09.01.1982 - Melody Maker
You might not have noticed, but there's been little activity on the Police front recently. This year, apart from a few sporadic live appearances, has seen various members all heading off in different directions. Andy Summers is about to release a solo album with Robert Fripp, and also preparing a book of his photographs.
Stewart Copeland, apart from a couple of tracks on the Mike Rutherford solo album (gasp), seems to have disappeared, while Sting has taken time out to act in his first major feature film, 'Brimstone And Treacle'. Written by Dennis Potter and co-starring Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright, in the film Sting plays Martin Taylor, an intense, dangerous character who, by various ways and means, worms his way into the house of a family dedicated to looking after their deaf, dumb and paralysed daughter. Martin immediately sets about raping the daughter, charming the parents into deception until one night the daughter suddenly wakes up...
The story uncovers various layers, moral and religious, as it proceeds, with Sting turning in his most credible performance to date.
To accompany the film Sting wrote a soundtrack using the Police on three songs and releasing his cover of 'Spread A Little Happiness' as his first solo single. These individual projects, maintains Sting, strengthen the Police as a whole.
"If you go outside of it," he says, and do something individual then you come back feeling fresh and more able to give. "Whereas within the context of the group it's like a marriage without the lubrication of sex. It's three strong egos struggling and it does the group good to get out of that for a while."
The Police are now due back in the studio at Christmas to record their next album. In the meantime, Sting invited us up to his rambling, Hampstead home the Tuesday after the Police's gig at Gateshead.
Looking fit and relaxed we retired to his garden roof with the sound of airplanes droning above us, turned on the tape and...
Tell me how you got involved with the film.
I'd heard about the project because it had been going for years. It started off as a TV play, it was banned, then they tried to make a movie out of it and various people were up for the part - Mike Palin for one, and David Bowie. A year ago - I was one of the list of people to play Martin, Malcolm McDowell was the other - I met the director in New York about four in the morning. I think his powers of judgement were a bit impaired at the time and I managed to convince him that I should be Martin Taylor. We never looked back.
Why did this particular part appeal to you?
He's ambiguous, he's totally ambiguous. In fact, the whole film is really ambivalent, the morality of it in every sense, and there are also a lot of different levels. Martin is kind of evil, yes; but he's also good in a way, a good boy, and I liked that quality in him, shifting from one to the other. From genuinely religious to demonic - it's much more interesting than the average cinema character, who is either totally good or totally evil.
Sure, but I got he impression that Martin was only good for an evil end.
Yeah? Well maybe that's my fault. I think there is some genuine religious fervour in him, kind of twisted up. He's an interesting person, there's something of him in me. I sometimes feel like that. I'm either cast as a goody-goody or a bad boy.
Someone at the screening said they'd seen it twice and still didn't know what it was "about".
The person who said that, frankly, must be pretty stupid. It's fairly straightforward as a piece of narrative. What do they want? A guy goes into a house, rapes the vegetable, she comes back to life. It's a miracle play, utterly simple. On the other hand, the levels underneath there make it interesting, make it more than just an exploitation movie - so that person I discount. Not a very intelligent comment. Eh, there's an interesting quote at the beginning of the script from Kierkergard - he said, getting really pompous which says, "there's more evil in the trivial man than in the demonic". It's basically saying that evil actions don't necessarily have evil consequences. It's quite a bitter pill to swallow in the Hollywood dream of good v. evil, but I think it's a truer aphorism than we're all good and you're all bad. Most movies are about that particular lie: the Germans are bad and the English are good, which is a pile of shite isn't it?
Therefore any movie that suggests you're less than you seem I'll wave the flag for. All this garbage about bashing the Argies...
What did you understand by Kierkegard's quote?
I don't know what Kierkegard meant, but I've given you my impression. You can have a man who goes along and does fuck all with his life and that can be evil. That can have an evil consequence. Or the converse of that, evil action can have a good outcome. It's just saying there's no logic in morality and no morality in logic.
Do you consider yourself immoral?
Yes and no. Immoral totally. Amoral sometimes. Very moral sometimes.
In what ways are you immoral?
