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Russians by Sting

The song that changed everything. And nothing.

(Listen from 21.35)

The piece of art that changed my life is the song Russians by Sting, or more specifically the performance of it at the opening of the 1986 Grammies.


By the time I heard it as a 14-year-old in 1989, the song was already dated, and has remained so all these decades, until a few months ago.


My novel, ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ is set in 1989, which I believed was the worst ever moment in Sri Lanka’s tragic history, though the current economic crisis could well eclipse it if we are not cautious and sensible.


In 1989, the civil war between the Tamil Tiger separatists and the Sri Lankan armed forces was escalating in the North, while a bloody Marxist revolution was destroying the south, and an Indian Peace Keeping Force had its boots on the island’s shores.


For teenagers like me, school was closed for months on end, and our two state channels were filling programming hours with old award shows from the 1980s. Our family had recently acquired a fancy new VCR player and I gleefully taped the the 87 Oscars, the 84 Brit Awards, the 86 American Music Awards, and of course the 1985 Grammies.


Like most uninformed 14 years olds of the time, I was listening to Rick Astley, Kylie and Jason, Bros and the collected works of Stock Aitken Waterman. And then on came this blonde man in a tuxedo, flanked by an orchestra, singing the strangest song I’d ever heard.


I never knew a pop song could feature words like ‘hysteria’ ‘ideology’ ‘biology’ ‘rhetorical speeches’, ‘political fence’ and ‘ignorant’. I didn’t know what ‘Oppenheimer’s deadly toy’ was, who ‘Krushchev’ was, or the difference between the words ‘precedent’ and ‘president’.


But I played it over and over again until I understood. Until I felt the painful refrain of ‘I hope the Russians love their children too,’ and appreciated the aching Prokofiev motif that was as far from Rick Astley as it was possible to get.


They say the music you love at 14, stays with you for life and for me Russians was the gateway drug. Before long I was accumulating pirated cassettes of the Police, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, listening to New Wave and classic rock when my contemporaries were goose-stepping to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice.


It told me that there was room in disposable pop music to be complex, political and profound, and that was indeed a revelation. But also, many years later when I began writing fiction and attempted to write about things that were complex, political and profound, things about the dark days of 1989, I realized that my prose needed to be as accessible as a expertly crafted pop record.


Russians told me it is possible to be catchy and philosophical at the same time, but that it took great skill and craft. And it’s a balance I’ve been trying to strike ever since. Russians was the song that changed the world for me. Even though, four decades later, not much seems to have changed.

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