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by Wendy & Dave Dunn
Who doesn't know this guy? He is one of the artists of all time that has influenced many others, yet he still carries on with his own, ever successful, career. Often described as adult pop perfection, he always manages to stay cool - "If anyone described me as a genius I would laugh. I have my moments - I just have to join them together... If you take the praise seriously then you have to take the bricks they throw at you seriously".
"Brand New Day", his latest album must have been influenced by quite a number of those 'moments', as it is said to be his best work so far - but it took a while and a lot of work to become what Sting is now.
Born in October 1951, in Wallsend, north-east England, Gordon Sumner's life started to change one evening when a Phoenix Jazzmen bandmate caught sight of his black and yellow hooped sweater and decided to re-christen him "Sting". Always a muso, Sting paid his early dues playing bass with local outfits such as the Newcastle Big Band and Last Exit, the latter featuring his first efforts at songwriting. Last Exit were big in the North East, but their jazz fusion was doomed to fail when 1976's punk rock exploded onto the scene. Curved Air drummer, Stewart Copeland, saw Last Exit and whilst the music did nothing for him he recognised the potential and personality of the bass player. Within months, Sting, his first wife, Frances Tomelty, and young son were tempted into moving to London.
Seeing punk as a flag of convenience, Copeland and Sting, with Corsican Henri Padovani on guitar, started rehearsing and looking for gigs. Ever the businessman, Copeland took the name The Police, figuring it would be good publicity, and the three started gigging around venues such as The Roxy, Marquee and Nashville. Ejecting the inept Padovani for the proven talents of Andy Summers the band also enrolled Stewart's older brother, Miles, as manager, wowing him with a Sting song called "Roxanne". Very soon after, Copeland gained them a record deal.
The London press hated The Police, seeing through their punk camouflage, and their early releases had no chart success. However the band did the unthinkable - they went to America. The early tours are the stuff of legend - flights courtesy of Laker's Skytrain, humping their own equipment from gig to gig, and playing to miniscule audiences at the likes of CBGB's and The Rat Club. Their bottle paid off as they slowly built a loyal following, the audiences being won over with the band's combination of new wave toughness and laid-back white-reggae. They certainly made an odd trio with veteran guitarman Summers having a history dating back to the mid 1960s, the hyper-kinetic Copeland had been a prog-rocker, and Sting and a love of jazz. The sound the trio made was unique enough and Sting's pin-up looks did them no harm at all.
Returning to the UK, where the now re-issued "Roxanne" was charting, the band played a sell-out tour of mid-size venues. The momentum had started to build. Their debut album "Outlandos d'Amour" (1978) delivered two more hits, leading to a headlining slot at the '79 Reading Festival, but it was with "Reggatta de Blanc" (1979) that they stepped up a gear. The first single, "Message In A Bottle", streaked to number one and the album's success was consolidated further when "Walking On The Moon" also hit the top slot. The band were big, but about to get even bigger. 1980 saw them undertake a mammoth world tour with stops on all continents - including the first rock concerts in Bombay.
Record company pressure had them back in a Dutch studio within weeks, but Sting's stock of pre-Police songs and ideas were wearing out. It was noticeable that the hits were all Sting's and the pressure to deliver a killer, all important third album, was on. History will record Summers as a hugely talented guitarist but not as an accomplished song-writer, and whilst Copeland could write catchy tunes, the band knew exactly who was expected to deliver the hits - Sting. When "Zenyatta Mondatta" was released in 1980, it produced another No. 1 in "Don't Stand So Close To Me" and sold well, but in other respects it was disappointing. A rethink was required.
The results of the rethink materialised with 1981's "Ghost In The Machine", a rich, multilayered album augmented not only by Jean Roussel's keyboards and Sting's self-taught saxophone playing, but by much better writing contributions from Copeland and Summers. A darker record in many ways, the album still had the usual clutch of hit singles with "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" making No. 1 and the bleak "Invisible Sun" reaching No. 2 (the latter despite a BBC ban being slapped on the video).
Sting was starting to feel the confines of the band oppressive and was turning to other outlets. In the late 70's he had appeared in a couple of movies including an excellent cameo in Franc Roddam's "Quadrophenia". 1981 saw him take his first lead role in Dennis Potter's big-screen version of "Brimstone and Treacle" and a role in the BBC play "Artemis '81". His first, albeit short solo appearances at The Secret Policeman Ball benefits in aid of Amnesty International also showed a burgeoning interest in humanitarian causes.
The early eighties were a turning point for Sting. His marriage effectively over, he disappeared to Ireland and Jamaica to write songs for the "Synchronicity" album. The album was preceded by the release of a new single, "Every Breath You Take", in May 1983. The song went to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic and simply stayed there. Dressed up as a love song, the song was anything but - its sinister theme was one of obsession and surveillance. Seventeen years later, the song is one of the most played records on American radio having clocked up five million plays. With such a stand-out track the album couldn't fail and it duly took its rightful place at the top of the world's charts, as well as gaining three Grammies.
However the writing was on the wall for The Police. The band's tense relationship was slowly breaking down, with Copeland and Sting occasionally resorting to fist-fights. The pressure cooker of being on the road, of being too big, of too many egos was starting to tell and after the Shea Stadium show Sting told the others that it was time to take a break. The Synchronicity tour finished in March 1984 and the three went their separate ways. Sting's vastly over-hyped cameo appearance in David Lynch's movie "Dune", and another lead role in the awful "The Bride" followed, before he picked up his guitar again. This time however, it was not a bass.
