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Sting

+ {Last Exit}

A man with a bit of a reputation as a do-gooder; but surely that can’t be a bad thing, singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/actor/activist STING has left himself open to ridicule – not that it would bother the man, or indeed his bank manager. Thing is, in recent times, his renaissance/classical leanings have steered towards pompous self-indulgence, and a million miles away from why fans were endeared to his POLICE work and initial solo outings. That said, his classy songs from `Roxanne’ and `Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ to `Englishman In New York’ and `Fields Of Gold’, are literate pop staples and career highlights.
Born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, 2nd October 1951, Wallsend, North Tyneside, the budding singer/bassist went from primary school teacher by day to moonlighting jazzateer with local groups by night; the Phoenix Jazzmen and the Newcastle Big Band preceded his stepping stone to fame, LAST EXIT, a jazz-fusion quartet who issued one single, `Whispering Voices’, in 1975. STING’s nickname was given to him by bandleader Gordon Solomon in honour of his famous black and yellow hooped T-shirt. When LAST EXIT moved south to London, the writing was on the wall for STING and the band’s main writer Gerry Richardson, who’d both take day jobs to supplement their musical ambitions; Sumner enrolled with RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and began occasional TV ad work.
Early in ‘77, STING joined up with American drummer STEWART COPELAND and Corsican-born guitarist Henry Padovani to form The POLICE, and with one only initial change, veteran ANDY SUMMERS for Henry, the proceeding seven years secured the trio as one of the world’s top rock-pop combos. From 1978’s “Outlandos D’Amour” to 1983’s “Synchronicity”, The POLICE couldn’t put a foot wrong – but the inevitable hiatus projects swayed the band into finally breaking ranks officially in ’86.
During his time in the custody of The POLICE, Sumner’s thespian ambitions came to the fore; his first major screen role was as top mod bod, Ace Face, in the 1979 film version of PETE TOWNSHEND’s Quadrophenia. This was followed by a part in early Wim Wenders production, Radio On (1980), to whose unreleased soundtrack he also contributed. Yet it was his work on Dennis Potter’s malevolently brilliant black comedy, BRIMSTONE & TREACLE (1982) {*5}, which remained among the man’s more memorable early cinematic endeavours. While the 1976 original (starring Michael Kitchen) was banned by the BBC, not making it to the screen until over a decade later, Richard Loncraine’s 1982 remake starred STING in a convincingly demonic lead role. His soundtrack contributions effectively represented his first bona fide solo efforts, even spawning a UK Top 20 single in the wonderfully warped, George Gershwin ditty `Spread A Little Happiness’; sadly his marriage to actress, Frances Tomelty, ended in divorce in March 1984.
Following a part in David Lynch’s big budget sci-fi effort, Dune (1984), STING released his first solo long player, THE DREAM OF THE BLUE TURTLES (1985) {*8}. Employing such noted American musicians as BRANFORD MARSALIS, Darryl Jones, Kenny Kirkland and WEATHER REPORT’s Omar Hakim, the singer crafted an endearing set of jazz-influenced, infectiously off-kilter pop songs, highlights being the gas-lit noir of `Moon Over Bourbon Street’ and three relatively minor hit singles, `If You Love Somebody Set Them Free’, `Love Is The Seventh Wave’ and `Fortress Around Your Heart’. Boosted by its biggest UK hit, `Russians’, the record was a Transatlantic Top 3 entry.
After starting out as a jazz bassist and flirting with it several times with The POLICE, it was only natural that STING would release a jazz-orientated album. The Michael Apted-directed documentary, BRING ON THE NIGHT (1986) {*6} is that album, a live one at that, and is the veritable hit and miss attempt. There are some neat tunes on the set, mostly when the band retain the focus of a 4-to-5 minute song (no song is shorter than four minutes) and incorporate some of the African and Latin flavours which characterised much of STING’s solo career. Songs such as `Consider Me Gone’, the aforementioned `Moon Over Bourbon Street’ and `Down So Long’ are excellent and showcase STING’s skills as a songwriter and arranger. However, on the medleys (three in all) and some of the more expansive tracks, the band and their arrangements lose their tightness, succumbing to some chronic bouts of overindulgence, which lets the album down severely. There is also a sense that this is more about showing off STING as someone who can “do” jazz, with the focus on him, rather than just trying to make a great album.
