Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 30 Years Old Today

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

8/10

Although he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the 1980s, people always found reasons to dislike Sting: his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz, and acting, plus the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music. But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.

He probably didn’t give a monkey’s. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).

If his debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements crudely ladled in with the pop, the follow-up Nothing Like The Sun – co-produced by Brothers In Arms helmer Neil Dorfsman –  fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. And it demonstrated that his voice had become a remarkable instrument. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, this is the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly weird mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of Sting’s chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. His songwriting speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.

The emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very pretty, sparse neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage’), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat. The very Paul Simonesque ‘Rock Steady’ (featuring a remarkable performance from drummer Manu Katche – listen on good speakers), ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’ (apparently very influenced by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’), ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate.

And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout. Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent textural guitar on a few tracks. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and coaxes one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s most successful solo release, selling around 18 million and hitting #1 in the UK and #9 in the US. He couldn’t get arrested singles-wise though – the first four from the album missed out on the UK top 40 (though ‘We’ll Be Together’ made the top 10 in the US) before fifth single ‘Englishman In New York’ made the top 20 (fact fans: astonishingly, he only has three UK top 10 singles to his name, all ’90s duets…).

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Square Records in Fripp Country

squareI’m not much one for rock’n’roll pilgrimages (living in London, the whole place can sometimes feel like a music heritage site), but, during a recent trip down to Dorset, I couldn’t resist visiting one of my favourite muso backwaters: Square Records in Wimborne, a great shop with a deceptively rich history.

As I crept around the corner and spied Square just across the way from the majestic Minster, I was honestly just relieved it had survived for another year. It first came to my attention when it featured in a beautifully-made mid-’80s BBC documentary (see below) about fascinating King Crimson mainman and key Bowie/Gabriel/Eno/Sylvian collaborator Robert Fripp. Fripp was born and raised in Wimborne (before the music bug hit, he almost joined his dad in the family’s estate management firm…), and he perpetually returns to visit relatives and sometimes even rehearse there.

The documentary captures a fascinating time in Fripp’s career – we see him with Andy Summers in what looks like a little studio space above Square Records learning the tunes that would make up the Bewitched album, and also duetting on a little Django Reinhardt. We eavesdrop on Fripp’s presentation/pitch meeting with Polydor Records to discuss the marketing for King Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair (‘we would like a new audience – this is what you can do for us’!), and see Fripp at a Square signing session, giving considered advice to some young Wimborne musos.

Fripp wanders around other fascinating local landmarks – Badbury Rings (probably my favourite spot), Knowlton Church, Horton Tower and the medieval hunting lodge where Crimson rehearsed Discipline – all the while discussing his career and spiritual beliefs (‘the top of my head blew off…I saw what it was to be a human being’). There’s even time for afternoon tea with Mother.

badbury rings

But back to Square in 2016. I found myself properly browsing CDs and vinyl for the first time in years, unsure what I’d find. I came across a rack titled something like ‘Local Bands’ but didn’t see any Fripp or Crimson in there, so grabbed In The Court Of The Crimson King from the K section and naughtily re-categorised it.

Taking my Siouxsie & The Banshees best-of (a steal at £4.99) to the counter, I admitted my crime to the friendly woman behind the counter. She ignored the transgression, cheerfully saying, ‘Oh, Robert used to live above the shop.’ Oh, right. Wow. I asked her about that BBC documentary. ‘Oh, I’m in that too. You can see me when Robert is doing the album signing.’

You can indeed. Long live Square. And Fripp.

9 Embarrassing (But Great) Moments From ’80s Music TV

grace There’s no escape these days. Maybe your band were given a rollocking live on children’s TV or you turned up for a late-night interview slightly the worse for wear and made a bit of an arse of yourself thinking no one would be watching anyway.

Alas. It’s all retained for posterity on YouTube, and some smart aleck was poised with his finger on the VCR record button, primed for just such an indiscretion.

Some of these clips (parental discretion advised) I remember watching live, others have shown up occasionally on ‘TV Hell’-type compilation shows over the years, but they all make for great – if sometimes uncomfortable – viewing.

9. Five Star on ‘Going Live’, 1989

No, the Essex Jacksons were never the critics’ favourites, but this rhetorical question from a young caller may well have had more of a detrimental effect on their career than any NME scribe ever could.

8. Jools Holland interviews Andy Summers, 1981

Jools turned up in Monserrat while The Police were recording the Ghost In The Machine album, and he managed to ridicule their erstwhile guitarist’s demonstration of funk guitar (at 5:30). You must admit, Julian had a point…

7. Matt Bianco on ‘Saturday Superstore’, 1984

Yep, another nightmare phone-in situation, a subgenre full of guilty pleasures (from 1:00 below).

6. All About Eve on ‘Top Of The Pops’, 1988

The infamous appearance during which singer Julianne Regan and guitarist Tim Bricheno were blissfully unaware of the song’s playback in the studio. Cue lots of schoolyard sniggering, but the Eve had the last laugh – their single rose UP the charts the following week.

