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Perfect 10: Sting has chosen some of his favourite songs

A qualified English teacher and soccer coach, Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner – though you can call him Sting – achieved fame fronting The Police, the transatlantic power trio he helped to become one of the best-selling bands of all time, with an estimated 75 million records sold worldwide. The 1980s heralded a successful solo career, where the tantric Tynesider occasionally collaborated with a whole host of fellow artists, from Bryan Adams to Eric Clapton and Mylène Farmer to Tina Turner.

Likewise, encompassing jazz to reggae and pop to rock, Sting’s musical oeuvre was always a hybrid of many different genres, and his impressively broad if mainstream musical taste was narrowed down in listicle form when he gave an interview discussing ten of his favourite tunes to Ken Bruce on the BBC Radio 2 programme Tracks Of My Years for his 70th birthday back in 2021.

Helpfully transcribed by Rock And Roll Garage, these are the choices and comments he made in that original non-chronological order. In other words, it’s the Sting Perfect 10.

Otis Redding – (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay (1968)

Recorded in 1967 but released posthumously in 1968, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay became Otis Redding’s signature song. The supremely talented soul singer perished in a plane accident in December 1967 at the age of just 26, though his songwriting skills (he penned Respect, later a huge hit for Aretha Franklin) and vocal style influenced countless singers of the era.

“I think I was just 16 and Otis Redding had just died in a terrible plane crash. I went to my record store and bought Dock Of The Bay on the Stax label. There was a lovely blue label, there was a paper bag and I took it out, put it on my turntable, the usual ritual. I put the needle on it and I hear (imitates the song’s intro). What a wonderful song. I mean, a sad, sad song but without any minor chords. It’s all major chords, which is kind of an achievement in many ways.”

“I was asked by the Alzheimer’s Society to choose a song I would like to remember if I ever suffer from Alzheimer’s, because people who do suffer from Alzheimer remember songs more than anything else. So to just draw attention to this issue that I re-recorded as what I regard a masterpiece. It actually made me analyse the song and what it’s power is. It was a learning exercise for me to remember the song and pay homage to the great Otis Redding.” 

MORE: Bowie, Eurythmics and Wham!: Mike Garson, Annie Lennox & George Michael remember Aretha Franklin

Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade Of Pale (1967)

Sung by Gary Brooker with a haunting Hammond organ melody by Matthew Fisher, Procol Harum’s most famous song was released as a single in 1967 and reached number 1 in the UK chart, staying on top for six weeks. It sold an estimated 10 million copies worldwide and became one of the most played hits on the airwaves on both sides of the pond.

“Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale for me probably encapsulates the whole period of the psychedelia. I wasn’t really involved, I was just a young teen, but I remember being in an amusement park standing next to the jukebox and playing this song again, again, again and again. There is something about the little organ solo, the beginning which is something like JS Bach, there is something classical and yet very, very modern and psychedelic about it. Then the lyrics they don’t really make any sense but they just carry you along with the absurdity.”

MORE: Never mind The Beatles, here’s David Bowie

Bob Marley & The Wailers – No Woman, No Cry (1974)

One of the signature songs from the most famous and influential reggae musician in history, No Woman, No Cry was first issued on Bob Marley’s seventh album with The Wailers, 1974’s Natty Dread.

Bob Marley was a huge influence on me in the ’70s. Loved his voice, loved his songwriting, loved the whole Jamaican vibe. I’ve met Bob, I had dinner with him one night, he treated everybody in a very nice way but he was also the king. I’ve learned a great deal from him and No Woman, No Cry influenced me to write So Lonely; it’s the same chords. Musicians are thieves, we steal whenever we can. But Bob Marley’s still is a major influence on my life, even though he has been gone for many years.”

MORE: Angel or Legend? Assessing Bob Marley

Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street (1978)

With one of the most famous saxophone intros in rock and roll music, Baker Street was released by Gerry Rafferty on his 1978 album City To City. It’s the most famous track of his career and at the time, as Sting said, was one of the most popular songs in many countries.

“Again, this was a time I was living in London. I used have the radio on a lot and there were two hits that year, one of Wuthering Heights and the other one was Gerry Rafferty‘s Baker Street. That saxophone solo in the beginning completely destroyed me. It made me wish that I was in the charts too, because these were number one records. (I thought) ‘What it must be like to have a number one record?’ It was only a few months later that we had a song in the charts so I must have been dreaming really hard. But I just remember that wonderful song, it captures so much of that time for me.”

MORE: 45 at 45: Rewinding our way down to Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street 

Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls (1985)

Formed by Neil Tennant (vocals) and Chris Lowe (keyboards), the Pet Shop Boys‘ West End Girls was first released as a single in 1984, went to No. 1 in 1986 and its prescient blend of wit, poetry, and hip-hop beats remains one of the seminal synth-poppers’ most famous 45s. In an all-encompassing career now in its fifth decade, PSB are also known for, among others, Always On My Mind, Left To My Own Devices, Go West and Being Boring… and the odd pointy hat.

