funeral in July of '87. His father passed on several months later. And suddenly he couldn't write.
"At the beginning of 1990, when I was expected to work on a third studio album, there seemed to be a certain amount of anticipation regarding a new piece of work," he remarked. "At the time, I had very little to show in the way of material. In fact, since the recording of '...Nothing Like The Sun', in 1987, I hadn't written so much as rhyming couplet, much less a whole song. I was suffering from what they call 'writer's block'. It sounds romantic, doesn't it? It wasn't it. It wasn't any fun at all."
Having gone through Jungian analysis, he sought the root of the block. "If you can't think of anything to write, it's either because you don't have anything to say, or that you have something to say and you're too afraid to say it."
Deciding it was probably the latter, he started plumbing the depths of his memory. He had never properly mourned his parents, never made peace with his father. 'The Soul Cages' became a way to find artistic release.
He could have done something simple. Being a star allows for a certain amount of float, sometimes even demands it. If you challenge a pop audience too much, you risk losing them. But since going against the prevailing punk currents in 1977, Sting has endeavoured to avoid avoiding risk. The proof is in the grooves.