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Back then rock was dead, the looks were old hat, and most of the bands were stale and unrewarded. The new decade seemed just like the old one. There was the same pose, the fantasies played out in lewd abandon and brief spasms of wild creativity, the songs, the drugs. On the surface, everything appeared to be normal. The old taboos still hung there, Cliff Richard was in the chart, and everyone over thirty breathed out again.
Then the music changed. The scene shifted. Up came a trio of rare talent and popularity. Originally led by the baroque, polo-playing drummer, the group was hijacked by a morose but famously alert afterthought, who fought with the others about credits and royalties, his own star rising as their self-confidence waned. At any given moment, a minimum of one band member was at war with the rest. Rock groups are notoriously hard things to be in. Not just for the sheer ennui of touring the repetition, night after night, of identical sets, proving that even improvisation can be boring the progression through the cold backstage rooms of football stadia, the drugs and other inducements, the marital hazards of random sex, but because of the leader's need to move on, always a nose ahead of his own obsolescence.
So, after a few years, it went. Amid the usual wrangling and the hysteria of the fans, the frontman dissolved the corporate identity (though keeping the Colonel Parker-like manager), disowning that previously held sacrosanct and recycling himself in the guise of a family entertainer. While theback-line musicians drifted off into dubious solo work, TV, film scores and drum-heavy tribal jazz, the star moved one pound's width to the mainstream with every pound earned, taking up residency in the Albert Hall. For years mere mention of the ex-group was high on the list of all three's pet hates. No reunion ever took place, but the band's management were far from idle. A slew of box-sets, doodlings and studio out-takes, T-shirts, videos and nostalgic reissues of past glories all contributed to a royalty flow as healthy residually as in the group's pomp. Finally, not without protest, the three men climbed on to a makeshift stage at the singer's country-house wedding party. They played their most famous number the old stresses returning again in that cosy vibe the manager muttering that, even now, ten years on, it was 'too soon' for them to be friends.
The group was Cream, but it was an ominous sketch of The Police if ever there was one. There are strange and telling links between the two bands. Some, of course, are mere coincidence, like the polo; but in other ways the ways they both became icons and nearly went mad in the process there are real ties to be made. Above all, it seems that the pressure of life in a trio wove a personally similar spell. In Sting, an artist emerged who mirrored the habits, moods, vanity, drive, talent and endurance of Eric Clapton.
The story of his early life is stark: the Newcastle-born boy who grows up in deprivation. He shares a tiny brick home with a family of six, with whom he fights. Sting would later say of The Police, 'It was brutal, vicious ... we were just like brothers.' There were those who fondly believed the band, flaunting their matching blond hairdos, to be related; even first cousins. The acutely aggressive nature of their friendship, if it could be so called, certainly contained all the acid, bitter rivalry of kinship.
At twenty-seven, in pop terms nearly middle-aged, 'Roxanne' turned Sting from modestly successful singer into someone whose smirk loomed out from TV and cameos in films like Quadrophenia. He liked to say that he'd lived, and it showed in his face. The strong jaw and X-ray stare gave him a knocked-about look. He seemed much more grown-up than most of pop's new crop of pretty-boys. It helped that fame hadn't suddenly come calling after one demo tape; he had to ring the bell, pound on the door and finally smash on through. One result of Sting's long musical apprenticeship was an unusually wide repertoire and a willingness to experiment. Another was that seven or eight years' graft gave him extra reason to protect his gains.
In time, the tough-man image became proverbial accepted. Sting's professional reputation was the stuff of myth: the loner from the provinces whose obscure, even shady, origins he's at pains not to clarify: equipped with intelligence, ambition, pride and poverty, he starts on a campaign to set the pop world alight. To reach these goals he takes real risks with his life. Eventually, his sudden success leaves him uncertain of his true identity, and to mask this insecurity he throws up a protective wall of reserve and mystery, topped off by a razor-wire strand of real malice. But behind his formidable cool, he could be a generous and loyal friend. For all his rock-star swagger, he was a man of genuine intellectual humility and thirst for new ideas. Aware that solutions to big problems involve personal commitment and constant adjustment and refinement, he was unafraid of radical views, and gave his time unstintingly to good causes. This proved a strength and a weakness. It enlarged his understanding of major issues Sting 'grew but never swelled', as one admirer says but it also opened him to the reproach that he was, as he quite accurately put it, 'a pretentious git'.
Professionally, too, he shunned the pigeonhole. Sting is responsible for some of the most dramatic sounds to emerge from rock's first forty years, and some of the most vivid lyrics. He's also written some of the worst rhymes ever to be etched on to vinyl:
It's no use, he sees her,
He starts to shake and cough,
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov.
Hey mighty brontosaurus,
Don't you have a lesson for us?
Where is the fisherman, where is the goat
Where is the keeper in his carrion coat?
If you love somebody set them free.
Musically, too, Sting may have contributed nothing new, instead falling back on the old pop virtues of craftsmanship and an ear for a hook. His stocks-in-trade were well-worn rock-reggae idioms, with jazz undertones. But the familiar formulae were made fresh again by the heart-grabbing poignancy of his slow tunes, the joyful release of his belters, and the raw intensity of his vocals. In short, he enlivened a boring pop scene. Add his flinty good looks, burgeoning film career and flair for the epigram, and it's easy to see why Sting's group were the biggest draw since the Beatles.
What does this popularity say about ourselves? Obviously, that success in the lively arts is still apt to be a function of mystique; that a mix of talent and public relations will win through. The fans can tolerate anything except a failure of image.
