Music has always been my refuge from sadness. The guitar I inherited from my uncle John now has decent strings, and I’m no longer making the “broken” music that so upset my grandmother; in fact I’m making a lot of progress, but the limitations of my first instrument are holding me back. There are things that I simply can’t do with this primitive heirloom.
From the money I earned on the milk rounds I have saved up enough for a new acoustic guitar that I’ve had my eye on. It has been hanging from the wall in Braidford’s Music Shop for three months now. I go and see it after school every evening, praying that no one has bought it. It is a beautiful steel—stringed instrument with a blond finish, an ebony fingerboard, and delicate marquetry inlaid around the sound hole. It costs me sixteen guineas, which is a large amount of money, but I’m in love for the very first time.
I first heard the Beatles in my final year at junior school. I remember being in the changing rooms of the swimming baths. Mr. Law had just supervised one of our chaotic and impossibly noisy trips to the baths—by “supervised” I mean that no one had actually been drowned. We were drying ourselves off and, as was our custom, flicking towels at each other’s genitals. It was at this point that we heard the first bars of “Love Me Do” from a transistor radio in the corner. The effect was immediate. There was something in the sparseness of the sound that immediately put a stop to the horseplay. John’s lonely harmonica and Paul’s bass played “two to the bar,” and then the vocal harmony moved in modal fifths up to minor thirds and back again to a solo voice on the refrain. Not that I could articulate any of this at the time, but I recognized something significant, even revolutionary, in the spare economy of the sound, and the interesting thing is, so did everyone else.
By the time “She Loves You” reached number one in the charts I was already at the grammar school, but it wasn’t the confident primitivism of the “yeah yeah yeah” chorus that excited me so much as the G major chord with an added sixth that colored it at the end of the coda. Again, I couldn’t articulate this then, but I knew as the G major chord with an added sixth that colored it at the end of the coda. An old dance band cliché, but when the Beatles used it there seemed to be a subtle irony at work. Again, I couldn’t articulate this then, but I knew instinctively that it was pointing to a level of sophistication that I hadn’t been aware of in pop music until then. The Beatles would succeed in manipulating as many musical forms into their songs, whether classical, folk, rock and roll, the blues, Indian raga, or vaudeville, in a dizzying and seamless pastiche of ideas and cultural references. It was music without frontiers and the ubiquitous soundtrack for a generation that thought it could change the world.
Jim Berryman, in his otherwise excellent biography, A Sting in the Tale, claims that I was outside the City Hall when the Fab Four played there in 1963, and that I managed to grab a lock of McCartney’s hair. This is of course fantasy, and would have been out of keeping with the budding intellectual pretensions that I was nurturing at the time. But it is impossible to stress too much the influence that the Beatles had on my early life, and the fact that they came from a similar background to my own was fundamental to the vague plans of escape and glory that I was hatching in my imagination. Lennon and McCartney were both grammar school boys from humble roots in Liverpool, a town not dissimilar from Newcastle. From their initial chart successes they went on to conquer the world with songs that they wrote themselves. This gave an entire generation of musicians the confidence and permission to at least attempt the same feat.
I pore over Beatles albums with the same obsessive and forensic scrutiny that I’d applied to Rodgers and Hammerstein, only now I have a guitar. I have an instrument that can reproduce the practical magic of the chord structures and the network of riffs that their songs are built on. And what songs, one after the other, album after album. I learn to play them all, confident that if I persevere, what I can’t play immediately will yield its secret eventually. I will reapply the needle of the record player again and again to the bars of music that seem beyond my analysis, like a safecracker picking a lock, until the prize is mine. No school subject ever occupies as much of my time or energy. I’m not claiming that any kind of prescience about the future is at work here, but there is something in the driven and compulsive nature of this obsession that is unusual, something in the unconscious saying, This is how you escape. This is how you escape.
It is 1966 and England, having won the World Cup against Germany that summer, is at last enjoying the fruits of the postwar boom and is considered to be, in the quaint argot of the time, “swinging.” In Newcastle, however, the hedonism of social change and cultural revolution is limited to a small enclave surrounding the university. King’ s College gives the pubs and clubs and bookshops an air of musty intellectualism and bohemian sophistication. Wittgenstein, of all people, is supposed to have spent some time in the city during the war—I can just see him trying to explain the more difficult passages of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to the coves in the Haymarket snug in a blue haze of Woodbines and brown ale.
The Club A Go-Go is above some shops in Percy Street, behind the Haymarket. It was originally a jazz club catering to the sophisticated tastes that developed in and around the university. The Go-Go is where the Animals had their residency before they hit the big time, and living proof that the Beatles miracle could be repeated, even in Newcastle. When I am fifteen years old, the first live band I ever see is there: the Graham Bond Organisation. It is a fortunate introduction. Graham Bond is a big round-faced man with long greasy hair and a mandarin mustache. He plays Hammond organ and alto sax and sings in a gruff and passionate baritone. His band contains figures who will soon become legends: Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, who will become more famous as members of Cream, on bass and drums respectively, and Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor. The music is harsh and uncompromising and I’m not sure if I like it, but I have a strong sense that what is being played has a weight and a seriousness that will later be characterized and then caricatured as “heavy.” Graham Bond would later become obsessed with the occult and end his own life under a train in London’s Underground.
I go to see John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, again at the Go-Go, although I don’t remember which of their subsequently legendary guitarists was on duty that night. It certainly wasn’t Clapton, though it may have been Peter Green. But it wasn’t until December of that year that I really had my mind blown.
I would watch Top of the Pops with a religious devotion at 7:30 every Thursday evening. I loved this show with a passion. Almost forty years later I can still see a picture of the DJ, Jimmy Savile, standing in front of a large chart of the top twenty, circa 1966, and am able to sing a line from every entry. Such familiarity with the music of the time could not, however, have prepared me for the whirlwind, the tidal wave, the earthquake, the force of nature that was Jimi Hendrix.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared on Top of the Pops in December of 1966 and changed everything. Hendrix had transformed “Hey Joe,” an old folk song, and propelled it by the elegant ferocity of his guitar playing into a sassy, bluesy vehicle of awesome power. His vocal was as sulky and offhand as it was passionate and openly sexual, and as the three-piece band stormed through the three-minute song, I imagined everyone in whole country in front of their tellys sitting bolt upright in their chairs.
—excerpted from BROKEN MUSIC: A Memoir by Sting
Copyright © 2003 - by Sting
Posted with permission. All Rights Reserved.