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How Annihilation broke the rules

Alex Garland’s hallucinogenic film is smart, beautiful and has great female characters without making it A Thing. Shouldn't this be the future of sci-fi?

What do movie audiences want? Listen to the critical establishment, or fan websites, and an easy list resolves itself in front of you: fewer superhero franchises, smarter science fiction, more complex protagonists, less reliance on the tired tropes of the Hero’s Journey, better roles for women and ethnic minorities.

The story of Annihilation – Alex Garland’s new film, released today on Netflix – is the story of why it’s dangerous to believe people when they tell you what they want.


“What did you eat? You had rations for two weeks. You were inside for nearly four months.”

Annihilation begins with an interrogation. Lena Kerans, played by Natalie Portman, sits in a blank room, facing an unnamed scientist in a hazmat suit. She isn’t wearing make-up. Her hair is limp. She scratches idly at a looped snake tattoo on her forearm. “I don’t remember eating.”

More than that, Kerans doesn’t know the fate of two of her team members. She knows the other two are dead.

This opening was added to the film during production; in the script, the first words belonged to Lena, teaching a biology class at Johns Hopkins University. “This is a cell,” she said, as a delicate blob divided in front of us. “Like all cells, it derived from an existing cell. . . One became two. Two became four. Then eight. Sixteen. Thirty two. The rhythm of the dividing pair, which becomes the structure of every microbe, blade of grass, sea creature, land creature, and human. The structure of everything that lives,” – a cut to reveal Lena’s face – “and everything that dies”.

Everything that lives, and everything that dies - because you cannot have one without the other. In both tellings, we quickly learn that Lena has spent a year waiting for the return of her missing husband Kane, a soldier sent on an expedition he wasn’t allowed to discuss with her. He left one day, and never came back. 

It's only when she finally tries to move on, picking up a paintbrush to redecorate the house, that Kane arrives unexpectedly, walking silently and ploddingly up the stairs. We can already see that something is wrong. Kane is back, and not back. He cannot tell her where he's been. Sitting at their kitchen table, he is somehow too still. When he begins to bleed from the mouth into the glass of water Lena gives him, she calls an ambulance - only to have it hijacked by a SWAT team. Taken to a secret military facility, Lena learns that her husband – if that’s who the blank-eyed and rapidly deteriorating figure really is – has become the first person ever to emerge from a phenomenon called The Shimmer, which hangs like a soap bubble over an ever-expanding area in north America. It blocks radio waves and all other communication coming from inside. No one - until Kane - has come back out. Within a decade, if it keeps growing, the Shimmer will have swallowed the entire planet.

So Lena goes in, in a team led by a psychologist called Dr Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) alongside three other female team members: Radek the physicist, Sheppard the geomorphologist and Thorensen the paramedic. There is only a brief acknowledgement of their gender in the film’s dialogue.

“All women?” asks Lena. “Scientists,” replies Sheppard. “The previous teams have been military.”


When I first spoke to producer Andrew Macdonald about Annihilation in 2014, he called the project “ambitiously insane”. Sure, it soon had a star attached – Natalie Portman – and, in Garland, a writer/director with a solid track record: The Beach, 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, Dredd. But it was still a risk – not least because its budget was three times that Macdonald’s previous collaboration with Garland, Ex Machina, a taut three-hander mostly filmed in a single location in Norway.

Ex Machina explored our attitude to artificial intelligence, by telling the story of a Silicon Valley tech bro, Nathan, who creates a beautiful android called Ava. He invites Caleb, one of his employees, to his remote house to subject her to a Turing test to see if she can pass as human. Between explaining thought experiments such as the Chinese room, the film smartly compares our attitude to AI with our attitudes to gender. Neither man can see Ava for what she is – an independent consciousness – because they are too busy living out versions of a male power fantasy. Nathan is half-Pygmalion, half-pimp, presuming that his creation will always obey him; Caleb sees himself as a white knight rescuing a princess in a castle. These are fatal mistakes.

