“You know, I used to be a schoolteacher in Newcastle…what the fuck happened to me?” – that was part of Sting’s stage banter at the Police’s reunion show in Milwaukee, and it has got to be the most tone-deaf thing I’ve ever heard a musician say in person. I mean, just that day I had read an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting that The Police’s tour would be among the top ten highest grossing tours of all time. And yet, here was Sting, a man whose band was the one of the most viciously promoted in A&M history, selling 75 million albums and winning every award in the book, telling a sold-out crowd, each of whom paid nearly $70 a ticket, some of whom may even still be current schoolteachers, telling us that somehow his life had gone awry.
What, did you expect modesty? The man owns a castle, for Christ’s sakes. The Police, much like The Beatles before them, broke up at the peak of their success, thanks to the oft-documented fact that Sting and Stewart Copeland simply could not get along. This is probably due to the fast that the group was steadily becoming a vehicle for Sting – while they were every bit the power trio in 1979, their final album Synchronicity was basically half a Sting solo album, and their final tour featured backup singers and a setlist that included none of the other members’ songs. You have to figure that Sting won most of those battles, simply by virtue of being able to say “Scoreboard!” – not only was he the singer, but he wrote most of the band’s material, including all 12 of the hits featured on the massively successful compilation Every Breath You Take: The Singles.
Implicit in all this was the knowledge that Sting’s solo career was the only one that was going to take off. Copeland wound up doing mostly soundtrack work while Summers’ solo career mostly consisted of instrumental jazz-rock albums; quality stuff in both of them (particularly Copeland’s, who it turns out may have been the architect of the Police’s mid-period sound), but nothing you’d ever hear on the radio. Sting’s solo stuff, on the other hand, is well-known and much-despised. It’s often lumped in with say, the career of Phil Collins, and yet “In the Air Tonight” seems more relevant than the entirety of Sting’s solo catalogue. Certainly there are some real gems in there, but it’s not exactly befitting of the man who penned the majority of those five excellent Police albums. His most egregious sin of course was his obsession with sophistication, pursuing styles of music he felt were more cultured, such as jazz, blues, or straight-up adult contemporary (or, anything with a damn clarinet), at the expense of anything hooky or fun or even remotely energetic. He wanted to be a capital-M Musician and made sure you damn knew it. In the liner notes to his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, there’s a remark that part of “Russians” was borrowed from Prokofiev, with a tiny music staff demonstrating exactly which notes he took, the implication that music guys would look at it and say, “ah yes, that’s the melody” (of course, if you listen to “Russians” it’s very clear exactly which part he took). Another song begins with one of the band members asking “What key is this in? Wait! What key is it in?”…hah, those jazz guys, always shooting from the hip, am I right?
For Sting it was just another step on the path to true artistic enlightenment, the quest for something more than “Message in a Bottle”, a something he never really found, but then again most musicians really don’t. Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson went down this path too, now remembered by many with that painful descriptor, “well, his early stuff is really great”. For Sting, the first step was to recruit musicians more talented than he, the same formula that worked so well for The Police. He wound up with Omar Hakim, Darryl Jones, Kenny Kirkland, and one of the Marsalis brothers, giving himself a group full of 30-something veteran jazz players. The Dream of the Blue Turtles did have a distinct jazzrock vibe to it, though only one cut where they sound like more than Sting’s backup band – a remake of “Shadows in the Rain”. The problem is that Sting’s songwriting at this point was starting to become world-weary and depressing, doubling down on the direction he took Synchronicity, and a jazz band of this caliber was capable of so much more than just adding clarinet solos to everything.
