B&V’s Favorite B-Sides – Songs That Were Orphans But Found Fame Anyway

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*Photo of actual 45s, and actual B-sides, taken by your intrepid blogger

I think a lot of people, especially the casual music fan, can be put off by the term B-side. The term sounds like something you’d find in the discount aisle of your local retailer next to day old bread. It’s not an “A” it’s a “B” so it must be somehow… less valuable? Oddly, I actually understood what a B-side was before I started really getting into collecting music. My father had an old wire rack full of singles – known as 45s as that was the speed the turntable would have to be turned to in order to spin the smaller vinyl discs. An album is rated at 33 1/3 RPM (revolutions per minute), a single was 45 RPM’s. These old 45s that my father had amassed when he was still cool was a who’s who of 50s popular music: Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Ray Charles. My little brother commandeered the collection as his own when he was really young and then enhanced it by buying Beatles’ singles…he was always years ahead of me on rock n roll…it’s a wonder he didn’t make my parents get his haircut in that mop top Beatles’ style but I digress. He had the little plastic insert that allowed him to play the 45s – which have a bigger hole in the middle – on the turntable. 45s only had one song per side unlike an album which has a number of songs on each side (well, typically… maybe not if you’re the Allman Brothers and it’s live and you’re really cooking, then it might be say, “Whipping Post” taking up one entire side of the LP). My brother and I shared a room in the early days so occasionally I’d wander in hand he’d be playing tunes. I think it was on one of those occasions that he explained what a B-side was to me before I even cared about music.

In the early days of rock n roll, like my dad’s collection, the music industry was focused on singles. Typically albums were merely a collection of previously released singles. When the artist in question had released enough songs to fill up an album the record company would lump ’em together and pump out the LP as another item to sell to the public. On those singles typically the A-side would be the song they wanted to release as the “hit.” What to do with the other side of the 7″ vinyl disc? Well, slap another song on the B-side! Typically the B-side would be a “lesser” tune, one the record company didn’t have high hopes for. The record company didn’t always get it right. Tony Bennett’s signature song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” began as a B-side to “Once Upon A Time” a track none us can remember. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” may be that first B-side to break out as a hit, I don’t really know. It was a DJ who decided to turn the record over to play the B-side and the rest, as they say, is history. Since it was left up to the record company, sometimes with input from the artist, B-sides weren’t always the “lesser” of the two tracks released. Record companies are rarely right about anything.

When the Beatles ushered in the “album” era of rock n roll the nature of B-sides changed. It really was the Beatles, especially after they stopped touring, who realized the artistic possibilities of a full length album. You listen to albums like Rubber Soul or Revolver and you realize there is a unity of sound and themes that enhance the listening experience over 12 songs instead of just the “hit” singles and some filler. When artists started releasing full length, thought-out albums the pool of tracks for use on B-sides – because people still bought a ton of singles back then – became a lot deeper. Typically the record company would pick a song to be a single, and then look for a deep album cut that in some cases might be “filler” on the album and slap it on the B-side. However, as usual, the record company didn’t always get it right. Rod Stewart’s signature song “Maggie May” was the B-side to “Reason To Believe.” And, exactly like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” an enterprising DJ in America turned the single over and voila, “Maggie May” is a monster hit and Rod Stewart became a star.

In the pantheon of great, great songs that started out as B-sides the list is long. The Beatles chose to release the epic psychedelic track “I Am The Walrus” (mostly written by John Lennon) as the B-side to “Hello, Goodbye” a McCartney track. Obviously “I Am The Walrus” is a legendary track but they put it on the B-side? Which is too bad because Lennon was quoted later as saying something like, “that was when we all began to get tired of being Paul’s backing band.” That animosity festered… But “I Am The Walrus” is not an isolated case of great tracks ending up as a B-side. So many great tracks ended up as B-sides and went on to become monster hits, legendary in their own right. The Stones released “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as the B-side to “Honky Tonk Woman”; Bowie released “Suffragette City” as B-side to “Starman”; and finally the Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better” (a Gene Clark penned classic) was B-side for “All I Really Want To Do” a Dylan cover. The list is vast and I could go on and on.