Alex Garland’s films often have unexpected third acts: Macdonald once told me that the team never really came up with a proper ending for their “Ken Loach zombie film” 28 Days Later. (The DVD offers several alternate resolutions to the story.) In Ex Machina, both male characters imagine themselves to be the hero – but the final sequence makes clear that it’s Ava who has been in control throughout.

In Annihilation, the third act (spoilers!) finally shows us the alien which has created The Shimmer by refracting everything inside it, including living DNA: essentially, the landscape has cancer. Nature has begun to mutate and reproduce uncontrollably.

In the first book of the original trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, this led to unforgettably surreal images, such as dolphins with human eyes. In the film, there is a mutated bear with a half-human scream, identical ethereal fawns, and plants which grow in human shapes like living Antony Gormley sculptures. There’s also a house covered in flowers of every possible type, like a New England wedding, which somehow spring from the same root stock.

These images are beautiful and discomforting at the same time, a fitting backdrop for a quest by five women who all turn out to be self-destructive. “One of the reasons the film works so well is that the story’s outward signs are linked to the psychology of the characters,” says the writer Andrew O’Hagan, who has known Garland for several years. “Nature is subverted in the scenes – those twin fawns, the trees that take the shape of people, the menacing flora – in a way that makes you dwell on what is ethically askew in the lives of the characters . . it’s pure cinema.”


So Area X is, literally, the Uncanny Valley: everything is somehow off. How do you top that in the third act? Garland has described Annihilation as a journey from “suburbia to psychedelia” and the finale is unlike anything I'd ever expect from an action film. The climax comes in a long, wordless scene, where Lena Kerans finally kills the alien not merely with violence but kindness; a fatal gift rather than a simple hail of gunfire. “He'll hate me for saying this, but the film it most closely resembles is [Stanley Kubrick's] 2001: A Space Odyssey,” says Adam Rutherford, who worked as a science advisor on both Ex Machina and Annihilation. “I've worked on films with aliens in them before, and the joke is that the studio say – give me an alien we've never seen before. And that's hard because we've been doing aliens in cinema since 1918. What you see in Annihilation, you have genuinely never seen before: not just the conception of it, but the power of the special effects.”

On set in 2016, Alex Garland showed me a video on his phone: a Mandelbulb, a three-dimensional fractal shape, which looked like an otherworldly coral, or sea anemone. This was the inspiration for the alien’s revealed form, which Rutherford likens to standing in front of a Mark Rothko painting, with “the sense you might be being sucked into hell”.

The Mandelbulb was typical Alex Garland: we had stayed in touch after I interviewed him about Ex Machina, and we talked about the strangeness of evolution. I showed him a video of scientists pouring liquid aluminium into an ants' nest. The result was a spectacular silvery filigree of branches, which would normally be hidden, buried in soil. Nature, we’d agreed, was almost infinitely weird.

It was also typical Garland to be interested in random YouTube clips. The 47-year-old circulates script drafts and ideas among a wide circle of friends, and pays flattering attention to their feedback. He doesn’t act like a man given control of $40m by some of America’s most cut-throat business dealers. “He talks about not being an auteur,” says Rutherford. “The irony is that being on set that one day, there was a great deference towards him without him being a bossy wanker.”

It’s central to Alex Garland’s self-conception that he isn’t academically gifted: he was a poor pupil, and a lacklustre undergraduate, studying art history at Manchester University. In practice, that just means he hasn’t acquired the dinner-party-glibness with big ideas that an Oxbridge education can provide. He doesn’t “wing it”, in the way that leading politicians who stumbled through undergraduate tutorials with a terrible hangover are prone to do. Intense research lies behind even simple lines of dialogue. His science fiction makes the science feel as exciting as the fiction. Annihilation includes mentions of Hox genes – which give living organisms “maps” to create their bodies – and the concept of autophagy, where cells eat themselves. (“As with all the scientific details in Ex Machina, he put that in the script. I didn't put that in,” says Rutherford.) Garland's next project, Devs, is set in Silicon Valley and involves quantum computing. Yeah.

