Matinee Idol – An Englishman in New YorkWritten by
© Barry Cains
Sting was always the epitome of cool.
He was never a punk and The Police were never a punk band, although they dabbled with it at the start of their career. They never embraced that punk ethos like that other trippy trio The Jam, and those Woking class wonderboys weren't punks either.
I wonder if Paul Weller would play the Royal Court Theatre on board the Queen Mary 2 after bringing out a Broadway show. I suspect that's not his style.
But it sure suits Sting.
When it came to threesomes I was always a Jam man. Make of that sentence what you will. Shredded white reggae didn't do it for me.
The only time I saw The Police play was at the Mont de Marsan Punk Festival in August 1977 when they hadn't quite perfected that shredded white reggae sound and were belting out two minute songs, albeit with a little more finesse and a little more professionalism than say The Clash or The Damned who played at the same festival. Incidentally, The Jam were to also set appear but there was an argument over billing so they refused to go on at the last minute. The headline act were Dr Feelgood who backstage consumed coke by hall mirror lengths.
I journeyed down to the festival on a coach from London to a bullring near the Spanish border with an overnight stay in Paris. On board were assorted journalists and musicians including The Police. I’d never heard of the band and don’t recall speaking to them. But then, I don’t recall much of that speed-fuelled coach trip.
The band’s slickness didn’t sit well in that hardcore punk arena. They were destined for greater things and I guess they probably knew it. With those looks and that voice, Sting was never gonna give you up. The band soldiered on in relative obscurity for 18 months until ‘Roxanne’ was reissued in April 1979 after flopping on its initial release the previous year.
And what’s this, the boy can act too? As The Face in Quadrophenia - that also appeared in 1979 - Sting was electrifying and predictably he was dubbed The Face of Pop. The greater things had arrived. I still cherished no affection for their music, despite the worldwide adulation. They were far too clean for me, no dirt under those manicured nails.
I interviewed Sting twice, both over the phone. The second interview was for Flexipop! when he was the subject of Welcome To The Working Week in the spring of ’81. He was insanely intelligent and sharp and witty and refreshingly open.
I’ve only been stopped in my tracks twice during a one on one.
The first was slapstick.
At the start of an interview with an oddball Australian singer called Duffo in 1979, he offered me a cigarette from a legitimate packet. A few minutes into the interview the cigarette exploded in my face. I almost pooed my pants. Jesus, wouldn’t you? But then I creased up laughing. It really was hilarious.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked, gingerly. ‘Only I do that with all the journalists who don’t know me and some don’t take it so well. They don’t get it.’
I got it and I loved it and the interview was really entertaining. It also made for a cracking angle. Knew his shit, did Duffo. To nearly poo your pants before you laugh – the essence of punk.
Sting knew his shit, too.
The second tracks-stopper occurred during that Working Week phone interview. On the Wednesday night of that week, Sting said he went to Dingwall’s to check out Jools Holland and his new band, The Millionaires. It just so happened my wife of less than one year went to Dingwall’s that very same evening with some friends – a rarity in itself.
I couldn’t help but interrupt him in full flow and enlighten him on this coincidence.
‘Yeah,’ he said, casually, ‘she was a great fuck.’
I almost pooed my pants. Jesus, wouldn’t you? But then I creased up laughing. He didn’t need to ask if I was okay. He knew. This was a man after my own heart. A Geordie with a Cockney sense of humour pulling my plonker. Unless of course he wasn’t. I wondered why she had that smile on her face when she came home that night…
The unexpected is the lifeblood of great humour, and the edgier the better. This was right up my street in my kind of town. We talked for nearly two hours and it was peachy.
I grew very fond of Sting after that, although I never met him, or indeed, spoke to him again – it’s hard to catch a star let alone put one in your pocket. I still didn’t like his music that by this time had become shredded blonde reggae.
