The following article by Steve Adams appeared in the June 1993 issue of Record Collector magazine...
Regarded by some as the thinking man's rock star, by others as pretentious, Sting has undoubtedly done his best to bring intelligent discussion to the ephemeral world of rock. But he is no longer king of the pop charts. Since splitting from the all-conquering Police eight years ago, his fortunes have revolved around albums and tours rather than singles and videos.
Years before forming the Police, Gordon 'Sting' Sumner had begun his recording career with the Newcastle Big Band - early evidence of his interest in jazz as well as rock. He subsequently issued a jazz-rock single with Last Exit, before the initial Police line-up formed early in 1977.
From their tentative beginnings as a slightly unconvincing punk band, the Police had by the end of the 70's become one of Britain's most successful rock outfits. Their fame spread overseas via singles like 'Message In A Bottle', 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' and 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'. 'Every Breath You Take' was America's biggest selling single of 1983, while the 'Synchronicity' LP topped the US charts for four months that year.
Sting always expected the Police to split up sooner rather than later, however. As early as 1980, he revealed: "I think we will have said all we have to say within four, maybe five albums, and then I'll have to stop." Five turned out to be right - the brilliant 'Synchronicity' was a fitting finale to the band's career. After a tiring world tour, the group announced that 1984 would be a 'rest year', fuelling rumours of a split. Sting used the time to concentrate on a cameo role in the lengthy and ultimately ill-fated film of Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic 'Dune', directed by David Lynch. His only musical output that year was singing the apparently deliberate line "the bitter sting of tears" in Band Aid's charity single 'Do They Know It's Christmas?'.
A conscientious student of Jung (spot him reading the psychologist's teachings on the cover of 'Synchronicity'), Sting placed great importance on the interpretation of his subconscious thoughts, and when a group of large blue turtles started tearing up an ornate English garden in one of his dreams, he knew what it meant. The blue turtles were a new band, destroying the predictable simplicity of his reliable existence as lead singer with one of the world's most popular acts. The dream told him to leave the Police.
The new year brought a new project, though one rooted in the jazz influences found in his pre-Police bands. In January 1985 he arranged a three-week series of workshops in New York, inviting jazz musicians to join him for jam sessions. He picked the best to play on his solo album: Omar Hakim (Weather Report) on drums, Darryl Jones (Miles Davis) on bass, Kenny Kirkland on keyboards and Branford Marsalis (brother of trumpeter Wynton) on saxophone. Sting himself opted to play rhythm guitar.
Having already written a number of new songs, Sting put the new band through its paces with a trio of gigs in New York in late February, including their live debut at the Ritz Club. The set also included a number of Police tracks and jazz standards. Immediately afterwards the band flew to Barbados to record an LP at Eddy Grant's Blue Wave studios.
Released in June, 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' was unveiled at a press conference in Paris, where the band had been rehearsing for a series of gigs at the tiny Mogador Theatre. During a hectic and emotional few days, Sting's girlfriend Trudie Styler gave birth to their second child (his fourth time as a father), Jake. At the press conference Sting noted: "A new band, a new album and a new baby all at the same time - I call that auspicious."
During these formative weeks, the group's every move was under scrutiny from a film crew led by director Michael Apted (who began life on 'Coronation Street' and has since directed 'Gorillas In The Mist'), commissioned by Sting to document the start of his new band. The crew were permanent fixtures for a nine-day period, which included rehearsals, gigs, the launch of the LP, even the birth of Jake - a much criticised element of the final film.
Meanwhile, the opening track on the LP became the first single 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' was an uptempo pop-orientated tune - a deliberate antidote to the Police hit, 'Every Breath You Take', whose lyric Sting had begun to perceive as possessive to the point of being evil. Despite reaching the US Top 5, 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' made only No.26 in the UK. Continuing the tradition of the Police, there was a non-LP B-side, while two remixes on the 12" marked Sting's first venture into the dance arena.