This is what makes his fans – and friends – so protective of him. I rolled my eyes when the first wave of pre-release blogs about “whitewashing” in the film came along: in the second and third books of VanderMeer’s trilogy, the Biologist is revealed to have Asian heritage, and the Psychologist is half-Native-American. Yet both Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh are white. Somehow, I felt, the fact that two of the film’s five key female characters were played by women of colour - Gina Rodriguez as the hardbitten paramedic and Tessa Thompson as the dreamy physicist - would be forgotten. So would the performance of Sonoya Mizuno, who was also in Ex Machina, playing the alien (although she’s unrecognisable under the special effects) and Oscar Isaac - birth name Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada - as the Biologist’s husband.

Vulture was one of the places which looked at this majority non-white main cast and was still unimpressed. The casting of Rodriguez and Thompson, it said, “creates a familiar dynamic in cases of whitewashing, where people of color are pitted against each other. There’s no reason why Garland couldn’t have cast Thompson and Rodriguez as well as cast the other characters true to their ethnic descriptions in the book.” This seems like an oddly box-ticking approach to diversity, and one which lumps together Annihilation with something like Ghost in the Shell, which took a specifically Japanese story and cast a white American - Scarlett Johansson - in the lead. This attitude also seems to expect a simple yes/no answer to “is this film feminist?” or “is this film riddled with systemic racism?” based on a quick accounting exercise. Isn't that a joyless and reductive way to approach a piece of art?

Then again, I’m biased. There are few directors making intelligent science fiction out there, and even fewer trying to do so within the Hollywood studio system. The fate of Annihilation might suggest why: late last year, its worldwide cinema release was cancelled and the film was sold to Netflix for half its budget. It had become the focus of a tussle between producer Scott Rudin and David Ellison of Skydance Productions, which co-financed the film. Early test screenings had audiences demanding more explanation of the plot – and questioning why all the main cast were women. Garland’s political statement of not making a political statement – to have flawed, complicated, intriguing characters who just happened to be women – had baffled them.

David Ellison was also worried the film was “too intellectual”, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and he wanted Portman’s character to be made more sympathetic. Rudin and Garland weren’t totally inflexible – there were reshoots to include more scenes showing Lena Kerans and her comatose husband together – but ultimately, Paramount decided to limit the film’s cinema release to the US, Canada and China, with a Netflix deal picking up the slack elsewhere.

In an age where critics and fans barrack creators endlessly for their lack of ambition in casting women and minorities, and complain that films offer pat solutions and uncomplicated heroes, this was infinitely depressing. Maybe we’re only getting the films we deserve. It didn’t help that Paramount’s previous big female-led supernatural thriller, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, sharply divided critics but united audiences: they didn’t want to see it. It made just $7.5 million on its opening weekend.

In the end, Annihilation had a respectable opening in the US, where it was up against the behemoth of Black Panther. Taking $11 million on its first weekend, it should at least break even once the Netflix deal is taken into account. 


I went on to the set of Annihilation in July 2016 – my first attempt at a visit had been postponed thanks to the unexpected Leave vote in the EU referendum. It was being filmed just north of London, in a hangar big enough to hold an aircraft (and sure enough, the space next door held one, left over from the new Star Wars films shooting there).

The set designers had created two backdrops: the first was the interior of a lighthouse, complete with whitewashed tendrils of . . . something, snaking over every surface. The shadow of a charred corpse scarred one of the walls. The other set was black, its corrugated surface reminiscent of an ants’ nest, as drawn by HR Giger. That echo might have been intentional, because this was the lair of the film’s antagonist, the alien which has generated all the strange effects seen in Area X.

In adapting VanderMeer’s work for the screen, Garland had focused on the first book of the trilogy, and stripped back several of its elements. In the book, the search party do not have names, and the psychologist drugs the team to prevent them seeing what’s really there as they first explore the area. The book's Crawler - a being of light - becomes the film's alien. In the movie, there is no fungus growing into living words on a wall (although Garland experimented, in an early draft, with a poem by James Fenton).

