With a lengthy catalogue of soft rock and adult contemporary hits, it’s easy to make jokes about Sting as the ultimate background music artist. (And scoff all you want: the guy makes at least $2,000 per day off of one song.) But for a performer who’s known as both the center of attention and a lone wolf – bright blonde hair and one name will do that – the man born Gordon Sumner has had his share of guest appearances since going solo over a quarter-century ago. What’s more, he seems to be far more comfortable with nestling himself into the background of a featured tune than one might think.
Having recently celebrated his 60th birthday (which was just yesterday) with a star-studded concert and a wildly expensive box set, the time seemed right to call off The Police – for now, anyway – and pay homage to The Very Guest Of…Sting.
PHIL COLLINS – “Long, Long Way to Go” / “Take Me Home” (1985)
In 1985, Sting and Phil Collins were two of British pop’s most notable frontmen, both carving respectable niches as solo artists away from The Police and Genesis, respectively. Collins, in particular, was having quite a year, performing at both Live Aid shows in Philadelphia and London and releasing his most commercially successful album, No Jacket Required, later that year. The disc was loaded with singles, and one of the best was “Take Me Home,” the album’s yearning closer which featured both Sting and ex-Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel on the backing vocals of the chorus. But as good as Sting’s keening tenor was on the track, fans have to dig deeper on the album to find his most prominent work on the record: Side 1’s “Long, Long Way to Go,” which sounds like a distant relative of Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise,” features a cascading waterfall of Sting voices on the refrain. It’s a great if unintentional callback to the best multi-tracked vocals from The Police’s back catalogue.
ARCADIA – “The Promise” (1985)
The art-rock project Arcadia – built by Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor during the band’s mid-decade hiatus – featured plenty of guest stars for their sole album. The most star-studded tune, the moody “The Promise,” featured guitar playing from David Gilmour, keyboard riffs from Herbie Hancock and Sting trading atmospheric hoodoo lyrics with Le Bon. (Both men had achieved a similar effect harmonizing together on Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” a year earlier.) The duo’s vocal chemistry is one of the many highlights of So Red the Rose, a criminally underrated New Wave gem of the ‘80s, and when the album was expanded for its 25th anniversary last year, one of the bonus tracks was an unreleased, mostly instrumental mix of the track that puts Sting’s lines even more toward the forefront.
DIRE STRAITS – “Money for Nothing” (1986)
There may have been nothing ironic about Mark Knopfler’s headband in 1986, but almost every other move his band Dire Straits made that year certainly was. They ruled the airwaves with Brothers in Arms, easily the year’s best demo disc for the rising wave of compact disc players being sold at the time. And their biggest hit was “Money for Nothing,” a satirical middle finger to MTV and the pop battlefield set to an irresistible guitar riff. The band further added to the irony not only through the then-cutting-edge computer animation of the song’s music video, but through the guest appearance of one of the station’s most blindingly photogenic stars on the track. (Triple irony: the guest of honor is nowhere to be found in the clip!)
Sting’s backing vocals – particularly the high-pitched cry of “I want my MTV!” that opened and closed the track – was one of the track’s most-remembered highlights to this day, and was in fact the first thing MTV viewers heard when the network’s European edition went live in 1987. And “Money for Nothing” is a rare songwrting collaboration for Sting; his publishing company successfully campaigned for a credit for the singer, who sang his lines to the tune of The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
ZIGGY MARLEY – “One World (Not Three)” (recorded 1988, released 1995)
As part of The Police, Sting received credit for helping to introduce Western audiences to the polyrhythmic sounds of reggae and ska. While Sting on his own would dabble in jazz, Latin, country and whatever Songs from the Labyrinth was, he made a fleeting return to island rhythms on Reggatta Mondatta, a multi-artist tribute to his old band overseen by his manager, Miles Copeland (brother of Police drummer Stewart). (Of course, Sting’s appearance was mostly archival – his re-do of The Police’s “One World (Not Three)” dates back to the late ’80s.) Though Sting would also trade vocals with Pato Banton for a cover of “Spirits in the Material World” elsewhere on the record, the reggae influences sound less forced on this bouncy track from 1981’s Ghost in the Machine, with one of the genre’s crown princes on hand to sweeten the deal.
SHERYL CROW – “Always on Your Side” (2007)
Today, neither Sting nor fellow A&M artist Sheryl Crow have much of an impact on mainstream pop/rock, what with his retreat toward orchestras and soul cake and her increasingly political, less-catchy neo-soul. But their last great trip into the pop spotlight was immensely beautiful. “Always on Your Side,” a gem from Crow’s underrated Wildflower, was later released as a single with Sting punched in as duet partner. The song, a declaration of fidelity that hints at times more thin than thick, pulls at the heartstrings even without the context of Crow’s painful, then-current breakup with cyclist Lance Armstrong. But it’s Sting’s voice – shaded by age and only toward the end approaching those high-pitched tones that made him a star – that makes the tune even weightier. Even if neither of them go back to basics with their music, it’s hard to ask for a better swan song than this.