‘I will reapply the needle of the record player again and again to the bars of music that seem beyond my analysis, like a safecracker picking a lock, until the prize is mine.’ Sting’s personal story on the making of a musical legend.
Music has always been my refuge from sadness. The guitar I inherited from my uncle John now had decent strings, and I’m no longer making the ‘broken’ music that so upset my grandmother; in fact I’m making a lot of progress, but the limitations of my first instrument are holding me back. There are things that I simply can’t do with this primitive heirloom.
From the money I earned on the milk rounds I have saved up enough for a new acoustic guitar that I’ve had my eye on. It has been hanging from the wall in Braidford’s.
Music Shop for three months now. I go and see it after school every evening, praying that no one has bought it. It is a beautiful steel-stringed instrument with a blond finish, an ebony fingerboard, and delicate marquetry inlaid around the sound hole. It costs me sixteen guineas, which is a large amount of money, but I’m in love for the very first time.
I first heard the Beatles in my final year at junior school. I remember being in the changing room of the swimming baths. Mr. Law had just supervised one of our chaotic and impossibly noisy trips to the baths—by ‘supervised’ I mean that no one had actually been drowned. We were drying ourselves off and, as was our custom, flicking towels at each other’s genitals. It was at this point that we heard the first bars of ‘Love Me Do’ from a transistor radio in the corner. The effect was immediate. There was something in the sparseness of the sound that immediately put a stop to the horseplay. John’s lonely harmonica and Paul’s bass played ‘two to the bar’, and then the vocal harmony moved in modal fifths up to minor thirds and back again to a solo voice on the refrain. Not that I could articulate any of this at the time, but I recognized something significant, even revolutionary, in the spare economy of the sound, and the interesting thing is, so did everyone else.
By the time ‘She Loves You’ reached number one in the charts I was already at the grammar school, but it wasn’t the confident primitivism of the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ chorus that excited me so much as the G major chord with an added sixth that coloured it at the end of the coda. An old dance band cliché, but when the Beatles used it there seemed to be a subtle irony at work. Again, I couldn’t articulate this then, but I knew instinctively that it was pointing to a level of sophistication that I hadn’t been aware of in pop music until then. The Beatles would succeed in manipulating as many musical forms into their songs, whether classical, folk, rock and roll, the blues, Indian raga, or vaudeville, in a dizzying and seamless pastiche of ideas and cultural references. It was music without frontiers and the ubiquitous soundtrack for a generation that thought it could change the world.
Jim Berryman, in his otherwise excellent biography, A Sting in the Tale, claims that I was outside the City Hall when the Fab Four played there in 1963, and that I managed to grab a lock of McCartney’s hair. This is of course fantasy, and would have been out of keeping with the budding intellectual pretensions that I was nurturing at the time. But it is impossible to stress too much the influence that the Beatles had on my early life, and the fact that they came from a similar background to my own was fundamental to the vague plans of escape and glory that I was hatching in my imagination. Lennon and McCartney were both grammar school boys from humble roots in Liverpool, a town not dissimilar from Newcastle. From their initial chart successes they went on to conquer the world with songs that they wrote themselves. This gave an entire generation of musicians the confidence and permission at least to attempt the same feat.
I pore over Beatles albums with the same obsessive and forensic scrutiny that I’d applied to Rodgers and Hammerstein, only now I have a guitar. I have an instrument that can reproduce the practical magic of the chord structures and the network of riffs that their songs are built on. And what songs, one after the other, album after album. I learn to play them all, confident that if I persevere, what I can’t play immediately will yield its secret eventually. I will reapply the needle of the record player again and again to the bars of music that seem beyond my analysis, like a safecracker picking a lock, until the prize is mine. No school subject ever occupies as much of my time or energy. I’m not claiming that any kind of prescience about the future is at work here, but there is something in the driven and compulsive nature of this obsession that is unusual, something in the unconscious saying, This is how you escape. This is how you escape.
