The details of how Carol Wilson signed Sting’s publishing well before the Police had formed are instructive for illuminating her leverage — what Mike Howlett half-jokingly called her “dowry” — within the Virgin group. They also illuminate the nature of the publishing contract that Dindisc and Virgin regularly offered their recording artists. In 1976, Wilson and Howlett drove up to Newcastle to check out Last Exit, a band that had sent Virgin a demo. As Howlett recalls:

I go up with her and we hear them playing in a room up above a pub. There’s Sting on vocals, and the band is very good. I thought they sounded like Weather Report with Stevie Wonder on vocals, is what I said. [chuckles] She could see he was also cute and signed him for publishing and tried to persuade them all to come move to London and do some gigs around London because no way in hell people wanted to go up to Newcastle in those days. They wouldn’t, but Sting would. So, we helped him. He actually was married, too, by that time to Frances Tomelty, who’s a very fine Irish actress, who ended up doing quite a bit of TV stuff and West End acting, but she never got into film… And they had a baby, as well, young Joe.

Last Exit’s struggles to get signed in the era of punk’s ascent as well the members’ indecision over moving to London are described at great length in Sting’s memoir, Broken Music. He recalls Wilson’s entrance in his career:

In this new climate it is difficult to get very much interest in our music, which the record companies seem to consider too sophisticated for the current taste. They are polite and appreciative, but it is clear that we are not what they are looking for. The only company to show a genuine interest is Virgin Publishing, part of Richard Branson’s burgeoning empire. Virgin’s publishing director, a petite blonde named Carol Wilson, loves “I Burn for You,” the delicate waltz I had written for Frances that has proved so popular with the audience at the [Newcastle] Gosforth Hotel. The song is tender and romantic and may as well be a madrigal played on a lute, so distant is it from the current fashion for raucous anthems of disaffection. Despite this, Carol still wants us to come to London and record some songs with a view to signing us to a publishing deal, hopefully as a first step to securing the band a recording deal.

Needless to say we are over the moon. An expenses-paid trip to London, recording in a big studio, and just the simple compliment of being taken seriously by one more person in the big city is enough to set our heads spinning…

The next day is one of mixed fortune. Carol, despite the sketchy nature of the demos, can hear the value in the songs, and she offers us a publishing deal. It is a fifty-fifty deal, wherein the publisher takes half of whatever royalties the songs generate. For example, when a record is sold, the royalty earned is split down the middle between the artist and the songwriter. The publisher then takes half the writer’s share. As we don’t have a recording deal at the time it all seems academic to us. We just want someone to help us out, and if it means signing away fifty percent of an improbable future, then so be it. We are told this is a standard contract, and as none of us has ever seen a publishing contract before, we look suitably grateful, hoping this is a significant step toward realizing our dream (Sting 2003: 184-185).

For struggling musicians, publishing deals signal serious industry interest, typically backed by some amount of money up front in the form of a publishing advance. Yet the whiff of exploitation that Sting sniffed as early as 1976, explained below to his Last Exit bandmates (with artistic license to foreshadow events 20 years later), bears consideration.

“What do you think, Terry?”

“About what?”

“About the fucking contract.”

“I don’t know, what do you think, Sting?”

“Well, I was just imagining that in six years’ time, say, after we’ve sold millions of records all over the known world, that fifty-fifty deal will translate into millions and millions of pounds for Virgin Publishing, unearned, mind you, apart from a few donated hours in Pathway Studios. And we’ll have to sue Richard Branson in the high court, at great personal expense, in order to regain our most valuable copyrights.”

“Fuck off, Sting,” says Gerry, exasperated (Sting 2003: 187).

Was a demo recording session really all that Wilson offered Sting and his bandmates? Clearly she discovered his talents before anyone else did. She not only encouraged but assisted Sting’s move to London; fault for the break-up of Last Exit upon this great leap lies on the band’s collective shoulders, not hers, as Sting acknowledges. Arriving in London practically penniless with wife and baby, Sting recalls the assistance Wilson gave in their frustrating search for a flat:

Freddy asks what it is we do. She’s intrigued that Frances is an actress, but Carol Wilson has instructed me not to tell her I’m a musician, so I say that I’m a copyright executive with a giddying bogus salary of five thousand pounds a year. This subterfuge seems to have worked successfully for other musicians trying to put a roof over their heads, and indeed Freddy says she will recommend us to the landlord tomorrow, and if we can send our salary details and a reference she can’t foresee any problems (Sting 2003: 236).

