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30 Years Ago: Sting Finds His Groove With a New Band on ‘Bring on the Night’

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Restless in the Police, Sting did something that came naturally: He shook things up.

At first, that meant gathering a series of world-class jazz musicians to record a solo debut, then inviting a film crew to document the band’s genesis. This same kind of gumption once led Sting to abandon a reliable career in teaching, “because I knew exactly what lay ahead for me. I could almost see what I was going to look like. I prefer not knowing what’s around the corner.”

Sting made those comments in Bring on the Night, the 1985 film directed by Michael Apted of Coal Miner’s Daughter fame. An accompanying album didn’t arrive until July 31, 1986, and – though it shared the same name – digs deeper into what came next after Sting’s risky move.

“One morning I had a whim: Wouldn’t it be a great idea to do a film about starting a new band,” Sting told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1985. “But it became a reality very quickly. Before I could tell everyone it was just a joke, there were 120 people around us and we were spending all this money – somebody else’s money. And I felt responsible, which is why I look so worried in the first part of the film.”

The original movie focused on preparations for and their appearance in a Paris debut concert, and it pointedly avoided including any complete renditions of the songs. Bring on the Night, as an album, reaches past those early 1985 shows well into the winter months. By the time they reached in Rome, Arnhem and Paris (on a return trip), Sting and company had played more than 80 shows together. Only two of the album’s 13 tracks were earlier featured in Apted’s documentary.

Gone, then, was the film’s inherent tension as Sting’s career veered away from Police drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers. So too were the tentativeness that surrounded his initial collaborations with a mixture of all African-American musicians. They included Darryl Jones, then of Miles Davis fame; drummer Omar Hakim, of Weather Report; vocalists Dolette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis, veterans of tours with the Police and the Talking Heads; and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who’d both been working with Branford’s brother Wynton Marsalis.

At this point, they’d become more than a new set of collaborators; they’d become a working group. Offering a collection of songs from The Dream of the Blue Turtles, Sting’s studio debut, and a sprinkling of choice Police songs – several of them completely reimagined deep cuts – Bring on the Night pushed hard at rock’s outer boundaries, finding a new jazz-inflected paradigm.

“Playing with them has been good for me,” Sting told the Sun-Sentinel in 1985. “They bring an ease to the music that I don’t have. Music, for me, is difficult. I’ve always had to churn it out laboriously. Also, I am a pretty defensive person. I don’t give easily. They have a spontaneity that I lack in my own life. They help me let it out.”

Listen to Sting Perform ‘Burn for You’

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Many of Sting’s oldest fans were confounded, as were his backing band’s core jazz constituency. Bring on the Night represented something in between, and in some cases it split opinion. That, as always, seemed fine with Sting – whose most lingering fear seemed then, as now, to be reaching stasis.

“When I decided to do a solo album, I had three choices,” Sting told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I could have done it alone, but I didn’t need to make such a personal statement. Or I could have just gone out and hired musicians to back me up. The third way was to form a new band. And that seemed to be the most natural, organic thing to do. The racial mix was accidental. I didn’t set out to hire all black musicians, but when I realized what was happening, I knew it was going to make an interesting clash.”

In discussing this new direction, Sting was quick to to say that he didn’t think the rock music industry was racist. “Inertia is more like it,” he told the Sun-Sentinel. “It’s so easy to label musicians black or white; it makes it easier for the people who do advertising, the people who program radio. But it doesn’t make it easy for the musicians.”

Free of convention, they eventually ran past the wide-open vistas of jazz improvisation, too. Their brand of reggae was rootsier than anything the Police had mustered, but they also pulled in elements of calypso, world music and pop. Stereotypes fell with each passing song, and Sting kept charging ahead.

Marsalis recalled a particularly uncomfortable performance at the MTV Music Awards. “While we were playing I looked out at the audience, at all those record executives,” he told the Sun-Sentinel. You could just see the dislike on their faces, dislike of what we were doing. But no music survives in a vacuum. Musicians must take from each other or they stagnate. That’s why I’m working with Sting. His music has melody and something to say.”

Sting’s desire to avoid standing pat also meant that Bring on the Night marked the end of an era. When 1987’s Nothing Like the Sun arrived, only Marsalis, Kirkland and the singers McDonald and Pendarvis returned as studio collaborators. They were all gone by 1993’s Ten Summoner’s Tales.

“I’m in the business of kicks. I’ve achieved everything I can with the Police, and there is nothing else for me to do there,” Sting told the Sun-Sentinel. “Rock and roll tends toward giantism. But after a while, you get nothing but diminishing returns. Which is why I’m always looking for new things to do.”

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Next: Does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Need Two Stings?

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