Rock’s oddest couple on Trump, Brexit, privilege and the perils of the public laundromat.
Perhaps it is not as odd as it seems. For a start, they both have “ridiculous names”, says Sting, “which people no longer question”. Shaggy and Sting were born Orville and Gordon. Their nicknames arrived in their youth: Sting’s, from a black-and-yellow striped jumper he wore in his days as bass player in a Newcastle jazz band – even his mother called him Sting. Shaggy’s, from his resemblance, at the age of 12 when he was living in Jamaica, to the character from Scooby-Doo – his mother calls him Richard.
“Richard?” says Sting, looking momentarily thrown. That is Shaggy’s middle name. His wife calls him Richard too. “Don’t think you can come in my house being Shaggy,” she warns him.
They sit in a boardroom overlooking Central Park. Sting wears a fashionably dishevelled pinstripe suit and traces the edge of the table with his finger. His hair is as bleached as it ever was and his expression bears decades of heavy thinking. Shaggy has a red shiny baseball jacket and a cap turned to the side, a bit like a cartoon rapper. His arms are thrown comfortably on either side of his chair. Through a mutual musical acquaintance, they met last year and jammed in a studio. The mysterious alchemy of collaboration ensued. The story is less how their new record came about, more the fact that it did at all – because, light and sunshiny as 44/876 may be (it is named after the British and Jamaican dialling codes), it is also very strange. Shaggy says this album will disrupt. Go against the status quo, and the grain.
Shaggy was delighted, visiting England around the time of his hits in the Nineties, to learn the ruder significance of his name. It allowed him to flesh out his “character”– for that is what Shaggy is to Orville R Burrell, who speaks in a New York accent. Shaggy is a wining, grinding, priapic reggae star, composer of baby-makin’ music, whom one journalist compared to a Jamaican Benny Hill. And he is developing. The mid-nineties Shaggy was Mr Boombastic (“Come lay down in me jacuzzi and get some bubble bath”). The millennial Shaggy was a wealthy Branson/Bond-villain figure, masterminding a younger man’s shagging via state-of-the-art surveillance in the video for the song “It Wasn’t Me”. Of that tuneful and explicit international hit, he tells me:
“It’s about three things: either you’re banging, or somebody’s banging, or you wish you were banging somebody. It’s something relatable in everyday life.”
And the 2018 Shaggy is more politically correct. “I’m actually giving better advice than before,” he says. On the new album, he has a turn as moral arbiter. Sting wrote a cosmic courtroom drama called “Crooked Tree”, in which a man is sent down for a variety of sins including arson, murder, blackmail, grand larceny and human trafficking. Shaggy, Sting said, was to play the judge.
“It made me think of Jamaica,” says Shaggy. “We have the British legal system, with the high courts – all the weight, and the wig, but with these really thick Jamaican accents.” On the song, the “Honorable Judge Burrell” barks “guilty as chaaaaarged!” and convicts the defendant, played by Sting, with a seismic bang of his gavel.
Says Shaggy, “Here is this Englishman that comes to Jamaica to create a lot of felonies, and I’m just going to convict his ass!”
Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” in 1982 in Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye estate on Jamaica’s northern coastline, at the desk where Fleming had written his Bonds. He was 31, already hugely successful and hiding out after a scandalous divorce. Seventy miles down the road in Kingston town, the 14-year-old Shaggy was already enjoying the Police, who’d had six hits in the US by then, and more in the UK, and whom he describes as “the gateway band to a lot of reggae music”. Songs like “Roxanne” were huge in Jamaica: Sting’s voice was high and strange, Shaggy says, and he could hold long notes for a very long time – it got through to you. The Police’s punk-reggae “brought that art form to the mainstream masses”. They’d toured with Burning Spear and Aswad. The child Shaggy lived with his mother. He wore Jamaican punk garb – a tie, a collar and no shirt – to parties.
“Jamaica has influenced pop culture in such a huge way,” he says.