In tandem with his new superstar solo status, STING continued to develop his acting career, taking a part in Meryl Streep vehicle, Plenty (1985) and starring roles in Franc Roddam’s slated Frankenstein update, The Bride (1985) and Italian thriller, Julia And Julia (1987). 1985 also saw him duet/co-write on singles `Money For Nothing’ by DIRE STRAITS and `Long Way To Go’ by PHIL COLLINS; STING also guested on MILES DAVIS’ album, “You’re Under Arrest” and was another one of the stellar stars on Band Aid and Live Aid.
Again featuring Branford, in addition to contributions from such luminaries as ERIC CLAPTON, MARK KNOPFLER, GIL EVANS and former POLICE colleague, ANDY SUMMERS, …NOTHING LIKE THE SUN (1987) {*8} was a largely introspective, instrumentally dextrous collection dedicated to the singer’s recently departed mother. An `Englishman In New York’ was quintessential STING, a wry observation on cultural disparity, while the likes of `Fragile’ (and a version of HENDRIX’s `Little Wing’) saw his work take on a more self-consciously political hue alongside contemporaries like U2 and SIMPLE MINDS. Indeed, most of ‘89 saw the singer campaigning for Brazilian rainforest projects, STING also championing the efforts of Amnesty International. Commendable as all this was, many factions of the music press gave the singer a roasting for what they perceived as an often lofty and self-righteous attitude; U2’s Bono also coming in for similar flak.
In between humanitarian efforts on behalf of Brazilian Indians, STING had returned to his native Newcastle for a starring role in Mike Figgis’ directorial debut, Stormy Monday (1988), and appeared in Terry Gilliam’s fantastical follow-up, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1989). Brushing aside criticism, STING eventually returned to recording with THE SOUL CAGES (1991) {*7}, a sombre affair informed this time around by the death of his father. Again retaining MARSALIS, STING also employed folk player, KATHRYN TICKELL, her Northumbrian pipes adding to the often bleak atmospherics. Despite its dearth of hit singles (only `All This Time’ reached Top 30 status), the album gave STING his second UK No.1 in succession. He wed Trudie Styler in August ’92; they’ve since had four children.
The markedly more upbeat TEN SUMMONER’S TALES (1993) {*8} was as a strong a set of songs as STING had yet penned, while the record spawned three of his most enduring Top 30 singles in `It’s Probably Me’ (credited with ERIC CLAPTON), `If I Ever Lose My Faith In You’ and the pastoral beauty of `Fields Of Gold’. Later that year, the singer was back in the upper reaches of the singles chart with the theme tune to the film, Demolition Man, and a three-way collaboration with BRYAN ADAMS and ROD STEWART on the vomit-inducing `All My Love’ (the theme from The Three Musketeers).
STING duly attempted a country/reggae crossover together with PATO BANTON on `This Cowboy Song’, an exclusive track culled from 1994’s “best of/greatest hits” package. With his Grammy-winning recording career again reaching new heights, it’d be 1995 before the former POLICE chief starred in another feature film, namely black comedy, The Grotesque; the unfolding of the docu-film OST, THE LIVING SEA (1995) {*4}, went almost unnoticed.
Not exactly the most prolific of artists, STING’s next release was the disappointing Top 5 album, MERCURY FALLING (1996) {*5}, a record building on melody, but suffocating from sophistication and a synthy production; still, `Let Me Be Your Pilot’, `You Still Touch Me’ and `I was Brought To My Senses’ all eased coolly into the UK charts. A part in Guy Ritchie’s celebrated Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998) found “Get Sting” in gangster territory once again, albeit in London’s East End rather than Newcastle, while the new millennium found him returning briefly to film scoring, sharing co-billing for nature documentary, DOLPHINS (2000) {*4} – with Steve Wood – and as lyricist on Disney animation, The Emperor’s New Groove.