Most crucially, he also added a new motivation for Vandermeer’s Biologist – now given the name Lena – to go after her husband into Area X. She doesn’t just want him back; she wants his forgiveness. And she also doesn’t care too much if she destroys herself in the attempt. Why? Because, we discover, Kane left to go on the original mission into The Shimmer because he learned that Lena was having an affair.

Giving this backstory to the lead character feels a more radical act even than writing five lead female roles: the idea that protagonists should be likeable is screenwriting 101, and a guilty, cheating wife is a hard sell. There is even a shorthand for the moment of kindness which screenwriters are told to include to win us over: early on, protagonists should “save the cat”. Shagging a colleague is pretty much the opposite of saving a cat.

And while audiences might be lightly willing to accept bastardry in a leading man, provided it is camouflaged under enough charm - think Han Solo or James Bond - to see a lead woman as unsympathetic as Lena, as clever as Lena, shot like a male action hero in functional military clothing rather than camo hotpants? That still feels daring. And Lena’s unsympathetic choice is the engine for the whole narrative. She broke their marriage; Kane volunteered for the mission, knowing that he would not come back. When he did, she risked death for the small chance of saving him. A chain of annihilation.

“Natalie Portman’s character is guilty, we discover that, but how is her guilt manifested? Not by confessions to a therapist. Not by wild drinking or excessive shouting at the children or a new turn towards religion,” says O’Hagan, who sees the film’s landscape as echoing the unconscious. “Rather, is it suggested by the monsters she manifests in her quest to save her husband, a series of monsters that prey on other women before testing her own essence to destruction.”

Why would my husband volunteer for a suicide mission?

You’re confusing suicide with self-destruction. Almost none of us commit suicide. Almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives . . . Isn’t self-destruction coded into us? Programmed into every cell?

As this dialogue suggests, the film shows ambivalence towards the idea of self-destruction – because it is an inevitable part of life, and therefore death. Everything that lives, everything that dies. Tessa Thompson’s physicist, who has the scars of self-harm snaking up her arm, chooses death in Area X - blissfully wandering off into the forest like an inverse Captain Oates. And in an early scene, Natalie Portman’s Lena reads The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a 2010 non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot. It’s about the “HeLa” cells used by laboratories throughout the world, and which were vital to the development of the polio vaccine and other breakthroughs.

The cells came from Lacks's cervix, and were the first ones grown in a lab to be “immortal” – not subject to senescence, the process by which cells degrade over multiple reproductions and eventually die. The trouble was that they did not die in Henrietta Lacks's body, either: the HeLa cells are cancerous, meaning the normal controls which put the brakes on cell division are broken. And that cancer killed Henrietta Lacks on October 4, 1951. Inside the human body, there is no escape from self-destruction.

In Annihilation, Alex Garland gives film critics and science fiction fans what they say they want: a smart script, beautifully shot, with a cast of women who look, and act, like real people, with all their unsympathetic failings on full display. “I think Alex is like no other film-maker today, especially in his understanding of the ways we invent the terms of our destruction, then quest against them, or fight them, or secretly nurture them,” says O’Hagan. “In every story of his, the quest can look like freedom or moral crusade or capitulation to a new certainty or a basic desire - Never Let Me Go, Ex Machina - but in every case there is the danger that the whole enterprise is being powered by anxiety. At the close of every one of his films, I expect a main character to wake and say, ‘Thank God.’”

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

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“I call him the Pope of Jamaica”: An encounter with Shaggy and Sting

Rock’s oddest couple on Trump, Brexit, privilege and the perils of the public laundromat.


Perhaps it is not as odd as it seems. For a start, they both have “ridiculous names”, says Sting, “which people no longer question”. Shaggy and Sting were born Orville and Gordon. Their nicknames arrived in their youth: Sting’s, from a black-and-yellow striped jumper he wore in his days as bass player in a Newcastle jazz band – even his mother called him Sting. Shaggy’s, from his resemblance, at the age of 12 when he was living in Jamaica, to the character from Scooby-Doo – his mother calls him Richard.

