Interview: STING.COM (Pt 1) (2003)

December 09, 2003

This is part 1 of an interview with Sting and Gerry Richardson by Chris Salewicz took place in September 2003 for

How did you two meet each other? We've heard Sting's version in his book...

Gerry: I really can't remember. I know it was connected with the folk club, and that Megan may have introduced us but of course all this coloured by having recently read the book, so if I'd been asked that question before reading the book it might have been different but I can't see that I can add anything to that. Sorry!

So the folk club was at the university bar?

Gerry: Well, teacher training college.

Sting: It was the college bar. It was a Sunday night, it was a winter and I'd seen this phenomena a couple of weeks running and I thought 'I can fucking do better than that!', so I brought my guitar along and they gave me a spot and then his nibs came up and said he'd liked the odd chord... not all of it...

Gerry: [laughs]

Sting: ...but some of it and we started to have a few drinks and he recognised a kindred spirit and that was it.

Was it hard in those days to meet kindred spirits - people who got what you were thinking about music?

Gerry: At teacher training college I think it was because it was mostly a load of female home economic students...

Sting: Which is why we went there!

Gerry: [laughs] Yes!

Sting: I think both of us were looking for a way in to the 'dream' and college seemed to be a way of at least having a safety net underneath you. You had a grant and you were institutionalised to a certain extent, you had something to do during the day but none of us had any intention of being teachers.

Gerry: No, and I think also that the kindred spirit thing is also that we both regarded ourselves as being pretty fucking hip! You know, really anti pop music and into the burgeoning stuff of the time, what we thought was the good stuff. Jazz and blues and things like Jimi Hendrix and Cream were just really seminal and through people like Jimi Hendrix and Cream over the years we sort of went back to the originators. Its like what happened with the Amazing Friendly Apple in Leeds - they led me straight back to Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith - all that stuff which I've now been stuck with for the rest of my life. [laughs]

Sting: We recognised each other basically as having as common interest,

So you went over to Gerry's place. Can you remember what sort of records he was playing? What was in his record collection for example?

Gerry: Oh well... I had loads of Miles Davis then. The Bitches Brew was actually long term borrowed off somebody else. I think I eventually gave it back to them or maybe I've still got it. Graham Bond. I had a lot of Graham Bond records, Jimmy Smith... lots of soul jazz basically.

Sting: The hippest thing you had, the earliest commercial record you had was Stephen Stills' solo album.

Gerry: Did I?

Sting: Yeah, you had that. And a bit of Van Morrison. I mean you could tell what somebody was by looking at their record collection in those days. You know, people would have like twelve or fifteen albums at the most and you could recognise what they were into very quickly by just flicking through. People would do that. You'd go to somebody's house and go 'Oh yes, yes, Dvorak, pretentious...' So it was a kind of shorthand for recognising who you were. I don't think that exist anymore in a way, those album covers were very much a flagship for who you were and what you cared about.

What was in your collection at that point?

Sting: Probably not much more poppy than Gerry's collection. Er,I'm trying to think what I was buying at the time. The Faces, Rod Stewart - what year are we talking about, '73?

Gerry: No, it will be earlier than that, '71 isn't it?

Yes, I think it's '71.

Sting: Frank Zappa. I was really into Zappa, 'Weasels Ripped my Flesh' and 'Hot Rats'. I loved 'Hot Rats' and in fact everything Zappa did and then I followed it back from 'Hot Rats' and got Mothers of Invention stuff. I really liked that.


Sting: Well, yeah, I owned every Dylan record and could probably play every song. There's only four chords anyway but I knew all the lyrics to 'When The Ship Comes In' and 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' and all that stuff. I knew it. And so that was part of my 'work'.

And you'd have all Beatles stuff as well presumably?

Sting: I had all the Beatles records, well everybody did.

Gerry: Yeah, I remember I went and bought 'Sgt Pepper' with the money I was supposed to get a haircut for and got into terrible trouble... [laughs]

Sting: It cost thirty bob for a haircut?

