Dad wanted me to go to sea... he didn't mean musician on P&O...
September 20, 2013 

Dad wanted me to go to sea... he didn't mean musician on P&O...

Sting goes back to his North East roots

It's the early Sixties and to a small boy born Gordon Sumner the giant ship at the end of Gerald Street, Wallsend, looms frighteningly large.

The vessel is about five times as high as his home in the row of back-to-back terraced houses stretching down to the northern bank of the Tyne.

But the boy, like the rest of his proud community, is dressed in his Sunday best the day the Queen Mother sweeps by in her black Rolls-Royce, flanked by outriders, to launch this huge testament to the hard graft of the Swan Hunter shipyard.

"I was standing with my mum holding a Union Jack," he remembers today. "And the Queen Mother waved at me! I felt chosen."

That boy grew up to be Sting, the singing superstar who came to recognition in the late Seventies with The Police and journeyed far from home to become An Englishman In New York.

Of late, the 61-year-old has given much thought to his roots in Wallsend, named after the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall and situated three miles from Newcastle city centre.

He's saddened by what he sees there today: "You know Wallsend has had the heart taken out of it. It used to have a coal mine and it had a shipyard.

"That was all we had and there's nothing now. There's are big holes where both things were.

"At the same time, Newcastle is kind of thriving. It's a big shopping centre, a big party town and a big university town. But North Tyneside is still depressed and it deserves better, frankly."

Just last week, the latest round of jobless figures put the North East at the top of the list with 10.4 per cent out of work. The South East had just 5.8 per cent.

Sting's latest project, The Last Ship, a new album (next week) and a Broadway musical (next year), documents the savage decline of the Tyneside shipbuilding industry in the Eighties... even though it was still a world-beating force at the time he left Wallsend at 15.

The new songs, rooted in folk, jazz and music hall, are his first original compositions in ten years but, with a subject matter so close to his heart, they come over as passionate and meaningful.

To give the project even more authenticity, he's roped in several guest performers from the North East, including actor/singer Jimmy Nail, AC/DC's singer Brian Johnson and the wonderful Unthank sisters, Rachel and Becky.

When I meet Sting this week, he's looking impossibly healthy and ready to discuss his emotional reconnection with his past and the early memories come pouring out.

"It was an extraordinary environment to be brought up in. It was such a surreal landscape," he says.

"These ships would literally blot out the sky. Then to watch a ship launch was a kind of apocalyptic event. You'd never see anything else that size, and the noise of it.

"The pride in the town was immense. The ships were the largest vessels ever constructed on the planet.

"The work was incredibly hard, dangerous and unpleasant, yet the workers had something palpable, 'I did that with my hands'. I think we lack that a bit today. What do we build? What do we make?"

During those formative years in Wallsend Sting couldn't do anything but live and breathe the shipbuilding industry. He was surrounded by people involved in it.

"Obviously the whole community was connected to it. My great grandfather was a North Sea pilot. My grandfather was a shipwright and my father was an engineer in the big engineering works nearby. There were all kinds of master mariners in our family tree going way back."

So couldn't his family persuade him to follow suit?

"My father would always tell me to go to sea," he remembers clearly.

"We'd go to church on a Sunday and he'd take me down to the quayside to see the boats and he would say, 'Go to sea. See the world'.

"I did get a seamen's card but as a musician on a P&O liner. It wasn't quite what he had in mind."

Sting says he always harboured different hopes and dreams and the lure of the seafaring life failed to ensnare him.

"I had a sense that my destiny was somewhere else. You know, I'd see thousands of men go to work in the shipyard every day and I thought, 'That's not really for me'.

"So I got a scholarship with a grammar school and I learnt Latin and Greek and physics and stuff. My dad said, 'What do you want to do that for?' But I saw it as a means of escape, then music became the actual means of escape.

"Oh, I'm hugely proud of where I come from. Please don't get me wrong about that, but I have an exile's ambivalence to it. I'm glad I'm out in the world and I also feel a certain survivor's guilt."

This last sentiment perhaps explains why the singer was drawn back to his roots for The Last Ship, an evocative portrayal of typically larger-than-life Geordie characters working at Swan Hunter.

"At a certain point in my life I realised there was a kind of homing signal that I was trapped by.

"We have to go back to the nest and figure out who we are because who we are is really formed in the first few years of our lives and the way you think and the way you behave. So I'm still looking for answers but that's the landscape I dream in still."

Listeners to The Last Ship will be struck by the distinct Geordie accent Sting uses to get into the hearts of his characters, very different from the mannered, unaccented vocal delivery we're used to.