I would watch Top of the Pops with a religious devotion at 7:30 every Thursday evening. I loved this show with a passion. Almost forty years later I can still see a picture of the DJ, Jimmy Savile, standing in front of a large chart of the top twenty, circa 1966, and am able to sing a line from every entry. Such familiarity with the music of the time could not, however, have prepared me for the whirlwind, the tidal wave, the earthquake, the force of nature that was Jimi Hendrix.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared on Top of the Pops in December of 1966 and changed everything. Hendrix had transformed ‘Hey Joe’, an old folk song, and propelled it by the elegant ferocity of his guitar playing into a sassy, bluesy vehicle of awesome power. His vocal was as sulky and offhand as it was passionate and openly sexual, and as the three-piece band stormed through the three-minute song, I imagined everyone in whole country in front of their tellys sitting bolt upright in their chairs.
Wow! What the fuck was that?
It seemed only days later that he would be booked to appear at the Club A Go-Go, originally a jazz club above some street shops in Percy Street. The excitement in the town is palpable. I am technically too young to gain admission to a nightclub, but because of my height I can easily pass for eighteen. I have brought a change of clothes in my schoolbag, a pair of Levi’s and a white Ben Sherman shirt with a button-down collar. These are the ‘coolest’ clothes I have, and look fine under my school overcoat. I change out of my uniform in the toilets at the Central Station, trying not to breathe. The lavatory is foul with the pungent stench of urine and sadness. I dress with mesmeric slowness, not wanting to drop any of my clothes on the filthy floor, beneath a faded Ministry of Health poster warning of the dangers of VD. Some hope! I still haven’t come close to having sex. There are no girls at school, and most of my evenings are taken up travelling home on trains and buses. When I do get home, I usually have a punitive amount of work to do, and when on those rare opportunities I do meet girls I am painfully shy and haven’t a clue what to say. But the other reason is music; I already have my passion. I stow my bag in the lockers at the station and set off at a brisk pace for Percy Street, breathing in the crisp air of the evening in grateful gulps and anticipating something extraordinary.
There is a long queue stretching around the corner. I tuck myself into the end of the line and wait. I imagine I’m one of the youngest people there, although my height allows me some anonymity in the crowd. They are mainly boys, dressed much the same as me, although a few dandified ‘exotics’ have managed to purchase Afghan coats and are sprouting droopy Zapata moustaches and spiffy desert boots. The girls all have the same style, hair parted severely in the middle and falling in lank sheets to the shoulders of black leather coats. There is an atmosphere of seriousness, though, that pervades the crowd, as if we are about the witness an event of high cultural significance. Hendrix will play two sets. I manage to scrape in for the first one, which is fortunate, as I would have had to find some convincing excuse to stay out so late for the second. My parents have no idea where I am, and I have no wish to tell them. One of the dividends of my alienation is that I don’t have much explaining to do and am pretty much left to my own devices.
The club is tiny and I secure a pitch for myself halfway between the stage and the back wall. I will have no trouble seeing. The band of course are late. The crowd waits patiently.
They say that ‘If you remember the sixties, then you weren’t there.’ Well, much the same could be said of this gig. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was an overwhelming, deafening wave of sound that simply obliterated analysis. I think I remember snatches of ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Foxy Lady’, but that event remains a blur of noise and breathtaking virtuosity, of Afro’d hair, wild clothes, and towers of Marshall amplifiers. It was also the first time I’d ever seen a black man. I remember Hendrix creating a hole in the plaster ceiling above the stage with the head of his guitar, and then it was over.
I lay in my bed that night with my ears ringing and my worldview significantly altered.
From Broken Music: a Memoir by Sting, copyright 2003 by steerpike (Overseas) Limited. Used by permission of The Dial Press/Dell Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc. Sting’s impressive retrospective of his younger years, a wonderful experiment in which the songwriter breaks out of the short rhyming couplets to write an eloquent novel.
Sting was the singer, bass player and lyrics composer for the British rock group The Police, which released huge hits like ‘Every Breath you Take’, ‘Roxanne’ and ‘Message in a Bottle’. In the mid-1980s he launched a very successful solo career. His latest CD is entitled Sacred Love.