|The British Rock-Band The Police was my first encounter with a singing-bassist-led band, with their thoroughly red, lo-fi video for Roxanne contrasting strongly with the more modern videos preceding it when I first saw it in 1992. Another Rock-trio, Nirvana, were swamping the music channels with their stripped-down sound at the time, and it was interesting to compare Nirvana’s sound to that of the other trio with a BASSIST who SANG lead, and, wait a minute, didn’t I recognize that singer from somewhere else?. Sting plays bass-guitar? Oh, my naive music listening beginnings.
Although I’m not a rabid fan of Sting, The Police represented an important bridge between musicians’ music and popular music. And there is really nothing to disrespect about his songwriting, performance. Most of us, fans and non-fans alike, can agree upon that.
Sting’s autobiography, Broken Music, is the first singing-bassist autobiography which I’ve encountered in which concrete tips for playing bass and singing are presented. True, like anything Sting has been involved with, the book is fraught with what seem to be fits of exaggeration towards the end of the book. The further one reads, the more haphazard the language becomes. The time-line contracts towards the time in which the Police were active. But the story of his beginnings and the gradual climb to the top is a good read. Here are some of the anecdotes and milestones in his bass-playing and singing career:
- Starts off during childhood playing around on a piano before picking up an acoustic guitar.
- Uses a record player to closely examine music recordings (a) speeding up the playback to hear the bass-parts revealed and (b) slowing down the playback to deconstruct difficult passages.
- Switches from “Lead Guitar” to Bass at the age of 17 when he befriends a teen who has built his own bass-guitar and who explains its anatomy and function to Sting.
- During college, he joins a band called “Earthrise” with the aspiration of making a living from gigging. Plays bass and sings backing vocals. Gradually assumes the role as lead vocalist.
- Plugs his bass amplifier into the car-battery of his CitroÃ«n 2cv in order to play outdoors during his tenor with the “Newcastle Big Band”.
- First series-production bass a Fender Precision bought during college.
- Finally lands his first full-time, well-paid job playing music in a musical at his college theatre, aged 23.
- Explains that viewing a jazz band led by Chick Corea called “Return to Forever” inspired the first band in which he seriously played bass and sang lead, called “Last Exit”. Declares that playing at a level a quarter of that which was played by Stanley Clarke while singing at the same time would ensure that he would remain a contender in the music scene.
- Begins writing songs during his tenure with “Last Exit”, some of which become Police songs (such as “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”).
“Last Exit” began as a quartett but became a trio, about which Sting writes:
Playing as a trio with Last Exit would prepare me for my subsequent role in the Police. By playing as a trio I would learn the value of space and clarity between musical frequencies, which larger bands can’t help but fill. Being limited to just three instruments helps this learning process, where each as more work to do and more responsibility.
Now we’ve long been aware of the utility of slowing down music recordings in order to deconstruct swift, complicated arrangements. Still, speeding up playback in order to bring bass-lines to the forefront is a technique which Sting’s autobiography seems to introduce to the world. And it was inspiring to read that Sting connected his bass amplifier to a car battery in order to play outdoors. Quite a few lightbulbs went off in my head then. Sting is an articulate writer, be it of lyrics or of prose, and his autobiography is a great read for aspiring singing bassists of any genre.