The LP, produced by Pete Smith and Sting, was full of nervous energy and consummate musicianship. Lyrically, it contained a curious mixture of the serious and frivolous, embracing such diverse themes as the miners' strike, drug dealing, vampires and those blue turtles. The album reached the Top 3 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sting had already agreed to perform at the Live Aid concert in London. Despite obvious rumours of a Police reunion, Sting appeared in the Wembley sunshine on July 13th with only a guitar and Branford Marsalis performing three Police songs: 'Roxanne', 'Message In A Bottle' and 'Driven To Tears', an especially poignant track from 'Zenyatta Mondatta'. He and Phil Collins duetted on 'Long Long Way To Go' (as they had on Collins' 'No Jacket Required' LP) and 'Every Breath You Take'. Sting also reappeared later on the most important day in pop's history with Dire Straits ('Money For Nothing') and on the Band Aid finale.
The second and third singles from the 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' LP were more uptempo: the Caribbean-flavoured 'Love Is The Seventh Wave' and most-Police-like 'Fortress Around Your Heart'. 'Love Is The Seventh Wave' featured a live recording from the French shows as its non-LP B-side. Both singles failed to make the Top 20, though: Sting's popularity was obviously on the wane with the single buying fraternity.
However, he had an ace up his sleeve. The hauntingly brilliant 'Russians', using the melody from the Romance section of Prokofiev's 'Lieutenant Kije Suite', returned him to the UK charts in December. It later transpired that Sting wanted this track to follow 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' but decided not to "bum people out during the summer". The single coincided with the British leg of his world tour, and featured a new track, 'Gabriel's Message', on the B-side. A traditional Christmas tune, it also appeared on the compilation 'A Very Special Christmas' (AMA 3911), in aid of the Special Olympics, alongside tracks by U2, Run DMC, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna.
The success of the UK tour prompted A&M to release another single, 'Moon Over Bourbon Street', in February 1986. The choice of 'Mack The Knife' from Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera' as the B-side was a typically propitious event for Sting. It also features on another A&M compilation: 'Lost In The Stars' (AMA 5104).
During the first half of 1986, post-production work progressed on Apted's movie, until 'Bring On The Night' finally appeared, along with a double live set of the same name, in June. Although the band played many Police favourites in their set, only the lesser-known tracks (such as the wonderful 1981 B-side, 'Low Life') appeared on the album. Also omitted were most of the singles from 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles', which might go some way to explaining its modest chart placing.
The movie suffered even more, labelled as a pretentious (again) glorified promo film. As a result, its cinematic release was restricted, though a video quickly followed. In the meantime, Sting was touring America under the Amnesty International banner, on the 'Conspiracy Of Hope' tour, alongside U2, Bryan Adams, Peter Gabriel and Jackson Browne. The highlight of the tour was the Police reunion at New Jersey's Meadowlands, where their set included a version of 'Invisible Sun' featuring U2's Bono on vocals. The two-week, six-date tour raised $2.5 million and was followed in November by the Amnesty compilation LP, 'Conspiracy Of Hope' (Mercury MERH 99), which featured a Sting solo piece, 'Strange Fruit'.
As it became increasingly apparent that the Police's split wasn't temporary, A&M began pressing for the final album the band owed them from their original deal. Observers expected a live effort - which would have explained why Sting had not included the band's best-known material on his own live LP. Instead, a hits package, 'Every Breath You Take - The Singles' (A&M EVERA1), was released in time for Christmas 1986. Original plans for the band to re-record every track were disappointingly scrapped. But a remake of 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' did reach No.24 (a far cry from the original, the UK's biggest selling single of 1980) in October 1986, and was complemented by a classy and nostalgic video - though each member of the band was filmed individually.
After another acting stint (this time opposite Kathleen Turner in 'Julia Julia'), Sting returned to the Caribbean - in fact, to the Police's old hunting ground, Air Studios in Montserrat, to record a new album. This time he opted to play bass, lead guitar being provided by a selection of guests including his old Police sidekick Andy Summers, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and Hiram Bullock. Kirkland and Marsalis kept their places from the original line-up, but Omar Hakim relinquished the drumstool to another Peter Gabriel tub-beater, Manu Katche.
'Nothing Like The Sun' (the title is Shakespeare's and therefore appears in quotes), was produced by Sting and Neil Dorfsman (best known for his work on Dire Straits' 'Brothers In Arms'), and released in October 1987. It contained a diverse range of musical styles and influences: in addition to jazz-rock (with the accent on 'rock'), there were elements of classical (in the form of a Hans Eisler melody), flamenco and even hip-hop.
