The futility of defending Sting

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 12:18 02/09/2014

There aren't many people in the music world more reviled than Sting. The obvious contender is Bono - Phil Collins probably too...but Sting has a special kind of hatred reserved, seemingly just for him. Maybe that's because he was very good - and then became really quite awful.

Probably it's because of the pretentiousness of his "rainforest" years, the acting attempts and then a solo career that has seen renaissance-man claims and musicals, albums of lute music, songs translated into Spanish and Portuguese, that smug aping from the man, that annoyingly over-cool/overly-calm speaking voice, and so many lyrical clunkers.Sting

It's hard to defend Sting - one of the earliest posts here at Blog On The Tracks was about Sting's truly awful lyrics; he had been voted as rock's worst lyricist right around the time his book of lyrics had been released and I had been granted a review copy.

It was painful to read through the hack-referencing of Nabokov and - worse still - the way it was laid on the line to rhyme with 'cough'.

A song-cycle about the death of his parents, songs filled with platitudinous precepts - it's very easy to dislike this guy.

Most people just mention tantric sex.

But then you go and listen to Sting - you go to a concert, or a reunion show by The Police - and you hear one of the greatest live singers you ever could hear.

I wouldn't have paid money to see Sting - well, I probably would have stumped for The Police, but I didn't need to. I ended up with a front-section ticket a few years back and Sting's voice, his playing, his presence - it was all mesmerising. He was one of the greatest live acts I've seen.

Helps that it was in that context, that band - I love the musicianship of The Police, I'm more interested in Andy  Summers and Stewart Copeland and have followed their careers outside of the band. But it's impossible to think of The Police without Sting obviously. It was his band - even if he was borderline-tyrannical. And if he didn't give the other two enough space on the records for their songs well you only have to look at any of the greatest hits compilations from The Police to see who was the one creating the magic, song-wise. Shite lyrics and all.

But it's hard to defend Sting. Futile no doubt. For any story about what a fabulous live singer he is there's someone eager to link to the story about what a prick he is for living off the still-rolling royalties from Every Breath You Take, while the band's guitarist receives nothing.

He could be the worst human being in the world - and while Cameron Slater's around that seems unlikely - I'm just telling you he's about the best live singer I've ever heard.

A second stab at a Sting concert had me at Hawke's Bay's Mission vineyard - the promoter had offered me tickets in exchange for me not reviewing the show. So my piece ran without the by-line - they "weren't fussed on a review" but they - the Mission concert promoter and his gang - shouldn't get to decide that. So I went. And wrote about the show anyway. And I had no real interest in seeing Sting solo, beyond it being part of the job. The fact that it was him with an orchestra and that he might play something from his lute album or his Christmas album suggested that it wasn't going to be anything like that Police show; it was obviously going to be a major step down.

But again, you couldn't fault that voice. And he played the hits - solo and Police, enough of them for all but the saddest (and drunkest) of fair-weather fans. Admittedly that's exactly the crowd the Mission attracts, people demanding the artist compliment them on their region and play the ten songs they listen to from their Warehouse greatest hits CD.

Obviously I have no complaints with seeing Paul Simon, that's a great gig - and again I've seen Simon solo and as part of a Simon & Garfunkel reunion (he carried that show, his material andPaul Simon and Stingthe fact he could still sing where Art Garfunkel's voice is shot, gone). So though it's unlikely I'll make it to the Paul Simon and Sting shows in New Zealand next year my advice to anyone who likes music, and loves seeing a great live show, is to go. You'll be seeing one of the world's greatest songwriters in Paul Simon. And just about the best live singer I've ever seen. That's Sting.

He plays enough of his hits and strong album-tracks that there should be no stupid frenzy around how "awful" he is. You can go on all you like about how much he sucks - but that's just a shortcut to critical thinking when you're there watching him. There'll be an amazing band - two amazing bands actually - and two living legends. They'll be together. And you should go and see it.

But of course we're talking about Sting. So that's just crazy talk. I know that's how it works. We've decided there to focus only on the personality, the perception is of him as cold, detached, smug, annoying. There's little memory of what a great performer he is, of how that voice is among the best you could ever hear. Strange that people can feel so superior about that attitude when it's incorrect - it's only addressing half the story, the irrelevant half. All of that nonsense should be left outside of the venue. Turn up and be wowed. That's the correct thing to do.  

Postscript: It was announced yesterday that Elton John will play one Wellington show - not until November of 2015. That's a long lead. But Elton John is certainly worth seeing if you haven't caught him previously. 

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