Immoral? I thought you were from the MM, not The Star! Eh, I'm quite devious in some ways. I tend to get things through cheating. I always feel that I need to be a trickster or a cheat. I think it's my background that does that. I feel I'm a bit of an upstart. I live here in Hampstead and it's a pretence really. I'm really from Wallsend-on-Tyne. I was brought up in a back-to-back place near the shipyard. I feel as if I got here by the most subtle trickery imaginable.
You feel uncomfortable here in Hampstead?
No. I love it. But that's one side of things. The other side is I deserve it. I'm a good singer, I write good songs. Why not?
Did you feel an upstart working with Denholm Elliot and Joan Plowright?
I was greatly honoured that such people should be in the film with me. Acting is give and take and when you work with the best you learn.
Have you always wanted to act?
So how come pop stars, as such, always head for the movies once they're established?
It seems to be a logical extension really, but I don't think many people have succeeded. If you go back in rock history you've got, Tommy Steele, Billy Fury, a little more successful to date is Bowie.
Yeah, but most of his films have been pretty dire.
No, I like 'The Man Who tell To Earth'. He seems to have got out of that tightrope. You walk the tightrope between being in films and being in rock 'n' roll. If you go into films nobody in rock 'n' roll likes you. And if you come from rock 'n' roll, nobody in films likes you. So you walk that tightrope of having no credibility whatsoever and having no safety nets. I think it's something that's inevitable to attempt, but it's not very comfortable being halfway. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years as more and more "rock stars" go into films. I thought Bob was quite good in 'The Wall', although I hated the film. Couldn't stand it, depressed the shit out of me. Beautifully made, really well crafted but the middle of it: absolutely nothing. Just one silly relentless idea of hopelessness which is the most obvious fourth-form philosophy.
But wasn't 'Ghost In The Machine' based around similar concepts?
Not entirely. There was some humour, there was some love, a couple of love songs. Yeah, there was some anger in it, and some nihilism, but then there's a song like 'Invisible Sun'. No, it wasn't totally black, whereas 'The Wall' is. Complete, utter, sickening, self pitying tripe which I really disliked. But the people involved in it I thought did pretty well.
Does the idea of Man's lot in this world interest you?
Well, of course. It pisses me off that the Israelis are massacring the Palestinians and no-one seems to care. It's like all you get in the papers this morning is Sting seen out with his new mistress. It doesn't matter, it matters fuck all. What really matters is children having their legs blown off. Yes, I am worried by what's happening. I think we're approaching the end, quite frankly. I suppose it makes some kind of sense that the place where civilization started should actually end there. When atrocities like that can happen without any real reaction from world opinion, I think it's the end. But as I say life's tragic, but it's not serious.
I meant more from a philosophical point of view concerning Man's lot.
My life's beliefs and philosophies change daily. I go through all kinds of polemic before I arrive at some stage in the middle. I did get very nihilistic at one stage last year.
When was that?
That was like in the middle of the year. I don't know why, I just got a feeling that this was the end... I feel if it's going to happen it's going to happen and you've got to make the best of it. There's no point in making everyone depressed about it. I think there's more to life than the Primal Scream: we're getting really heavy here.
I know, but you're never taken seriously when you utter "heavy" statements. Whereas a Joe Strummer figure is.
Yeah, but so what? I don't take second place to Joe Strummer. I like him, he means what he says...
I'm talking about image here.
Yeah, in terms of acceptance, I suppose so. But then again, to be totally crass, more people have heard me in the world than Joe Strummer. You might talk about a particular section of people in England and I agree. Yeah, Strummer has got more clout, more credibility. But that's only this limited section of the world.
Why do you think he has more clout then?
I suppose it's an image thing. He has a well-crafted image.
Your image has been similarly I crafted.
I think for a wider appeal, a wider audience. I think if my work is looked at closely, analysed out of the context of style, then it will stand up next to anybody's. In the context of fashion and hipness, which is so transient anyway, then I'd agree it's not taken seriously. That doesn't really matter. It doesn't bother me when we get slagged off, particularly when the person slagging hasn't seen what we're after. When they haven't actually understood what we're talking about, the darts don't stick, they don't come anywhere near. When someone does actually understand what I'm talking about in a song and then criticizes it, it works.
So the lyrics you write are important presumably.
Of course. Yeah, why do you ask? Isn't it obvious?
Not on songs like 'Every Little Thing' or...
All right, it's a love song and it's written in the form of a love song and it's not particularly original. Then again, why not? I think it's a well-crafted song and if you look at music as a whole, most of it is awful.