Sting denied that his music was jazz, even though he played with jazz musicians, saying: "I hope the music we make can't be labelled. My whole point about music is that labelling is limiting. It prejudices people. As soon as you introduce a name, a type of music, you introduce a preconception. My whole crusade at the moment is confounding stereotypes."
Despite adverse reviews, the double-LP set entered the UK charts at No.1, and also achieved pole position Stateside. Unfortunately, it was the perfect example of an excellent LP being stretched into a somewhat disappointing double. The first half was the best and most accessible, including 'The Lazarus Heart', a tribute to Sting's mother who had just died from cancer at the age of 55, and Fragile, probably his greatest song.
The first single from the LP, 'We'll Be Together', failed miserably in Britain, despite a number of remixes and an oddball B-side, 'Conversation With A Dog'. The most attractive format was a boxed 3" CD, which still occasionally turns up in Woolies' bargain bins - but judging by the price they seem to have mistaken it for an album! Mint copies are actually worth around ¬£8.
The opening date of the 'Nothing Like The Sun' world tour was a painful night for Sting, who'd just learned of his father's death, also from cancer, at the age of 59. He went ahead with the gig, however, as a celebration of his father's life, in front of 200,000 people at the Maracana football stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
During the South American leg, Sting was alerted to the devastation being wrought upon the Amazon rainforests. Flying over Brazil with Belgian photographer Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, he was shown an expanse of desert which had been rainforest just 15 years earlier, and resolved to help prevent further destruction.
Meanwhile, the live gigs continued, reaching Wembley Arena for his only UK shows just before Christmas, with all proceeds from an extra night donated to the schizophrenia charity SANE. The tour continued in the States, where a selection of album tracks, notably 'Be Still My Beating Heart' with its tastefully arty black-and-white video, gained airplay on radio and MTV. But in Britain, a succession of singles failed to chart, despite featuring fresh B-sides, the best being 'Ghost In The Strand', a stunning jazz instrumental showcasing pianist Kenny Kirkland. 'Nothing Like The Sun' took the BPI award for 'album of the year' in February.
During the summer, A&M slipped out an almost unofficial CD-only single in a reissue series to spark interest in their digital back catalogue. 'Someone To Watch Over Me', the theme from the Tom Berenger/Mimi Rogers film, was backed by a single from each of Sting's solo LPs, plus his first solo hit 'Spread A Little Happiness' from the 1982 'Brimstone & Treacle' soundtrack.
Having appeared at Wembley Stadium for Mandela Day in June, Sting signed up alongside Peter Gabriel for the 'Human Rights Now' Amnesty International tour, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. Sting often refers to Amnesty as "the most civilised organisation on earth", and it was through his efforts that Bruce Springsteen was persuaded to headline a 19-city world-wide tour. Opening at a rainy Wembley on September 2nd and ending in Buenos Aires on October 15th, it proved highly enjoyable for artists (who included Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour) and fans alike. One of the highlights was Sting's performance of 'They Dance Alone' in Mendoza, Argentina, when he was joined on stage by some of the Chilean mothers of the disappeared, about whom the song was written. He also regularly guested with Springsteen on 'The River' and with Gabriel on 'Games Without Frontiers'.
During 1988, Sting also narrated Stravinsky's 'A Soldier's Tale' with Vanessa Redgrave, for an album on his own label, Pangaea (461048). Designed to promote quality musicians from the areas of jazz and world music, the label has made many discoveries, some of whom, such as the brilliant country duo Kennedy Rose (undoubtedly the label's finest act) and percussionist Vinx, have since joined their boss in the studio or on stage.
Sting spent much of 1989 launching and campaigning for the Rain Forest Foundation, aiming to protect areas like the Xingu Park, a chunk of Indian land in Brazil larger than the UK. Along with Jean-Pierre Dutilleux and Chief Raoni of the Kayapo tribe (residents of Xingu), he toured the world, meeting heads of state and chat-show hosts to raise awareness of the Indians' plight. The trip earned much of the required ¬£3.5 million needed, but the project suffered at the hands of an ITV 'World In Action' special, which suggested that the Foundation was little more than a mismanaged publicity campaign for Sting. Despite his obvious disquiet, he calmly and articulately refuted the claims - not mentioning that he had personally contributed over ¬£150,000 to the cause.