As well as being something of an older guy sex symbol, STING continued to court controversy, the day’s comments on the benefits of Ecstasy coming under particular scrutiny. Aside from his celluloid work, BRAND NEW DAY (1999) {*6}, was a slight return to his more conventional pop songwriting days, the Top 5 album featuring a title track hit that was certainly his finest number for a long time – it’s now used on a TV ad.
At a tender time for the world, and especially inhabitants of New York, September 11, 2001 was initially pencilled in for STING and a group of musicians to perform live in his house. When terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers occurred that day, all parties concerned were asked if they wanted to continue with their plan. All said yes, and to mark the tragic event, …ALL THIS TIME {*6} was released a few months later. A DVD was also issued; it’s basically his greatest hits under a live setting.
STING’s first fresh album for five years, SACRED LOVE (2003) {*5}, meanwhile, summarily failed to build on the creative rediscovery of its predecessor despite – or perhaps because of – the presence of such credible guests as Vicente Amigo, Anoushka Shankar (daughter of Ravi) and MARY J. BLIGE, preening itself on sheen over content; the latter act’s clout failing to win over singles buyers for their collaborative `Whenever I Say Your Name’ single.
Having narrated Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale way back in ‘88 (issued incidentally on his own Pangaea label), and writing a score for the documentary about Quentin Crisp, entitled Crisp City, STING’s classical credentials matched that of his jazz gyrations when SONGS FROM THE LABYRINTH {*6} surfaced in 2006. A great leap back in time to renaissance 16th/17th century, STING played the part of minstrel and narrator of the works of lute-player John Dowland. Scuppered only by the once high-pitched singer’s return to POLICE duty (the trio played a lucrative spell of live-arena shows between May 2007-August 2008), IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT… (2009) {*4} and songbook-twisting SYMPHONICITIES (2010) {*6}. As with ELVIS COSTELLO, PAUL McCARTNEY and others taking the classical/operatic route, golden oldie executives could again appreciate many of his re-imaginings on the live CD/DVD, LIVE IN BERLIN (2010) {*6}, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. All high-brow stuff from the son of a milkman!
With the whole world it seemed trying their hand at folk music, STING rekindled his re-found Geordie vernacular – and others from a Celtic connection – on transatlantic Top 20 set, THE LAST SHIP (2013) {*7}, his theatrical paean to his hometown. Augmented by kinfolk Geordies, JIMMY NAIL, Becky Unthank and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, the canny lad from the north sculpted his own take on the life of a docker. Acting was always part of Sumner’s make-up, and in songs like `Dead Man’s Boots’, `The Night The Pugilist Learned How To Dance’, `What Have We Got?’ (with big “Spender” NAIL) and the title track, STING seize the day and set sail on a brave voyage that other mere mortals would’ve found themselves to be swimming against the tide.
Abandoning his austere, esoteric approach to modern music, his first foray back into the bright lights of pop-rock came about on November 2016’s 57TH & 9TH {*7}. Marking his 65th year on planet Earth and honourably promoted live-in-concert at the Bataclan via the first anniversary of the Paris terrorist atrocities, STING’s comeback was worthy of its place in the Top 20. While the set’s themes had a retrospective feel (the riffs of `I Can’t Stop Thinking About You’, `Petrol Head’ and `If You Can’t Love’ reminiscent of POLICE songs), the singer installed the alt-rock clout of guitarist Lyle Workman and drummer Josh Freese. Somehow, it all worked well. Possibly afterthoughts by way of his “Last Ship” tales, the folk-y `Pretty Young Soldier’ and `Heading South On The Great North Road’ were oceans apart from the autumnal and amiable `Inshallah’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/CW-LCS // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Nov2016

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