“Profoundly,” says Sting. “Profoundly,” says Shaggy.
Sting’s interest in reggae was both political and academic. “Rock music is a very reactionary form,” he tells me. As Gil Evans’s jazz arrangements appealed to him as a teenager, so did calypso and ska, “in the way that the drums were played, and the bass was brought out on top. I had an understanding of Caribbean music, so for me it was always a homage, and not cultural appropriation.” You feel a bit sorry that he felt he had to bring up the phrase, but Sting is a questioning person. His first band after the Police consisted of black jazz musicians, and he asked then, “Am I the patrician white rock star? Or am I the novice?”
Another point of similarity between these two surprising counterparts is that, in the collective consciousness at least, they are both very sexual. Shaggy and Sting are the twin poles of masculine libido – one pursuing bikinied booty on a beach like a sniffer dog; the other a paragon of psychosexual stamina, who’d mastered the practice of tantric yoga, which led to a joke boast in the early Nineties (five hours) that has followed him ever since, but which pointed to a certain spirituality in Sting that few people knew what to do with.
When they interviewed him back then, male music journalists couldn’t get thoughts of Sting and sex out of their heads. They all mentioned his muscle tone, his chest, chiselled bones and tantric life. I was almost afraid to be in the room with Shaggy and Sting together, thinking the sexuality might be overwhelming – but Sting looks studiously into the middle distance and Shaggy merely admires my leg warmers.
Their first single, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, is a classic shagging song – Sting is thoughtful: “I’m already sold on the idea of you and/Just tell me where I need to sign” and Shaggy is horny: “Come on, girl!”
“In this climate, you know, the song could be misconstrued,” muses Sting. “As married men, you learn about compromise, you learn about…”
“Patience,” says Shaggy.
“Patience, as a man,” agrees Sting. “It’s not a natural thing for us! So the song needs to reflect a more balanced view. I hope we achieved it. But of course, you know, we are keen, we are conditioned that way. But asking a woman what she wants is one of the most important things a man can learn.”
“We’re fans of women,” concludes Shaggy. A survey by his record label around the turn of the millennium revealed that women are fans of him too. Has Mr Boombastic found his feminine side?
“Have I?” he says, eyes wide. “Embrace it all, man, and live!”
A live performance of “Don’t Make Me Wait” at the Grammys, in January, was met with some confusion, being the first that many people knew of the collaboration. It segued from Sting’s 1987 hit “Englishman in New York”, which was an interesting medley: that hymn to Quentin Crisp and the exceptional richness of what Jung, whom Sting studied in the Eighties, would call the hermaphroditic soul, followed by a classic banging song. Sting once said that the image of the hermaphrodite soul in art – Bowie, Boy George – was an ideal we all strive for. Crisp, “a singular man, a very brave man”, was one of the older figures he befriended in the Eighties; Crisp actually said those words to him – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”.
Sting performed the song in Trump’s New York, because of “the ludicrous idea of calling anyone an alien”. He seems a bit reluctant to talk about hermaphrodite souls today but then says: “I think it’s important for an artist to see the world through other people’s eyes. I wrote a song a couple of years ago, and I don’t know why, but I started to channel a transgender prostitute. I have no experience of that but I thought it was interesting as a thought experiment. Music is an empathy machine, and I take that job seriously, even though it might be odd sometimes.”
Three years ago, at the Public Theater just off Broadway, I watched a workshop of Sting’s musical The Last Ship, which is currently wending its way around regional theatres in Britain. It is the latest sign of a prediction Sting made in 1987 to Q magazine: that one day, mass appeal and his personal tastes would separate. He has done symphonies, lute music, gangster movies, Quadrophenia, a Stravinsky adaptation with Ian McKellen and a Threepenny Opera among many other things. The Last Ship is the story of a group of men who build a ginormous tanker in Newcastle and sail it to the New World. Jimmy Nail sang at the New York performance, perched alongside Sting on a stool.
