THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAYNovember 01, 1994
The following article by Nicholas Barber appeared in a November 1994 issue of The Independent On Sunday newspaper...
Sting has lately reasserted himself as a musician, and won a roomful of awards. Now he is releasing his greatest hits. He gave Nicholas Barber a guided tour of 10 years' work.
"Sting's house, please." That's all you have to say to taxi drivers at Salisbury station. No need for directions or addresses, they know where Gordon Matthew Sumner lives. And does the local rock god ever descend to town, I ask the driver as we make the nine-mile journey. "Occasionally," he says. "We see his wife Trudie (Styler) more often, and the kids and the nanny. But Sting, he's a busy man, isn't he?"
You could say that. I meet Sting on a Thursday. To paraphrase his song Seven Days: on Sunday he flew in from Johannesburg in time to perform at the Albert Hall; on Tuesday he had meetings with his record company; on Wednesday he filmed an appearance on Top of the Pops and went to the British Music Industry Awards (he won six); on Friday he went to Japan. "I call them bank raids. You fly over there, play the concert, collect enough money to pay the rent and fly back home for a rest."
Sting's Wiltshire home is an Elizabethan manor surrounded by 800 acres of land. Horses, dogs and gardeners roam freely. Inside, it is a shadowy and stone-walled fortress which reminds you that the owner played Dr Frankenstein in the 1985 cinema flop The Bride. And it is big. You could get lost in Sting's kitchen. You could drown in one of his mugs of tea. Nor is the suspicion that you have taken a taxi to Brobdingnag dispelled upon meeting the man of the house, a burly six-footer with a painful handshake. When he sits in one of the living-rooms and cradles an acoustic guitar, you half-expect him to snap it to matchwood and toss it in the log fire beside him.
He speaks courteously and wryly. 'When We Dance', his latest hit, drifts in through the window. "That's the gardeners, I promise," he smiles. "They turn up the radio to try to please me." The song's current residency on the airwaves is proof of the turnaround in Sting's career. In 1991, with the album 'The Soul Cages', he had taken self- indulgence and introspection to the limit of his fans' patience. The world knew him better for his efforts to save the rainforests than for his music. Then, last year, he returned to the pop song with 'Ten Summoner's Tales'. The world was delighted. The album reached No 2 on both sides of the Atlantic, sold six million copies, and started an avalanche of Grammies, Brits and other awards.
At 43, Frankensting's latest creation is 'Fields of Gold'. His record company had been suggesting a 'Best of' for a long time. Giving the go-ahead, he says, was "an act of capitulation" prompted by realising: "God. it's actually been 10 years since I left the Police."
Here he looks back on the hits, in the order that they appear on the compilation.
When We Dance (1994) I wanted to bookend the album with two new songs. It's presumptuous, because you don't know if a song's going to be a hit, but 'When We Dance' seems to be going in the right direction (it entered the chart at No 9, a solo career-best). I'd never tried to write a hit before, a song designed to be played on the radio. This is basically a generic ballad, but it took me a year to write. I had no main idea for the song, so I came up with this love triangle. I love you and you love him. It has a flattened fifth at the end of the first line. It's an unusual, uncomfortable sound, which suits the situation in the lyrics.
If You Love Somebody Set Them Free (1985) was the first single I did on my own away from the Police. I'm not sure if the phrase is mine. I probably read it somewhere. But it's the first time it's been used in a song, I think. And it's true, you can't imprison someone in a relationship. It's an antidote song to 'Every Breath You Take'. One song is about constricting, possessive love, and one is about being free. I suppose the truth is somewhere in the middle. This has a Motown sort of vibe, and my attempt at soulful singing. I had a great band at the time: Kenny Kirkland (keyboards), Branford Marsalis (saxophone), Darryl Jones (bass). Yes, Darryl's in the Rolling Stones now. He's one of my alumni I'm most proud of.
Fields of Gold (1993) wasn't huge in the charts but I like it. It was written here in this house, and recorded here, and it's just a song about the landscape. I love this place. It takes a lot to get me away from here. It was the record company's idea to call the album 'Fields of Gold'. I argued against it at first, but I suppose it fits. Maybe it should have been Fields of Platinum.