Surely it's up to you to try and change that.
I think we do. We play for a very wide market, I mean a really wide market and I enjoy playing that wide field, not just honing in on something. I enjoy making pop songs. I enjoy the window cleaner and the charlady singing our songs. They're not singing Strummer's songs, good as they are.
So you taper your music for a wider audience.
I don't taper it, we broaden it out. We can do anything we want I suppose and we try and do it all.
Does it come naturally writing for a wider audience or do you have to work hard at it to please everyone?
It all comes fairly naturally. I can write a pop song now for you in ten minutes. I can also write a song that I consider to be significant as well.
Do your audience think the songs are significant?
I can't really generalise about the entire audience. I'm sure somebody does. I get letters from intelligent people, university students who quote Beckett at me. We do have intelligent fans who listen to the lyrics and think they're meaningful. You see, I have to cite the Beatles as the people that I look to in times of self doubt. What they did was that whole gamut of pop music from the trivia to atavistic rock 'n' roll to psychedelia to political, everything. I think if you go along with one idea, then after a while you're boring. I'd really defend the right to do anything, including trivia. You'd have to really define trivia.
Most music today.
Well you can look at it in two ways. One is as a placebo thing and all the shit that goes down it and... I think if you really want to affect the way people think, people won't be forced into anything. Especially in England, people are very phlegmatic. I think they prefer to be secluded. I mean have you ever seen us play?
No, I'm afraid I haven't.
Well, that's a shame. What happens is that it's very jolly, and we get the audience singing along and it's all kind of pleasant, then we drop in one line into that apparently meaningless ritual which may or may not mean anything because it's in the context of something that's very cohesive and jolly.
But surely that ritual is forced?
No. Not at all.
Every show is different?
I wish you'd seen us at Gateshead. It was quite emotional. We play the hits and the kids drown the group out singing back. They don't just sit and watch, they actually join in. If that's trivial then I'm all for it. Music is socially cohesive, whether it's la-Ia-Ial-Ia or bring down Maggie.
Put it this way. If you weren't in the Police, why would you buy a Police LP?
Why would I buy a Police album? I can't answer that. I'll tell you the bands I like at the moment. I like U2. I think they've got a lot of passion and they're very melodic. There's a great joy in their music, so I've got U2 albums downstairs. I can't answer about the Police, I'm too close too them. I get joy from playing music and being in the group and playing concerts. I suppose that's the word I'm looking for.
Joy, you mean.
Yeah, it's the only joy I get at the moment, frankly, being onstage. The rest of it... it's fucking awful.
What's so awful about Sting?
Having one's private life invented. Invented and then commentated upon by people with less intelligence than this flowerpot. Having lies written about you, that's a nightmare.
Haven't you come to accept it?
I've come to know that it's going to happen, but why should I accept it? I deserve privacy. I deserve the right for my life to be run on my own terms and not be pressured by forces of its own.
Sure, but it's all part and parcel of the job.
Yeah, it is part and parcel. My life is like it's a rollercoaster of emotions. I can be really up and then really down. That's what success is, extremes and polarities of everything. It's not a normal life as much as I try and lead one, it can't be a normal life, never can be.
But surely that's why you're doing this, to get away from a "normal" life.
Yeah, all right, yeah. You try and escape a normal life then you wonder why. You wonder what did l want to be famous for? Why on earth did I want to be successful? Then the next minute you're onstage and 20,000 kids are screaming at you, singing along with the song you wrote. So this is it, this is what I want to do, this is why I'm here. So you change up and down.
Yeah, but I also bet you get some enjoyment out of your bad publicity.
Yeah, there's that too.There's a sort of perversity about it. One side of my character likes it, one side of my character hates it. I really think that you just get more and more schizophrenic.
Do new music or new bands interest you still?