Gerry: Yeah, it was quite an expensive hairdresser, or I may had a bit of my own bread..

Sting: I can't imagine you getting a thirty bob haircut to be honest with you.

Gerry: It's a true story!

Sting: I always think two and six for your haircut...

Gerry: Well it is these days [laughs]

So you soon started playing together. How do you empathise and what did you feel when you played together?

Sting: I really felt that because of the music - it was Gerry's band - and it was music that Gerry was much more au-fait with, I really felt like I was an apprentice and I was there just by the skin of my teeth, you know just holding the bass part down. Luckily the bass isn't a difficult instrument... you just play one in the bar and you're playing a major chord. It's not that difficult, but I was learning from Gerry and kind of taking in his sensibility about jazz. I wasn't a jazz musician but I think a lot of my education was responsible in that period that he was educating me to more serious music.

Gerry: I don't see it that... see from my perspective I didn't see it that you were kind of in a subservient role. I mean I remember that you found some Jack Bruce records for instance. Didn't we used to do 'Never Tell Your Mother She's Out Of Tune'?

Sting: Yeah.

Gerry: And you brought that to the pot and worked out all the parts and that was like new input for me.

Sting: Well I always had good ears. You used to say 'You've got fantastic ears'. Because Gerry could read really well and I couldn't. I mean I learned to read after that. That's what really interested me - this guy was a real musician, not just a garage band rock and roller. He was interested in the whole panoply of being a musician, which is about arranging and composing and reading a doing a journeyman job of backing cabaret and all that stuff. That fascinated me.

Gerry: And it was far better than working on a building site.

Sting: Absolutely. And far more interesting than playing Led Zeppelin riffs in a garage. That didn't appeal to me either.

So did you see a possibility here from what Gerry was doing? Had you considered that there was that life, or was it like you would be playing Led Zeppelin riffs in a garage?

Sting: Well, he was making money as a musician at college. He'd go out and do these gigs - not terribly glamorous gigs - but nonetheless it interested me that you could make money playing music. That could be your living.

Gerry: Yeah, I mean I was very well off for a student throughout the time I was at college. Certainly after the first year. I mean if you even looked like a piano player you could get a gig. I mean, I say to my students now 'I learned to read by getting fired!' And I got fired so many times for screwing up the cabaret. Sting's making it sound like I was a complete...

Sting: Genius...?

Gerry: ...I wasn't. [laughs]. I remember acts practically wanting to beat me up in the dressing room afterwards, but I suppose I was a couple of years down the road in front of you. I could read a bit and he couldn't read at all. [laughs]

Sting: I learned to read in the same way, on the job. We were in a big band, and they'd throw these bass parts at you. A lot of the parts you could busk. If it was a twelve bars blue you could busk that but it if it was a more complex arrangement you had to learn to read the dots. So we learned on the spot.

Was that with the Newcastle Big Band?

Sting: Yeah.

That comes a bit after...

Sting: Yes it does.

Gerry: But not much after.

Sting: It's all kind of concurrent you know.

But your parents were both musicians.

Gerry: That's right.

So did that give you a greater impetus. You saw that it was possible to make your life that way?

Gerry: My parents weren't professional musicians. My dad had had quite a lot of success before the war winning music festivals on flute and he ran a semi-professional dance band after the war, and music was just always in the house. I was forced to be a member of Leeds Parish Church choir for six or seven years which I absolutely hated but I got piano lessons thrown in with that. And I hated the guy who gave me piano lessons but I did sort of rudimentary learn to play the piano and then I started teaching myself after that. And I was lucky at secondary school in that both of the guys in the music department were both jazz pianists. They didn't show me a lot but what they did do was say listen, listen to that, listen to this and occasionally they would show me a chord. But mainly they encouraged developing a knowledge of the jazz repertoire and also improving your aural skills because the only way to really know music is to listen to it.

So you start playing together and you [Gerry] go off to Bristol and he nicks your bird...

