INTERVIEW / Sting: How we mock our most serious Star, our national Friend of the Earth. Shouldn't he be a protected species? Or at least a respected one?

Hunter Davies,Giles Smith
Saturday 01 May 1993 00:02 BST

STING must be a really horrible, selfish, cynical, manipulating, pompous, vain bastard. Stands to reason. We know that sort. Superstar rock 'n' roller who preserves rain forests, works for Friends of the Earth, helps Chile, wants to save the world. Always trying to do good. Ergo, he must be bad. It's weird how this happens. Stick to drug orgies, teenage brides and smashing up hotel bedrooms, and the world loves you. What a card, what a bloke. But try to put something back, when you've taken out so much, and everyone is suspicious.

Silly old Sting. Let's get him. Mock him where it hurts. That's been the penalty he's paid these last 12 years, ever since he did his bit for Amnesty at the Secret Policeman's Ball in 1980. That led to other good works and eventually to the Rainforest Foundation. It's currently saving a jungle in Brazil the size of Switzerland, with beacons all the way round, set in concrete, so satellites can spot any nasties getting in. Well done, Mr Sting. So what's next?

'We're going to save the lemmings,' he said, and I dutifully wrote it down, only half concentrating, admiring the panelled walls of his Queen Anne home in Highgate, wondering what Yehudi Menuhin, the former owner, must think of him. 'We're building a perimeter fence all the way round Norway . . .' I was writing this down as well, thinking old Yehudi probably approves, as he too is a yoga fan, when I paused. Hold on. All the way round Norway? You must be joking. And he was. Caught. And I'd only just sat down.

What's this? Sting is meant to be pretentious and serious. The only really silly thing about Sting is his name. Born Gordon Sumner in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, in 1951, he became Sting in 1971. When he turned up at Sunderland Social Club to play with the Phoenix Jazz Men wearing a black and yellow sweater. 'I thought it was cool. The rest of the band thought it hilarious. They called me Sting all night long, and the next day, and it just stuck.' Perhaps it stuck 'cos it suited you? 'Could be. I did try to look aggressive in those days.'

Catholic working-class family, Dad Ernie (repeat, Ernie) a milkman. They lived above a dairy. He was the oldest child, one brother and two sisters below. He remembers going to the ABC Minors cinema, feeling worried because his dad wasn't a miner. No, that's not a joke. He thought it was for miners' children. He faintly remembers a piano, and pushing the pedals while his mother played, but it was gone by the time he was growing up. He had no music lessons, but taught himself to play a Spanish guitar that an emigrating uncle left behind. 'One day when I was 10, at the swimming baths in Wallsend with some friends, flicking towels at each other's balls, I heard 'Love Me Do' on a transistor left by some attendant. I heard these two voices in harmony, dove-tailing in 5ths and 3rds. I thought it was incredible. It wasn't the Beatles who made me a musician. I was always going to be that. But the Beatles made me a composer.'

He passed the 11-Plus, one of only four from his school, and went to a Roman Catholic grammar school in Newcastle, St Cuthbert's. 'Ruled by sadism, torture and threats, as you might expect, but we were led to believe we were the creme de la creme and had the key to the world. The only problem was going home to Wallsend on the train in my uniform and being ostracised by my old friends.'

Good runner, in fact very good, representing his school, then Newcastle, then the county in the 100 yards. Good at English, sailing through 0-levels, then got a B at A-level, plus a couple of duff Ds in geography and economics. 'I didn't do enough work. I was too busy playing the guitar in local groups.' All the same, he got into a teacher training college in Newcastle. The day he finished, a nun rang him up and offered him a job. 'She had taught my younger sister, Anita, the real brainbox in the family. She went on to get a Ph D and now works in publishing.' The job Sting was offered was teaching in a primary school at Cramlington. He took it and stayed for the next two years. Your average rock 'n' roll star has no proper profession. How can he? What about all the usual stuff about being on the road every day from the age of 15? Sting didn't commit himself to music in that way till he was 25. That's a bit old, isn't it? Were you a scaredy cat? Or a late developer?

He thought hard. Lob a serious question and he does his best to be serious, which is how he gets his serious name. 'The main problem was that I drifted from group to group, between different styles, from jazz to folk, and always a loner. While at college, I did busking, backing for a stripper, worked a theatre pit. I did a cruise on the Oriana to the Med. I suppose I stuck college and teaching so long because I valued education. The indoctrination had worked. I was also cautious. Teaching was a safe haven, especially as I'd got married at 24 and had a child and responsibilities.'

This was to the actress Frances Tomelty, star of a show in Newcastle. He was in a local band on the same bill. 'We met, fell in love, married. She proved to be the impetus which got me out. Her home was in London. The other members of the band said they would all come to London as well, but in the end I was the only one who went.'