Yeah. At Gateshead we played with an interesting collection of groups. We had Lords Of The New Church, Gang Of Four, The Beat, U2 and the Police. I thought that was an interesting variety of styles of music and types of groups. I'm interested in the bands that play with us. In the States the Go-Go's played with us. I think they're good. The thing is, everything has been done really. Rock music is at the stage where it has become part of the Establishment. How can you be alienated in an alienated society? You can't. Everyone is. How can you be a rebel when the rebellion is the norm? Therefore rock 'n' roll has lost it's power as a revolutionary force. It really has, and there's no way it can actually get that back. I think the bands who call themselves revolutionary are playing at it. They're having no effect whatsoever. But at the time of the great classics of the Sixties, it was like new and fresh, it was like your first fuck and you'll never get that same feeling again until some new art form comes out with the same drive, same excitement and same rush. What we're doing now is regurgitating. Look at the charts. What is it, 'My Boy lollipop', eh...
'Spread A Little Happiness'.
'Spread A little Happiness', but I'm going a lot further back. It's atavistic - that's the second time I've used that word in an interview, I apologise but it's very apt - I don't know there has to be something next, something else.
It won't be the Police.
Uh, well, I don't know... no, it won't be the Police. We're very much in the mould.
Doesn't it worry you, being stuck in a mould.
Same as everyone else, everyone else is in that mould. We're trying to extend that mould if you like, with different forms of writing. I don't know of any music form that is re-vitalizing, regenerative.
Sounds very defeatist to me.
I'm saying that in order to get that feeling back from the Sixties you have to go elsewhere. A new thing altogether. Maybe films, maybe that's the thing to do. A coupling of rock and film, a good one, has got to come off sooner or later. I don't thing it's happened yet.
With 'Brimstone And Treacle' was there a problem playing a character when you're so recognisable yourself?
I think he was played very differently to me. There was more attempt to make him pretty. He's a quite ugly, low life character and I don't see any confusion between Martin and Sting as characters. Martin is more like me than Sting though.
How much of your life is spent playing Sting then?
Too much really.
Are you playing him now?
Yes. Of course.
Because it seems to work. Always has worked. Play Sting. You're playing Paolo Hewitt. There's a certain amount of role-playing in all life. The danger is you actually do lose yourself, get so carried away with the illusions you create that you forget who you are.
You can also shift responsibility quite easily.
Yes, schizophrenia is just around the corner. Jekyll and Hyde are hiding downstairs. Avoiding madness is the ultimate test.
Sting, if it really gets this bad why not just knock it on the head? Call it a day?
The thing is, it gets really bad but it also gets really good. It's like mainlining all the time. Every aspect in your life has to have that rush and also the downs at the end of it. I wouldn't replace it, I'm an addict. I think rock 'n' roll in its highest form is a death cult. The Gods of Rock 'n' roll are all dead. Sid Vicious - you can, laugh but I think he is. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison - the best thing you can do in rock 'n' roll is die.
Not anymore. Everyone's cleaned up. You, Adam Ant, Weller, Townshend.
Everybody's aware of how dangerous the whole thing is. That's why everyone's seen the blueprint for disaster. You turn out a maniac. Part of what I think is rock 'n' roll's power is that walking on the edge all the time, being in danger. But that's another reason why rock is losing it's power because people have got safe. Living in their mansions...
Do you think the Police could ever upset people?
Well, in a subtle way I think the Police are subversive. Yeah, I think we can. I think we do more in a live performance than on record, which unfortunately you haven't seen. But a lot of people haven't seen the Police and I think until you've seen the group actually work you'll underestimate us. That's where I think our strength lies, in live performance. We're a fucking good group. We make good pop records.
You give a lot of money to charity don't you?
Yes. We give our English earnings away. We've set up this trust fund for youth clubs so they can buy musical instruments if they want to set up groups. Got about £100,000 in there at the moment and it's one way of letting kids escape, kids out of Toxteth or Brixton. If they can make music they can get out.
Direct action is a lot better than just singing or talking about it don't you think?
Often direct actions don't obtain the best results, sometimes it takes just one thing. Despite all the trivia there are things in it which work on the unconsciousness and I think that's a good thing. There is some power, some relevance, some meaningfulness, but it can't all be like that.
Maybe, I just think that these days there's no spirit, no soul. Precious little, anyway.
What, are you saying - I haven't got any?
Well I played a lot of your LPs last night and to be honest they just left me cold.
Yeah, we have been described as emotionless and cold but you can't really judge us until you've seen us. I don't think we're emotionless or cold onstage. We're successful live and it works, it really works.
Ah well, at least you're still doing interviews. Many wouldn't in your position.
What! You mean to say I shouldn't be doing interviews. Of course...