Gerry: No that happened beforehand. I mean Alice wasn't really my bird. She knew I wasn't serious. I didn't pass the seriousness test!

Sting: I couldn't believe how blasé he was about it.

Gerry: Because, it wasn't happening man, you know! I wasn't losing anything basically.

Sting: She was deeply attractive... We had two years at college together before he left for Bristol. It was long period. We had a band at college called Earthrise which rarely did a gig but we were a band, we rehearsed every day in the music department. We had this girl singer who became my girlfriend and a horn player, a tenor saxophone and flugelhorn trumpet player...

Gerry: Trumpet yeah, well flugel and trumpet...

Sting: And Paul Elliot on drums. But there was no guitar, and that was also his kind of thing. He didn't want guitars in the band.

Gerry: I'd spent that last five years getting drowned out by some bastard with an AC30 you know? And you're on acoustic piano and your fingers are bleeding. I thought we'd be a guitar free zone for a bit!

Sting: That was an interesting thing, because very few bands didn't not have guitarists at the time so that kind of gave us a different colour to most of the other stuff that was going down and so we'd look to people like Brian Auger and Graham Bond - that kind of vibe for the archetype we were trying to go for rather than Cream and guitar bands. We didn't have one.

What was your repertoire. What were you playing?

Gerry: Large portions of Joe Cocker's 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' a lot of course which is ripped off from Ray Charles anyway, bits of Jack Bruce, bits of Ian Carr's Nucleus...

Sting: Graham Bond...

Gerry: Graham Bond...

Sting: Resurrection Shuffle...

Gerry: Yeah, we used to sing that...

Sting: Ashton Gardner and Dyke...

Gerry: I mean we used to do the clubs didn't we? We did a few working men's clubs and one or two nightclubs. I seem to remember us playing a bingo hall in Ashington... [laughs]. I think we had one or two... soul stuff as well. Aretha Franklin. Didn't you used to sing... no, that was in Last Exit. I was going to say 'I don't need whole lots of money'

Sting: Junior Walker and the All Stars 'Some Kind of Wonderful', Was it Junior Walker?

Gerry: Yeah.

So, how much did you get for playing a date?

Gerry: Not a lot! Something like £30, something like that for the band?

Sting: If we came out with two pounds fifty each it was a good night.

Gerry: Probably I'm exaggerating when I say £30.

Sting: And that was taking in petrol costs, and you'd drink the rest of it. Whatever you made you'd drink in ale.

Gerry: You'd have do it the way that economists work with Mars Bars. When I was working for the organ pool providing deps for working men's clubs organists I could afford to pay a driver and a few drinks on the gig and still come out with a reasonable profit, but I can't remember what we used to get paid.

I think £30 would be a good amount of money in those days...

Sting: For the band? Yeah, that's £25-£30.

Gerry: That's probably near to the average weekly wage.

I think the average weekly wage was about £20 in those days. So all the people you play with, are they all at teacher training college with you?

Gerry: Yeah they were, apart from Paul the drummer.

Sting: Paul was my friend from school and he was working for his dad at some kind of engineering works and Gerry was in college in the year above me, Steve too. Aldo had left college, he was actually teaching and Alice was in my year doing drama and English. What happened to the bass player we got rid of?

Gerry: I don't know. The Irish guy?

Sting: He writes me letters occasionally.

Gerry: Does he?

Sting: He's still pissed off. [laughs]

Gerry: Oh, he's still annoyed about it is he? [laughs]

Sting: It's still my gig!

Gerry: Well he didn't even have his own bass. He was using my bass!

Sting: Gerry was a bass player as well.

Why did you decide to play bass?

