The following article by Mark Edwards appeared in a March 1993 issue of The Sunday Times
Policeman on a new beat...
Tricky things, images. Ask Sting. Somewhere in the 1980s, this critically acclaimed, gorgeously photogenic, mega-platinum-selling rock god with the world at his feet turned into an embarrassing, pretentious bore carrying the world on his shoulders.
Do-gooding for Amnesty, touring the world's chat-shows with a Kayapo Indian chief, writing albums about his parents' deaths from cancer, copping licks from Bach, writing lyrics in the hotel room where Marcel Proust used to write, splashing out £125,000 on custom-made Versace wedding outfits it all became too much for us.
The turning point was his last album, 'Soul Cages', in which he tried to come to terms with the death of his father and resolve their relationship. And he might have got away with it, too, if he'd just kept quiet about it.
Unfortunately, he made a point of explaining the subject matter, and telling anyone who would listen that it was an "introspective" album and that he had gone through agonies writing it.
"That was a big mistake," concedes his manager, Miles Copeland. "And we couldn't correct it. If he hadn't said it was 'introspective', it would have been better received because there were actually a lot of up songs on there. But the minute you read somewhere that an album is all about death from cancer, you go .. er ...I don't really know if I want to hear that."
But for a man who we tend to imagine spends a good part of the day in front of a mirror, Sting, according to Copeland, doesn't really spend a lot of time cultivating his image. "The worst artists to manage are the ones who say no to everything because they're frightened about what someone might say, and so they never do anything and they dwindle into nothing. Sting isn't like that. He'll go for it. It took him two seconds to agree to the Grateful Dead thing. He just went, 'Whaat?? ...Okay'."
The "Grateful Dead thing" is the decision for Sting to play as support to the Dead on several dates of his American tour. This is not due to dwindling record sales (in fact, 'Soul Cages' sold as well as his previous albums everywhere except the UK, which got put off by the death thing, and Brazil, which got pretty shirty about the rainforest thing). It is, rather, both an opportunity to preach to the unconverted the Dead have for years been the top-grossing concert draw in the States, regularly playing to massive crowds, and to undercut Sting's reputation for pomposity and self-importance.
Because Sting's new album, more than just a collection of 12 songs, seems to be his application to rejoin the human race. After eight years in which he has reached the depths of despair and the peaks of pretension, Sting seems determined to convince us that he is a Regular Bloke. He's recently taken every opportunity to prove that he still lives on the same planet as the rest of us: being photographed busking in Ladbroke Grove tube station, being interviewed with the kids in tow, and sharing a meal and an uncouth conversation with Bob Geldof, accompanied by a Q magazine journalist.
To be frank, coming over as just like you or me might be too difficult a task for a man whose past achievements include being a county champion sprinter, topping record charts around the world, making a less embarrassing transition into movies than your average rock star, and saving a bit of rainforest. Even when discussing those reliable rock 'n' roll subjects, sex and drugs, Sting turned out to be most concerned with noble self-improvement. While Geldof playing the Voice of the Common People was concerned with "leg-over", Sting explained that he has started to use yoga disciplines in sex, making it "a spiritual source of energy". A drug trip he described as "a sort of sainted state".
Still, it's an improvement. To the outside world he had been looking like a man who, since he went solo in 1985, simply had too much freedom: the personal freedom to pursue any whim, and the musical freedom to do whatever he wanted with ever-decreasing concern for what his audience might want. On the inside, the truth was perhaps that here was a 41-year-old rock star trying to grow up, a famous man trying to work out what you do with fame, a man far removed from his early years in Tyne and Wear (he's worth upwards of £25m) asking, "Who am I, anyway?"
Perhaps he's found some of the answers, or perhaps he just wants a break. Whatever: on 'Ten Summoner's Tales', he's decided not to stand so close to himself. The songs are for the most part not obviously autobiographical. The result is his most accessible album since The Police broke up.
Copeland says the change of mood comes from the fact that Sting made the album with the group he'd been touring with immediately beforehand, rather than with a bunch of session musicians. "It gives the album a band feel very close to the feel of the early Police albums. I think the result is that it shows him in a truer light than any of his previous solo albums."
Copeland denies that the PR around this album has been carefully stage-managed ("Sting is not some 16-year-old pop star I can mould"), but admits that there has been a decision simply to talk less about the new album than about 'Soul Cages', so that the public and reviewers won't have any preconceptions. The result is that the album has gone straight into the charts at number two, supported by reviews that are a far cry from those for 'Soul Cages', which Sting described as "revenge of the nerds hate-mail".
In fact, his non-musical concerns had made him not hated, but merely an acceptable and easy target for jokes: the milkman's son who had lost touch with his roots, the former schoolteacher who couldn't stop lecturing.
It was a steep fall for a former golden boy of rock. With guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland, Sting had conquered the world. The Police's fifth album, 1983's Synchronicity, stayed at the top of the American charts for 17 weeks, and the band sold out New York's Shea Stadium. If any band was justified in so blatantly echoing the Beatles' 1965 performance at Shea, it was the Police. Again, like the Beatles they managed the rare task of selling records by the bucketload while still garnering critical plaudits as the purveyors of truly modern pop.
They hadn't got there without a streak of ruthlessness. Stewart Copeland remembers: "We were very ambitious. Ten per cent more rabid than the other groups. The other great advantage was that we were the only group who could actually make it to the gigs in those days. We'd get phone calls saying: 'The Snivelling Bathrooms can't make it tonight, can you get up here by 8 o'clock?' And we always did."
The Police adopted punk-ish mannerisms to help grab attention, but Copeland admits, "We were never bona fide punks." Certainly no punk band would have agreed, as they did, to dye their hair to the same peroxide blonde for a Wrigley's Chewing Gum television commercial.
And Sting was 10% more rabid than his partners. Hugh Padgham, the producer of Sting's last two albums, also produced Police records: "In those days we'd be recording somewhere like Montserrat. Whenever we agreed to have a day off, by six o'clock in the evening Sting would be back in the studio, bored with relaxing and wanting to get on and work."
It's often Sting's drive that gets him into trouble. If he had just backed off from the good causes, as other rock stars did when they sensed a backlash, he might have had a happier time in the late 1980s. But no, he would carry on and actually try to help people. He founded the Rainforest Foundation, took Chief Raoni on a whirlwind schedule of photo-opportunities and succeeded in securing a promise from the Brazilian government that development threatening the Kayapo Indians' homeland would be stopped. He was, inevitably, accused of being self-serving.
Sting's drive to get things done may be due to the realisation that his father never managed to realise his potential. On an MTV documentary shown last year, Sting recalled that he had once noted the similarity in their hands. "Yes," said his father, "but you've put yours to better use than I ever did."
"He hated what he did," Sting recalled. "His brain was underused."
Sting is clearly determined not to let his brain be underused. But he does seem at least to be toying with the idea of giving it a rest now and then. The last song on the new album, Nothing 'Bout Me, could be a song aimed at all those who created and criticised his image over the past few years "Pore over everything in my CV, but you'll still know nothing 'bout me". But it could equally be a note to himself to lay off the soul-searching for a while.
The album's opening track, 'If I Should Ever Lose My Faith In You', is the other truly personal song on the album (the 10 remaining tracks are stories with onlyoccasional autobiographical references). It's a song about a deep, deep love. It's 'Every Breath You Take', but, significantly, without the earlier song's overtones of menace.
It's a song written by a happy man.
© The Sunday Times