In June 1985, Sting released his first solo album, "The Dream Of The Blue Turtles" and it was a revelation. Featuring the cream of America's young black jazz musicians the album showed that Sting had lost none of his songwriting ability by being outside of the Police camp. The new material had a more political stance - "We Work The Black Seam" dealt with the miner's strike, "Children's Crusade" with drugs, and "Russians" with the West's demonisation of communism. The success of the album, a solo appearance at Live Aid, and the subsequent world tour convinced Sting that the safety net of potentially reforming The Police was no longer necessary - he had not only a retained a fanbase, he had started to gather another one.
Released after the death of his mother, "...Nothing Like The Sun" (1987) was another strong collection of songs, containing perennial favourites "Englishman In New York" and "Fragile". Sting even got himself banned from Chilean radio thanks to "They Dance Alone", a haunting song that resulted from his meeting with some of South America's "Mothers of the Disappeared". Also released was a mini-album, "Nada Como El Sol", including some of the album's songs in Spanish. The world tour started in Rio's 200,000 capacity stadium on the day that Sting received the body-blow news of the death of his father.
In mid tour, the entourage joined the Amnesty International "Human Rights Now!" tour alongside Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel for several huge fundraising concerts. Ever busy, when the tour finished he was looking for a new project, and found it with a starring spot on Broadway during late 1989. Despite some savage criticism, the shows were popular enough to complete a three month run. Also at this time, visits to the Amazonian rainforest led both he and partner Trudie Styler to establish a charity, The Rainforest Foundation, aimed at protecting both the environment and indigenous peoples. This has proved to be no passing interest, with an annual all-star concert at New York's Carnegie Hall helping keep the charity running.
However not all was well on the musical front. The loss of both parents in quick succession had hit Sting hard and one of the world's most famous songwriters was suffering from severe writer's block. Returning to his childhood memories for inspiration, Sting produced 1991's "The Soul Cages". Jokingly referred to as a record for the "recently bereaved", the album was bleak but compelling. Depending on your point of view it was either impenetrably dense or his strongest work. The first single, "All This Time", was deceptively poppy and it collected a Grammy. "Mad About You" was also a minor hit, but the rest of the album was not radio friendly. Nevertheless the album still sold well. Later on a popular MTV unplugged session was recorded in New York.
Sting and Trudie Styler were married in 1992, and bought Lake House in Wiltshire, part of which was subsequently turned into a recording studio in time for the writing and recording of "Ten Summoner's Tales". This was a remarkable album, and saw the emergence of a new, less earnest and more relaxed Sting. During the inevitable world tour he found time to record a Stateside No. 1 by performing with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart on All For Love from the "The Three Musketeers" and to add another three Grammies to his ever increasing collection. Life was looking good, and the 1994 retrospective "Fields Of Gold" saw the release of two new tracks.
1995 found Sting preparing for a court appearance, against his former accountant who had misappropriated several million pounds of his money, much to the amusement of the press, without Sting even knowing it had vanished. However, the second part of the year found him turning to writing for his fifth solo album, "Mercury Falling". Released in 1996, the album showed an increasing tendency for Sting to risk commercial success by writing to please himself. Foregoing standard pop and rock fare, he was now writing country tunes such as "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying", bossa nova such as "La Belle Dame Sans Regrets", gospel tinged "Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot" and songs in devilishly difficult time signatures, like "I Hung My Head". It was clever, and much of it was good, but it was a big rag-bag of styles. Some fans weren't sure if they liked it.
Sting was also becoming more noticeably involved in contributing songs to movie soundtracks - there was always a demand for Police songs, but in 1993 he had been approached to write the theme song for "Lethal Weapon 3", and duly complied with "It's Probably Me". A reworking of The Police's "Demolition Man" followed for the film of the same name, as did the recording of several jazz standards for the "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Sabrina" soundtracks. "Mercury Falling" continued this trend with "Valparaiso", which was used in the movie "White Squall".
Puff Daddy's reworking of "Every Breath You Take" (in the shape of "I'll Be Missing You") brought Sting's earlier work to the notice of a new generation, and to the fury of many Police fans he and Pras from the Fugees reworked "Roxanne" in 1997. Another remake of the song is included on George Michael's 1999 "Songs From The Last Century" album. Further soundtrack contributions to "The Mighty" and the remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair" followed, as did a cameo role in the British hit movie "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels".
The much anticipated "Brand New Day" album was released in autumn 1999 to a mixed reception amongst critics. This is a shame because "Brand New Day" is a tour-de-force. If "Mercury Falling" mixed genres, "Brand New Day" takes it a step further - the title track is full of optimism and starting over, a true millennium message. The remarkable, arabesque "Desert Rose" features the prince of rai music, Cheb Mami, "Fill Her Up" crosses country with gospel, "Perfect Love... Gone Wrong" includes French rap, and "Big Lie Small World" is a gentle bossa nova.
And what of 2000? The "Brand New Day" world tour continues throught the year, and the year end will see the release of the Disney movie "Kingdom In The Sun", for which Sting has written the soundtrack. The inevitable Police-to-reform rumours will no doubt continue to surface periodically, but having survived the last seventeen years and successfully rebuilding their friendships, Sting's intention of "keeping that legend intact" looks to be pretty secure. Let's hope so.