I ask him if the voice came easily to him. "It's interesting," he replies. "I'm not actually forcing it.

"It's a dialect that I was raised in and I use it unconsciously when I get angry or really emotional. My kids would go, 'Oh, he's serious, he's using that funny voice again'. It's unconscious but if I go home, it comes out.

"My brother's incredibly broad and I have to tell him to slow down so I can understand. But then, after a couple of hours, I begin to speak in it too... so I'm not putting it on.

"And there's a musicality about it too, which really lends itself to these songs so it's lovely."

Another of Sting's strong connections to his past is abiding love for Newcastle United.

Just like thousands of Magpies fans, he was up in arms when they changed the name of St. James' Park to the Sports Direct Arena. (Thankfully, it's since changed back).

Though he doesn't get to games, he says: "You know, every show I do, whether it's in Australia or the United States, I always see a black and white strip out there. It's lovely." As for his current state of mind, Sting seems very content with his lot.

"I'm very comfortable in my skin, I'm doing my work and loving it as usual. I roll with the punches pretty well, I think it would be insane not to. It's all part of the game and I know reality. I'm 61 and I know who I am.

"Ridiculously, I never assumed I would be a grandfather but I have six children, so of course it would happen.

"It was kind of sprung on me so I have this lovely little granddaughter called Juliet, who is 18 months old now and has a shock of bright red hair like a firecracker. She's gorgeous."

Sting also puts to bed any thoughts of a Police reunion.

"I've always equated being in a band as being in a teenage gang and I don't want to be in a teenage gang in my sixties. It doesn't sit with me well.

"I have a band but it's not a teenage gang, it's a bunch of professionals who are fairly close to my age and are adults. Some of them have been with me 20 years.

"I was only in The Police for seven years. People associate me with that band because it was a huge success.

"There's no reason why you have to stay in a band for ever, although some people do and it suits them.

"The Rolling Stones are fantastic. What a triumph they are! Mick's a wonder of the world."

But that little boy looking up at those towering ships charted his own course in life.

And, in 2013, it's taken him back to where it all started.

It was never Sting's intention to reveal much of himself with his new project, The Last Ship.

Though set in the shipbuilding industry of his birthplace, Wallsend, he saw the concept album and stage musical as a way of telling the vivid stories of other people's lives.

Stories of hardship and friendship in an unforgiving workplace... all washed down with a bottle or three of Newcastle Brown Ale.

He says: "I'd just got tired of laying myself out on the table and saying, 'Here, folks, here's my latest.'

"I'd got tired of the navel gazing."

And yet the rich tapestry of songs that make up The Last Ship tell so much about its 61-year-old creator, back in the spotlight with his first set of original compositions in ten years.

"By accident, it does say a lot about me," he accepts. "That wasn't my intention, though. I wanted to trick myself into making a record by telling other people's stories and actually writing for other people to sing."

Dip beneath the surface of The Last Ship, however, and Sting's passionate desire to reconnect with his North Tyneside roots comes crashing through.

Although the cast includes "the foreman, the Trotskyite union man, the yard intellectual, the health and safety lady and the town drunk", there is also a song called The Night The Pugilist Learned How To Dance.

He says: "The pugilist (an old name for a boxer) is the exile who left under a cloud and comes back after 14 years to face the music and find himself... that's me."

In many ways, the project can be seen as a sequel to his acclaimed, mega-selling and award-winning sixth solo album, 1991's The Soul Cages, which dealt with the death of his father.

Sting says: "I wrote The Soul Cages in the late Eighties and the demise of the shipyard kind of coincided with the demise of my parents.

"As a metaphor, it was very sad... the meeting of those two things."

Now all those thoughts, some of them painful, about his past have helped Sting get the creative juices flowing again.

He says: "I'd gone through this song drought but as soon as I decided I wasn't writing for myself, songs for The Last Ship came incredibly quickly. I described it as projectile vomiting.

"I'm so glad the lyrics came quickly because they normally take a long time. These were almost automatic for me which was quite bizarre.

"I told these stories about these characters, some of whom I knew, some of whom I made up and some of whom were composites of both those things. Then, on reflection, I realised there's a lot of me in there."

Sting explains that the primary motivating factor behind The Last Ship was the idea of it becoming a stage show. "I wouldn't have written these songs without that thought. I wouldn't have gone there," he says.

"Now that I've completed almost 30 songs, I'm extremely happy that I've done it and very proud of the work."

The Last Ship's sonic landscape is dominated by folk music, with a few pop songs, show tunes and jazzy numbers thrown in.

This is not as surprising as it seems for a Sting album. "If you were a musicologist and you looked at the melodies I've written over the years, you'd find that they are rooted... as is most (non-classical) music... in folk music," he says.

