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What did people make of Gordon Sumner’s aka Sting’s TV concert on 22nd December with Jimmy Nail? (1). On the one hand it was a promo for his latest album ‘The Last Ship’, on the other an impressively reflexive return to the subject matter of his working class childhood in the ship-building town of Wallsend in the North East of England.


photo credit: ‘Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’

He was refreshingly honest for a celebrity. He told us that as a boy he was scared of going into the shipyards because of the noise and danger. He was inspired by catching the eye of the ship-launching Queen Mother from her regal RollsRoyce. He thought that this might have sown the seed of his aspiration to grandeur that later drove him to become a pop superstar. That was before the whole ship building industry in the North East went belly up. His songs deal with all aspects of that community from the militants to the apprentices. They also tackle the difficult personal relationship with his father in the song ‘Dead Man’s Boots’. The style of music is English folk mediated, as he discusses in the concert, with the stringent demands of a Broadway musical.

In the end I was impressed with his song writing and performance but strangely not the music as a whole. It was entertaining enough, but I didn’t feel like rushing out to buy the album. This is odd because the quality of talent he can bring together and his song writing ‘should’ add up to musical excellence. He even flew his backing musicians and singers over from the North East of England. Notable amongst them were five men from The Wilson Family whose beefy and beardy acapella ‘Big Steamers’ (words by Rudyard Kipling, tune by Peter Bellamy) almost stole the show.

This project intrigued me because is seemed a close relative of my own Agit Disco which I started around 2009. I asked every working class person I knew if they would make an annotated album length playlist of music that had effected them politically in their lives.  Sting is writing songs to describe a lost working class community that he came from. My project ended up as a collection of 23 playlists published online and then as a book in 2012. His is an album of music and a forthcoming musical.

The archetypes he chooses for the characters of the songs could easily have been subjects of the songs I used to hear from travelling agit-prop political theatre groups the Eighties (2). They are probably better lyrically and musically and this would not be surprising considering the difference in resource that Mr Sumner can summon.

As the concert progressed I guessed that this must have been an emotional journey into his past and no wonder it had been ten years in gestation. If we assume that lyrics about arguments with a father are autobiographical, he writes about this relationship with eloquence and a poise. His subsequent decision to leave the ship-building community cannot have been taken lightly.

My overall opinion of the project is positive. People are making premature comparisons with Lee Hall’s ‘Billy Elliot’. There can be little wrong with the after glow that some of the population of Wallsend will feel from his efforts, and probably even more so from the musical when it opens  later in 2014 (hopefully in Newcastle as well as London’s West End and New York). This will likely bring those working class communities just a notch more into our cultural purview (from a place of invisibility!). And possibly even a shade more empathy for the fate of those communities abandoned by big industry. I’ve heard its big in Gdansk. Of course it would be the studies of upward mobility and triumph against the odds that make it onto the big stages with their backdrop of the apparent failure of blue collar struggles in the C20th. Looked at this way it could be seen to build a heroic status for Sting as someone who made it big from nothing – but he doesn’t perform it like that and often undercuts his smug superstar confidence with an honesty of expression.

I also can’t help feeling that this project has brought the 62 year old Gordon Sumner down to earth from his celebrity perch and reconnected him with a real world of his past and that has got to be a class consciousness of some sort. Let’s hope he keeps up the connection to the people of Wallsend and directs some of his wealth back into the area that made him. I’ve always felt frustration that the fortunes of working class pop stars don’t appear to flow back the communities that spawned them. Maybe Sting can show the way.

1. BBC1 22-12-13



Some critical reviews

“Urbane Sting never quite nails the protagonists’ desperation – he tells their stories with kindness and care”. Caroline Sullivan

Robert Wyatts 1982 version of ‘Shipbuilding’ for comparison.

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