Sting has already cemented his place as one of the most prolific songwriters in rock history. Say what you will about his philanthropy, persona, moniker, or media image — the man occasionally known as Gordon Sumner would not be known around the world without his tunes. Sting built his musical career not merely from the sheer quantity of his material, but also from the full breadth of his sonic output. Transitioning from the Police’s blend of punk, pop, reggae and new wave to his own textured solo career, he is a musician continually embracing, dissecting, and adopting a wide range of influences cultural, social, and historical.
Analyzing the career of any successful public figure requires a multi-faceted approach to understanding their evolution. With Sting: From Northern Skies to Fields of Gold, author Paul Carr highlights the influence of Sting’s North England working-class upbringing as a driving factor, from the youthful rejection of his hometown to his subsequent acceptance of it in maturity. Indeed, location and the influence of countries near and far serve as the book’s primary driving force. From Northern Skies realizes Sting’s musical and philanthropical efforts as a result of his travels.
Carr, a Professor of Popular Music Analysis at the University of South Wales, approaches his subject from an objective stance. His writing is suitably academic yet not unbearably dry, reading as both well-researched and comprehensive yet also accessible for the occasional reader. Brimming with exact date citations and a wealth of footnotes, From Northern Skies is unquestionably thorough, perhaps occasionally to a fault. Diehard fans of the musician will relish accounts of early gigs and technical details of first recordings, but for casual fans this may feel overstuffed with details.
An English working-class town, Newcastle was the source of Sting’s initial rebellion. Carr articulates Newcastle’s reputation as a drab area locked under the dominating presence of the shipping industry. Unlike the multicultural hub of London, Newcastle was once intensely focused almost entirely upon sea-bound business. Sections of the second chapter reference the Swan Hunter shipyard as a vital central location of Sting’s hometown, a primary identifier that thrived and suffered under oceanic economics. Most art from the area, it seems, inevitably references the debt owed to the oil, mechanic, and sea-faring industries.
In clarifying the Newcastle sensibility, Carr references the term “Geordies” as a loving tag for those born in the northeast. While we’re never entirely cued into how the word itself came to be, the term is universally understood to be a badge of pride for its Newcastle natives. After reading so much about the strong sentiments associated with his hometown, it’s only inevitable to learn of proto-punk Sumner and his disdain for the land of his upbringing. Carr covers Sting’s less than ideal home-life, his frustrations with his surroundings, and his drive to lose any trace of a northeastern accent. While it serves as rich source material for his later work, the overbearing presence of the shipping industry depicts a domineering shadow over Sting’s childhood. Almost too apt a metaphor, he recalls a towering ship that loomed over his childhood home, a behemoth of iron and steam that haunted him in his early career.
Refreshingly, Carr extensively covers Sting’s early musical career as a jazz musician. Perhaps an esoteric rebellion against his working-class roots, Sting began recording with the Newcastle Big Band and the Phoenix Jazzmen in the early ’70s. With his earliest bands performing mostly traditional big band arrangements and conventional standards, it’s easy to see how his earliest groups informed some of the musical leanings in his solo career. Carr spends ample time detailing Sting’s initial interactions with band members, rehearsal and recording dates detailed with the precision of a devoted fan.
The sections dedicated to the Newcastle Big Band, the Phoenix Jazzmen, and the subsequent fusion-forward Last Exit are objective and journalistic. Excerpts from interviews and recording session detail a clear picture of Sting’s early musical career, but it’s this same objectivity that makes this material feel a little flat. Carr is a fine documentarian — nearly every point is backed up by primary source materials — but some light speculation would have been appreciated. Specifically, why does Sting seem to just fall into jazz? As a popular music academic, Carr must have opinions on why his subject initially approached a more complex musical as opposed to the rock-centric sound of the Police. The extensive details about early gigs and LP’s are appreciated if a bit overwhelming. Some abstraction and rumination about the place of jazz in working class concert and pub scenes would have enriched this section.
Sting’s move south, from the culturally isolated Newcastle to eclectic and vibrant London, introduced him to a broader musical world of global and punk influences. Despite a handful of gigs in the area, the jazz/rock fusion of Last Exit was seen as too abstract and indulgent; eventually, the group split, less due to creative differences and more with the distance, literal and metaphorical, between the north and the south of England.
The author is eloquent in detailing London’s musical landscape, noting both the pervasive influences of reggae’s exotic appeal and the DIY immediacy of punk rock. While cynics may argue Sting disregarded his jazz background and embraced punk and new wave for purely commercial and financial gains, Carr highlights the cultural and musical implications of rock and rebellion in London during the late ’70s / early ’80s. The simplicity of punk stood as a reaction to the elaborate (and, occasionally, pretentious) ambitions of stadium rock. Rejecting the overproduced and over-polished grandiosity of bands such as YES and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, punk embraced a raw, accessible aesthetic more in line with its own working class’ sensibilities.
Sting welcomed punk’s energy by forming The Police, yet he never neglected his wider musical ambitions. Solidifying the trio with Stuart Copeland on drums and Andy Summers on guitar, the fusion of reggae verses and punk choruses heightened tunes like “Roxanne” and “So Lonely”, giving the Police a distinctive edge against their contemporaries. Taking direct cues from quotes and interview clips, Carr considerers the scenario of Sting and his compatriots essentially acting as outsiders within their own scene of punk rock outsiders. The band may have brandished the requisite leather and beer cans in promo photos to own the aesthetic, but their sonic scope reached past the pub towards other countries and cultures.
A discussion of Sting’s career is moot without dissecting his political and social views. A self-described “musician with strong socialist tendencies,” his work with Live Aid, Amnesty International, and his own Rainforest Foundation reveal an artist with an eye towards global concerns. Carr argues that leaving Newcastle for London expanded Sting’s musical influences as well as his perspective as a global citizen. From Northern Skies acknowledges that celebrities taking on social and political stances isn’t always readily embraced by the public at large, but it inevitably represents an apex for Sting’s career. From humble beginnings to international superstardom, Sting’s career trajectory to date led from working-class bands to a global phenomenon.
Inevitably, Carr raises the unavoidable criticism of how Sting, a “socialist” with an eye for bettering humanity and the environment, of turning a critical eye towards economic injustice around the world… is rich. Songs like “We Work the Black Seam” may directly articulate the plight of UK miners, but the impact takes a hit once you accept the song was a hit single on his multi-platinum selling solo debut Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985). Sting: From Northern Skies acknowledges accusations concerning Sting’s exploitation of real-world tragedies and global issues for profit and songwriting material, but the book itself remains neutral. Taking an objective stance, Carr reasons that Sting’s ever-growing worldview merely made the musician aware of issues outside of his London-centric musical world. Touring the globe, according to the author, invariably introduces you to new cultures which in turn spawns new views and concerns about a bigger humanitarian picture.
This grand worldview, ironically, led Sting back to his hometown and his roots. Two bouts of writer’s block were rectified by re-examining his history, leading to new songwriting inspirations and striking musical directions. Songs from the Labyrinth (2006), featuring interpretations of compositions from Renaissance-era musician John Dowland, directly resulted from his considerations of the past. His recent musical The Last Ship (2017) tells the story of a town directly tied to the shipbuilding industry, one identical to his childhood home. According to Carr, Sting effectively turned full circle in his view on his hometown, a view that reconciled and accepted it for what it was to his world purview.