Any of those tracks could have easily made it onto our list of “favorite B-sides,” but the stakes rose. In the 70s as bands became more prolific and often bands would have more music than they needed for an album. Many times they’d have a song that they really liked but it wouldn’t fit the confined space of vinyl or wasn’t the right vibe for that particular album or often they’d record a cover song just for the fun of it. Instead of putting out a deeper album cut as the B-side, the band would put out one of those unreleased tracks that didn’t make the album. For me the prime example of that was “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” a great acoustic driven track that Zeppelin left off Zeppelin III and instead put out as the B-side of “The Immigrant Song.” Suddenly, this opened up the possibility of non-album, previously unreleased gems out in the wild. Hunting for stray B-sides was a fun side project for my old roommate Drew and I as we built our album collections in college. I remember spending weekends on vacation in Chicago hunting for certain songs only found on that B-side single. Finding a cool B-side is frankly the only reason I lament the end of singles being released. I’ve always been an album guy.

While the hunt was fun, in the era of CD-box sets and compilations many of those orphaned B-sides have been released. Often CD releases and “deluxe edition” releases of classic albums contain those old hard to find B-sides. U2 has done two “greatest hits” LPs each with a complimentary disc of B-sides. Springsteen has Tracks that contained a lot of the B-sides that Drew and I were always chasing after back in college. R.E.M. released Dead Letter Office, a collection of strictly B-sides (and what a great title for that LP). Now, it’s bad enough singles are rarely if ever released, but there’s no scurrying around town to all the usual vinyl shops looking to locate that one copy of “Go Your Own Way” paired with “Silver Springs.” The hunt is over. Now if you want to hear Prince do “Irresistible Bitch” you merely have to download it from a box set. For those of us aware of and collecting B-sides it was like being a member of a cool club or subculture. I guess I still have hunting for great used vinyl purchases left to me… sigh.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, Dr. Rock, commented on a post I’d done with a playlist of tracks from 1982. Or it might have been a comment on our post about Robert Plant’s solo debut, Pictures At Eleven. Regardless, he mentioned a track “Far Post” that has always been a favorite B-side of mine and naturally Dr Rock suggested I do a post on my 10 favorite B-sides. And as usual that stretched out to my 25 favorite B-sides. In between cranking up new songs from Billy Idol (“Cage”) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Tippa My Tongue”) this week I’ve been scouring through my old 45s and box sets looking for B-sides. As I indicated above, I chose B-sides that were orphans – songs that were originally left off of albums – songs that could only be found on the second side of a 45 or on the single CD release (from back when they would still put out singles on CD with a few extra tracks). I mostly avoided the “deep album tracks” as B-sides. My list is not meant to exhaustive but merely representative of a) my personal favorites and b) what kind of quality material is out there in the world by artists we all love but you may not have heard or worse, heard of. My list stems from the well known all the way to my usual obscure choices. If you have a favorite B-side that didn’t end up on a record, please post it in the comments section. I’m always looking for a good, unheard tune…