There are very few songs that hit you so hard the first time you hear them that you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing, in a JFK/Elvis/John Lennon kinda way. As a kid I actually cried at the sheer beauty of ‘I Get Around’ fading in and out with the waves on Radio Luxemburg’s Sunday night Top 20 countdown (where everything faded in and out with the waves) as I strained to listen to my transistor under the blanket on my bed when I was supposed to be sleeping...
‘Hey Jude’ on the David Frost TV show; ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the car radio driving through cold country lanes in Gloucester; ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’ on Top Of The Pops; ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ driving home on a wet Autumn night and pulling over because all I wanted to concentrate on was that song.
It was May 1983, the day before I celebrated my third wedding anniversary. I was living in a council flat with my wife, Dina, in Camden Town. The sun was shining, the world was fresh and the juices ran down my legs. These were the good days, not just of wine and roses but love and romance and kissing to be clever. It was Saturday morning. I sat in the living room while Dina was in the tiny kitchen making Greek coffee.
There was a batch of pre-release review copy singles in a bag by the side of the sofa. I’d brought them home from Flexipop! and thought I’d give a few a twirl on my Toshiba music centre turntable.
I took the first one out of the bag – shit, The Police. I remembered Dina, no real fan of music, once saying that she quite liked ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ (hmmnn…) so I thought I’d give her a little treat while she made mine metrio.
The opening chords drifted out of those speakers like audible marijuana and, for a few precious moments, I became the music, circling those sweet vocals before soaring with them. Nothing else mattered. I was back in ‘I Get Around’ land and that same tear was about to fall.
‘What was that called?’ said Dina as she brought the coffee into the room.
‘Every Breath You Take.’ I said, breathlessly.
‘It was lovely, but a bit creepy,’
Creepy? What did she mean, creepy? This was surely the most romantic song every written – ‘God Only Knows’ for a new generation.
‘How he’ll be watching every move she makes, every day. Sounds like a potential murderer.’
What was she talking about? This was a man in love, like me, revealing his devotion, his desire.
I played it again.
These were the words of a stalker. A man so overcome with jealousy and hate that he wanted to ruin someone’s life by spying on her every single day because, unsurprisingly, she doesn’t love him anymore. He’s cold and angry and one step away from sticking a knife in her back. This was one deranged fucker.
It was an utterly brilliant combination; discordant, dangerous thoughts hidden in the folds of such a divinely simple riff. I loved the song even more and I’ve loved it ever since. This blissful bolt from the blue was the perfect pop record - perversion drenched in beauty. Another Sting tale of the unexpected, played at weddings across the world. The essence of punk.
And here I am, over thirty years later, on board the world’s most iconic cruise ship in Brooklyn port watching that still handsome Face from a few feet away sing his masterpiece like an evil angel. Or is it legal alien?
It’s the first encore to a private show for 50 people that featured songs from his musical ‘The Last Ship’ which opened on Broadway a few days before. In front of a cool four-piece band and even cooler girl singer, Sting steered us through his own Testament Of Youth…Watching Sting play live on that vast ship in Brooklyn harbour I get to thinking, who are these people?
People able to harness the dream gene that bucks like a rodeo stallion under all of us until we break our backs from one throw too many and can’t get back in the saddle anymore.
People who never get thrown, who keep riding baby, baby please…
People like the man singing just a few feet away from me. Sting tamed his bucking bronco over thirty-five years ago and rode off into the wild blue yonder in search of sunshine and flowers and great ivory towers where all dreams begin and end.
His days of Tyne and roses are the subject of The Last Ship, the ex-Policeman’s brand new Broadway musical for which he wrote all the music. Initially, he didn’t appear in the show – it was left to his old mucker Jimmy Nail to keep the Geordie flag flying in the acting department. But the show opened to mixed reviews, although the music was universally praised, and in an effort to boost flagging ticket sales, Jimmy is bidding auf wiedersehen pet to make way for Sting who replaces him on 9th December for a month. Luckily, Sting is one of that rare breed, a pop star who can actually act. Whether he can turn around the show’s fortunes remains to be seen.
