The following article by Marshall Hall appeared in an April 1996 issue of The Big Issue
There's one sting Gordon Sumner could be forgiven for not wanting to talk about. But the region's biggest star speaks exclusively to The Big Issue North East.
"I'm lucky to be alive. I went through all of the cliches that rock stars go through. Poor things, all that money."
Just before the phone goes down Gordon Sumner gets in a small testimonial, an insurance policy in case times turn hard. "What you're doing in the North East with The Big Issue is absolutely wonderful - just what the region needs: I always buy a copy in London - you never know when I might need a job."
It's hard to foresee circumstances in which a successful, middle aged professional would need The Big Issue but, as Sting has famously proved, nothing slips through your fingers faster than security. People of a certain age will remember the late 1970s as a time of much excitement, when the likes of the Sex Pistols and The Clash were riding high on a tide of phlegm and fury which swept aside the feeble old bands who had sucked the music industry dry. Great days to be young in Manchester, Liverpool and London but not so in the North East, where the New Wave scarcely lapped at the shores.
Newcastle had long been a stronghold of rock music, despite conspicuously failing to produce a national name since Lindisfarne. While a handful of local punks spat and sneered, the region's hottest young bands were drifting further still from reality and jazz/rock combos like Hot Snax, East Coast and Last Exit had no idea why they weren't getting record deals. Some acts and individuals hoped to weather what they thought was a passing storm in London and most were never heard of again: Gordon Sumner went, but his is a happier tale than most. Known as Sting, he was the bassist with the jazziest of the local rockers, Last Exit, but left them and their large following behind to return a couple of years later to far larger crowds with a band he formed down there, The Police.
"When I was in Last Exit it was very difficult to get the record industry to come up north and take us seriously," he recalls, from the comfort of his Wiltshire mansion. "We had to go down and see them and we spent most of our time on the M1 in the back of Transit vans. But that's the sort of thing that built your stamina, toughness - and backbone," he laughs.
Sting was typical in many ways of the local musicians in Newcastle. He had a steady day job teaching in Cramlington but had spent his nights dreaming of stardom, ever since he was a schoolkid himself when he saw Jimi Hendrix at Newcastle's Club A-Go Go in the 1960s.
"I was about fourteen. He played at the same time as his first single came out - which was Hey Joe - and that totally changed my life," says Sting. "He was the first guy who wasn't only a pop star, he was a virtuoso musician. I'd never seen anything like it, that idea of combining being a pop star with being a real musician thrilled me. I eventually decided I had to take the bull by the horns and move to London and believe in myself. It was a big risk in that I had a job and a family and a pension scheme. So I had to say this is it, if I don't do it now I'll never do it."
Having mastered his instrument and updated his playing and singing styles to embrace the wealth of punk and reggae influences in London at the time, he formed The Police, a classy power-trio in a similar mould to the Jimi Hendrix Experience but a decade removed in attitude. The pop star's lot has always been a tricky one; the nature of the game demands that its stars are young but whereas writers and painters can expect to peak later in life when they are perhaps better equipped to deal with the vagaries of fame, the pressures on teenage idols are immense and punk was already claiming its first casualties. But Sting did have one advantage.
"I was twenty-eight, most people get this madness much younger, like nineteen, twenty, which is diabolical, it can take the rest of your life to recover from that," he says. "But nothing can prepare you for fame. It certainly was a strange time. It was the most successful time of my life and probably the most unhappy. I think everything was just breaking down around me. My marriage, my friendships, my mind was falling apart," he laughs. "And yet I was incredibly successful - but deeply unhappy. I mean, the last ten years have been a slow climb out of that, back to reality. And I'm much happier now, much more at home with myself than I was then. I'm lucky to be alive, frankly. I went through all of the clichés that rock stars go through. Poor things, all that money."
Like many musicians of his generation he has sought to express himself in other ways, taking the familiar route of film. Yet despite a couple of reasonably acclaimed efforts he maintains that this was never more than a diversion from his main aim of making music.
"I've never really had an acting career, it's been like a sort of hobby. If people have asked me to do things, I've said I'd try. It's not a vocation for me, it's just a laugh," he says. But one particular role brought him back to Newcastle, Stormy Monday.
"First of all I got a phone call from my agent in Hollywood and he said have you ever heard of Newcastle, and I said that's where I'm from. He said here's a script set in Newcastle. I read the script about club owners in Newcastle and I recognised the types. It was a pretty good film, actually. The club we tried to recreate was the old Quay Club, which I never went to, but the Club A-Go Go was a pretty happening club when you think of all the acts who played there."
As the region's most famous musical export Sting will always be synonymous with Newcastle, and despite rubbing shoulders with luminaries of more exotic origins like New York, Paris and London, he has always retained a soft spot for his home town. And naturally, he is delighted with the recent performance of his home football team.
"I'm very happy about Newcastle United and what they're doing at the moment and I'm glad to see Sunderland are doing well too, I'd like to see them in the Premiership. It would be great for the North East, both teams up there. The area deserves it, frankly. It's good for our self-esteem."
However, his own self-esteem must have taken a knock at a recent Tottenham Hotspur match when he was invited by Alan Sugar but not recognised by the stewards, and he had to stand in the queue signing autographs while his credentials were checked.
"I tend to go to the Newcastle matches and I usually get invited up to the director's box, but I don't go and expect the red carpet to be rolled out. I'm banned from St. James' because I never see Newcastle win, Sir John Hall thinks I'm a jinx," he laughs.
Sting is forty-four now and comes across as a confident, affable middle-aged professional, the kind of person who would, in fact, buy a Sting album. It would be easy to imagine him still teaching in Cramlington and living in Jesmond, maybe keeping his hand in with a local R'n'B band on a Saturday night, like so many other musicians in Newcastle of a certain age.
"The thing about Newcastle is that you can make a living playing music. I think there are more working men's clubs there than anywhere else, I could go out at a weekend and make twenty or thirty quid. It did me once, it kept me alive. There but for good fortune, I'd still be doing it." © The Big Issue