The Bourbon And Vinyl 25 Favorite B-Sides

  • Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog” – Elvis released “Hound Dog,” one of his most famous tunes, a few months after his second LP Elvis was released. It was originally released as the B-side of “Don’t Be Cruel.” The record company quickly changed the printing on the single sleeve to make “Hound Dog” the A-side, and “Don’t Be Cruel” the B-side… it didn’t really matter, both songs hit number 1. Elvis was aware of the original by the legendary Big Mama Thornton but was likely more influenced by a cover done by Freddie Bell and the Bellhops. It’s hard not to include one of the greatest songs ever on a favorite B-sides list. As Dylan said, “I’m standing on a chair proposing a toast to the King.” Surely he meant Elvis?
  • Jimi Hendrix Experience, “51st Anniversary” – I’ve always dug this track about a couple who have been married for well, 51 years. This track didn’t make it on Are You Experienced? but was released as the B side for “Purple Haze.”
  • The Beatles, “Revolution” – Another case where Lennon had his track relegated the B-side in deference to McCartney’s A-side “Hey Jude.” Maybe Paul should have let Lennon win a few of these battles. I get “Hey Jude” is epic but “Revolution” is probably my favorite hard rocking Beatles track. Both tracks were on the unreleased tracks, stop-gap U.S. LP Hey Jude.
  • Neil Young, “Sugar Mountain” – Neil liked this song so much he used it as the B-side for two different songs, “The Loner” from his debut and “Cinnamon Girl” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with Crazy Horse. “You can’t be 20, on Sugar Mountain with the barkers and the colored balloons…” It finally was included on Neil’s three-LP greatest hits package Decade a compilation album truly ahead if it’s time.
  • Paul McCartney, “Oh Woman, Oh Why” – McCartney has a myriad of great B-sides. It was hard to pick just one. I’ve always loved “Oh Woman, Oh Why” the B-side to his first ever solo single “Another Day.” The lyrics are a bit slight but McCartney sings like he’s Little Richard turned up to 11. This track is kind of a bluesy rocker and I’ve just always loved it.
  • George Harrison, “Deep Blue” – This rarity was finally released on the “deluxe edition” of Living In The Material World but began as the B-side for Harrison’s charity track “Bangla Desh.” I don’t think of the Beatles as being especially bluesy but I love this acoustic, blues shuffle. Harrison landed a few blues tracks on our Rockers Playing the Blues playlist… I should have included this quiet little gem. I’m a sucker for the blues. I think my brother may have played this song for me, he was a huge Harrison fan and might have had the “Bangla Desh” single.
  • Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do” – This song, for me, was the beginning of my B-side awareness. Finding this song as the B-side on the single for “The Immigrant Song” was like finding the Ark of the Covenant for Indiana Jones. I can’t believe this track never landed on a proper Zeppelin LP.
  • AC/DC, “Carry Me Home” – This great, hysterical drinking song – that only Bon Scott could have written – was the B-side to the track “Dog Eat Dog” from Let There Be Rock. It was an early selection for inclusion on our Drinking Songs playlist and really is a centerpiece there of. We find our hero, the narrator, too drunk to drive home and it’s too late to find a bus or cab. His only solution is to ask a young lady he’s been drinking with to carry him home with her. Reminds me of my 20s. Rakish charm?
  • Fleetwood Mac, “Silver Springs” – Oh man, this is one of my all time favorite Mac songs. The Rock Chick preferred the live version from The Dance, but I’d been a fan of this song, the B-side to “Go Your Own Way,” that had been criminally left off Rumours, since the first time I heard it in the car driving back to Boston from Cape Cod during my summer after college. It just grabbed me from the beginning. When Stevie builds to the climax and sings/shouts “I know I could’ve loved you, but you would not let me, I’ll follow you down ’til the sound of my voice will haunt you…” she means it. The song does haunt me and I’m not even who she’s singing to…
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Casa Dega” – This song was left off Damn The Torpedoes and was originally released as the B-side to “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Petty has so many B-sides that have seen subsequently released on his various box sets it was hard to pick just one (and actually I picked 2) but I’ve always loved this song partially inspired by a Spiritualist camp in Florida.
  • Robert Plant, “Far Post” – As pointed out by the aforementioned Dr. Rock when we posted about Plant’s solo debut Pictures At Eleven, this amazing song was left off the album and released as a B-side to “Burning Down One Side” in the UK and eventually found it’s way to my local radio station. Great piano break in the song… it felt like Plant was already starting to stretch the boundaries of what he could do outside Zeppelin.
  • The Police, “Murder By Numbers” – The Police actually released this song on Synchronicity if you bought the cassette. Well, I’d purchased the vinyl, naturally. But they made up for it by releasing it as the B-side of “Every Breath You Take.” This was such a great song it never made sense to me they didn’t put it on the vinyl. They do include it on the CD version of Synchronicity.
  • R.E.M., “Pale Blue Eyes” – R.E.M., like so many bands who’ve recorded a ton of B-sides released an entire album of B-sides on the collection Dead Letter Office. I love that album as they do a ton of cover songs. Cover songs do have a way of popping up as B-sides. I especially love this song, a Velvet Underground track. Michael Stipe can sing almost any song better than any original singer. This track was a B-side to the great track “South Central Rain.” I really could have picked just about any song from Dead Letter Office… and heavily considered their cover of Aerosmith’s “Toys In The Attic” which has to be heard to be believed.
