Where To Start With... Sting
Born in the Wallsend area of Tyne and Wear to a hairdresser mum and a milkman dad, Gordon Sumner had worked as a bus conductor, a tax officer and even a builder before he decided that his true calling in life was teaching English in a Northumberland convent school where, according to the man himself, he was not just the only male teacher on the faculty but “the only teacher not wearing a habit”.
Thankfully for fans of Sting, to use the name everyone knows him by, two years surrounded by nuns was enough to persuade the budding young musician and songwriter that perhaps his future might lie elsewhere, and by 1977 he'd had enough, moved to London and met up with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, with whom he would form The Police.
What the nuns at St. Paul's Roman Catholic School in Cramlington would have made of the band's breakthrough single 'Roxanne' - written about a prostitute - we can only imagine, but the song became the launchpad for a career that has seen Sting and The Police sell upwards of 100 million albums worldwide.
The fact that The Police managed four albums before eventually splitting in 1984 is a testament to the patience of the band's management and label, as well as the peacekeeping efforts of guitarist Andy Summers. The friction between Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland has become the stuff of legend, with the sticksman becoming increasingly frustrated at what he saw as the dictatorial approach of the band's chief songwriter. The tensions boiled over on more than one occasion, with the pair once getting into a scuffle with each other during a live television interview, not to mention Copeland's infamous habit of writing the words 'F*** Off You C***' on his drum skins to annoy his bandmate during concerts.
They're all friends now, of course, but Sting's decision to go solo proved a successful one, notching up a steady string of hits since the band's dissolution and creating a series of critically-acclaimed albums, as well several notable acting roles in films like Quadrophenia and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. His last album, 2013's The Last Ship, saw him revisiting his roots and inviting several guests with links to the North East to perform on the album, including The Unthanks and Jimmy Nail.
Now he's back again with 57th and 9th, his twelfth solo album, which arrives in stores today (Friday November 11th). Much of Sting's solo career has involved experimentation with world music, making use of every type of instrumentation you could think of, but the first thing that strikes you listening to the new album is how guitar-heavy 57th and 9th is. Riff-driven songs like 'Petrol Head' and 'I Can't Stop Thinking About You' reveal an artist going back to his rock roots, and thoroughly enjoying himself in the process.
You can find the video for 'I Can't Stop Thinking About You' below, beneath that we've picked five highlights form Sting's long and varied solo career...
Taken from his 1985 solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 'Russians' was written in the last throes of the Cold War at a time when even the West was beginning to tire of the Ronald Reagan view of the world, who had famously described the Soviet Union as the 'evil empire'. In response, Sting wrote one of the most overtly political songs of his career, expressing doubts about the black-vs-white view of the conflict and taking a more human stance: “Mr. Krushchev said: 'We will bury you' / I don't subscribe to this point of view/ It's such an ignorant thing to do / When Russians love their children too.”
'Englishman in New York'
Taken from his 1987 album Nothing Like The Sun, this is perhaps Sting's best-known song outside of his work with The Police, but although the man himself has spent a lot of time in the Big Apple thanks to the fact he owns an apartment there, the song was actually written not about his own experiences, but about those of the famously eccentric English writer Quentin Crisp, who had recently moved to Manhattan. Sting got to know him and admired him for his courage in being openly gay at a time when it was dangerous to do so, adding poignancy to the lyrics: “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile”. This is up there with the very best of his work.
One of two songs on our list taken from Ten Summoner's Tales, for which Sting received no fewer than six Grammy nominations (winning three), 'Seven Days' wasn't one of the album's singles, but it's one of the more intriguing deep cuts on the album with its distinctive 5/4 time signature and its lyrics about trying to win the affections of a woman in competition with another man: (“The fact that he is six feet ten / might instil fear in other men / but not in me”). It's also largely a song about procrastination, which something we can definitely get behind...
'Shape of My Heart'
The second track we've picked form Ten Summoner's Tales is chosen at the expense of 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', one of Sting's biggest hits, for sure, but we couldn't leave out 'Shape of My Heart'. The emotive and memorable guitar riff that opens the song is one of the most understated things on the album, but it's also beautifully mournful and has been sampled various times, most famously by rapper Nas on his track 'The Message'.
Our final pick is lifted from 1999 album Brand New Day and sees Sting combining electronica and bubbling synths with a distinctive world music vibe, thanks in large part to Algerian vocalist Cheb Mami, lending an arabic folk music feel to the song. There are also hints of Latin percussion in a track that's quite different from anything else Sting has done, but that just goes to show he's an artist never afraid to try new things.