For two years, he and his wife and child slept on floors, in squats, while he collected his dole money, feeling depressed and dehumanised. Then punk came along. It was not exactly him. He was a proper musician, who could play piano, guitar and read music. 'I used to turn up for jobs when I was younger and they'd say: 'Can you read?' I'd say, well I read the advert. They meant read music, so I taught myself. Punk was not about music. It was about energy and anger and being shut out. Musically, it was predictable. The Sex Pistols never went on to make Sgt Pepper.'

A punk-ish group that he joined turned into the Police, and the rest is history, music section. In 1983 he went solo. 'When I left the Police, we were the biggest group in the world, the way U2 is today. I wanted to develop and grow up on my own. I didn't aim to be the world's biggest rock star. I wanted to make guerrilla raids, not all-out war, little sorties to build up a ground swell, not pummel people.'

The result was mega sales, endless awards, earnings of some pounds 20m, the usual stuff. What's unusual is his work as a solo creator, responsible for half a dozen songs that are now modern classics - 'Roxanne', 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', 'Message In A Bottle', 'Can't Stand Losing You.'

'I've never had a partner. I sometimes wish I had. It means I have to compete with myself. Some songs take months. The best come quickly and are very simple. They are given to you.'

Perhaps his best known is 'Every Breath You Take' (. . . I'll be watching you). 'I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn't realise at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control. These were the Reagan, Star Wars years. Oh God, now you'll say I'm being pretentious . . . '

Well, you have at times left yourself open, with songs about Jung and Koestler and arty-crafty dream words.

'I suppose I am fair game, but it is important to take your own work seriously. There are no rules which say you can't express yourself in the words of a pop song. If the critics are so clever, why don't they write songs? I do mock myself now and again, but the critics don't see that. They want to be the ones to do the mocking. Rock stars are not supposed to be articulate. They're supposed not to know what they're doing. That's the critic's job, to tell us what we are doing.'

A bad review for his music still clearly bugs him, but he appears to have risen above snide remarks about his charity work. 'I've tried to use my celebrity status to kick-start campaigns. You can't use fame discreetly. I'm lending my fame, not myself, so I have to appear publicly, and naturally some people think it's self-serving. I see it as my duty as a citizen. I know I do a good job. The criticism doesn't upset me, but I am more careful which causes I support these days.'

More than pounds 2m has been collected for his Rainforest Foundation, the forest protected, but the Brazilian government has still to ratify the legal ownership. Stories have appeared suggesting he has been taken for a ride by the Indian chief, Raoni. 'All lies, put out by right-wing business elements, trying to delay the government.' But what about Raoni asking you to buy him a plane? 'He's always doing that. One of the other chiefs has one, to fly him to Sao Paulo for Coca-Cola supplies. Indians are the same as whites. I don't see them as noble savages, but they deserve a chance to protect themselves against what we call progress. We don't provide them with money, which they have no experience of. We provide social and economic infrastructure to help them survive.

'I expect 50 per cent of media coverage to be critical. I can't control that. No act of kindness ever goes unpunished . . .' he said, sadly. An original quote? He wasn't sure. He might have pinched it.

What about Bosnia? A job for Sting? 'We should be sending in UN psychiatrists not UN forces. It's fucking madness. I don't see what can be done. I hate whoever invented the phrase ethnic cleansing. It's now used as if it's an acceptable concept.

'I've stopped watching the television news. I don't let my children see it. It's pornography, making us watch charred bodies. I prefer newspapers.'

He was leaving his Highgate home that day for a world tour, the bags packed, about to hit 30 countries in six months. All that money, all that fame, four lovely houses - in Wiltshire, New York, LA and Highgate - and you're still dragging round the globe, staying in hotel bedrooms. Poor you.

'Not at all. I love it. I lie fallow for a year, gestating and creating, then I go out and play. All I want to be in life is a musician. The rest is a sub-clause. When I was in early groups in Newcastle, I knew the others would end up as taxi drivers. I always told myself that whatever happens, I'll still be a musician. I love performing, love the excitement of winning over an audience. We live to work. Work defines you. Work gives you dignity and self-respect.'

Too true, squire, but you've also enjoyed a bit of preening over the years, showing off your manly body, stripping off in films and photos, turning yourself blond. 'I did that in 1982. It seemed fun at the time, but it was ridiculous, having to sit still for half an hour with Bacofoil in your hair, scared anyone would come into the room and see you.'

How do you feel now, at 41, with your hair receding? 'I think it's sexy. If this is as ugly as I'll get, it's not bad. I feel suppler, fitter than I've ever done, thanks to my two hours of yoga every day.'

His private life sounds pretty mundane these days, doing his yoga, playing chess, playing with his kids. 'I think it was Flaubert who said you had to be bourgeois in everyday life so you can be daring in your work. Most rock 'n' rollers wear a clothing of rebellion, but in private they are reactionary and dull. Except me. No one could call me reactionary or dull.'

So what do they call you? 'The five or six people who really know me would probably use the same word about me - daft. No, I can't think of examples. I don't make jokes. Jokes are crutches for the humourless. I like to think I'm witty, in an ironic sort of way. I have an amusing life. I'm happy, except when I think about the worries of the world.'