  • Prince & the Revolution, “17 Days” – This track was a B-side from “When Doves Cry” from Princes’ masterpiece Purple Rain. This was such an incredible album it’s no surprise that there were some incredible B-sides… Prince was so prolific. This is a classic funk, pop song about a break up. I was drawn to this kinda track back in the day. The chorus will drill into your brain… “Let the rain come down, let the rain come down…” I may be the only fan of this track but I had to include it. It just takes me back…
  • The Cars, “Breakaway” – The Cars buried this outtake from the Heartbeat City album as the B-side to the fifth(!) single “Why Can’t I Have You.” I first heard the song, once again, in the car as some friends of mine and I were driving over a high bridge on our way onto Padre Island for Spring Break. Can you think of a better theme song for a Spring Break? “The loud mornin’ in the small town cries…You gotta get away.” Actually the Spring Break was a disaster but I spent years looking for this track which I later found out was about heroin
  • Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, “Pink Cadillac” – The B-side to “Dancing In The Dark.” Oh man, we all bought the 45 with this as the B-side. Clarence Clemons on the sax is epic. I still drive a little faster when this song comes on the stereo.
  • Don Henley, “A Month of Sundays” – This is a little like “Murder By Numbers,” listed above. The track was on the cassette version of Building The Perfect Beast but not the vinyl version I had. It was released as the B-side of “Boys of Summer” and I remember being floored the first time I heard it. I did a tape to tape thing and recorded it so I could listen to it over and over. It’s a sad ballad about the death of the family farm but it just grabbed me.
  • Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, “Shut Out The Lights” – Bruce has so many B-sides it was hard to limit myself to just two… This is another Born In The U.S.A. B-side, to the title track. Both songs are about a Vietnam veteran but are very different vibes. “Born In The U.S.A.” was a huge, arena rocking anthem (that was widely misunderstood). “Shut Out The Lights” delivered the message more directly in my mind as it was a sad song about the mental health struggles our veterans faced when they returned from the war.
  • Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, “Fortunate Son” – Well, I did mention that cover songs do have a way of finding themselves on B-sides. This track was the B-side to “American Storm” from the Like A Rock album. I don’t know if there is a more fitting artist to cover Creedence Clearwater Revival than Bob Seger. Perfect song in the perfect hands. Smokin’ O.P.s indeed.
  • Rod Stewart, “Almost Illegal” – Rod had been doing middling pop for so long it was a big deal when he teamed up with Andy Taylor erstwhile guitarist from Duran Duran and released Out Of Order an album that actually… rocked! This song was the B-side to “Lost In You” and I was so enamored with both the LP and that song, I gave this 45 a chance and brought it home from the record store. And, yes, this song rocked and made me smile at the same time. This is probably the most obscure track on my favorites but I am who I am.
  • The Rolling Stones, “Fancy Man Blues” – When the Stones reunited for Steel Wheels we were all ecstatic. I was living in Arkansas at the time and I jumped a flight to Chicago to see them on that tour out at East Troy where Stevie Ray died… Anyway, I was in a bar the night before the show and whoever was in charge played “Fancy Man Blues” the B-side to “Mixed Emotions” and then I spent years trying to find it. The Stones always return to the blues.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Soul To Squeeze” – As I mentioned in my resent post on the Peppers’ new song “Tippa My Tongue,” the RHCP’s creative process includes a lot of jamming which leads to a plethora of unused material that ends up as a B-side. This haunting ballad – that has to be about Hillel Slovak’s death and Anthony Kiedis’ running away to Mexico and missing the funeral – was used as a B-side twice for both “Give It Away” and “Under the Bridge” before finding widespread fame on the Coneheads’ soundtrack. I’ve seen them do it live and man, goosebumps.
  • Pearl Jam, “Yellow Ledbetter” – Well, you knew this track would be on here, it’s only the most famous B-side released in the 90s. It was the B-side to Jeremy and I purchased the CD single just so I could own this track. It sounds like an homage to Stevie Ray Vaughn, at least when you hear them play it live, but that might just be me. I do relate to the lyric “I said I don’t know whether I’m the boxer or the bag.”
  • U2, “The Lady With the Spinning Head (UV1)” – The Rock Chick turned me onto this song. I love it. It was a demo that spawned both “The Fly” and then “Ultraviolet Light.” Eventually it saw release as the B-side to “One.” We put this on one of our party tracks and people always approach me and ask me about this song… and “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” but that’s another song for another day.
  • Tom Petty, “Girl On LSD” – Any long time readers of B&V know that this song was my “white whale” in terms of B-sides for a long time. I did have a bootleg version but I always want an official version if I can get it. It’s the funniest song Petty ever did. It finally saw release (in an alternative version) on Finding Wildflowers. Petty has another bluesy rocker named “Sweet William” that has become my new “white whale” B-side… I will find you “Sweet William,” if it kills me.