There was, first and foremost, the man himself. Sting looked like a rock star. To the paparazzi, he was pure gold a front-page shot of him, whether tight-lipped and scowling or smirking archly, was usually worth thousands of extra copies. His waspish, barbed interviews were famous, as was the nickname which seemed to fit so perfectly. His mannerisms complemented his good looks. Whether at stage doors or in hotel lobbies, Sting was endlessly accommodating. He signed as many autographs as time and energy allowed. He posed for amateur snaps, discussed his shows, his albums, his hopes and plans, his eyes riveted on his questioner. It was a perfect expression of a responsibility he felt deeply, and it won over scores of fans. So too did his habit of addressing the packed crowds at concerts, whether haranguing a rogue bouncer, or becoming a music teacher leading his huge class in a singalong. His bonhomie in public was matched by a personality that, in private, was more introspective and uncertain than intrinsically stable, and that struck even grizzled rock-business types as warped.
But there was more to his success than a fetching smile and his appeal to pop psychologists in the press. Sting's ambition extended far beyond himself. He used the media to sell The Police, and did all he could to make the group work, including writing a clutch of classic, if evanescent, three-minute hits. When the band self-destructed in 1985-86, Sting took the decision to de-emphasize rock-star values and develop his singing and songwriting, an intelligent, inevitable choice, whatever one thinks of the music that followed. He grew with his audience. His concerns mirrored, and to some extent helped set, the post-Live Aid social agenda: world hunger, the environment, amnesty, Aids, South Africa. Over the next ten years, he upstaged nearly every other musician in the relevance department. From raw misfit to world crusader and father of six, it's tempting to see his progress as that of a young turk into a pillar of the Establishment. Viewed in this light, Sting is one of the great dramatic figures of his age. He was born in the same year as the transistor radio; entered his teens the month the Conservatives were swept from power by Harold Wilson, who promptly awarded the Beatles MBEs; took to music just as faintly tedious models like Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra made a career in jazz-rock seem viable; moved to London at the height of the media obsession with punk and reggae, which, in his magpie fashion, he used for his own sound; became a visual image of the eighties: a fey power-exercise instructor, exhorting his crowds into fist-pumping frenzy; later, when introspection called, a torch singer and balladeer; a more sober, yet gregarious soul; a family man; a socialist. One reason so many people like Sting is that, by and large, the more they hear from and about him, the more they relate to him.
Demolition Man will give a review of every album Sting has made. It will even tell you the dates he was married, the ages and names of his children, the way he looks and where he lives. A chronology will be provided. If you're interested in how someone becomes a rock star, and what that says about all of us, you should read this book.
A character like Sting needs explanation. What he needs more is illumination, a glimpse of the man whose central characteristic is his elusiveness. To cynics, the views he held, the things he said (particularly about the rainforest) sounded like a put-on; surely, they felt, he must be joking. But Sting carried on much the same way at home, among friends. Elsewhere, of course, ironies can be made to surface, a disparity seen between his private life and his public utterances. He'd come to London an idealist, his politics a potpourri of Marxist-Utopian mumblings; within two years, his reputation for self-love had spread so deeply as to become lore. Jazz tradition, which Sting had worn as a kind of chastity belt, was abandoned for the less vagarious world of Top of the Pops, marked by his creeping transition from punk to rock. His home life carried on down the same wavy line.
Sting, therefore, wasn't always one to make a virtue of consistency. At least one critic has skewered him as no more than a blank slate, a blue screen on which was scrolled the latest look du jour before it, too, joined the long list of torn-up images. Others have praised him precisely for his versatility: ideologically, Sting travelled light. Running as a throughline has been one of the most arresting personalities in British art. Few others can hold a candle to Sting's striking affirmation of individuality. He conferred on rock its sharpest intellectual edge, raising its profile beyond the denim roar of the 1970s and the screwed-up nihilism of today's gods. In brief, Sting was far more than another pop star exciting the soggy hopes of his female fans and the envy of the males. He was, and is, a maturely dedicated artist with fixed views, a Renaissance Man and a virtual symbol of his times. In technical terms, Sting's life is a gloomy intro, an upward bridge, a quirky-but-danceable chorus and a therapeutic last verse, while other rockers are rarely more than a loud honk. He's dabbled passionately in politics, and just as warmly gives his time and money to human-rights groups, often anonymously. Throughout it all he's stuck to the job at hand, determined to write intelligent, semi-joyous songs.
The contradictions not only give Sting's life a certain personal poignancy; they've also combined to keep him in the glare of the public spotlight, first switched on with such voltage in 1979 when 'Roxanne' hit the chart. In a few short years, he became one of the most polarizing figures in pop: in one paper's view, 'St Francis of Wallsend'; in another's, 'a narcissist ... full of bilious sincerity ... fascist ... a wanker'. Sting himself is well aware of his special niche in the rock firmament. He regularly includes coded barbs in his lyrics, such as the one about music critics in 'Saint Augustine In Hell'. He's also been at pains to hide the real Gordon Sumner behind the fictive Sting. Play-acting, in the arts, is nothing new, but in his case it begins to look like reincarnation. For years he was a dogged censor of his past, his name, his family. Other yarns were distorted, so that Sting's education, though grim enough, was warped into Tom Brown's Schooldays. As recently as 1993, unauthorized biographers were warned: 'Search my house with a fine-tooth comb / Turn over everything 'cause I won't be home / Set up your microscope, and tell me what you see / But you'll still know nothin' 'bout me.'
Sure enough, the extraordinary story has its blind spots. Sting's life has some of the makeshift quality and histrionics which in music he's so loath to adopt. All this has fed a critical slapstick which has been less than his genius deserves. Sting could have gone along with the myth-making and hagiographies. He might even have chuckled about them. He is, though, too shrewd to believe in his own press; 'Truth,' he famously sang, 'hits everybody.' Sting may not exactly relish the encroaching biographer. But, quite possibly, he can appreciate the irony.