Richard?” says Sting, looking momentarily thrown. That is Shaggy’s middle name. His wife calls him Richard too. “Don’t think you can come in my house being Shaggy,” she warns him.

They sit in a boardroom overlooking Central Park. Sting wears a fashionably dishevelled pinstripe suit and traces the edge of the table with his finger. His hair is as bleached as it ever was and his expression bears decades of heavy thinking. Shaggy has a red shiny baseball jacket and a cap turned to the side, a bit like a cartoon rapper. His arms are thrown comfortably on either side of his chair. Through a mutual musical acquaintance, they met last year and jammed in a studio. The mysterious alchemy of collaboration ensued. The story is less how their new record came about, more the fact that it did at all – because, light and sunshiny as 44/876 may be (it is named after the British and Jamaican dialling codes), it is also very strange. Shaggy says this album will disrupt. Go against the status quo, and the grain.

Shaggy was delighted, visiting England around the time of his hits in the Nineties, to learn the ruder significance of his name. It allowed him to flesh out his “character”– for that is what Shaggy is to Orville R Burrell, who speaks in a New York accent. Shaggy is a wining, grinding, priapic reggae star, composer of baby-makin’ music, whom one journalist compared to a Jamaican Benny Hill. And he is developing. The mid-nineties Shaggy was Mr Boombastic (“Come lay down in me jacuzzi and get some bubble bath”). The millennial Shaggy was a wealthy Branson/Bond-villain figure, masterminding a younger man’s shagging via state-of-the-art surveillance in the video for the song “It Wasn’t Me”. Of that tuneful and explicit international hit, he tells me:

“It’s about three things: either you’re banging, or somebody’s banging, or you wish you were banging somebody. It’s something relatable in everyday life.”

And the 2018 Shaggy is more politically correct. “I’m actually giving better advice than before,” he says. On the new album, he has a turn as moral arbiter. Sting wrote a cosmic courtroom drama called “Crooked Tree”, in which a man is sent down for a variety of sins including arson, murder, blackmail, grand larceny and human trafficking. Shaggy, Sting said, was to play the judge.

“It made me think of Jamaica,” says Shaggy. “We have the British legal system, with the high courts – all the weight, and the wig, but with these really thick Jamaican accents.” On the song, the “Honorable Judge Burrell” barks “guilty as chaaaaarged!” and convicts the defendant, played by Sting, with a seismic bang of his gavel.

Says Shaggy, “Here is this Englishman that comes to Jamaica to create a lot of felonies, and I’m just going to convict his ass!”

Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” in 1982 in Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye estate on Jamaica’s northern coastline, at the desk where Fleming had written his Bonds. He was 31, already hugely successful and hiding out after a scandalous divorce. Seventy miles down the road in Kingston town, the 14-year-old Shaggy was already enjoying the Police, who’d had six hits in the US by then, and more in the UK, and whom he describes as “the gateway band to a lot of reggae music”. Songs like “Roxanne” were huge in Jamaica: Sting’s voice was high and strange, Shaggy says, and he could hold long notes for a very long time – it got through to you. The Police’s punk-reggae “brought that art form to the mainstream masses”. They’d toured with Burning Spear and Aswad. The child Shaggy lived with his mother. He wore Jamaican punk garb – a tie, a collar and no shirt – to parties.

“Jamaica has influenced pop culture in such a huge way,” he says.

“Profoundly,” says Sting. “Profoundly,” says Shaggy.

Sting’s interest in reggae was both political and academic. “Rock music is a very reactionary form,” he tells me. As Gil Evans’s jazz arrangements appealed to him as a teenager, so did calypso and ska, “in the way that the drums were played, and the bass was brought out on top. I had an understanding of Caribbean music, so for me it was always a homage, and not cultural appropriation.” You feel a bit sorry that he felt he had to bring up the phrase, but Sting is a questioning person. His first band after the Police consisted of black jazz musicians, and he asked then, “Am I the patrician white rock star? Or am I the novice?”

