Wednesday 26 November 2014

STING: ...Nothing Like The Sun

(#354: 24 October 1987, 1 week)

Track listing: The Lazarus Heart/Be Still My Beating Heart/Englishman In New York/History Will Teach Us Nothing/They Dance Alone (Gueca Solo)/Fragile/We’ll Be Together/Straight To My Heart/Rock Steady/Sister Moon/Little Wing/The Secret Marriage

A Dictionary Of “…Nothing Like The Sun”

Chadwick, Guy  (b 1956): German-born English singer-songwriter and guitarist who, after a false start in the early eighties with the group The Kingdoms, found critical and commercial acclaim when he formed The House Of Love with guitarist Terry Bickers. In one of the inset photographs on the sleeve of …Nothing Like The Sun, where he is wearing a raincoat, Sting looks rather like Guy Chadwick.

Compact discs: The album was marketed as a double, though weighs in at just under fifty-five minutes and requires only one CD or cassette. The flow of the latter benefits the record as a whole, in order to distract from the suspicion that this is another smooth, never-listened-to item for the sophisticated yuppie car.

Crisp, Quentin (1908-99): Sutton-born model, writer and raconteur whose given name was actually Denis Charles Pratt. Famously suffering much mockery, abuse, contempt and violence for the way he dressed and conducted himself in public, he was determined to keep his dignity intact, though did not become a celebrity until John Hurt portrayed him in the 1975 television adaptation of his 1968 memoir The Naked Civil Servant. Thereafter he toured in a one-man show. Interviewed by Paul Morley for the NME, shortly before vacating the Beaufort Street bedsit in which he had lived for some forty-one years to emigrate to the States, he had that kind of Anthony Blanche-type insouciance which I think Morley was disappointed not to find in any of his other interviewees; Crisp is the first subject to appear in the anthology Ask: The Chatter Of Pop. The last subject is Sting.

“Englishman In New York” is all about Crisp, maintaining his style and preserving his pride (and thus reinforcing one of the album’s central themes, that of dogged resistance against oppression). As with several other songs on the album, the song breaks into a temporary jazz run before a five-second blast of hip hop beats – sort of – remind us that we are meant to assume that the 1987 Sting knows what time it is. Ironically, for such a cultured and unwavering man of the world, Crisp died in a hotel room in Chorlton-cum-Hardy near Manchester, the night before he was due to begin a British tour of his one-man show. In his sleevenote Sting remarks on how Crisp was looking forward to receiving his naturalisation papers “so that he could commit a crime and not be deported.  ‘What kind of crime?,’ I asked anxiously. ‘Oh, something glamorous, non-violent, with a dash of style,’ he replied. ‘Crime is so rarely glamorous these days.’”

Dream Of The Blue Turtles, The: Sting’s first solo album from 1985, which failed to top the charts because the public, not unreasonably, preferred Marillion. Working with what was more or less Wynton Marsalis’ old band, the record was full of catchy and moderately intriguing songs, but because they were performed by a jazz group essentially utilising a jazz approach, they were not viewed as pop, and it is hard to deny that songs like “Fortress Around Your Heart” really need The Police to work fully. In Britain, its biggest hit single was also its least typical song, the anti-war “Russians.”

ECM Records: Widely-acclaimed, innovative Munich-based record label (ECM is short for Editions of Contemporary Music), operative since 1969. Its famous slogan “The most beautiful sound next to silence” is secretly Canadian, quoting as it does from a 1971 article in CODA magazine. Although producer Manfred Eicher began ECM as a jazz label, his unique approach to production, presentation and packaging has meant that the label’s work has presaged much of Ambient and New Age music, and indeed the label has long been as famous for its contemporary classical releases (issued under ECM’s “New Series”) as its jazz catalogue. Unkind critics have condemned ECM’s music as jazz with its balls cut off, but these are the miserable politics of envy from social inadequates who spend their time listening to wasteful cack like Muslimgauze and “Bonnie” Prince Billy.

