Sting's Sense of Home

Born in Wallsend, England, a mainly working-class area of North Tyneside, the foundations of Sting’s creativity and drive for success were established in the region of his birth, with vestiges of his ‘Northern Englishness’ continuing to re-emerge in his music long after he left the area. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his recent solo album, The Last Ship (2013), a recording that formed the basis of a subsequent Broadway musical, which is replete with local dialect and real and imagined characters based on Sting’s past, resulting in a vivid portrait of the time, places and spaces of his upbringing, seen through the lens of his imagination and memory.

Coming from Newcastle, and being from a similar social background to Sting, I have, in many ways, also attempted to engage with my own fluctuating relationship with my hometown over the last thirty years through writing my latest book, Sting: From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold. In my mind, after moving to London upon leaving Music College in 1984 and residing outside of the area ever since, Newcastle has become a place of my own idealized construction. I, like Sting, have found myself drifting in and out of my ‘Geordieness’, straddling the complex dividing line between naturally disguising my accent for both practical and class-related reasons, and feeling an intensely tribal, almost jingoistic pride of my homeland.

Entertaining and inspirational

To date, I have seen Sting live on two occasions, the first while I was still at school in the mid-1970s, with his band Last Exit. This performance was to have a lasting impact on me. The band played two sets in what was a packed, smoky Sunday afternoon at Newcastle University Theatre Bar. Sting stood to my right, with guitarist Terry Ellis to my left. I remember the music being technical, entertaining and inspirational, one song in particular prompting me to learn Sting’s bass line after I returned home.

Since I had only recently started playing guitar and had never owned a bass guitar, it was, and is, the only bass line I have ever attempted to learn. For some reason, although I only heard the song (which was an instrumental) on one occasion, the bass line stuck with me – it is possible for me to quote it up to the present day.

Until recently, this short, two-bar phrase was just part of my distant musical memory, mixed up with lots of other influences I was experiencing at that formative stage of my life. To my surprise, when listening to Last Exit demo recordings, there it was – in the middle of a complex jazz-rock track entitled ‘Untitled Instrumental 2’. I did not remember what musical events took place before or after the Sting bass line that is so ingrained in my memory, though when I listen to it more closely, through my now-middle-aged perceptions, two things occur to me: the section is not unlike the Jimi Hendrix version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’, and, more importantly, the specific arpeggiated chord pattern that Sting plays has a subtle similarity to a later work – ‘Message in a Bottle’. Were these the reasons this particular bass line had remained with me all these years? The chord progression somehow pointed towards Hendrix in the ’60s, The Police in the late ’70s and, of course, to my youth in Newcastle.

Meeting Sting

There is no doubt that Sting, on that Sunday afternoon forty years ago, had an aura about him. He was already known as ‘Sting’, as opposed to Gordon, and despite working full-time as a schoolteacher, he already had a highly developed sense of style – not many Geordies in the mid-1970s had the confidence to rename themselves with a single-syllable name!

My second encounter with Sting took place nearly forty years later, at the Sage in Gateshead on 25th April 2015. Sting was undertaking the second of three performances of The Last Ship, as part of a charity concert in benefit of the venue’s tenth birthday appeal. After I purchased a ticket, an unexpected opportunity arose – I was offered a chance to meet my subject matter prior to his concert. Although the conversation was brief, I had the opportunity to discuss with Sting the complex identity issues associated with being a ‘distant Geordie’. Sting stated in the conversation that ‘a language has not been invented to describe the feelings’, which, of course, he manages to articulate so profoundly in some of his music.

Despite Sting’s reservations about the capacity of language to describe his sense of home, I hope my book manages to get somewhere close, in addition to articulating the important phenomena that contextualize his music.

– Paul Carr

Paul Carr is Professor of Popular Music Analysis at the University of South Wales. He has worked as a professional musician with The James Taylor Quartet and former Miles Davis sideman Bob Berg. His latest book, Sting: From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold, is available to order from our website.