The Last Ship was also the title of Sting’s 2013 album, his first record in a decade to feature new songs because of a crippling writer’s block. He eventually found inspiration in his north-east roots and the lives of the people who worked in the shipyards that dominated Tyneside.
This matinee performance showcasing songs from the album/musical coincided with the tenth anniversary of one of the loveliest, juiciest cruise ships on the planet, the Queen Mary 2. It was a match made in heaven.
The ship would depart from Brooklyn that afternoon for a transatlantic cruise to Southampton, unfortunately not with me on board. I’m flying back.
I sit front row centre in the Royal Court Theatre in between two gorgeous girls, one from the Mail On Sunday and one from the Cunard press office. I’m smiling. Who wouldn’t?
Plumes of dry ice cover the stage and drift out into the tiny audience.
I’m in the zone.
And then Sting walks on – y’know, one of those people, rodeo champ written through him like a stick of Whitley Bay rock – and he sits on a stool in front of a four-piece band and a female backing singer. He’s wearing a red bandanna around his neck that makes him look like a lithe farmer. But he’s still looking good. Damn good.
He picks up his guitar and starts to sing -
‘I don’t drink coffee I drink tea my dear…’
I almost scream like a teenage girl. And I ain’t even a fucking fan!
This Englishman in New York can still wrap an audience around his finger. He wears it well, does Sting. And the band are what we ol’ musos call Kellogg's Bran Flakes – tasty, very, very tasty.
The rest of the forty minute set consists of songs from The Last Ship; sombre, sentimental slivers of memories brought to life by bittersweet melodies. From the painful poetry of August Winds to the grit of Dead Man’s Boots and The Last Ship – the latter sung in a heavy Geordie accent – this was Sting at his finest for, ooh, at least ten years. And beyond…
The Last Ship is Sting in the raw. This is his life and, using his song-writing skills, he's damn well going to tell you about it. A bit like Lennon’s first album with less balls, more fiction and oodles of Broadway adaptability. He’s 63 now and the world’s getting a little darker. Maybe he’s shining a light on his childhood to try and make some sense of his fantasy, buck-free adulthood.
His voice is untouched by time as is his arrogance, the gene genie of any self-respecting megastar. But it’s a cool, unassuming arrogance full of wit and earnestness, a pre-requisite for great song-writing, indeed, any kind of great writing. Because it’s not really arrogance – it’s belief.
The first time I interviewed Sting, again on the phone, Regatta de Blanc had just been released. He was full of it, still bucking back then and holding on tight. But he knew how to milk the press, say the right things, grab the headlines. It was calculated and lovable and dynamite with a laser beam.
Like – ‘I get a lot of women chasing after me. But that doesn’t make me any vainer because, as far as vanity goes, I’ve already reached saturation point. I am completely arrogant.’
Like – ‘I don’t want to get into a situation where nobody takes you seriously because you’re too good-looking.’
Like – ‘We brought reggae to America in the same way that the Stones brought them rhythm and blues. We don’t think we’ve ripped anybody off, we’ve just helped to make it more commercial.’
And there’s not a trace of that shredded white reggae in the whole set. The band walk off to a standing ovation. The audience has been swelled by Filipino cabin stewards, Indian chefs, Lithuanian waiters and Brazilian bar staff. They all demand more.
I wonder if he’ll do an encore. I don’t expect one of course. But imagine if he did. Just imagine if he played that song I first heard with Dina all those years ago. That slice of pop perfection. Wow! Now that would be a memory I could take to my grave before becoming a ghost in the machine.
Sure enough –
‘Every breath you take
Every move you make…’
The magic in the matinee has gone up ten notches. I never thought I’d ever see that song performed live, and within touching distance. I almost scream again. This version is a lot more soulful (euphemism for older?) and I devour every note, every breath. It can’t get any better than this.