Sting grew up on Gerald Street in Wallsend, where the hulk of a 10,000-tonne ship twice as high as the houses cast a permanent shadow from the Swan Hunter slipway. Such a ship would be built every year, and everyone would watch the launch. As it blocked the space and was then released, the vessel represented a constant cycle of constraint and departure for the child Sting. His father was a milkman: the class divide between him and his Police band mate Stewart Copeland, son of a CIA diplomat, fuelled much press interest in the early days.
“I always thought class ruled,” he says. “I wanted not to be judged by my accent. So I developed no accent. It made it easier to be fluid and not be judged. There were no regional accents on television. Now, I only speak Geordie when I’m angry or I’m with a Geordie – and I can speak it well.”
Sting and his brother would take part in the milk round, going to the dairy at 4am. He was particularly good at picking up the empties because he had big hands. He could do ten at a time, he once said. His father was hard to please – not overtly impressed by Sting’s academic achievements, his passing of the 11-plus, his athletics trophies or his music career. Grammar school alienated him from his family. Sting was a bus conductor and a labourer, before teaching English at St Paul’s First School in Cramlington. He wasn’t “ambitious” until he discovered music.
He lost both his parents at the height of his fame, within seven months of each other. His mother, whom he credits with his musical education, was a strong character – she died of cancer, and wanted to volunteer at Chernobyl, pointing out that she was already full of radiation. He found a point of connection with his father towards the end of his life, when he sat with him and noticed how similar their hands were. He didn’t write any lyrics for two years after his parents died, but his famous rainforest campaign followed instead.
At the theatre, Sting told a story about the time the Queen Mother came to their road in Wallsend. As she passed in her car and everyone lined up to wave, he told himself that he would one day be on the inside of a car like that. The wealthy donors in the theatre cheered. Sting’s is a truly American tale – the very way he put his sentences together riled a UK music press that liked to see musicians hymning their roots rather than escaping them. The rainforest campaign saved an area the size of Belgium, but that too was a sign of stepping outside one’s box. “The source of pain is your motives being misunderstood,” he told Q. He spends most of his time in New York these days. But he votes in Britain, and by the time we talk about Brexit he is slapping the boardroom table.
“The people who voted for it are as dispirited as the ones who voted against it, and at least we’re joined in that. We’re all in this fucking mess, no one knows how to fucking get out of it.”
Shaggy points out that they are both “citizens of the world”.
“But we have the privilege of our careers, we can do that,” says Sting. “Most people don’t have that privilege, they’re stuck. I find it depressing and dispiriting. Our society is violent and confused – and yeah, maybe all this is important for us to ‘figure out something about ourselves’. But I see things from a different perspective than someone who lives in Sunderland and is stuck, and saying, ‘I just want to vote for something different, that sticks a spanner in the works.’ It’s those people who will suffer, and that’s a tragedy.”
“I know people who have never seen the ocean,” Shaggy muses. “I was in the military with a guy, we were on the fighting roll together, and his first time he’d ever been on a plane was when they flew him over to the desert on a jet.”
Shaggy’s mother, who raised him without his father, moved from Kingston to Flatbush, Brooklyn as an illegal immigrant and worked as a medical secretary, leaving him with his grandmother and then sending for him when she’d saved enough money. She was, Shaggy says, “the biggest dreamer”. He brings up their new song “Dreaming in the USA”, about the American Dream. Sting says: “It’s a love letter to Americans. It’s about culture, and this engine that is basically fed by immigrants. America is in danger and we know why.”
Shaggy worries that Americans will take the song literally, jingoistically, like they did Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”. He is not bothered about class – “I am motivated to better myself” – but he’s bothered about racism. “I don’t want our children to be raised with that. Which is why I am raising them in Jamaica.”
His Kingston youth spanned the changeover from the People’s National Party to the Jamaica Labour Party and a period of riots in the city. When he got to Brooklyn as a teenager, he enjoyed a mixed neighbourhood – Barbadians and Haitians, “a Caribbean-American kind of life” – but was shocked by the public laundromats.