“You know, Neil Tennant and I went to the same school in Newcastle [St. Cuthbert’s, which inspired 1987’s It’s A Sin]. We didn’t know each other, he was a couple years younger than me. I didn’t really meet him until he was a journalist for Smash Hits, I think. He interviewed me and he revealed to me that he and I had been in the same school together. Then, lo and behold, he has this massive hit. Again, an iconic song from the duo, West End Girls, the synthesizer, the feeling. I mean, it’s a great, great pop song.”

MORE: It’s black, it’s white — Perfect 10: Hip-hop hybrids

George Michael – Careless Whisper (1984)

Found on Wham!’s second album Make It Big but released as the singer’s first solo single, Careless Whisper is easily the most famous track written by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. As with Baker Street, it also boasts one of the most famous sax riffs in the history of music, and at the time of the release reached number one in nearly 25 countries.

“George was a friend of mine. We were not close but I really admired him, from the pop stardom with Wham! to then becoming a very, very well respected and serious songwriter and artist. I often wonder where George would be right now. What kind of music he would be creating. It’s a big regret that George didn’t progress with his music. Very sad, but Careless Whisper is a great song. I love that line “guilty feet have got no rhythm”. It’s the kind of thing I wish I‘d have written myself.

MORE: 45 at 33: Guilty feet have got no rhythm when it‘s George Michael’s Careless Whisper

Eurythmics – Here Comes The Rain Again (1983)

Rising phoenix-like out of the ashes of The Tourists, Eurythmics was formed by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart in 1981 and swiftly became the biggest selling male/female music duo of all time. Here Comes The Rain Again was the opening track of their third studio album, 1983’s Touch, capping a year that kicked off with their first and most enduring hit, Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This). Coincidentally, for over a decade, Sting and wife Trudie Styler owned a penthouse in the swanky 15 Central Park West development that stands on the site of the Mayflower, the NYC hotel where Dave and Annie wrote Here Comes The Rain Again.

“We made a session for the BBC with The Police, and we had a support act that day and they were called The Tourists. They were, of course Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. I remember taking note of them and of course Annie left that band. She toured with me, we spent a lot of time backstage and she said to me: ‘Oh, I’m so nervous, I don’t know how you do it’. She had this process of worrying before she would go on stage and then become this amazing diva with this amazing voice. That was her process. But I love her dearly, I think she was a very important woman and artist. I just love her.

MORE: Annie Lennox at 65: an affectionate appreciation

The Human League – Don’t You Want Me (1981)

Another ubiquitous pop anthem from the eighties, Don’t You Want Me was first released by The Human League as a single in 1981, also being featured on their third studio album Dare. The track became the Christmas No. 1 and eventually, the biggest selling UK single released that year, overtaking Soft Cell’s Tainted Love and Adam And The Ants’ Stand & Deliver in the digital age.

“Don’t You Want Me baby is one of my karaoke songs. I do actually go to karaoke occasionally, I enjoy it. That’s the song I choose. I love the line ‘you were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar’, it always gets people heads turned.”

MORE: Here come the girls: 40 years of The Human League’s Dare

Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer (1986)

One of the most recognisable songs from Peter Gabriel’s post-Genesis career, Sledgehammer was the lead track from his world-conquering fifth solo album, 1986’s So. The innovative promotional video became one of the most played videoclips on MTV at the time, resulting in nine Video Music Awards at the 1987 ceremony.

“Peter and I met on the Amnesty tour, with U2, Youssou N’Dour, me and Peter, then Bruce Springsteen joined us. But we really forged a friendship there. Even though we have very different kind of upbringing. I admire his work with Genesis, and his solo work I was very much a fan of. Sledgehammer was this huge mighty hit, then Peter and I toured America together – we had a very successful tour.”

“The show was interesting because it wasn’t just one of us first and then one of us second. I would do a song and then he would respond with a song. It was like a battle of the bands. We were all the bands on stage at the same time. That’s the way he rehearsed and that’s the way the show became. So it was kind like a battle of the bands, a very, very nice battle of the bands. But that was a fantastic tour, and I would love to do it again.”

MORE: So, Peter Gabriel’s fifth album is 35 years old

Shaggy – It Wasn’t Me (2000)

The lead single from the Jamaican-American reggae rapper’s fifth album Hot Shot in 2000, It Wasn’t Me was a hit for Shaggy in several countries that year. As Sting indicates, over the years he and Mr Boombastic became friends and collaborated several times.

“Sometimes you meet somebody and they might be very different from you, very different backgrounds but you recognise a kindred spirit. Shaggy and I we genuinely love each other. We laugh at the same jokes, I find him an intensively interesting artist. When he raps he declaims like a Shakespearean act, it’s a beautiful voice. And he writes these kind like moral parables (laughs). It Wasn’t Me kind of has a morality to it. We did it in a German church and I had to explain to the pastor what exactly the message was. I’m not sure how successful I was but it’s very funny.” 

MORE: May The Force Be With You: The time Neil Tennant interviewed The Police at Shea Stadium

Written and transcribed by Rafael Polcaro

Edited by Steve Pafford

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