Another point of similarity between these two surprising counterparts is that, in the collective consciousness at least, they are both very sexual. Shaggy and Sting are the twin poles of masculine libido – one pursuing bikinied booty on a beach like a sniffer dog; the other a paragon of psychosexual stamina, who’d mastered the practice of tantric yoga, which led to a joke boast in the early Nineties (five hours) that has followed him ever since, but which pointed to a certain spirituality in Sting that few people knew what to do with.

When they interviewed him back then, male music journalists couldn’t get thoughts of Sting and sex out of their heads. They all mentioned his muscle tone, his chest, chiselled bones and tantric life. I was almost afraid to be in the room with Shaggy and Sting together, thinking the sexuality might be overwhelming – but Sting looks studiously into the middle distance and Shaggy merely admires my leg warmers.

Their first single, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, is a classic shagging song – Sting is thoughtful: “I’m already sold on the idea of you and/Just tell me where I need to sign” and Shaggy is horny: “Come on, girl!”

“In this climate, you know, the song could be misconstrued,” muses Sting. “As married men, you learn about compromise, you learn about…”

“Patience,” says Shaggy.

“Patience, as a man,” agrees Sting. “It’s not a natural thing for us! So the song needs to reflect a more balanced view. I hope we achieved it. But of course, you know, we are keen, we are conditioned that way. But asking a woman what she wants is one of the most important things a man can learn.”

“We’re fans of women,” concludes Shaggy. A survey by his record label around the turn of the millennium revealed that women are fans of him too. Has Mr Boombastic found his feminine side?

“Have I?” he says, eyes wide. “Embrace it all, man, and live!”

A live performance of “Don’t Make Me Wait” at the Grammys, in January, was met with some confusion, being the first that many people knew of the collaboration. It segued from Sting’s 1987 hit “Englishman in New York”, which was an interesting medley: that hymn to Quentin Crisp and the exceptional richness of what Jung, whom Sting studied in the Eighties, would call the hermaphroditic soul, followed by a classic banging song. Sting once said that the image of the hermaphrodite soul in art – Bowie, Boy George – was an ideal we all strive for. Crisp, “a singular man, a very brave man”, was one of the older figures he befriended in the Eighties; Crisp actually said those words to him – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”.

Sting performed the song in Trump’s New York, because of “the ludicrous idea of calling anyone an alien”. He seems a bit reluctant to talk about hermaphrodite souls today but then says: “I think it’s important for an artist to see the world through other people’s eyes. I wrote a song a couple of years ago, and I don’t know why, but I started to channel a transgender prostitute. I have no experience of that but I thought it was interesting as a thought experiment. Music is an empathy machine, and I take that job seriously, even though it might be odd sometimes.”

Shaggy was described as a Jamaican Benny Hill. Credit: Rex


Three years ago, at the Public Theater just off Broadway, I watched a workshop of Sting’s musical The Last Ship, which is currently wending its way around regional theatres in Britain. It is the latest sign of a prediction Sting made in 1987 to Q magazine: that one day, mass appeal and his personal tastes would separate. He has done symphonies, lute music, gangster movies, Quadrophenia, a Stravinsky adaptation with Ian McKellen and a Threepenny Opera among many other things. The Last Ship is the story of a group of men who build a ginormous tanker in Newcastle and sail it to the New World. Jimmy Nail sang at the New York performance, perched alongside Sting on a stool.

Sting grew up on Gerald Street in Wallsend, where the hulk of a 10,000-tonne ship twice as high as the houses cast a permanent shadow from the Swan Hunter slipway. Such a ship would be built every year, and everyone would watch the launch. As it blocked the space and was then released, the vessel represented a constant cycle of constraint and departure for the child Sting. His father was a milkman: the class divide between him and his Police band mate Stewart Copeland, son of a CIA diplomat, fuelled much press interest in the early days.