Many of these tracks you’ve probably heard before. But if there are ones you haven’t I urge you to seek them out and give them a spin. These sadly orphaned B-sides deserve to be heard. There are so many more B-sides out there that I didn’t list. I look forward to seeing if any of you out there have a favorite B-side to add to this list.

Enjoy the last bit of summer! Cheers!

Review: Documentary, ‘Under The Volcano’ – A Wonderful Lookback At AIR Montserrat Studios

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m in the throes of the dreaded Dry January these days. It’s very hard to self entertain during the coldest, grayest time of year, especially without booze. Let’s all admit it, January sucks. The Holidays, however you feel about them and whichever you choose to participate in, are over and it’s just a long, dark slog until Spring. Or at least until Valentine’s Day if you’re into that sort of Hallmark Holiday. But with the cold, Midwest weather there’s really no outdoor activities to help divert the winter blues. All there is to do in Kansas City these days is eat and drink… not that there’s anything wrong with that but currently I’m not doing one of those things.

This last weekend my beloved Chiefs played their game on Saturday instead of the usual Sunday football game. My friend Doug came over to watch the game with a couple of boxes full of non-alcoholic beer. While Doug isn’t joining me on the long, slow slog of Dry January he was kind enough to support me. I was surprised how good that beer was, but perhaps I just miss beer. I don’t miss the bloating beer brings on…  Anyway, when Sunday rolled around there were a ton of NFL games on to watch, all of which had playoff ramifications but I could tell the Rock Chick was not enjoying being a “football widow.” I knew I needed something on Netflix and I needed it fast. Some buddies of mine have me in that most dreaded of things, a group text. But last week on the aforementioned group text one of my friends mentioned a documentary that came out last March, Under The Volcano. He said to me specifically, “You’ve probably seen this already, but if you haven’t, you’ll dig it.” I had seen that it was on Netflix (and it was actually on Showtime this last week) but for some reason both the Rock Chick and I thought we’d already watched it. We tend to watch anything about rock n roll if it looks like it’s well done but in fact, we had not seen it. I knew this might be the thing to save my wife from the football induced boredom I was subjecting her to.

Apparently in the mid to late sixties Beatles’ producer extraordinaire George Martin formed a company, Associated Independent Recording (aka AIR). I had no idea George Martin was going to be at the heart of this story. As soon as I heard that, I sat up straight in my chair and started paying more attention. Martin started this company and opened his own state of the art studio in London, on Oxford Street. I think Martin produced Rubber Soul there. The man was genius. Growing tired of the big city and feeling the need to get musicians away from all of that and more isolated for focus, Martin discovered and fell in love with the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Known as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean,” Montserrat was this sort of unspoiled gem. Martin fell in love with the island but he especially loved the warm and wonderful people there. He bought a property there and eventually bought built a studio down there in 1979, long after the Beatles had gone their separate ways.

In today’s world of Pro Tools, digital files being sent around on email and folks recording music on their phones, it’s hard to understand how musicians and producers used to actually all get together in the same room and play music together. And, lets face it, in the late 70s and 80s, the time covered in this documentary, record companies had bigger budgets. It was a time of decadence but it was a time of great music as well. Often bands or solo guys with their backing band would retreat to the country or some remote location with a studio and live, party, write and record as a group, or some might say, like a family. And what better place to get away from the distractions of the world than in paradise. Many of the guys would bring their family and make it a holiday. They’d work a few hours on music and then off to the beach of if you’re Sting, off to windsurf.

I was aware that there was a studio on Montserrat and vaguely aware that some of my favorite albums were recorded there but had never really investigated it. Again, I had no idea that George Martin was involved. He lived there and would often pop in to check out how things were going even if he wasn’t producing the record. That’s like having Roger Federer come down to check on how your tennis game is coming along. The island of Montserrat is simply beautiful. However, the island has a “dormant” volcano that stands over the island and the proceedings here like a silent, dangerous, smokey sentinel. It’s like recording at the feet of the famous “Iron Man” of Black Sabbath. I knew AIR Montserrat studio closed in 1989 and I kept thinking… “my god, what happened, did the volcano go off?” The studio itself was like a resort. They had a pool right outside the studio – lots of rock star photos jumping into the pool – and an onsite cook and bar. Many locals who worked at the studios or who had gotten to know the rock stars are interviewed and I enjoyed hearing them as much as I did the rock stars. This documentary reminded me a lot of Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City, only with much better surroundings.

