Happy birthday, Sting: Every song you make, we'll be listening to you

Today, October 2, 2020, Sting turns 69. To borrow from his own song, every song that he records, we’ll be listening to it; every move that he makes in music, films and causes, we’ll be following it.

 |  9-minute read |   02-10-2020
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“Every breath you take and every move you make,

Every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you.”

In May 2019, this song was recognised by Broadcast Music. Inc (a leader in music rights management) as being the most played song in radio history. Very few amongst the English music listeners would not have heard it. It was the biggest US and UK hit of 1983, topping the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for eight weeks, and the UK Singles Chart for four weeks. It also topped the Billboard Top Tracks chart for nine weeks.

At the 26th Annual Grammy Awards, the song won ‘Song of the Year’ and ‘Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals’. The accolades are endless. The lyrics are the words of a possessive lover who is watching "every breath you take; every move you make".

The creator of the song would have hardly believed that a song of surveillance would not only sweep the popularity stakes but would also be so widely misinterpreted. He was disconcerted by the fact that many people thought the song was positive. He himself felt that the song was very sinister and ugly, and not a gentle romantic song. A sociologist has opined that the song nicely captures elements of the new surveillance — linking "every breath you take" to breath analysers, "every step you take" to ankle monitors, and "every vow you break" to voice-stress analysis.

Sting, the song’s creator, could have never visualised that his song would be timeless and capable of updated versions of its meaning with technological progress.

Sting, born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, an English singer and songwriter was the frontman of the 1980s band ‘The Police’ before he launched his solo career. He is also an active philanthropist in causes ranging from environmentalism to human rights. He gained his nickname after his habit of wearing a black and yellow sweater with hooped stripes which made him look a wasp which prompted the name ‘Sting’.

Sting played with several bands before forming The Police in 1977. Their first album Outlandos d'Amour (1978) made it onto the British and the American charts. Sting wrote most of the songs on the album, as he would for most of the group's recordings. During this time, he made his first film appearance in the musical drama — The Who’s Quadrophenia (1979).

The Police had a sound that was hard to pin down, filled with many influences from jazz to progressive rock. With its unique sound, the group continued to attract new fans with its second album Reggatta de Blanc (1979). While Sting wrote the two biggest singles on the album — ‘Message in a Bottle’ and ‘Walking on the Moon’, it was the instrumental composition ‘Reggatta de Blanc’, created by all of the group members, that won The Police their first Grammy Award (Best Rock Instrumental Performance) in 1980.

main_sting_1_reuters_093020030752.jpegHappy Birthday Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, a.k.a Sting. (Photo: Reuters)

While ‘Every Breath You Take’ dealt with obsessive love, ‘Message in a Bottle’ dealt with the search for love. The song is about a castaway on an island, who sends out a message in a bottle to seek love. A year later, he has not received any sort of response, and despairs, thinking he is destined to be alone. The next day, he sees "a hundred billion bottles" on the shore, finding out that there are more people like him. The song is about loneliness and alienation, about finding solace that other people are going through the same thing.

Their next album helped cement The Police's position as a leading rock act — Zenyatta Mondatta (1980). Another album came the following year — Ghost in the Machine (1981).

Also, during this time, Sting tackled his first leading role in the 1982 film Brimstone and Treacle. He even contributed to the score and wrote a song, Spread a Little Happiness, for the soundtrack which became a solo hit for him. Then came 1983's Synchronicity. ‘Every Breath You Take’ climbed to the top of the American and British charts. After the tour to support this album ended in 1984, Sting decided that the group should take a break.

Sting began a career as a solo artist, scoring a hit album with The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985). A string of successful solo albums followed, including Nothing Like the Sun (1987), The Soul Cages (1991), Ten Summoner's Tales (1993) and Mercury Falling (1996). He found chart success with such singles as ‘Englishman in New York’, ‘If I Ever Lose My Faith in You’ and ‘Fields of Gold’. In 1999, Sting released his most popular solo album to date, Brand New Day which won him a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 2000. Later albums include Sacred Love (2003), Songs from the Labyrinth (2006) which is a recording of English music from the 1600s, If on a Winter’s Night (2009) and Symphonicities (2010).  

Along with his musical exploration and experimentation, Sting found time for acting. He appeared in several films, including the science-fiction drama Dune (1984) and the popular British crime film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). He worked on soundtracks for such films as The Mighty (1998), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) and The Emperor's New Groove (2000).