“In Jamaica, you just wash it in the backyard, you put it up on the clothesline, with a little bit of bleach on the whites and the sun dries it,” he explains. “I’m sitting in Brooklyn and I feel embarrassed, because people were seeing my drawers. My mum would put me on folding duty: I’d sit there folding drawers. I’d say to her, ‘This is crazy: I’m doing this in public, there’s public people looking at my drawers.’ She’d say, ‘No, man, everybody’s doing it. They’re clean!’ That was a culture shock for me.”
Shaggy had an aptitude for pastels and won the Brooklyn Union Gas art competition more than once. He attended the Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where “all the greats” had been pupils – among them Marky Ramone and Barbra Streisand.
“You went to the same school as Barbra Streisand?” says Sting.
“Second-oldest high school in the US,” says Shaggy proudly.
Didn’t Sting buy a house off Barbra Streisand?
After high school, Shaggy needed to get out of the house and away from his mother – “We weren’t getting along at that time, and still to this day we really don’t.” He joined the Marine Corps in 1988, aged 20, and stayed for four years. He served with the 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, and was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm, where he piloted a Humvee and worked as a cannon cocker. He became a lance corporal, but was not a committed soldier and was twice demoted in rank. His main problem was attendance – stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, he regularly drove back to Brookyln for reggae nights.
To this day, he believes in the power of music over conflict, telling the Military Times in 2011 that the best way to combat Isis would be to distribute a massive bag of Jamaican weed and play them “Shaggy music”.
“When you’re listening to reggae, you only want to do two things: get high and have sex,” he observed. “If they’re listening to Shaggy music, they’re not going to want to cut somebody’s head off.”
Next door to Sting’s management office looms the Trump International Hotel. When an NME journalist came to meet him in New York in 1991, he commented that Trump’s buildings were the mark of a declining empire, “a property developer’s empire capsizing under the cultural meltdown at the heart of New York City”. Shaggy says he knows people who voted Trump and “wondered if they’d been like that the whole time”. Earlier this month, he played the president in an elaborate Late Late Show parody, with James Corden as Special Counsel Robert Mueller ("Can we talk about the pee tape? It wasn't me"). I ask Sting about the man next door.
“I’m daunted and terrified by what is happening,” he says. “I’ve been brought up with safety nets – the National Health system, my education. My further education was something I never had to dream about paying for, I could never have afforded it. So I cherish those things and they’re all under threat at the moment, as is democracy. Xi Jingping and Trump saying, ‘I’m going to be president for life’ – it is medieval.”
He believes, though, that political messages in music should be “veiled”. Agitprop is “worse than off-putting – it is counterproductive”. And veiled they are on 44/876. Shaggy claims to write four songs a day on average – but says he never thinks about instrumentation. Sting, who emails Shaggy in bullet points and tends to “squirrel himself away”, is all about instruments and key changes. “Shaggy brought the vibe and I brought the structure,” he concludes.
Shaggy turns 50 this year – “his birthday is 20 days after mine,” offers Sting. The party will happen in Jamaica and Sting is going. He is impressed with Shaggy’s charity work on the island. “I look for consistency. When celebrities take on projects I think, OK, let me see you in six months and we’ll see how serious you are. I call him the Pope of Jamaica,” he says. “He’s a personage. A citizen with duties and responsibilities.”
“There is always a fear that I may be losing it,” Shaggy says. “Am I not hip anymore?” But at the end of the day, he reasons, “Shaggy is what Shaggy does.”
And Shaggy, after all, is an act. Is Sting an act too? “Absolutely,” says Sting. “Of course he is. It’s been very useful for the past four decades to have a persona you can hide behind.” But it’s hard to recall a time when Sting has hidden behind anything. He’s been in the business for 40 years now. Peers like Elton John, just a few years older, are starting to retire.
“Yeah, and he’s going to do 300 gigs before he retires,” Sting says. “That explanation didn’t quite add up for me.”
(c) New Statesman by Kate Mossman