In the summer of 1989, Sting was offered his first real theatrical role, as 'MacHeath' in a prestigious Broadway production of Brecht & Weill's 'Threepenny Opera'. Almost universally panned by critics on its opening in November (save for Leonard Bernstein, who said Sting was born to sing the role), the run ended 150 shows later on Christmas Eve, despite the fact that Sting wanted to continue in a role he thoroughly enjoyed. Sadly, no official cast recording of the show exists, posing an important question to collectors - are there any bootlegs available?
1990 brought a surprise return to the Top 40, via an infectious Ben Liebrand remix of 'An Englishman In New York'. Originally included on 'Nothing Like The Sun' and already a flop single in 1988 the inspired re-arrangement - involving a re-working of Branford Marsalis' saxophone solo and the addition of an even more obvious hip-hop beat - took the Quentin Crisp tribute to the heady heights of No.15 in July. Of the five formats, all featuring the original LP version the rarest is a picture CD showing the skyscrapers of New York. Look out for a promo postcard of the same scene, which was available free on many record store counters.
Meanwhile Sting was suffering the turmoil of writer's block, in the aftermath of his father's death. He narrated another classical piece, Prokofiev's 'Peter And The Wolf', with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon 429396-2) but couldn't put together any material of his own. Booking studio time wasn't enough to force a reaction, but a soul-searching trip back to the dockyards of his Newcastle home provided the necessary spark, as he realised music and lyrics, with the nautical theme inspired by the shipyards he'd seen from his bedroom window as a boy.
Sessions for the album, with former Police and current Genesis/Phil Collins stalwart Hugh Padgham in the co-producer's chair, took place in France (at Guillaume Tell) and Italy (Villa Salviati). Three survivors from the previous LP - Marsalis, Kirkland and Katche - were joined by Dominic Miller on guitar and David Sancious on additional keyboards. Guest musicians included Kathryn Tickell playing Northumbrian pipes, Paola Paparelle on oboe and Vinx on percussion.
The album's chirpiest track, 'All This Time', was issued as a single in December 1990, and reached No.22 in the UK. While every format featured an instrumental tribute to Sting's late mother plus live material from the previous tour, the limited edition CDs were the most inspirational: the first boasted a stylish fold-out sleeve and picture disc, the second a 12" colour print of Steven Campbell's cover artwork.
The album, 'The Soul Cages', appeared in January 1991. Marking a further step away from jazz towards a more conventional rock format, it still contained a wide variety of musical themes, most notably traditional Northern folk. If 'Nothing Like The Sun' was thoughtful, then 'The Soul Cages' was emotional, a stormy voyage through Sting's personal grief. Hailed by 'Q' and 'Rolling Stone' as his greatest solo work, it entered the UK charts at No.1.
The next single from the set, 'Mad About You', failed to match its predecessor's success. The host of formats featured unreleased live tracks (like a version of Squeeze's 'Tempted'), while the numbered CD came in a tastefully decorated fold-out sleeve.
Sting kicked off an extensive world tour in San Francisco on February 1st, with a live band stripped to the bare essentials: David Sancious taking Kenny Kirkland's place on keyboards, Dominic Miller playing guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta drums. Branford Marsalis, so often the star of Sting's live performances, was relegated to a minor role deserting the stage for most of a set dominated by 'Soul Cages' material. And with only one (slower) track from each of his previous solo LPs, it wasn't surprising that audiences were somewhat disappointed, despite the inclusion of Police classics and, bizarrely, a rendition of the Jimi Hendrix mindblower 'Purple Haze'.
During the hectic two months of American dates, Sting found time to record a superb 'Unplugged' session for MTV (also shown in Europe). The tour briefly arrived in England in April (two nights at Newcastle City Hall and five at Hammersmith Odeon, as well as an invitation-only event at Buddle Arts Centre near Newcastle, broadcast on independent radio) before heading into Europe for three months and then back to America.
The dark but ultimately uptempo title track of 'The Soul Cages' was released to coincide with the English dates, despite the non-LP sides like 'Oo La La Hugh' (a goof-about jam session), and some live material. The best of the five editions was a second 12", housed in a gatefold sleeve with a tour poster, which featured alternative live tracks to the first 12" and CD. It appeared when it was obvious the single would flop, so many stores chose not to stock copies.