In 2007, Sting surprised and delighted fans of The Police when the group performed together on the Grammy Awards television broadcast. He also continued with his solo career, releasing the holiday album If on a Winter's Night (2009) and Symphonicities (2010). In 2013, Sting released the album The Last Ship, which drew inspiration from his childhood. This led to his debut as a Broadway lyricist and composer in 2014 with the launch of The Last Ship. 57th & 9th (2016) and My Songs (2019) followed.

Sting was announced as the joint winner of the 2017 Polar Music Prize, a Swedish international award given in recognition of excellence in the world of music. The award committee stated that as a composer, Sting had combined classic pop with virtuoso musicianship and an openness to all genres and sounds from around the world.

One of the finest musical virtuosities that I have heard is Sting’s collaboration with Frank Zappa on his jazz-rock melody ‘Murder by Numbers’ from The Police’s album Synchronicity. The song charted a course to success for the most aspiring of politicians, proposing an easy means whereby they might eliminate their competition. This cut-throat suggestion brought about the wrath of the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

Sting appeared at the Frank Zappa concert after meeting the ‘composer of composers’ before the show. When he got onstage, Zappa’s band started to play ‘Murder by Numbers’ as Sting talked about the comments Jimmy Swaggart made about this song being written by Satan, Beelzebub, and Lucifer. He concluded by saying, "I wrote the f**king song, alright?" He went on to sing the song with the band and the track appears on Zappa's live album Broadway the Hard Way.

The song was recorded on the Caribbean island of Montserrat which has a volcano. On the day the song was recorded it was bubbling quietly and throwing up a strong smell of sulphur. Some years later, the volcano would destroy a large part of Montserrat. Maybe Jimmy Swaggart was prescient and right after all — sulphur has long been associated with the devil and demons in folklore, suggesting the smell emanates from the fiery pits of Hell.

I have had the good fortune to attend two concerts of Sting – one was the Human Rights Now concert at New Delhi with other singers such as Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel on September 30, 1988. The other was his solo concert in Delhi on February 6, 2005, as part of his Asian ‘Sacred Love’ Tour.

The show was held at Dilli Haat grounds in Pitampura with his seven-piece band. Greeting about 10,000 cheering, dancing, and orderly fans with "Namaste, Delhi," Sting took them on a musical journey that spanned all phases of his career. Mixing his newfound love for techno dance vibes with his traditional mix of rock and jazz, Sting had the fans eating out of his hands. The setting of the concert was made even more special by the hitherto unknown but fascinating sight of the Delhi Metro gliding past the venue every few minutes.

Kicking off his show with ‘Send Your Love’, from his then latest album Sacred Love, Sting launched into a blistering version of ‘Message In A Bottle’. Mixing solo hits like ‘Englishman In New York’, ‘Fields Of Gold’ and ‘All This Time’ with old Police nuggets like ‘Roxanne’ and ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, Sting had the fans singing along.

"I last played here in 1988, and I was 10 years old then," he quipped, drawing loud cheers from the audience, a motley mix of the young and old.

The absence of Cheb Mami did not prevent Sting from turning in a great rendition of ‘Desert Rose’, his hit with the Algerian star. Sting saved ‘Every Breath You Take’ for the encore before closing the show with the haunting strains of ‘A Thousand Years’.

Sting smiled and gestured namaste for the last time, and his eyes twinkled as he yelled a "Goodnight, Delhi!" And then, in a much-needed rejuvenating gesture to his fans threw them a line of hope: "We'll see you again!"

Around 1990, Sting was introduced to yoga, and he began practising Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga series; he now practices Tantra and Jivamukti Yoga as well. He wrote a foreword to Yoga Beyond Belief, written by Ganga White in 2007. In 2008, he was reported to practice Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation technique. Sting is still active. On April 14, 2020, he recorded a duet cover of ‘Message in a Bottle’ with the girl group All Saints.

Today, October 2, 2020, Sting turns 69. Sting, to borrow your own concept, every song that you record, we’ll be listening to it; every move that you make in music, films and causes, we’ll be following it.

Also read Happy Birthday, Mark Knopfler: The Sultan of Swing


Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia @ajaymankotia

The writer is an author, former revenue official, former NDTV executive and a music aficionado.

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