Interview: NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS (1981)

September 01, 1981

The following article by Lynn Hanna appeared in a September 1981 issue of the New Musical Express magazine...

Sting indulges in the pop art of philosophical thought as The Police soak up some culture and show their academic roots on the their new LP, 'Ghost In The Machine'.

Belfast in black and white with grey rain falling on the urban wasteland of a community at war. A lorryload of soldiers stare bleakly at the sodden streets, at the harassed attitudes of the hurried shoppers, at the frozen atmosphere of Irish fear.

Wiry kids with rumpled jumpers and torn jeans and no choices walk the town with the purposeful scowl of children going about children's business in a country hacked about by hate and bigotry.

Sting's face fades in and out of a soft; fuzzy focus as a small boy hurls a stone at an army truck with his full, unformed force; a tot turns to the camera cradling bits of brick in both his hands, a funeral cortege glides beneath the glowing image across the small screen...

This is a side of Sting that you'll probably never see, a video made for the new Police single 'Invisible Sun', unsuitable for 'Tiswas' and banned by 'TOTP'. While I'm watching it in a record company office, having first been shown "by mistake" and under orders the doctored version made behind the group's back, Sting rings.

"I wanted to be sure they showed it to you," he says.

Sting was brought up a Catholic and his wife is from Andersontown in Belfast Catholic country. Before fame and marriage when he visited her parents, he felt so uneasy being English he affected an Irish accent at the bus-stops. Sting the chameleon changes his colour...

Do you see Sting rampaging around a classroom, sitting at the teacher's desk and averting his eyes from schoolgirl thighs? A sensual shudder: don't stand so close to me. Sting leans towards the camera and strips off his shirt... Sting is a past master of myth and imagination and he uses the press to project pieces of his personality.

"I'll be anything you want," he says earnestly during the interview.

Scared of decadence, and of not recognising the signs in his own reflection, he values the chance of a less subjective view. Sting's also far too shrewd not to know that the nature of the musical motion means what sells well tonight can look dreadfully dated by tomorrow morning and however he occasionally disclaims his fame, his competitive streak keeps him aiming perpetually one pop step ahead.

"I think generally we've been underestimated both as people and musicians. Pop music has lots of possibilities that aren't often realised. It's a useful form, it has a function, it obviously serves some need. Therefore it's up to intelligent people who are good at making music to be interested in the form, and l think in the past few years we've had some very good people involved in it."

How do you relate The Police's intelligence with your status as national male sex symbol number one?

"That was imposed on me really - and it's not an unpleasant imposition. Every time the Sun prints a picture of me it's Sexy Sting. I don't go round to people saying, Hello, I'm Sexy Sting. It's not something I personally manufactured. I'm not saying I'm unattractive, I think I probably am. I make myself try and look as attractive as possible, it's just a natural human response to your environment. But it wasn't something I did, it was thrust upon me. The sex symbol thing is a bit of a joke really. In a way it got in the way of any serious ideas we may have had. But you don't think of it at the time, you just sort of accept it.

"We were criticised at one time for playing music for 14-year-olds, as if 14-year-old girls were some sort of sub-species. But why not? They like that sort of thing and they deserve to be played to, or titillated. I don't dismiss that. I've no shame about it. I like being photographed. I like the image side of it. At the same time, I'm very aware that now, at this stage of my career, that the image should be subversive. People should be surprised and puzzled. It shouldn't be so obvious. In the past, it's been three jolly minstrels. I think we did it rather well. We can still do that, we can still turn that charm on. But it's more important, artistically and creatively, to vanish a bit. And leave it to Adam, bless him."

Do you feel any responsibility as a pop star?

"Yeah, I do. I'm very against the stereotype of the drug-addicted rake, the nouveau playboy, that old myth. The 'wild men of pop' can all get lost as far as I'm concerned. I'm much more into the thinking man of pop, they can do far more. I think there's a responsibility to live a reasonable life, not to live to excess which is what most of our pop stars do with drugs and sex. Basically you have at your disposal the hedonistic pleasures of a Roman Emperor. You have enough money to spend it all on your own gratification. That's very tempting sometimes. Sometimes the pressures force you that way. But you do have responsibilities. People look at you. They say, he's made a lot of money, look at how he lives, that must be pretty cool. It's not, it's irresponsible. It's wrong. That's why there's no faith in anything any more, because the people who are up there have blown it. I'm not saying I'm not going to blow it. Maybe the demolition man in me will come out. But at the moment I'm in control, a family man, and I'd like to keep it that way. I've no shame about being respectable and reasonable."

What do you do with your money?