Poor sales figures also prompted the cancellation of a single planned to coincide with UK tour dates at the end of 1991. But 'Why Should I Cry For You?' was released in the US and remains the only 'Soul Cages' track to be treated to a 12" remix (import CD copies are available in some HMV shops at around ¬£6). A fairly lame 90-minute video - 'The Soul Cages' Live - recorded at one of the Dutch shows hardly did justice to an ever-improving live set, but Radio One's live broadcast of one of the Wembley Arena shows more than compensated.
In November, meanwhile, UK collectors were treated to a special box set, featuring a live CD and a book. The CD, 'Acoustic Live In Newcastle', featured more than half an-hour of material recorded at the invitation-only Buddle concert in April: four tracks from 'The Soul Cages', plus Bill Withers' classic 'Ain't No Sunshine'. The book of illustrated lyrics by Italian artist Roberto Gligorov (whose physical resemblance to Sting is remarkable) attracted further calls of "pretentious", but made a beautiful memento for any fan. And with only 3,000 copies available, the box set soon disappeared.
Another interesting item from this period was the Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute LP, 'Two Rooms' (Mercury 845 749-2). Sting contributed one of the most inspired moments - a fine rendition of 'Come Down In Time' originally from Elton's 'Tumbleweed Connection' LP, which was one of Sting's favourites from his student days.
Outwardly, 1992 was a much quieter year for Sting - the much-publicised showbiz wedding to Trudie Styler apart - and his only musical output was the song 'It's Probably Me' for the soundtrack to 'Lethal Weapon 3'. Sting reckoned that this moody number (co-written and performed with Eric Clapton) was one of his best songs. But its summer release to coincide with the film brought only a minor hit.
The year's only other project reflected a growing and quite mercenary trend. CD owners are seen as prime candidates for compilations, and labels are only too happy to comply - witness the never-ending Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry 'greatest hits' albums. But I digress: readers will know exactly what I'm getting at. Suffice to say that 'The Police: Greatest Hits' (A&M 5400301) made a killing over Christmas. But apart from a better cover, the welcome inclusion of 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' and the original 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', and the inexplicable addition of 'Tea In The Sahara', it pretty much duplicated the 1986 stocking filler mentioned earlier.
Sting had spent the best part of 1992 writing a new album, which was then recorded in just eight weeks in Wiltshire, again with Hugh Padgham as co-producer. Given his immense satisfaction with his touring line-up, Sting retained what he now considered his best band (despite the likelihood that the session players might venture back to former employees). The first fruit of their endeavours was the single, 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', this February. Marking a return to lighter concerns (like much of the LP), it won more airplay than recent Sting 45s had done, and consequently reached No.15. The formats all featured live tracks from the 'Unplugged' session, including the by-now obligatory twin CDs - both picture discs of a sort, with the second's fold-out cover being particularly attractive.
The album, 'Ten Summoner's Tales' (the Chaucer-inspired title is, also a play on Sting's surname, Sumner), actually features 12 tracks. They range from eloquent and moody 'Shape Of My Heart' and the non-Clapton version of 'It's Probably Me') to farcical and lively ('She's Too Good For Me' and 'Nothing 'Bout Me'). Mostly, the diverse range of songs (or "musical jokes", as Sting who even plays sax on the album, calls them) is pleasing, though in places quality control may have been sacrificed to fit the tight recording schedule, with a couple of reserves making the final line-up despite not being match-fit (as on 'Nothing Like The Sun').
The second 45, 'Seven Days', has a non-LP B-side, 'January Stars' (with the same backing track as 'Everybody Laughed But You'), but only on the 7" and cassette. The twin CDs feature tracks from the 'Acoustic Live In Newcastle' CD, rather than unreleased material.
A quintet of dates at London's Albert Hall in March and April kicked off another period of hectic activity for Sting, who has once more proved he can make "a pop record in the truest sense" - not that his abilities were ever seriously in doubt after the Police. Since then he has also developed into one of our most important songwriters and musicians, with a body of work deserving much acclaim.
Another important aspect of his solo musical output is the educational effect it has had on average music fans. Branford Marsalis and fellow jazz stars have had their careers furthered by Sting's broadening of musical boundaries. By bringing virtuoso musicians into the mainstream, he has helped not only them, but also the industry and most importantly, his listeners. Not bad for the man the media likes to caricature as rock's most self centred performer.
© Record Collector magazine