He has five children. The eldest is Joe, 16, who is doing A-levels at University College School, Hampstead. In the summer, he's joining his dad on the world tour, as a stage manager. 'He loves being with the crew, sleeping on the road. He wants to go into music and he is talented, but I want him to finish his education, as I did. But there's no point in forcing education upon people. An intellectual awareness comes from within. I remember, when I was teaching, wondering if anything could be 'taught'. What I tried to do was transmit enthusiasm. But I was always very hot on spelling.'

He recently married his second wife, Trudie Styler, after 10 years of living together. For the wedding, she turned up on horseback in a pounds 25,000 Versace frock. Bit flash, for a committed charity worker? 'The dress was free. You must know that the rich never pay for anything. I had to struggle for years to get the money for my first proper guitar. I haven't had to buy one since.'

By Trudie, he has three children. The youngest is a girl, aged two, christened Eliot. After T. S? 'Not really. It was after a black woman I knew in Barbados. We never call her Eliot. In the family she's always known as Cocoa. By the way, her second name is Prufrock. Eliot Prufrock Sumner. Can you spell that or shall I help you?' I was writing it down. Then I realised I'd been caught again.

STING IS BIG - big albums (he's in the Top Five this week), big tours (he's off round the world). But is he a musical talent, or is it just a victory for cheekbones and hair bleach?

We first got to know him by sight in the Police in 1978. Three middle-class boys with spikey haircuts, the Police were edgy and brittle-sounding, but unerringly tuneful. They played 'Roxanne' and 'Can't Stand Losing You' and 'Message in a Bottle' and were received in America like no British band since the Beatles. Like the Beatles, at the height of their fame, they filled Shea Stadium, a venue deliberately chosen to flaunt the parallel.

Sting has made four solo albums since the Police disbanded in 1986, but for many who buy his records and go to his concerts, he remains the man who fronted that band. At his recent Albert Hall shows, newer songs were politely received, but it was the batch of Police numbers a third of the way through that unseated the audience.

The Police were a one-off. They were as basic as a pop group gets - bass, guitar and drums - but there was nothing basic about any of them. On drums was a hyperactive American called Stewart Copeland - all random cymbal crashes and rolls in unlikely places. By contrast, the guitarist, Andy Summers, was a former hippy who liked ambience and special effects. And on bass and high voice was Sting.

Contrary to popular perception, singing while playing the bass guitar is not as simple as walking while chewing gum. It is more like trying to pat your stomach while rubbing your head, a piece of self-dislocation that Sting takes to naturally. Now, as then, he counterpoints his own voice with playing that is both melodic and rhythmic. Sting may be pop's best exponent of this since Paul McCartney.

The talents in the Police pulled in different directions, which is what made the band crackle. But it also meant they were bound to snap. During their last tour, Copeland damaged one of Sting's ribs in a fight over a copy of the New York Times. Shortly afterwards, Sting went solo.

Since then, he has hung out with jazz musicians, made lavishly recorded albums and become a quality rock act, made for CD. His lyrics have grown ornate. Yet, ironically for someone whose articulacy is much-touted, his chief contribution to pop's lyrical canon would still have to be 'ee-yo-o', followed closely by 'way-yay-yo' - the chants from the Police days, partly pilfered from one of reggae's vocal stylings and rebuilt for massive audience participation.

Unlike many pop stars who make it globally, he has retained an Englishness, both in his singing accent and his choice of song topics. In the tunes, though, American jazz inflections abound. On the new album (Ten Summoner's Tales), 'Love is Stronger Than Justice' has a straightforward, foot-tapping chorus, but you'll need to be able to count along in 7:4 time if you want to keep up with the verse. This is a tendency which can upset even his admirers, those who reckon that what he does best is incredibly simple and tantalisingly impossible: such as the basic chord progression and the muted melody for the song 'Every Breath You Take'. It sounds easy. Go ahead and write one if you can.

Sting has never matched that song, though the curling chorus of 'Seven Days', his current single, suggests that he still could. Meanwhile, he continues to provide a wide target for satire. The title of the new album is a Chaucerian reference; the title of . . .Nothing Like the Sun a Shakespearian one. Attempting to overcome writer's block before the Soul Cages album, he took himself off to a Normandy hotel room once occupied by Proust. One could hardly blame writers for concluding he had ideas above his station.

Sting remains unusually sensitive to the verdicts of the press - and this despite using the press for publicity purposes (there have been enough magazine pictures of him to paper one of his baronial halls). It is an odd thing for a musician at his level to be absorbed by. A man on whom the condition of the world is alleged to weigh heavily is also minutely concerned about a slagging in the NME. 'St Augustine in Hell', a song on the latest album, includes a quick checklist on the occupants of the inferno, and in there among the barristers, the archbishops and the certified accountants are 'music critics'.

(Photograph omitted)

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