"Not much, frankly. I don't think I've got it! No, that's not true. I'm rich. It accrues somewhere else and the accountant phones me up and says what are you going to do about this? And I say, oh, I'll get back to you. The only real tangible thing about it is if I want to buy a suit, I don't have to worry about it because the money's there. I don't have a huge collection of vintage cars or anything like that. I just have the things I want, a piano, a nice guitar and a tape-recorder. I love books, I've got a lot of books. I haven't got great investment plans, or a helicopter, I'm not going to fly round the world. Maybe I'd get more imaginative with it if I had more time. I think of it as a very transient thing. It's all very well having banknotes up to here but when the bomb drops it's worth fuck all."

Backstage at London's Theatre Royal during one of the Amnesty International benefits, Sting the natural charmer swaps small talk with the succession of celebrities who drift in and out of the communal dressing room; the raddled fey, soft face of Donovan, the effervescent Phil Collins, and an amiable member of Whitesnake.

"Sounds is your paper isn't it?" Sting asks him slyly.

Downstairs by the stage in the atmosphere of a super-glamorous school panto I catch a sudden, startling glimpse of John Cleese practising gibbering movements in front of a mirror in preparation for his sketch with Pamela Stephenson. Sting is casually eyeing up Sheena Easton.

This time last year Sting was writing the superior pop muzak of 'Zenyatta Mondatta' immersed in commercialism and beset by the problems of making mega-buck product for a recession industry.

"A year ago we were shackled by the industry. I was fascinated by commercialism. l was also very trapped by it. I saw the entire industry waiting for an album. It was the only album that sold last year apart from Michael Jackson; there was nothing else. While I was writing it I was getting messages from the record company saying retailers were waiting for it. I had this impression of thousands of people, cogs in a great system, waiting for this album and I was sitting there struggling. And I got caught up in it, frankly. I'm not offering excuses for 'Zenyatta Mondatta', I think it's a reasonable pop album and I'll defend certain songs on it. It had some good moments - it had some really terrible moments!"

You've always seemed a sane pop star, the sort who knows how to use success instead of letting it use you.

"To a certain extent I was manipulated, used by it. I got very tired, that was the worst thing. I got old. I enjoy attention, I enjoy performing, I enjoy writing, but the pressures on you are immense. Some mornings I wake up in a cold sweat and think, f***, I'm famous. I'll walk out onto the streets and people are going to know who I am. Even if I don't do anything any more, people will always know who I am. If I fail, it'll be, you know how he used to be. I think, Jesus Christ, I'm a target and I get really paranoid about it. I just long for anonymity again.

"It's a bit of a nightmare actually and it's becoming increasingly nightmarish. I try and live a normal life. I've got a semi-detached house in London. I don't live in a country mansion or anything. I've got neighbours. My kid goes to a state school, its as normal as I can make it. But still I get the feeling of being watched. I like being watched when I'm working, I love it. But doing the shopping, taking the dog for a walk, it drives me mad.

"'Zenyatta Mondatta' was an experiment in commercialism; we buried ourselves in it and it worked. Now we can do what we like, that's the key. We're not saying we're not going to be commercial anymore. We are. But our main concern now is pleasing ourselves."

The fourth Police album, 'Ghost In The Machine', from which the Invisible Sun single is taken, is loosely based on ideas from a book of the same name by Arthur Koestler. In sound, it's fairly standard Police pop, more soul orientated than in the past, with Sting playing sax on some of the tracks.

"I'm just playing old James Brown riffs, I'm not doing anything original. But I'm dead pleased with it," he says.

The concept of the LP is radically different from anything the Police have previously attempted; psychological and philosophical theories distilled by Sting into short sketches that exist on their own terms as pop songs without having to be directly related to the source of their inspiration. They are also interspersed with more straightforward love/dance stances. Koestler's book is an attack on the systems of Behaviourist psychology that have dominated academic research. Based on a study of rats and pigeons who have been trained to react to their environment in a predictable pattern, the behaviourist psychologists have attempted to transfer their findings with animals to the study of human responses by concerning themselves solely with external actions.

Talking through a succession of cough sweets in preparation for his later performance, Sting still retains the faint authoritativeness and explanatory style of a former schoolteacher.

"The reason we have to attack Behaviourism is because it's been used by totalitarian regimes as an easy way of making people conform. A robot fits into big ideas much better. Whereas a thinking human being, a complex spiritual being, which is what we are, is out of place. You only have to look at the kids on the streets, they're becoming de-humanised. A gang of skinheads can be machines, hateful. And it's not their fault, they're being used."

Koestler suggests a flaw in human genetic make-up as the cause of human frailty, a fundamental mistake in our evolution.