Sting: I figured it out one day. In the community of people I was with I was known as a pretty good guitar player, you know I had very good ears and I could play all the riffs but I was never going to be a virtuoso guitarist so one day I just picked up the bass because it was lying around and nobody else was doing it and I figured out that this was a much more strategic route for me to go to particularly as I wanted to sing as well. It just seemed a kind of quiet heroism. You know, you'd be stoic just there laying it down at the bottom end. It was just an instinct that that was the way I should go. And I was very right, there are not very many bass players who can sing because it's quite difficult. They always play contrapuntally against the melody... it's not like strumming a guitar.

Gerry: That's why we ended up doing Jack Bruce tunes because he was kind of a model for you.

Sting: He was one of the people who could do it. McCartney, Phil Lynott... there are very few.

Gerry: And I suppose later on what's his name... later on...

Sting: Mark King?

Gerry: Larry Graham.

Sting: It was a strategy basically - long term.

So basically Earthrise doesn't really happen does it?

Sting: No it doesn't. It didn't happen at all, and then he got a gig in a nightclub in South Shields. It was a trio. So he was working most nights, then they got an offer in Bristol, to go to a posh nightclub in Bristol. So he left but he did leave me with a couple of gigs. One was the big band gig and the Phoenix Jazzmen which he was moonlighting with. So he didn't leave me bereft. It was very kind of him actually.

Gerry: Sting actually smashed Earthrise up. I mean he has a track record for doing this.

Sting: Did I?

Gerry: Yeah. He joins your band, takes it over then smashes it up.

Sting: I don't remember this, please enlighten us.

Gerry: I don't think I was actually in the room at the time, I think I was in the bar getting a drink or something and you lost your temper with the horn section.

Sting: I did?

Gerry: Yeah.

Sting: It sounds very unlike me. Carry on.

Gerry: And so they took their bat and ball and we lost the horn section because they were so traumatised by you shouting at them and then you said 'lets get a guitarist'. I'm being unkind when I say he smashed it up - he just got rid of the horn section. And I remember us driving around trying to get a guitarist and maybe this is another time...

Sting: We did have a guitarist for about half an hour. He was very good actually. He was in a club band and had a Les Paul and a big Marshall stack and we were very impressed by it.

Gerry: [laughs]

Sting: But that really didn't work. But I don't remember breaking up the band.

Gerry: No, I'm exaggerating, but I think you sacked the horn section.

Sting: But it was your band. How could I sack...

Gerry: Ah, but it wasn't by then...

Sting: Ah, the old cuckoo trick, you get in the nest and then you kick people out.

You were aware this was happening were you?

Gerry: I think only retrospectively. [laughs] In 20/20 hindsight.

So you'd been playing with the Phoenix Jazzmen and the Newcastle Big Band? So you passed these on...

Gerry: These gigs were seven nights a week and it was also late nights until 2 o'clock in the morning and so I didn't have time to do anything else really. So it was a good way to approach your third year in college though, working seven nights a week until two in the morning [laughs]. And so I had a few gigs with the Newcastle Big Band and I was working regularly in the clubs at the weekend with the Phoenix on Saturday and Sunday nights so it wasn't a bad little earner.

What kind of material are the Phoenix Jazzmen and the Newcastle Big Band playing?

Gerry: Well the Newcastle Big Band was playing your standard big band repertoire Sammy Nestico arrangements, Thad Jones...

Sting: Neil Hefty...

Gerry: ...and playing them extremely badly I have to say, but we didn't know that at the time. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is what they call in the States a 'lab band' where every section is perfectly drilled and accurate. It was a kind of enjoyable mess.

Sting: It was 25 pissheads on a Sunday lunchtime trying to get through to the end of an arrangement. But I found it incredibly interesting and inspiring. We were attempting to play real music. We really were, because these arrangements were fantastic. If a really good band played them it would sound fantastic. We made approximations of it but it was still a fantastic education and very entertaining. We packed rooms.

Gerry: Yeah, real heart. It was a soul band in a way because people really meant it but it was a bit ragged round the edges.