All This Time (1991) is from 'The Soul Cages', which is about the death of my father, so its pretty dark as a record but on this song the words are foiled by this fairly jolly tune. That's something I like to do quite a lot, combine dark subject matter with up music. No, its not based on a dream. The lyrics seem surreal, but they are all images I remembered from my home town (Wallsend, Newcastle upon Tyne): ferries, priests, shire horses. I grew up by the shipyards. I just wanted to escape. I suppose it was quite a surreal place, though. It is the landscape of my dreams.
Englishman in New York (1987) is about Quentin Crisp. He's one of the most charming, witty and courageous men I know. He was openly gay not only when it was dangerous, but when it was against the law. Then he moved to the Bowery, this tough neighbourhood in New York, when he was 71. The song has exactly the same chords as 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' If you find a good chord structure you should use it at least once or twice. I tried to capture the multicultural elements of the music in New York. You hear jazz on one block and rock on the next, then someone comes round the corner with hip-hop blaring out of their car. That's why those hip-hop drums burst in for a few bars. The record company tried to talk me out of that; but I said, "No; that's what it's about." I think Quentin rather likes the song. He calls me Mr Sting.
Mad About You (1991) is inspired by the story of King David and Bathsheba. These stories of murder and obsessive, jealous love appeal to me for some reason. Yes, those lines "There are no victories / In all our histories / Without love" have the quintessential Sting idea that romantic love outweighs global issues. I really believe that. Love is continuity of the species, it's the most important thing. That's why love songs are immortal. A political song will be dated within a year. It took me a long time to learn that.
It's Probably Me (1992) is co-written by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen. They'd done a bit of music and they asked me to turn it into the theme tune to 'Lethal Weapon 5' or whatever it was (it was 'Lethal Weapon 3'). I wondered what the hell I could write that would suit 'Lethal Weapon' and I finally chose the buddy movie theme. I figured that the Mel Gibson and Danny Glover characters were big macho guys who'd have some reticence about expressing their love for each other, so they'd say, if you need someone to stop you getting killed, it'll probably be me. I think Eric was quite bemused to see what I'd done to his music.
They Dance Alone (1988) I'd been in Chile in the late Seventies with the Police. It was at the height of the Pinochet regime, and there was a bit of a furore about us going there. I asked Amnesty International what they thought and their advice was that I should go, because rock'n'roll means freedom in these countries. So we went out there and it was pretty painful. There were troops and tanks on every street. At the press conference they'd put a little British flag and Chilean flag on the table. I picked up the British flag and threw it in the bin. They said, "What did you do that for?" and I said, "In our country that flag is the symbol of the British fascist party." There was uproar. They called us animals. They weren't very nice to us, the right-wing press in Chile. The women in Chile whose husbands and sons had disappeared would dance outside government buildings with invisible partners. I thought it was such a powerful silent protest and an incredible metaphor for loss and suffering that I wrote this song. They banned the record in Chile. But I played the song over there with some of the women it was written about. It was probably one of the most intense performances of my life. I was put in that situation just because of a song. I'm just a singer.
If I Ever Lose My Faith in You (1993) I got a prize for this last night. It was the most played record on American radio in 1993, which kind of surprised me. But I suppose it captured a mood last year. We've lost faith in a lot of institutions, our government, our churches, - most things. And yet we still maintain a sense of hope about the future. I'm not sure where that hope is pinned, but it's there somewhere. I'm never specific, in the song, about what I have faith in still. It could be in romantic love, it could be in another person, it could be in myself, it could be in God. And yet I'm very specific about the things I have lost faith in. I think that captured a mood, and people responded to it. Or maybe they just responded to the melody. It's not unmelodic.
Fragile (1988) I was reading about a young American in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua who was shot by the Contras. I felt very sad. This guy had gone to Nicaragua to try to help, and ended up being mistaken, deliberately or otherwise, for a Marxist guerrilla. I think there was a lot of that kind of mistake being made. This idea of fragility was a very important one for me. It's very easy to kill people. It's almost a casual thing. The song's taken on many meanings since then, though. People think its an ecological song, because of my other interests. I suppose they think of the fragile eco-system and think, Sting must be singing about that. But I suppose it's the mark of a good song that it can have many different shades of meaning, so I'm not arguing. I've never written a tree-hugging song in all my years of tree-hugging.