"According to Koestler there are two brains. Well, there are three, but for our purposes there are two. There's the old brain that the lizards have which involves fear, hunger, aggression, sex, the beast in us. The other brain is quite a recent addition and involves abstractions, things that transcend the body. Unfortunately the two brains are entirely separate and there's no communication between them. Therefore there's a kind of schizophrenia. One side is looking at the stars and wanting to transcend the human condition, and the other side is grovelling round looking for the next person to rape or beat up. I think he's right, that is what's wrong with us. He does offer a solution which is a bit extreme, but I think he does have a point. I won't tell you what it is or I'll spoil the book."

Sting has recently re-read the 'Ghost In The Machine' after first being influenced by its ideas five years ago. To some extent the Police album is also intended as an advert for the book.

"In the record I have ideas put very simply which are parallel to the ideas put very coherently over hundreds of pages. 'Spirits In The Material World' says there's no political solution to what's happening to us, it involves transcending our condition.

'Demolition Man' is the beast, he can't help himself, he has to destroy. That's part of me, I'm actually very destructive, I can also be creative, but that is half of me. 'Re-humanise Yourself' is a parallel idea to Koestler's that we're becoming dehumanised through work systems, through political systems, through convention. 'Hungry For You' is in French, "because it's filthy," says Sting. "And French is the language of love."

"If one person reads the 'Ghost In The Machine' because our album has the same title, then I think it's a good excuse to have called it that. They're ideas that gestate, and now I'm at the stage where technically I can write songs that I would have found really difficult two years ago. I now feel capable of writing objective songs and I think that's an improvement. That's not to say that I can't go back and write very personal songs, but my concerns at this moment aren't whether I have a number one record this week, or whether we sell ten or seven million, or whether we're the biggest group in the world. My concern really is whether there's going to be a world left for us to be successful in. Michael Foot was right, everything else is trivial and childish. The real issue is whether we're going to survive as a race."

In the Police's position, it's inevitable that a sudden change in pop policy will be viewed with some suspicion. In particular, choosing to deal with the delicate; emotionally charged issue of Ireland could leave them open to the most damning interpretation of motives. There's a fairly fine balance between natural evolution and blatant opportunism and there's room in the pop range for plenty of purposes; for using a privileged position in the commercial mainstream with imagination and a bit of bravery, for expanding the pop scope or for losing integrity in a stern, blind struggle to keep a lead.

"I think any intelligent group realises that to change is to survive. No group wants to destroy itself or become unpopular - that's madness. So you say, well, we have to present ourselves in a different way to be listened to. It wasn't hard, there was no scratching of heads. It was very clear in my mind how we were going to do it, like it's very clear in my mind how I'm presenting myself to you now. But it's not phoney, I don't want you to get the impression that it's phoney.

"The stance of 'Invisible Sun' is a normal kid in Belfast torn between systems of violence, between the army, the IRA, the UVF, different flags. We're all after some sort of fairness in society. And if there isn't another way between blowing people up, starving them to death, torturing them, imprisoning them, then we're finished. I'm just saying there has to be another way, let's look for it. Because the real victims are those kids that you see on the film, and they're real kids, they're not actors. I know a bit about Belfast and I've lived in Ireland for about a year. My wife knows people in the Maze, and we talk long and hard about politics in that area. So it's not me sitting and watching television and just writing the song. It's something I feel deeply and I think something has to be said."

Do you feel The Police context or the pop medium is a good way to convey these sorts of things?

"Well, I've always said in the past that the pop song is a very poor medium for political thought. It's very good for polemic, but that doesn't get very far. I think real political thought, sophisticated political thought, is very hard to put in a song. I find the politics of a lot of so-called political groups juvenile. It's real sixth form stuff. They've never read 'The Wealth Of Nations', they've never read "Das Kapital". It's the equivalent of sloganeering. It achieves nothing. My songs are apolitical: I hate politics, I hate politicians, I hate the mess they've made of the world."

Sting uses his vote, in a negative way, he says, for Labour, for what he considers to be a just party, for Foot not Benn, and he's just turned down an invitation to support the SDP.

"I've got a kid, a four-year-old, and my wife's pregnant again. The chances of my children leading a normal life are minuscule, largely because of the amount of weapons we've got stored up and flying around and because the people that are in power are stupid, the people who elected them are also stupid. We need to solve the problems of ignorance, I think that's the disease that's ruining us; that and fear. We're afraid of the Russians, the Russians are afraid of us. If you're in Belfast you hate Catholics because you're afraid of them and they're sub-human and they stink. If you're a Catholic you're afraid of Protestants for the same reason, and you live only streets away. It's just putting people in slots and sticking labels on them and saying, you're different to me. It's a ludicrous situation."