5. BA Robertson interviews Annabella Lwin, 1982

The rather snide Scottish singer/presenter comes seriously unstuck when broaching the gender issue with Bow Wow Wow’s superbly-spikey frontwoman (I say ‘woman’ – she was only 16 at the time!).

4. Grace Jones attacks Russell Harty, 1980

An intractable Grace is seriously miffed by Russell’s back-turning.

3. Shakin’ Stevens attacks Richard Madeley, 1980

Humour is clearly the animus here, but the sight of a lagered-up Shakey throttling the grannies’ favourite is still quite something.

2. Dexys Midnight Runners on ‘Top Of The Pops’, 1982

Did someone at the BBC really think the song was an ode to Scottish darts player John ‘Jocky’ Wilson rather than soul legend Jackie? Or was it a pisstake? (It was a pisstake – and apparently Kevin Rowland’s idea… Ed.) I love the juxtaposition of Kevin’s intensity and Jocky’s grinning mush.

1. Wayne Hussey on ‘The James Whale Show’, 1989

The Mission mainman seems to have wandered into the studio after a long night on the razzle, but he met his match with the confrontational Mr Whale.

Andy Summers & Robert Fripp: Two-Guitar Telepathy Take 2

Andy-Summers-I-Advance-Masked-77760Regular readers will know that I’m a big guitar connoisseur, and the ’80s offered up a smorgasbord of great players. My brother is three years older than me and he was into ’80s King Crimson and Fripp’s fantastic solo album Exposure long before me. We listened constantly to an old cassette of Discipline which abruptly cut out in the middle of ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ and didn’t have any labelling on it, but after some detective work we found out that this incredible music was a band called King Crimson featuring a rather odd but fascinating character from Wimborne named Fripp. And we were both huge Police fans so were well acquainted with Summers.

With hindsight, it seems completely logical for the two to record together, and their two collaborations are engaging if annoyingly inconsistent.

i-advance-masked-robert-fripp-andy-summers1982’s I Advance Masked (great title, surely Fripp’s) is under-produced, tentative and unfinished-sounding, and this approach works fine on the beguiling title track and evocative ‘Hardy Country’ where strong themes carry the day.

But the duo’s limitations as multi-instrumentalists hamper the rest of the album – the drum programming is limp, bass playing sometimes amateurish and the synth playing simplistic (though sometimes perversely enjoyable in a kind of sub-John Carpenter way).

The shorter tracks seem to be searching in vain for some status as ‘ambient’ or ‘environmental’ music but are just too quirky for that purpose. To coin a phrase, it’s all a bit ‘two men and a drum machine’.

What the album does offer are fascinating examples of the kinds of guitar woodshedding the players were doing in the early ‘80s. Summers is in full-on Ghost In The Machine mode with meshes of swelling guitar synth and simple, incongruously bluesy solos, while Fripp explores the arpeggiated, polyrhythmic ideas which would find fruit on Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair a few years later.

But, for me, some of the album, especially ‘Hardy Country’, will forever be associated with Fripp’s corner of Dorset, mainly due to its use in a brilliant Fripp BBC2 documentary from the mid-‘80s. Take a walk around Badbury Rings with ‘Hardy Country’ playing in your lugholes and you’ll see what I mean.

summers and fripp1985’s Bewitched is a dramatic improvement on the first album. In the main, it features attractive melodies, well-thought-out song structures, (mostly) real drums, some incredible playing from ex-League of Gentleman/Gang of Four bassist Sara Lee, pristine mastering and much more of a ‘band’ sound.

The opener ‘Parade’ flies out of the traps with New Wave drums and an engaging little synth guitar melody. With its major-chord exuberance and very short duration, it could easily have come from side one of Bowie’s Low.

‘What Kind Of Man Reads Playboy’ is pretty much a perfect distillation of the state of the electric guitar in the mid-‘80s, if you can take the incessant boom-bap of the drum machine. Fripp must have grinned at the simplicity of the blues chord changes and catchy melody. Summers’ ingenious layering takes in wah-wah funk, harmonic washes, Charlie Christian-style bebop, bluesy leads and tasteful guitar-synth textures. Fripp also plays one of the most extreme solos of his career and Sara Lee impresses with her high-speed soloing and tasty grooving.

Unfortunately, side two is more in line with the debut album, a series of rather uninteresting, short and surprisingly-badly recorded tracks. Think ‘Behind My Camel‘ in demo form but without Stewart Copeland. But the best is saved until last, the stunning closer ‘Image And Likeness’ featuring Summers’ gorgeous cascading harmonics.

On these two albums, Fripp generally takes a back seat and basically provides a framework for Summers’ talents to shine through. An admirable, modest position for sure, but he was becoming a bit like the Wayne Shorter of guitar at this point, happy to be in the shadows despite legions of fans wanting bolder musical statements. But this is in general a really intriguing and somewhat overlooked two-guitar collaboration calling to mind a brilliant era when big labels were putting some serious money behind instrumental music and rock was allowed to be intelligent.