We'll Be Together (1987) is funny because it was written as a beer commercial for a Japanese company called Kirin. I like the idea of music being a craft, I'm not precious about it. They wanted a song and the only prerequisite was the word "together". I wrote the song in 3mins 49sec, which is exactly the length of the song. The Japanese loved it, and then the record company loved it too. "This is exactly what we need." "But I didn't invest anything in this song. I just put it together." They said: "No! It's a hit!" And it was (No 13 US, No 41 UK). It's probably the only straight rock track on the collection. Kirin is OK as a canned beer. It's not as good as Newcastle Exhibition. But then, what is?
Nothing 'Bout Me (1994) was the track I finished the last album with. It's a tongue-in-cheek reaction to all the amateur psychology I'm subjected to whenever I put an album out. Listeners figure they can work you out through the songs. And they probably can. I'm not sure it suits my purpose to be so transparent though, so this is my attempt at diverting that. It's supposed to be a funny song. I make no bones about my debt to black American music of the Sixties. It led me on to jazz and a lot of other things. I went from the Beatles to Motown to Jimi Hendrix to Miles Davis. Then I joined the Police which was another diversion in my life.
Love is the Seventh Wave (1985) was written in Barbados. I was at Eddy Grant's studio, watching the surfers, and they told me that the seventh wave was the strongest wave: they get stronger and stronger until the seventh wave, then start again. So the idea of love being the strongest wave that would encompass everything was an appealing one at the time. At the end I sing, "Every cake you bake, every leg you break". I quite like using the songs as a modular system where you can mix and match lines from different songs. Its a tradition now. People expect it. Basically, it's all one big song. You could say it was an aspect of postmodernism if you liked but you'd be called pretentious if you said that. It's just something that amuses me.
Russians (1985) is a song that's easy to mock, a very earnest song, but at the time it was written - at the height of the Reagan-Rambo paranoia years, when 'Russians' were thought of as grey sub-human automatons only good enough to blow up - it seemed important. I was living in New York at the time, and a friend of mine had a gizmo that could pull the signal from the Russian satellite. We'd go drinking and then watch Russian morning shows in the middle of the night. It was apparent from watching these lovingly made kids shows that Russians weren't quite the automatons that we'd been told they were. The song was also precipitated by my son asking me if there was a bomb that existed that could blow up the world, and I had to tell him, "Actually, yeah, there is." So he was introduced to that horror, the horror we've all lived with for most of our lives. It's very cheeky to have stolen a bit of Prokofiev and stuck it in a pop song, but in that context it was right.
Seven Days (1993) is just a piece of fun. I wanted to write a song in 5/4. I'd never written in 5/4 before, and it really begged to be played with in a frivolous way. It would be hard to do anything very ponderous in 5/4. So I wrote this scenario about being bullied into a relationship by a bigger rival. It's a strange single, but it did fairly well. People liked it because it was unusual. My philosophy's always been to have a hit that's against the odds rather than designed to be a hit: something that sticks out like a sore thumb on the radio and is a hit because of that, rather than because it just obeyed all the rules. When I've had hits like that - 'Russians' was a case in point - it's very satisfying.
Demolition Man (1993) was written when I was in the Police. I was staying at Peter O'Toole's house in Ireland. The Police recorded it, Grace Jones recorded it, Manfred Mann's band recorded it, it seems to be one of those songs that people want to record. A few years ago some guy in LA wrote a script based on the title which became a Sylvester Stallone movie. Apparently the film is very funny, even though it's not supposed to be. I've never even seen it. They asked me to re-record the song for the film. It's a techno version. I didn't really have that much to do with it, to be honest. I left it to the producers. So I'll not take a lot of credit for it, except for the lyrics and the melody. Or what melody there is.
This Cowboy Song (unreleased) follows on from that song I wrote last year, 'Love is Stronger than Justice (The Munificent Seven)'. It's an outlaw song about the existential cowboy becoming repentant of his days in the saddle, and dealing with the concept of growing older, death or religion or - I don't know what he's really concerned about, but he's decided he needs to pray and he hasn't got the words with which to pray. All he has is this cowboy song. There's a bit of me in there. As I get older I feel the need to commune with whatever's beyond the grave, but I haven't been trained to do that. Or I'm not really happy with the equipment that was given to me. We made a very funny video in Almeira in Spain where they made all the spaghetti westerns. It's totally intact as it was. We had great time, dressed up as cowboys with gun battles and saloon brawls. It was like being nine years old. We were so happy.
© The Independent On Sunday