Do you think in terms of 'Ghost In The Machine' having any practical application, or do you consider that's naive?

"It would be pretty pompous if I turned round and said this album is going to change the way people think. However, you have to chip away " he replies equably, "you have to give something. I have a medium at my disposal a forum, if you like, in which to discuss ideas. I'd be untrue to myself if I didn't try to say what I believe in, in that medium. I don't know how far you can go, to a certain extent it's all rhetoric. There's a line in one of the songs that says "the words of politicians are merely the rhetoric of failure" and l don't claim that much more for my own rhetoric, except that I have no other choice but to say what I believe in now. I'm free of shackles; so I think I can do it. It won't change society, of course it won't. But what I would like is for people to read the book, because I think it has some great ideas, very simply and coherently put, which the songs give a glimmer of."

Ask Sting about his future plans and he's likely to reply in terms of the possibility of the neutron bomb. However, at 29, one of his stated great ambitions is to grow old gracefully.

"I think there's nothing worse that appearing on TOTP if you're over 35. I find that shocking; really sad. It's not dignified and I want to retain dignity. I'm very proud."

Sting the pop star has also been consolidating his career as Sting the aspiring actor. Since his success as the cool top mod in Quadrophenia, he's been reading through scripts at the rate of one a week.

"Most of them could have been written by this table, they're as stupid and incoherent as that," he says.

So far Sting seems to have shown a fortunate taste in choosing roles. He turned down a part in 'The Jazz Singer' and the offer of playing the villain in the latest James Bond fantasy 'For Your Eyes Only'.

"I've been pretty lucky. I went to see the James Bond film in New York and it was so boring I walked out. It's sad because the James Bond movies as a genre have been very entertaining, I've grown up with them. I loved 'Goldfinger' and all that. To see the arse-end of the series was very sad. I was just thanking my lucky stars I wasn't in it."

He's just finished a play called 'Artemis '81' for the BBC which is due to be shown in December.

"It's three hours long, very erudite, very dense - and a lot of people would say it was very pretentious. I don't know what it's like. I've no idea. I think it could be very good. Then again, I could be awful. It's very hard to tell. When you're on-stage the way the ritual is set up, you get feedback. On a film set you say a line and the director says, cut, and there's not thousands of people saying Yeah! Really great! There's no audience and I find that scary."

Next month he starts work on a feature film of Dennis Potter's celebrated 'Brimstone And Treacle', originally written three years ago as a play for television and banned three days before transmission because the BBC considered its content too nauseous. Sting describes it as a modern morality play in which he portrays a disturbed young man who may, or may not, be the devil.

"It's a very prestigious job for me to get. I'm really looking forward to it. It's a British film too, which is important."

Have you thought in terms of doing more things outside The Police?

"I don't know. But why not? Yeah. The thing I used to do maybe ten years ago was stand up in folk clubs and sing on my own. Now you go out there and it's terrifying. I can't work without stage fright. It's like a drug, it's like driving a car fast. I do like that feeling."

Sting on-stage at the Amnesty concert takes the solo role that Pete Townshend has performed previously, singing 'Roxanne' and 'Message In A Bottle' unaccompanied to a solidly appreciative establishment audience only lightly touched by the rest of the pop whirl, leading the cast through the final massed chorus of 'I Shall Be Released'. In the surroundings of this prestigious society charity show, Sting looks poised at a different starting line, keeping a cool charisma exploiting the possibilities of his flexible state of stardom; beginning to cross boundaries.

Which side of Sting would you like to be remembered?

"I'd like my son to remember me, that's as far as it goes. I'd like the songs to survive. Apart from that I haven't thought about it. I'd like to be remembered as someone reasonable, a reasonable bloke."

© New Musical Express


Mar 8, 1981

The night before we played our last gig in Australia in front of 10,000. Friday morning I got up pretty early, around 9am, and went straight down to the hotel pool. There I met Willie Nelson and made friends with him. I congratulated him on his Grammy award and he congratulated me on mine. He won the best country and western song and we won the best instrumental. Then I met Oscar Peterson who was sitting in the corner drinking. I went over but he had never heard of The Police. In the afternoon I went water-skiing in Perth. It was pretty good - until I swallowed a jellyfish...

Mar 1, 1981

When the Police hit town they come with with tons of technological wealth - the latest in lights and sound: they hit Washington as a loss leader, to turn albums into gold. It was late morning when a door swung open and a bright winter's sun drilled into the gilded gloom of the Warner Theater. Outside a pair of tractor trailers droned at the curb, jammed with the latest in light and sound equipment. Tons of it. Out of the trucks it rolled in boxes bigger than steamer trunks...