Sting: You couldn't get in the University bar on a Sunday afternoon for people just dying to be in there. A very entertaining, very funny, very warm and encompassing kind of vibe. Andy Hudson who was the band-leader at the time I learnt a lot from. About being a bandleader, a frontman. You talked to the audience, you embraced them you let them be complicit in a joke and it worked. It was fantastic. I miss it. I still miss it on a Sunday morning. It would be great to be playing with a big band this morning!

In that great tradition, were you a bit pissed when you went on?

Sting: Totally. Totally pissed. I mean, how we read the dots I do not know. It was like a train wreck a lot of the time but massive fun.

Gerry: And the Phoenix Jazzmen were a kind of cabaret traditional jazz band playing bits of the New Orleans repertoire, bits of pop tunes tradded-up. They were kind of sub Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band or Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen...

Sting: With aspirations to be Chris Barber and Humphrey Lyttelton [laughs]. But again, that was huge fun and I learned a great deal.

But that kind of repertoire didn't sound dated at that time?

Sting: It was totally dated and totally unfashionable and I don't know how we got gigs frankly but we played before the bingo.

Gerry: Yeah. They would have been old fashioned in the clubs even then.

Sting: People wanted to hear top twenty, top ten songs, and we didn't play any of them. Except they did make me do 'Never Ending Song Of Love' every now and then by the New Seekers. Which was... I used to have to steel myself to do it. And that was part of my professionalism... wearing my pink nylon shirt. [laughs]

Did you play any other gigs apart from the University and this Sunday lunchtime residency?

Sting: Yeah, we were quite respectable. People would invite us to posh parties - the big band I'm talking about - and it was very much part of the University middle class jazz scene.

Gerry: A lot of the guys in the band were very middle class. Nigel Stanger was an architect...

Sting: John Pearson was a lawyer. There were doctors and lawyers and...

Gerry: Us!

Sting: Yeah us!

So you come back to Newcastle and how long is it before you hear about his revival of Joseph and Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat? What period of time are we talking about? What year is it?

Gerry: I came back from Bristol really to form a band with Sting. In fact I had a plan that basically we were backing cabaret and covering pops in this club in Bristol and the band leader was a bass player and his girlfriend was the singer and I didn't get on with them and they were supposed to be going on holiday and I wanted to form a band that was going to consist of two keyboard players, Sting and the drummer. And the plan was that we were going to put this together while the bass player and girl singer went on holiday. They were going to do the holiday relief dep and we'd get the genesis of this thing and we got fired from the club. So I just went straight up to Newcastle to see what we could put together with Sting.

Sting: So you missed me?

Gerry: Yeah, I wanted to work with you again.

Sting: This is the first time he's admitted it. (laughs] Well, I missed you Gerry too. Violins please!

So do you come back to play in the big band again? Is that how it works?

Gerry: That did happen, yes. They got some Arts Council money and sliced the Newcastle Big Band down into a more manageable size and called it the Tyneside Jazz Orchestra, and they kicked Andy off the piano and gave me the piano chair and basically the rhythm section was Last Exit. John Hedley, you, me and Ronnie Pearson on drums.

Sting: Actually, the band was a lot better at that point.

Gerry: Oh yes, they were starting to turn into a funky 'lab band'.

Ronnie Pearson was in Back Door. They had a buzz didn't they? I remember getting their records.

Gerry: I think he was in Back Door for about ten seconds...

Sting: He was in Back Door before they cracked it and had a record deal, but they'd play at the Blakey Ridge on Teesside, a pub on the moors which Last Exit eventually used to play at. But that was Ron's story. He'd been close to being in the Beatles, and close to being in Back Door.

He had really been close to being the Beatles? I was never sure.

Sting: That was the story, but we never verified it. It sounded likely. He was from that era, he was from Warrington, he was a very good drummer. He was considered to be one of the very best drummers in the North of England.

Gerry: Ronnie did a lot of drum teaching and his story was that he'd given Ringo some lessons and Paul, and that Paul was quicker on the uptake than Ringo, but whether it's true or not I don't know. I think it probably is.

Are you doing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat with Last Exit or is it just before it?