Instead, imagine a group of highly skilled musicians playing wistfully at the northernmost end of a stark Norwegian fjord, and you may get some idea of what …Nothing Like The Sun sounds like; sumptuously and expensively produced, so lavish that most of Sting’s vocals (and therefore, most of what he is trying to convey to us) get mixed into the murk and are incomprehensible. Rarely has Branford Marsalis sounded so akin to mid-period Jan Garbarek.

Eisler, Hanns (1898-1962): Austrian composer and polemicist, hounded out of Germany by the Nazis in the thirties and out of the USA by the HUAC in the forties. …Nothing But The Sun is not deprived of hope; “They Dance Alone” holds out hope for an eventual turnaround. “The Secret Marriage” put new English lyrics to the Eisler/Brecht song “An Den Kleinen Radioapparat” and, at the end of an album which largely seems to have been about women in one way or another – the record begins with his bearing a wound inflicted by his own mother, and ends with a new bonding – he echoes “Sonnet 130” by saying that there is no need for ceremony or rituals; we, you and I, know who we are and what we want from each other.

Evans, Gil (1912-88): Toronto-born jazz bandleader, arranger and composer; one of the key musicians in any genre of the last century. His brass-dominant harmonies hang over jazz like question-mark-shaped clouds. Beginning as an arranger for Skinny Ennis’ band in 1935, his work with Claude Thornhill persuaded unlikely instruments like the French horn to assimilate themselves into jazz vocabulary, and instruments like the tuba to realign their previous role. Although largely feted for his work with Miles Davis, which extended over the best part of four decades (from The Birth Of The Cool to Decoy) –and rightly so; the moment where Lee Konitz’s almost unaccompanied alto sax reed splits a double-voiced semitone on 1949’s “Moondreams,” with the accompanying transition from lushness to discordancy, marks the irrevocable dividing line between old and new ways – the work he did with his own bands is among the most remarkable jazz has ever seen, and his relatively sparse discography benefits from not being overcrowded.

I myself saw his orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in February 1978 (it was during an extended teachers’ strike up in Scotland; school was closed) – an event documented on two albums, released on different labels, which have yet to be tidied up, put in order and put on CD – made most other music, and not just jazz, seem small. The staggering “Variation On The Misery,” a feature for the trumpets of Ernie Royal and, unforgettably, Hannibal Marvin Peterson, was the high point.

But I had already been transfixed by his astonishing 1975 album There Comes A Time. Using twenty-three musicians, including at least five synthesiser players, Evans, with cheerful patience, drew lines from Jelly Roll Morton (“King Porter Stomp,” still a hit single waiting to happen) to Tony Williams’ Lifetime (the gargantuan title track, which Sting also interpreted with Evans’ help during the …Nothing Like The Sun sessions) via Miles Ahead (“The Meaning Of The Blues,” which extends to twenty minutes on the CD release, topped and tailed by a Morricone-ish kora motif and featuring George Adams’ tenor suffering for the world).

The album also features his original arrangement of “Little Wing”: more profuse and diffuse than Sting’s, it teeters into being with Joe Gallivan’s random drum synthesiser pitches and Ryo Kawasaki’s distant guitar pitched against Herb Bushler’s fulsome bassline. Then the whole orchestra spills in, letting way for a spirited alto solo by David Sanborn and a vocal by Hannibal Marvin Peterson, who, shall we say, does his best (he actually sounds like Ian Anderson). The Sting/Evans version begins not dissimilarly, with Mark Egan now handling the bass and Hiram Bullock’s more orderly guitar. Sting sings Hendrix’s song with palpable gusto and enthusiasm – but where is the Gil Evans Orchestra? We hear a backdrop of keyboards, which may have been played by Evans and/or Kenny Kirkland (my ears guess that it’s both), with harmonic cadences which are more advanced than Hendrix’s and, as Lena pointed out, are clearly Canadian. It wasn’t quite the last thing Evans did – that honour goes to a pensive but profound 1988 duo album with his old associate Steve Lacy – but Sting’s sleevenote (and accompanying picture of the two) makes his love of Evans’ art clear. He went on to sing with Evans’ band at the Sweet Basil club in New York, but there not being enough room for him to be onstage with fifteen musicians, he sang on the floor, between two dining tables.

