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He's Come Unstung

Sting's path from edgy innovator to mush generator

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"A lot of people have very extreme views about me, either positive or negative. But I'm allowed the freedom to exist between those poles."

-- Sting, in a recent "Weekly Quote" on Sting.com

It is said that after a bee hunkers down on you, injects its poisonous barb, and flies away, the creature soon catches its death. You're left with a sting, but the animal is left stingerless: therefore, harmless, helpless, without a reason to live. You, the stingee, go on about your day-to-day life -- a little sore, maybe, but none the worse for wear.

Some people, however, have an adverse reaction. They swell up, they get sick as a dog, and they curse the very day the encountered the plucky little insect in the first place.

Gordon Sumner -- known popularly as "Sting" -- draws much the same range of emotions from people. While acknowledging that he's written some of the better songs of the last 25 years -- "Roxanne," "Message in a Bottle," "Don't Stand So Close to Me" and "Fortress Around Your Heart," to name a few -- some people feel cheated by the Stinger's last 15 years of recorded history. Even though, as leader of The Police -- one of the top two or three big-label bands of the 1980s -- he was responsible for more than his share of musical cross-pollination, many early Sting and Police listeners feel a palpable bitterness toward the man today.

Of course, the familial love a fan gives an artist can never really be returned by the star, but the best ones help us survive the heartbreak by cranking out enough great art to salve our wounds. To many, though, it seems that Sting doesn't even try, preferring to coast comfortably with his VH1-meets-Bob James take on jazzy soft rock (to place his "timeliness" into perspective, consider that his last album proper came out before the whole Y2K fiasco), while spending the rest of his time cavorting in his Wiltshire, England, castle as his servants take care of the messy old "day-to-day."

Granted, this isn't a life most of us would turn down. And with a fortune estimated at close to $100 million, Mr. Sumner probably doesn't have to play a note the rest of his life if he doesn't want to. But all that money can work two ways. The rich artist can look at the satchels of cash and decide what-the-hey and proceed to make interesting, challenging music that stirs his or her very soul -- or else decide that hey, I rather like this standard of living thankyouverymuch and aim the wheels of the Jaguar straight for the middle of the road, the better to hit everybody.

So has the fat lady stung for Gordon Sumner, or does the bee still have another Sting up his sleeve? First, we need to take a look back. Before there was the bee, there was the buzz.

The Police were perhaps the best radio-ready post-punk band to emerge from the late 70s, playing angular, polyrhythmic music with a decided, reggae-dub edge. Unlike most of their punk and reggae forebears, all three members were proficient, even inspired musicians. Sting's high voice, non-traditional bass playing and way with a melody suggested McCartney. Guitarist Andy Summers's jazz background and dense, mechanical fretboard runs were virtually unheard of at the time, and would go on to influence other guitarists including U2's The Edge. Stewart Copeland, like his two bandmates, also came from a jazz background, and his playing, while mathematical, never sounded formulaic.

Formed in 1977, the band played pubs for their first few months together before being hired to appear as a bleached-blonde "punk" band in a commercial for chewing gum. The commercial gave the fledgling band a good bit of exposure, but earned the everlasting scorn of many hardcore punkers, who accused the band -- nearly instantaneously -- of "selling out." (The move established a precedent for the band, one that has continued in Sting's solo career -- most notably, in a cross-promoted Jaguar music video/television commercial that helped save Sting's 1999 Brand New Day from dropping off the charts. See John Schacht's accompanying story.)

The band signed with A&M Records in the spring of 1978, and by fall had released their debut record, Outlandos D'Amour. The album floundered at first, but a re-release of the first single, "Roxanne," brought the band to the charts for the first time.

The first single from 1979's Regatta de Blanc, "Message in a Bottle," was an American and British hit upon its release, and the band toured tirelessly both domestically and abroad, even including touchdowns in non-traditional rock destinations like Mexico, Thailand, India and Egypt.

Flush with creative energy, the band then released Zenyatta Mondatta in the fall of 1980. Featuring the American Top 10 singles "Don't Stand So Close To Me" and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da," the album allowed the Police to pack arenas across America, thanks to the record's near-constant airplay.

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