Does the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Need Two Stings?
Recently the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced their 2015 nominees, and Sting made their list as a solo artist. He's already in the Hall as a member of the Police, which begs the question: Does the Hall of Fame need two Stings?
Every year's list is contentious, but back in 2003 the Hall got it right when they inducted nature's most perfect indie band as soon as they were eligible. The Police, an indie band? From our vantage point, it's hard to think of Sting and his former band playing for five people in a bar or sharing rooms at a Motel 6, but that's where it all began.
Well, it really began in 1976, when a school teacher named Mr. Sumner used to head down to the local clubs on evenings and weekends to jam a little jazz bass. Within a year, he grew a bit restless, packed his gear and moved to London. There he met Stewart Copeland and Henry Padovani, and together they formed the Police's first lineup.
London 1977 was one of those perfect marriages of time and place in music history: the Damned, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers; Bromley Contingent hangers on like Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux were busily plotting their transitions from audience to stage.
A lot was happening. Energy and attitude were everywhere, the DIY ethos of a true indie scene was in full bloom. Talent wasn't always abundant, though. Three chords and a few safety pins occasionally substituted for competence, much like how Hunger Dunger Dang vocals stood in for grunge vocal chops post-Eddie Vedder.
So that's the setting in which a talented singer/bassist, a brilliant polyrhythmic drummer, and their soon to be replaced guitarist dropped their debut single, 'Fall Out.' The record was released on a tiny label named Illegal Records, owned by drummer Copeland and his brother Miles.
It's a tasty cut, fast and muscular, with Sting's almost scatted lyrics skipping across the surface like a polished stone:
A year later and with permanent guitarist, Andy Summers, in place, the debut album 'Outlandos d'Amour' established the Police as both of and beyond the new wave. Their musicianship was too tight, their songwriting too perfect. Just look at the first three tracks on 'Outlandos': 'So Lonely,' 'Next to You' and 'Roxanne.' Most songwriters would give their right treble clef to write just one of those cuts during their entire career, and that's just the three opening tracks on the band's debut album.
Copeland and Summers both were and remain exceptional players. Take away Copeland's distinct drumming or Summers's washes of guitar synthesizer and the Police sound vanishes. But up front there was Sting with his tasteful bass lines, potent voice and the stage presence of a dozen front men combined. Everybody thought Sting was cool, no matter what kind of music they were into. I'm convinced you could've sat down with the Pope in 1978 and he'd tell you, "I am just a humble monk who knows nothing of this modern and confusing world ... but Sting rocks."
Over the next five years the Police took over the world.
Over the next five years the Police took over the world. By the mid-80s the band was as far from a self-released indie single as a band could get. They were huge in a way that bands just can't accomplish anymore, filling stadiums, flooding radio and television, and selling records by the truckload.
In the six short years between 'Fall Out' and 1983's monster, 'Synchronicity,' the Police claimed their rightful crowns as the biggest band in the world. Few bands are more deserving of their spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And that brings us to Sting 2. Solo Sting. Lute Sting. The Cassettes in Your Mom's Van Sting.
When 'Dream of the Blue Turtles' dropped in 1985, no loyal Police fan expected a jazzy adult contemporary record, but the King of Pain backed himself up with some serious jazz and studio musicians on his solo debut. Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and Darryl Jones were as tight as they come and the music was fine -- it just wasn't rock and roll. The title cut earned a Grammy nomination for best jazz instrumental, for crying out loud.
The live vibe was different, too. I caught Sting twice on that tour, and both times he hushed the rowdy crowd so that Marsalis and he could lay down a mellow 'Moon Over Bourbon Street.'
Sting wasn't ours anymore. He belonged to the grown-ups now.
In 1987 when everyone was sticking a rap break in the bridge or sampling James Brown, Sting chose instead to quote a Shakespeare sonnet for 'Nothing Like the Sun.' His sophomore solo album stripped away the jazz pretense, leaving nothing but middle of the road Dockers shakers. I tried hard to defend his version of 'Little Wing,' arguing that collaborator Gil Evans was a friend of Jimi Hendrix, but my heart just wasn't in it.
From there, it's a 25 year slide into softer and more self-indulgent albums that I'm sure were great outlets for Sting, but were in no way rock and roll. I get the impression that he may consider that a compliment rather than a criticism.
I hope so, because that isn't a jab -- at least not at Sting. No rule book states that if you come out of the gate with a 'Fall Out' and follow it with five genre-shaping albums, you're required to fly the new wave banner for the rest of your career. Some musicians choose that path, and that's cool. Others, like Henry Rollins for example, would rather retire with some dignity rather than make the same record over and over.
And then there are the Sting 2s, the artists who grow up and reinvent themselves, put away their childish things and start writing for the middle of the road.
That's okay, too.
But rock and roll is all about childish things. It's the big hooks and killer riffs and epic choruses that make kids feel, if just for a moment, that someone understands them. It's the subject of school girl fantasy, a declaration that every little thing she does is magic, the desperate plea to be next to you.
That is the Sting who belongs in an institution with "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame" stenciled on the door. Sting 2 is someone else entirely. Whether Sting 2's music is good, bad, or award-worthy is irrelevant. It simply isn't rock and roll, nor did it expand the broad palette of rock music like Sting 1's former band did.
So no, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does not need two Stings. There are dozens of overlooked rock artists more appropriate for the Hall. Some of them even play the lute.