Fuller, Buckminster (1895-1983): Massachusetts-born architect, inventor and writer. Jobless, drunk and suicidal by 1927, he had a profound experience in Lake Michigan which involved a sphere of white light and a voice calling out to him to continue to live and work out what good he could do for everybody else. Driven by his belief that more could be achieved with less, his short 1981 book Critical Mass was an attempt to sum up his life’s beliefs and produce a succinct but meaningful history of human progress. The song “History Will Teach Us Nothing” was directly inspired by the book, which continues to read as though it had been written yesterday. “The desire to make money is inherently entropic, for it seeks to monopolize order while leaving un-cope-with-able disorder to overwhelm others”; words which have not dated in these neo-robber baron/medieval liege days.

Hayes, Isaac (1942-2008): Tennessee-born soul singer, songwriter, producer and actor who became indelibly associated with Memphis and Stax Records.  His astounding 1995 comeback album Branded – which appeared on Virgin Records – is chiefly notable for its marathon reading and deconstructing of “Fragile,” which expresses and encompasses the song’s underlying pain far more avidly and inventively than Sting managed.

Hendrix, Jimi (1942-70): Sting first saw the Experience play at a club in Newcastle, when he was fifteen. He never forgot it. It is amusing how, in an album of so many words, Sting finds his truest and most open self singing somebody else’s words.

Highgate Hill: A street in North London which links Archway and Highgate Village. It is a formidably steep street, though nowhere near as steep a street as, say, Steep Street in Lincoln, which is so steep that it includes a stairway for those who find the climb too intimidating, though is worth visiting for its several excellent secondhand bookshops. Highgate Hill was also the site of the first cable car route in Europe, running between 1884 and 1909. At its Archway end you will find most of the Whittington Hospital. If you choose to walk up the street, expect to be accosted approximately every twenty seconds by confused tourists attempting to find Highgate Cemetery, which the street borders near its northerly end. It was while walking up Highgate Hill late one night that Sting was accosted by a drunk, pointing at the sky and demanding to know: “How beautiful is the moon?” Searching his mind for an answer, Sting replied by quoting Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.” “A good answer,” said the drunk, who then staggered off.

Intertextuality: Having quoted “Every Breath You Take” at the end of “Love Is The Seventh Wave,” Sting was at it again when he faded “We’ll Be Together” with quotes from the entirely inapposite “If You Love Somebody (Set Them Free).” Some consumers wondered whether they weren’t investing in an expensive and egocentric jigsaw puzzle.

Marsalis, Branford (b 1960): Louisiana-born jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader; elder brother of Wynton, who drew a unilateral line in the sand when Branford began working with Sting. In truth, if jazz were Downton Abbey, Wynton Marsalis would be the Earl of Grantham (“I forbid pop music in this house! See to it, Carson!”) –and yet he ultimately recorded and worked with Eric Clapton.

Nonetheless Branford is this album’s man of the match; his saxophones, principally the soprano, go places Sting’s voice and words can’t (especially in “They Dance Alone”) and are always eloquent and telling. A mere eighteen months later, he would contribute harmolodic tenor and alto to the superior Do The Right Thing mix of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” which any meaningful list of the ten best singles of the eighties would have to include.

Padgham, Hugh (b 1955): Record producer who on …Nothing Like The Sun only mixes rather than produces as such; production credits go to Neil Dorfsman (replaced by Bryan Loren on “We’ll Be Together”) and Sting himself.