“I always thought class ruled,” he says. “I wanted not to be judged by my accent. So I developed no accent. It made it easier to be fluid and not be judged. There were no regional accents on television. Now, I only speak Geordie when I’m angry or I’m with a Geordie – and I can speak it well.”

Sting and his brother would take part in the milk round, going to the dairy at 4am. He was particularly good at picking up the empties because he had big hands. He could do ten at a time, he once said. His father was hard to please – not overtly impressed by Sting’s academic achievements, his passing of the 11-plus, his athletics trophies or his music career. Grammar school alienated him from his family. Sting was a bus conductor and a labourer, before teaching English at St Paul’s First School in Cramlington. He wasn’t “ambitious” until he discovered music.

He lost both his parents at the height of his fame, within seven months of each other. His mother, whom he credits with his musical education, was a strong character – she died of cancer, and wanted to volunteer at Chernobyl, pointing out that she was already full of radiation. He found a point of connection with his father towards the end of his life, when he sat with him and noticed how similar their hands were. He didn’t write any lyrics for two years after his parents died, but his famous rainforest campaign followed instead.

At the theatre, Sting told a story about the time the Queen Mother came to their road in Wallsend. As she passed in her car and everyone lined up to wave, he told himself that he would one day be on the inside of a car like that. The wealthy donors in the theatre cheered. Sting’s is a truly American tale – the very way he put his sentences together riled a UK music press that liked to see musicians hymning their roots rather than escaping them. The rainforest campaign saved an area the size of Belgium, but that too was a sign of stepping outside one’s box. “The source of pain is your motives being misunderstood,” he told Q. He spends most of his time in New York these days. But he votes in Britain, and by the time we talk about Brexit he is slapping the boardroom table.

“The people who voted for it are as dispirited as the ones who voted against it, and at least we’re joined in that. We’re all in this fucking mess, no one knows how to fucking get out of it.”

Shaggy points out that they are both “citizens of the world”.

“But we have the privilege of our careers, we can do that,” says Sting. “Most people don’t have that privilege, they’re stuck. I find it depressing and dispiriting. Our society is violent and confused – and yeah, maybe all this is important for us to ‘figure out something about ourselves’. But I see things from a different perspective than someone who lives in Sunderland and is stuck, and saying, ‘I just want to vote for something different, that sticks a spanner in the works.’ It’s those people who will suffer, and that’s a tragedy.”

“I know people who have never seen the ocean,” Shaggy muses. “I was in the military with a guy, we were on the fighting roll together, and his first time he’d ever been on a plane was when they flew him over to the desert on a jet.”

Agitprop is worse than off-putting, it’s counterproductive”: Sting enjoying a glass in the 1980s. Credit: Graham Wood/Daily Mail/Rex


Shaggy’s mother, who raised him without his father, moved from Kingston to Flatbush, Brooklyn as an illegal immigrant and worked as a medical secretary, leaving him with his grandmother and then sending for him when she’d saved enough money. She was, Shaggy says, “the biggest dreamer”. He brings up their new song “Dreaming in the USA”, about the American Dream. Sting says: “It’s a love letter to Americans. It’s about culture, and this engine that is basically fed by immigrants. America is in danger and we know why.”

Shaggy worries that Americans will take the song literally, jingoistically, like they did Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”. He is not bothered about class – “I am motivated to better myself” – but he’s bothered about racism. “I don’t want our children to be raised with that. Which is why I am raising them in Jamaica.”

His Kingston youth spanned the changeover from the People’s National Party to the Jamaica Labour Party and a period of riots in the city. When he got to Brooklyn as a teenager, he enjoyed a mixed neighbourhood – Barbadians and Haitians, “a Caribbean-American kind of life” – but was shocked by the public laundromats.

“In Jamaica, you just wash it in the backyard, you put it up on the clothesline, with a little bit of bleach on the whites and the sun dries it,” he explains. “I’m sitting in Brooklyn and I feel embarrassed, because people were seeing my drawers. My mum would put me on folding duty: I’d sit there folding drawers. I’d say to her, ‘This is crazy: I’m doing this in public, there’s public people looking at my drawers.’ She’d say, ‘No, man, everybody’s doing it. They’re clean!’ That was a culture shock for me.”