And it doesn’t. The second encore is, yikes, Message In A Bottle, Police’s first No. 1 single back in 1979 and the opening track on that self-same Regatta de Blanc album. What goes around comes around, in this case the dreaded shredded beat.
But music disinters memories. The song managed to set me adrift on a memory bliss and I remembered a Japanese girl with a cough and a lump in her breast. Yeah, odd. But then again, 1979 was an odd year, especially if you hung out with The Stranglers.
I guess ‘Bottle’ is a classic. But give me The Last Ship anytime…
After each song he spoke of his life. Recordings weren’t allowed to be made during the show. Luckily, my shorthand ain’t too rusty…
“I was born and raised in the shadow of a shipyard in a little town called Wallsend on Tyneside. Some of my earliest memories are of giant ships blocking out the end of my street and, indeed, blocking out the sun for much of the year. Every morning I’d watch thousands of men walk down the hill to the yards and watch them walk back home every night. My grandfather worked in the shipyards – there wasn’t much else in the way of work so I thought, with some trepidation, that I might end up in the shipyard although I had every intention not to. The shipyards were dangerous and noisy and highly toxic and had one of the worst health and safety records in Western Europe at the time.
There was a saying in our town – Dead Man’s Boots. It meant you could only get a decent job if someone died.
In my little town you never saw a celebrity except on launch days when a member of the Royal family would be invited. It wasn’t that long ago in England when members of the Royal family were considered to have magical healing powers. Sick children were held up in crowds to try and touch the garment of the King or the Queen to cure them.
One launch day I was standing in the front of my house holding my Union Jack waiting for the Queen to come and launch a ship. I must’ve been ten years-old. A motorcade appeared at the top of a hill and in the middle was a big, black Rolls Royce moving in a stately pace.
As the car passes my front door there’s the Queen and she smiles, at me. And I wave my flag and she waves back and she keeps her eyes on me. We’re having a moment. The Queen of England has somehow recognised me.
I wasn’t cured of anything, just the opposite. I was infected with an idea that I didn’t really belong in this street, I didn’t want to live in that house, I didn’t want to end up in that shipyard. I wanted to be in that car. I wanted to be something in that big wide world.
I had a difficult relationship with my dad. He’d been an engineer and he wanted me to do a technical job, to do something he understood, but I had some vague idea that I wanted to study the classics – Latin and Greek and history – and he thought that was all completely useless, and he may be right. ? He wanted me to get a decent job. A father’s love can be misconstrued as control and the dreams of his son can seem like some pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
When an uncle of mine emigrated to Canada he couldn’t take his guitar with him so he gave it to me. It was a five string, rusty, battered old thing. But I learnt how to play it and it became a friend for life, a co-accomplice in my plot to escape from this surreal industrial landscape I’d been brought up in. ©
I left home when I was 15 and never went back. Strangely, I ended up on a cruise ship singing with the resident band. The ship’s purser fired me because my voice was apparently upsetting the lady passengers.
Make of that what you will.
I had a dream that I’d be a writer of songs, that I’d sing those songs all over the world, that I’d be paid extravagant amounts of money, that I’d become famous, that I’d marry a beautiful woman, that I’d have children and a big house in the country and grow wine and keep dogs.
Well, so far so good. I did achieve my dream. I was very fortunate.
In the last eight years I’d been thinking about that community I was brought up in and feeling the debt to them that I owe – the need to honour the people I lived with and the ships they built. They were enormously proud of those ships and with good reason.
Some of the largest ships ever built on planet earth were built at the end of my street. Famous Cunard ships like the Mauretania that held the blue ribbon for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and the Carpathia, the first ship to be on the scene of the Titanic to pick up the survivors.
The Titanic, I hasten to add, was built in Belfast and, as they say there, ‘she was fine when she left the yard.’”
And I was fine when I left the ship…
© Photos of Sting on Queen Mary – James Morgan & Kevin Mazur. Used by Kind Permission