Police, The: Anglo-American rock-pop-reggae trio who enjoyed global acclaim with their unique blend of rock, pop and reggae between the years 1979-84. If “The Lazarus Heart” sounds uncannily like The Police, that is because Andy Summers appears on guitar, as he does on “Be Still My Beating Heart.” Drummer Stewart Copeland did not contribute to the sessions.

Politics, A Little Bit Of: No one doubts that “They Dance Alone” and “Fragile” are tremendously moving-sounding songs. “They Dance Alone” in particular benefits from underplaying the contributions of its multiple celebrity guest stars – a muttered spoken cameo by Ruben Blad├ęs, guitars from Fareed Haque, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler so tasteful and restrained that they are inaudible – but one wonders whether Sting is looking at the lonely dancing ladies of Chile or the world destroying itself and resisting the temptation to add the line “That’s my soul up there.”

Price, Alan (b 1942): County Durham-born, Jarrow-raised singer-songwriter and keyboard player whose jazz-influenced songs always bristle with pointed humour. Had it not been for the state of British light entertainment in the seventies, he and Peter Skellern would vie for the title of Britain’s Randy Newman. When Sting gets vocally worked up, he can sound just like Price, and “Rock Steady” sounds like a (below par) Price romp of wry wit.

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616): English poet, playwright and actor, whose “Sonnet 130” begins with the couplet:

“My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips' red”

The poem was intended as a satire on flowery poets who made improbable comparisons between their beloved and various facets of nature. Shakespeare resolves not to describe his beloved in such a fashion, but this is not to demean her; on the contrary, he finally claims that she is above all such tired descriptions:

“My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”

As opposed to walking on the moon, one supposes. In the song “Sister Moon,” Sting quotes the first line of the sonnet, following it up with the line: “My hunger for her explains everything I’ve done” – words which could only have been his own.

Simon, Paul (b 1941): Newark-born singer-songwriter and occasional producer (Jackson C Frank) and actor (Annie Hall) whose work, and specifically his singing style and occasionally very clunky lyrics, Sting strongly recalls on the rather hamfisted Noah’s Ark epic “Rock Steady.” The two are due to tour together in early 2015. Rumours that they will be firmly situated at opposite ends of the stage from each other and that Simon will nudge a bouncer and ask: “Who is that guy? I’ve never even seen him in my life” are nothing more than the miserable sneering of inferiority from social inadequates who spend their time listening to Communist subversives like Wolf Eyes and Peter Gabriel.

Special Disco Department, HMV: I’m not saying this was where Sting went when looking for the latest hot waxings by the Ultramagnetic MCs and Spagna, but “We’ll Be Together” is a zesty, zappy disco offering to kick off a second half which is largely (though not unquestionably) about love, following the first half, which is largely in mourning, mostly for Sting’s mother, who was ill with cancer and died while he was recording in Montserrat in late 1986, and also at the state of the world in general. Then again, the equally sprightly “Straight To The Heart” which follows it contains one of pop’s least convincing marriage proposals: “Come into (sic) my door/You’ll never have to sweep the floor.”

Springsteen, Bruce (b 1949): …Nothing Like The Sun is Sting’s Tunnel Of Love in that it sets itself the same questions: what am I doing, why am I doing it, how will I recognise myself and how can I make this different, not what people are expecting? And maybe Springsteen is the world’s best-disguised art-rocker. Springsteen constantly looks outside himself to understand himself better.  But, like Waits, the Sting of 1987 is heading for an imminent happy ending. The trouble is, I believe Springsteen and Waits more, because both recognise that they are not the cynosure of the troubled world of which they sing. I’m not sure Sting does.

Styler, Trudie (b 1954): Taught at North Bromsgrove High School, Worcestershire, by Clifford T Ward. She and Sting did not marry until 1992, but she is the clear subject of much of side two (or sides three and four) of …Nothing Like The Sun. When love comes round again, and all that.

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