Sting: It is really Last Exit.

It's what becomes Last Exit you mean?

Sting: Yep.

And how did that show go?

Sting: That show was an immense success. It was huge success and was supposed to run for five weeks and ran for like twelve or thirteen. We got paid £60 a week and it was actually pretty good music. Simple, not pretentious. It was just a pastiche of rock and roll styles - it was fantastic. So the money we made from that was definitely a kind of bed that you could lie on. And then we did the Rock Nativity and that was more of the same, with Tony Hatch.

So you must have been very impressed that Tony Hatch was doing this, if he had a history of sixties pop?

Sting: Oh, I still think Tony Hatch is a pop genius. 'Downtown'? If I'd written that I'd be very happy.

How did he seem when you met him? I've never met him.

Sting: How did he seem then? Terrifying. He was a famous person. We'd never met a famous person before. He just seemed daunting in his tailored suit and his cashmere coat and his posh hair. He just seemed like another world to us.

Gerry: It's frightening because the guy's written all the music and he's written all the arrangements and he knows every bloody quaver of those parts and we're sitting there shaking trying to read them!

Sting: Some of it was quite difficult. Gerry was talking about one of the keyboard parts in the overture and I had this C minor run on the bass which was played at an impossible tempo. I spent weeks practising this thing, but it was good it kind of galvanised us that somebody that famous was associated with us. It would kind of rub of on us some how. We were thrilled.

Was he touring this all over the country?

Sting: No it never got out of Newcastle.

Gerry: It was the premiere of it.

That was the trial run presumably?

Gerry: Yeah.

Sting: And I met my first wife, Frances Tomelty, who was the leading lady.

And wasn't her dog trying to piss against your Hammond organ?

Sting: All the time.

Gerry: Mmm, you just couldn't get it away for years.

Sting: 'This Hammond organ smells really strange lately!'

You were sharing a flat together, a flat in Heaton?

Gerry: Yes, that's right.

Are you still living a student life or are you pretty disciplined?

Sting: Pretty squalid. We're not actually students at this time, we'd both left, but we're living in a sort of garret and there are mice and damp everywhere, and the wallpaper keeps falling off because its filthy and cold and we're burning furniture at night to keep warm.

Are you really burning furniture?

Sting: Yes. We burned the dining room chairs one night (both laughing]. But we were cold. We were there under false pretences. We were supposed to be a married couple and I think I'd got Alice or Megan to pretend to be my wife with a wedding ring and everything. Gerry wasn't supposed to exist, so we kept up that pretence for a couple of years I think.

Gerry: I think it was about that.

Sting: But it was a pretty squalid flat, I mean really horrible.

So fairly normal then in that case...

Sting: Fairly normal, yeah, for that era. And then we had a kid and sort of cleaned it up a bit when Joe was born. I remember painting my bedroom.

So Frances moved in there with you?

Sting: Yes she did eventually, although she was commuting from London a lot because she was a serious actress.




Nov 17, 2003

Sting, in Toronto on the weekend to perform at MuchMoreMusic and to promote a new album and book, admits he gave half a thought to checking out Bono's appearance at the Liberal leadership convention on Friday night. "I found out Bono was here after my show," said Sting, 52, during a Saturday afternoon interview in a suite at the Windsor Arms Hotel. "But I was too tired to go and see him." The coincidence of the two universally recognizable pop stars being in Toronto at the same time, while not quite cosmic, was at least noteworthy...

Nov 15, 2003

Sting in the tale: The legendary singer has always told his life story through his distinctive music. Now, with a revealing new autobiography on the shelves, the former Police frontman fills in some of the gaps. Born Gordon Sumner, the son of a Geordie milkman, Sting has come a long way since his tough, Tyneside childhood. After paying his dues playing on cruise ships, he found fame in the 70s with The Police, and went on to carve out a solo career that has endured like few others over the years. And, with a new album out now and an autobiography released this month, Sting has confirmed his status as one of the most respected musicians in the industry today...