"My early experience as a musician was in folk clubs and I have a great affection for it. On The Last Ship, I wanted the music to reflect the area. Northumbrian music traditions are very strong and there was massive Scottish immigration in the 19th Century. Then came the Irish and I was brought up in an Irish community."

I ask if he's a fan of musicals and show tunes as this seems at odds with much of his back catalogue.

"Scratch me and I'll sing Carousel or Oklahoma," he replies quick as a flash. "Indirectly, Andrew Lloyd Webber was my first employer in the theatre. I worked in the pit on the revival of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Newcastle."

To help him realise the theatrical nature of his new compositions, he enlisted the services of several great Geordie performers, including Jimmy Nail, whose credits include Auf Wiedersehen Pet and the No1 single Ain't No Doubt.

He smiles: "Jimmy is the first person I really talked to after the musicians. He's a really authentic character and I love his voice. He's a beautiful singer.

"He's pretty much retired but I asked him to come down and get involved. He said, 'Ah, no, no.' I said, 'Come on, I'll feed you.' So he did.

"I played him the first song and he totally got it. I'm so happy to enlist him because he's been a huge help. In my dark days when I was thinking it was too difficult he just said, 'This is an important story, you have to tell it'."

It was Nail who brought AC/DC singer Brian Johnson's fulsome rasp to proceedings.

This brings us to the Unthank Sisters Rachel and Becky who appear individually on Peggy's Song and So To Speak respectively.

Sting says of the Northumberland lasses: "I totally fell in love with them. There is such a pure honesty to the way they sing. They also clog-danced on the record as if they were an extra percussion instrument.

"They're from a long tradition of folk music and I needed many Geordies for what The Sun described as my 'Toon army'."

Despite these richly talented guests, the key to The Last Ship's success is Sting's own assured performances.

The way he shapes the words in Geordie dialect of Dead Man's Boots, which sounds like some long lost traditional folk song, or the way he takes it down for the jazz-inflected And Yet show a master craftsman at the top of his game.

Listening to the intimate, wistful August Winds with Sting counting the boats returning from the sea, you can picture him as a child standing on the quayside at Wallsend with his dad. Another marvellous track (on the expanded edition) is the hilarious Jock The Singing Welder. Sting explains its inspiration: "Billy Connolly sat down with me one day and talked about welders.

"He said, 'Yeah, they're all crazy because of the fumes and they all sing. If you put the helmet down, you have an echo chamber and they all think they're Elvis Presley.'

"So I wrote this song about a guy who thinks he's the king of rock 'n' roll. It's such a rich landscape of themes."

Another direction comes with Ballad Of The Great Eastern which documents the story of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last but most ill-fated project before he died of a stroke during its launch in 1858.

Though not built in the North East, the gigantic liner's disastrous story fascinated Sting, particularly the idea that it was cursed by two workers whose bodies were found in the double hull 14 years later as it was being broken up.

So, with the album out next week and preparations in full swing for a series of concerts in New York later this month, he remains realistic about the chances of success for The Last Ship.

But the twinkle in his eye suggests he has a much better than even chance. "The project is pretty ambitious, but I'm not afraid. Do I need any more success? Not really, but it would be great."

He reports that plans are also going well for next year's Broadway stage adaptation. "We had a reading a couple of months ago with five musicians and about 20 actors. We got a standing ovation," he says.

"I think this was because it's very rare to have an original story in a musical. It's usually Beverly Hills Cop: The Musical. You know what you're going to get."

Sting believes he has a great team on board for the show, including director Joe Mantello, "a top man", and playwright and screenwriter John Logan who scripted the latest Bond film Skyfall.

"I asked John why he was doing this and he replied, 'Because my father was a Belfast shipyard worker and this is an important story.'

"I have people who are passionate about what they're doing. This is not just a cynical exercise in milking a pop star's canon. (At this point, Sting laughs heavenwards as if he's thinking, "Did I really just say that?") This is something real and it's got a heart."

After the Broadway run, Sting has hopes that the show will go to his hometown. "My ambition would be to take it back to Newcastle. My other ambition is that it's not dependent on some massive mechanical set. I want it to be performed in schools with a guitar."

Finally, I'm keen to find out if this intriguing man has any ambitions left after he's worked through The Last Ship in all its manifestations.

"I don't have a bucket list or anything," he says. "I'm not that ambitious. I just want to do what's within my grasp to do."

Right now, the Last Ship is setting sail and Captain Sting has his hands firmly on the wheel.

(c) The Sun by Simon Cosyns

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