Shaggy had an aptitude for pastels and won the Brooklyn Union Gas art competition more than once. He attended the Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where “all the greats” had been pupils – among them Marky Ramone and Barbra Streisand.

“You went to the same school as Barbra Streisand?” says Sting.

“Second-oldest high school in the US,” says Shaggy proudly.

Didn’t Sting buy a house off Barbra Streisand?

“I did!”

After high school, Shaggy needed to get out of the house and away from his mother – “We weren’t getting along at that time, and still to this day we really don’t.” He joined the Marine Corps in 1988, aged 20, and stayed for four years. He served with the 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, and was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm, where he piloted a Humvee and worked as a cannon cocker. He became a lance corporal, but was not a committed soldier and was twice demoted in rank. His main problem was attendance – stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, he regularly drove back to Brookyln for reggae nights.

To this day, he believes in the power of music over conflict, telling the Military Times in 2011 that the best way to combat Isis would be to distribute a massive bag of Jamaican weed and play them “Shaggy music”.

“When you’re listening to reggae, you only want to do two things: get high and have sex,” he observed. “If they’re listening to Shaggy music, they’re not going to want to cut somebody’s head off.”

Shaggy during his military service in the US Marines 

Next door to Sting’s management office looms the Trump International Hotel. When an NME journalist came to meet him in New York in 1991, he commented that Trump’s buildings were the mark of a declining empire, “a property developer’s empire capsizing under the cultural meltdown at the heart of New York City”. Shaggy says he knows people who voted Trump and “wondered if they’d been like that the whole time”. Earlier this month, he played the president in an elaborate Late Late Show parody, with James Corden as Special Counsel Robert Mueller ("Can we talk about the pee tape? It wasn't me"). I ask Sting about the man next door.

“I’m daunted and terrified by what is happening,” he says. “I’ve been brought up with safety nets – the National Health system, my education. My further education was something I never had to dream about paying for, I could never have afforded it. So I cherish those things and they’re all under threat at the moment, as is democracy. Xi Jingping and Trump saying, ‘I’m going to be president for life’ – it is medieval.”

He believes, though, that political messages in music should be “veiled”. Agitprop is “worse than off-putting – it is counterproductive”. And veiled they are on 44/876. Shaggy claims to write four songs a day on average – but says he never thinks about instrumentation. Sting, who emails Shaggy in bullet points and tends to “squirrel himself away”, is all about instruments and key changes. “Shaggy brought the vibe and I brought the structure,” he concludes.

Shaggy turns 50 this year – “his birthday is 20 days after mine,” offers Sting. The party will happen in Jamaica and Sting is going. He is impressed with Shaggy’s charity work on the island. “I look for consistency. When celebrities take on projects I think, OK, let me see you in six months and we’ll see how serious you are. I call him the Pope of Jamaica,” he says. “He’s a personage. A citizen with duties and responsibilities.”

“There is always a fear that I may be losing it,” Shaggy says. “Am I not hip anymore?” But at the end of the day, he reasons, “Shaggy is what Shaggy does.”

And Shaggy, after all, is an act. Is Sting an act too? “Absolutely,” says Sting. “Of course he is. It’s been very useful for the past four decades to have a persona you can hide behind.” But it’s hard to recall a time when Sting has hidden behind anything. He’s been in the business for 40 years now. Peers like Elton John, just a few years older, are starting to retire.

“Yeah, and he’s going to do 300 gigs before he retires,” Sting says. “That explanation didn’t quite add up for me.”

44/876 is released on 20 April on Polydor “The Last Ship” is on tour in the UK now

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the unlikely musical collaboration of Sting and Shaggy on the album 44/876, as well as reviewing the new Alex Garland film Annihilation (with special guest Helen Lewis), and celebrating the noniversary of the bumbag (or fanny pack, if you're American).

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:


Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.