That takes us to Bring on the Night, a 2-LP live album, as well as a documentary chronicling the formation and lead-up to the band’s first show (especially reveling in the idea that a white Englishman pop star would – gasp! – round up a bunch of black American jazz musicians – how bold, how revolutionary! That Sting, always trying to knock down borders, calling out music industry racism as he tells six black performers more talented than himself how he’d like things done…). The first thing you’ll probably notice about this one is the strange tracklisting – in an odd move for a megastar, the album contains none of Sting’s most well-known songs, instead focusing on the Turtles album tracks, some of the Police’s better deep cuts (“Bring on the Night”, “Driven to Tears”, “Demolition Man”), B-Sides (“Low Life”, “Another Day”), soundtrack contributions (“I Burn For You”), and a cover (“I Been Down So Long”). In addition, there are three medleys, all of which give the band room to stretch out. This is a good thing, as Sting and The Police’s hits are all overplayed anyway, and many of these songs are also great – if nothing else, good idea to get “I Burn For You” on one of his actual albums, as it’s got to be one of the best songs he ever wrote.
Opener “Bring on the Night/When The World is Running Down” is a great example of all that is possible with such a band. Neither song was particularly upbeat to begin with, but this ensemble makes it so, dedicating more time to grooving and soloing than the actual song bits. Kenny Kirkland takes a long solo (even by jazz standards), but it’s fantastic, after which Branford Marsalis raps a couple verses (much less fantastic, but hey, it was 1986), followed by a call-and-response by the backup singers – for once Sting just seems like another dude on stage, even going as far to give over the bass duties to Darryl Jones in exchange for some buried rhythm guitar. The implication is that he’s got sidemen and he’s not afraid to use them, freeing him up in a way he hasn’t been since the early days of The Police (where a mid-song jam in “Can’t Stand Losing You” could become something as excellent as “Reggatta de Blanc”).
Or so you’d think. They don’t really play so fast n’ loose with the songs after that. Sure, all the Police songs are reworked; expanded, livened up, reimagined, with later-period tunes like “Tea in the Sahara” or “I Burn For You” likely reaching the potential that Sting imagined for them in the first place. In addition, Sting sounds noticeably different than he did on the Police recordings, losing some of his higher register, sounding instead like a lounge singer in a smoky bar. The Blue Turtles songs don’t get that treatment, as this was the band they were recorded by in the first place, but the songs do get a bit more spring in their step (“We Work The Black Seam”, “Consider Me Gone”). So, all positive then? For the most part yes, though there are some missteps – the medley of “One World” and “Love is the Seventh Wave” actually is a lot of fun, even if is has some pretty strong “Under the Sea” vibes that threaten to deflate the whole thing. Alas, it spoils things by vamping on for way too long in the end. The rest of disc 2 is filled with more downcast, reflective material; the sort that was his strong suit in those days, begging the question – can’t the upbeat, happy-go-lucky Sting and the serious, save-the-world Sting exist at the same time? That’s a balance the Police pulled off on Zenyatta Mondatta and Ghost in the Machine, but here there seems to be that overwhelming urge to keep things tasteful.
Still, those are kind of tick-tacky comments, as this is a really great live album, and almost certainly his best solo album. I compare this to Disc 2 of The Police’s Live!! double set, a 1984 show that featured backup singers and a number of developments that nerf much of the band’s strongest material, and think that this is indeed what the guy had in mind. The idea that this is some sort of big leap into the jazz pool is overblown; it’s pop music with a jazzy side, but it’s some of the most sophisticated music of Sting’s career, and the performances are nothing short of phenomenal, reaching a level The Police really couldn’t (what, you think Stew could play like that live?). It’s so good that you can almost forgive Sting for breaking up The Police, if only we didn’t know how his career would turn out after this. For as great as this band was, they didn’t stick – Marsalis and Kirkland would play on subsequent albums, but to a much reduced role, and all traces of this band were gone by the time of Sting’s big AOR smash hit Ten Summoner’s Tales. Granted, he wasn’t exactly putting out garbage, not until Mercury Falling anyway, but once he dissolved the band with it went the last real point of interest in his work. From there came the Sting we all know and don’t really love; what the fuck happened to him?