Mike Howlett told me Wilson’s efforts went further:

Carol persuaded them to come down [to London] and she helped put up the money for a deposit on a basement flat just off Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill. And we helped him move in. I remember carrying a carpet around the corner, you know, and did all that. He’d come around sometimes and actually cat sit when we went away for a couple of days. You know, feeding the cats and all that.

Howlett’s own contributions to Sting’s struggling career was also crucial. Not only did he set to tape a solo Sting recording of “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” back in 1976, but in seeking his own success with a new band, Howlett hired Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland, Sting’s new collaborator in what was then a rather shaky punk band called the Police.

The final ingredient came when Howlett secured an old acquaintance for his new group. Andy Summers was a veteran of London’s late 60s psychedelic scene (in the band Dantalion’s Chariot) and had supported Gong a few years previously as guitarist in Kevin Coyne’s band. Summers had just returned from Big Sur when he ran into Howlett at a party in the Maida Vale apartment belonging to one Lady Jane, where Robert Wyatt had fallen off the balcony in 1973 and become a paraplegic three years before. Howlett described their reunion:

And I said, “Well, what are you doing?” He said, “Oh, I’ve been in California for the last two years. I’ve been studying classical guitar.” And I said, “Oh what are you doing now?” He said, “I don’t know. It’s like I’ve come back, and it’s gone crazy, man. It’s like Sex Pistols and The Clash and the kids are ripping out old theaters, and I don’t know what’s going on.” And I said, “Well, I’m doing this demo for my stuff for Virgin. Do you want to play on it?” He said, “Yeah, alright!”

Howlett named his group Strontium 90, which prominently debuted at a Gong reunion concert in Paris on May 28, 1977. “The whole day, a one-day thing, starting with Tim, the synthesizer player, then we were on, Strontium 90,” Howlett recalls. “So each one of us had a band — and Hillage had his Steve Hillage Band by then. At the end of the day, we did a traditional Gong set to complete it all.” Strontium 90 changed their name to the Elevators and soldiered on in a couple of London nightclub gigs:

And they weren’t fun. They were frustrating. It was like five quid each, anyway, and Andy was always moaning about the money, and Stewart was obviously kind of very defensive and thought that — still does think that — I was trying to steal Sting from him, you know? I’m like, “What are you talking about? You know, I found the bastard” … It felt wrong. And I still see Simon Draper from time to time, and he always, never fails to say, “I can’t believe I didn’t sign that band.” But it was obviously ‘77, it was the Sex Pistols and the Clash. And look at us, it was me old hippy band, Gong, and Stewart’s ex-old hippy/proggy band, Curved Air, and Andy’s 60s bluesy, blues/proggy bands, and Sting, a nobody from Newcastle and from a proggy band, anyway. I mean, it really didn’t look current and vogue. Even though I was only 27, but you know, way past it obviously.

The rest is history. Sting, Copeland and Summers would take their leave from Strontium 90. At Summers’ insistence, the other two would jettison novice guitarist Henry Padovani from the Police. Within two years’ time, Sting’s publishing would yield Virgin Music a steady, substantial income, even as the Police signed to record for A&M Records, securing Wilson’s status as a money-making team player for Virgin with a keen set of ears. By then she would also have signed the publishing for punk trailblazers the Buzzcocks (who recorded for another label, EMI) and later acclaimed postpunk groups debuting on Virgin Records like Magazine (whose frontman Howard Devoto had escaped the Buzzcocks’ original publishing contract) and the Human League. The label on Magazine’s 1978 debut album Real Life bears mark the Virgin group’s 1-2 punch on the punk and new wave scene: “© Virgin Music (Publishers) LTD ℗ Virgin Records Ltd”. Yet for her managing role and entrepreneurial creativity, Wilson receives little credit in the official Virgin history — e.g., one name-check in Branson’s Losing My Virginity, and no mention at all in Terry Southern’s (1996) coffeetable book Virgin: A History of Virgin Records.


Next: organising DinDisc.



1. in the beginning: Virgin Music and Carol Wilson
2. “Wilson’s dowry”: Sting and Strontium 90
3. organising DinDisc
4. DIN 1, DIN 2, DIN 3: the Revillos, OMD, Peter Saville, Duggie Campbell
5. “a bunch of Canadians from the colonies”: Martha and the Muffins, Martha Ladly, Nash the Slash
6. the Monochrome Set, Dedringer, Modern Eon, Hot Gossip
7. the end of DinDisc