Delightful: Greeks, Romans, Goths, Turks and Sting...
The last time Sting played Izmir he was the leader of a cruise ship band. Moored in the turd-infested harbour of Turkey's third city - Hull with mosques in truth - Sting and chums would play covers, ballroom dances, waltzes, anything, in fact, the punters wanted. The happy cruisers complained about Sting's voice, so the ship's purser engineered a band coup and the drummer took over vocal duties.
Things here are different now for Sting, though. He's a star with a conscience and that Turkey's human rights record is on the soiled side of spotless concerns him, whether he wishes it or not.
''Hmm, I know,'' winces Sting, head in hands. ''I'm not exactly comfortable but there's no cultural embargo and maybe it's good to break down a few barriers. The Police played Chile during Pinochet's regime and I've never regretted that; it led to 'They Dance Alone'. Surprisingly, this section of the tour is sponsored by Benetton. They're discreet in Izmir but the Istanbul football stadium, where the next show is held, is submerged in Benetton banners.''Oh fuck,'' he chuckles. ''I don't know how they got involved and I don't care that much. I wouldn't like to have to wear their clothes but it's OK for someone to pay expenses and put their posters up.''
He's in Turkey for two concerts as the pop highlight of the prestigious six-week long 21st International Istanbul Festival. Bob Dylan, Santana, David Byrne, Jethro Tull, Bryan Adams, and Chris De Burgh have played in years past. Its mainly classical and jazz-based and its run by the tax exempt Istanbul Foundation For Culture And Arts, which, with great wisdom, saw the Antik Tiyatro as the ideal venue to present Sting.
Ephesus, some 72 kilometres from Izmir, doesn't exist any more. To the Ancient Greeks however, it was a major trading city. Long before St Paul wrote his Epistle To The Ephesians, longer still before the Goths sacked the place in 262 AD, the Greeks built an amphitheatre around the corner from the first library in the world and the whorehouse. It would hold about 20,000 people, the acoustics would be excellent, and, best of all, it would last virtually unscathed to the present day, when Sting would sell it out.''
It wasn't perfect from a rock'n'roll perspective. It felt odd,'' grumbled Sting in his mid-Atlantic Geordie afterwards.
''Its just heightened tourism. We've gone out of our way to do shows that are outside the mainstream. That's the way I've run my career. All you're doing is singing some old songs you wrote in your living room though.''Its chaos. The Turks have ludicrously oversold the place. ''Somebody's made a lot of money here,'' muses Sting. Some people have been waiting for over two hours in searing heat, dodging firecrackers, dismally failing their Mexican Waves and screaming lustily. Above the crowd are a smattering of army snipers, a reminder that Sting, after all, is the most visible Westerner in the country this weekend and, as he plays in Ephesus, 35 people will burn to death in the Eastern town of Sivas, simply for staying in the wrong hotel when somewhat over-zealous Muslims burn it down, ironically missing their target, a Rushdie translator.
''I wondered, what with the Kurdish thing, the bombings and kidnapping, if I really needed this,'' confesses Sting, ''and if I'd be asked inappropriate questions, but I could hardly pull out with three days to go.'' Backstage is a maze of catacombs. Sting tries hard to simultaneously eat, do yoga, dodge bats or scorpions and perfect his Turkish introductions. As the Turks clearly couldn't secure a mortuary, Sting's people have taken the precaution of flying over English security. A wise move, for there are no barriers between audience and performer, just a six-foot drop and a dry moat, packed with squealing photographers, a video crew, slapdash Turkish security who elect to watch the band rather than study the crowd, and the British security team. One push from someone hundreds of rows up and it's a major disaster.
Luckily the crowd is more disciplined than it looks. Nothing serious happens, apart from a few fainters and one miscreant who throws a bottle at keyboard player David Sancious during An Englishman In New York. The Turkish security wake up and attempt to kick him to death. The British wade through them, SAS-trained fists flying, to carry out the now unconscious bottle thrower.
At sunset, the place is desperately beautiful, frenzied excitement is in the air, and unless he were to come on stage draped in a Greek flag, read out extracts from The Satanic Verses or argue for the emancipation of women, Sting is clearly on to a winner.Time and trouble has been taken to get it right. There's no rock'n'roll scaffolding, the back-lighting highlights the setting, showing off ancient pillars to stunning effect, and even the drum roadie, a big lad, is hidden by a couple of large pot plants. Sting looks, not inappropriately, like a Greek god. A barrage from 'Ten Summoner's Tales' opens proceedings. The crowd sing along enthusiastically, a firecracker sets fire to the drum carpet and Sting, rather disappointingly, has his lyrics on autocue, just like Ronald Reagan.
Though faintly hysterical, the atmosphere is terribly benign. The crowd wishes to rock and Sting, in the main, will not disappoint them. As if in appreciation, these young Turks simply sway silently during quieter songs like 'Fields Of Gold' or 'It's Probably Me', where they point at themselves as they shout the chorus, suggesting there isn't a total lack of lyrical understanding. His band is superb, they're at once inordinately flexible, able to twist and turn at the raising of a Stingly eyebrow and sure-footedly tight on these craftsman constructed songs.Hardly coincidentally, 'Ten Summoner's Tales', by some distance the best Sting record, just keeps selling.
''Maybe I'm flattering myself,'' he laughs, ''but it's the return of the song. It's not the norm any more, like it used to be. I'm just glad it's happened. I haven't made an album that hasn't sold four or five million and by any standards that's staggeringly successful.''
Sting himself plays Mr Sexy. A wry smile, a bum wiggle, a cheeky grin, everything a pop star needs, in fact, except for banter. The Turks love it, of course, and when he skips stage left or right, those on that side holler with a disturbing passion. The Police section is rattled through in a most muscular manner and illustrates that, despite the group's peculiar lack of influence, just how timeless those songs were. We are spared the wretched 'Walking On The Moon', but 'Synchronicity' has aged remarkably well, the delightful 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' still captures joyous infatuation effortlessly and everyone sings along to 'Roxanne', making the arena resemble a convention of anti-prostitution fanatics while the band alternate between full-pelt rocking and delicate skanking.
By the encores, Sting has slipped off his shirt to mass screaming. 'Every Breath You Take', arguably the Police's best song, is all stripped down and paranoid and 'Fragile' is as swooningly lovely as ever. Lighters are waved aloft, and, as smoking is compulsory for all Turks, unless you happen to be female, that's a lot of lighters. What's gauche at Wembley Arena is breathtaking in the Turkish countryside.
The band sprint off stage and straight into limousines. There won't be many more shows at the Antik Tiyatro - it's showing its age apparently.
''It was,'' says Sting, wistfully ''one of those things I'll remember for the rest of my life.''
(c) Q Magazine by John Aizlewood