The first album produced at AIR Montserrat was by the Climax Blues Band for those of you who feel like getting in the “way back” machine. Jimmy Buffett was the second artist to record there because – hello, he’s Jimmy Buffet the island guy. So influenced by the island and it’s primary geological feature he called that record Volcano. I love that he bought out the whole bar at the studio one night. If they weren’t drinking at the bar, many of these rock stars would venture out to these little, rundown neighborhood bars nearby and hang with locals. How cool would that be? Especially for the rock stars… to be able to act like a normal person.

So many great acts did records at Montserrat. McCartney did Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace, his first work with George Martin since the Beatles broke up and sadly only weeks after John Lennon was murdered. The Police recorded Ghosts In The Machine and Synchronicity there and Sting fell in love with the place. He recorded his first solo record there too. Artists from Gerry Rafferty to Duran Duran did albums there. They talk about the studio having its own particular sound, like the island was in the space between the notes. That laid back Caribbean vibe soaked into the music like rum into a pineapple. I knew without checking the internet, for example, that Eric Clapton must have recorded Behind The Sun there. Keith Richards brought the X-Pensive Winos down there to record Talk Is Cheap and vowed he’d get the Stones back together and bring them down. As it turns out, the Stones did reunite and recorded Steel Wheels there. Again, so many great albums were done down there.

Alas, the Stones were the last group to record there. Spoiler alert – it wasn’t the volcano that destroyed AIR Montserrat, that honor went to Hurricane Hugo. The destruction caused by that hurricane brought to an end a really wonderful point in time in the annals of recorded music. The property now is “returning to the jungle.”

I was really entertained by this documentary. If you’re into music and how it’s recorded… nay, how it used to be recorded this documentary is for you. It’s really cool seeing all these guys like Dire Straits down there doing their most famous albums. You even learn the truth about how Sting ended up singing on “Money For Nothing,” a story I won’t spoil here. Check it out… it’s January, you’ve nothing else to do, especially if you’re going dry like me!

Cheers!

Review: Sting, ‘The Bridge’ – A Great Album From An Artist I’d Given Up On

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With Thanksgiving and visiting relatives, the food and drink and all of the box sets I’ve been working through lately (the Beatles, Stones, Dylan) I’m only just now getting around to focusing on Sting’s new LP which has been out a couple of weeks. This is a review I never thought I’d write. This is certainly an artist I’d sort of… written off, I’m sad to say. Defying odds and my jaded expectations, Sting has returned with a pop/rock delight on his new album, The Bridge.

I’m like most people I think. I got into Sting when he was still the singer/songwriter/bass player in the Police. I remember in junior high there were two sides to our Study Hall. One side was for quiet studying which was oddly where you could usually find me. The other half was for a more social experience. You could buy soft drinks and snacks. I never had any cash for that sort of thing. They’d play music over there on the social side. I can remember making a rare appearance on that louder side of Study Hall and hearing “Roxanne” for the first time. I can remember after it played, this dude I didn’t know very well named Chris began singing along in a high pitched falsetto to approximate Sting much like Eddie Murphy did in 48 Hours a few years later. We laughed but we dug the song.

I thought at the time that the Police were a punk band, like the Clash. In retrospect I think they were more faux punks. I didn’t buy their first album Outlandos d’Amour until I was in college. I do remember hearing “Walking On The Moon” and “Message In A Bottle” from Reggatta De Blanc and mistakenly assuming those were also on the first album. It wasn’t until “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” (which looks ridiculous typed out) and their breakthrough third album Zenyatta Mondatta that we all took notice of the Police in earnest. They had been out on a world tour and the broad scope of that trip informed a lot of that great album. I always dug the deep track, “Man In A Suitcase,” which was probably a precursor to my life as a traveling salesman. My brother owned that album and I promptly taped it… which was the way I acquired a lot of music in those days.

My buddy Doug saw them on the following tour for Ghost In The Machine, their fourth album. I would have really liked to have seen those guys on that tour but Doug took a chick he’d met at his job in the mall. It was all very Fast Times At Ridgemont High for us in those days, so I can’t fault him. By that time I thought of the Police as more pop/rock than pure rock n roll. That’s not a knock, it just meant that they rocked but with a more pop sensibility. Cheap Trick and Big Star always get lumped into that category and I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. But because of that slightly “pop” approach I sort of shied away from purchasing Police albums. Masculinity was important in puberty and apparently you had to listen to harder rock and metal to prove that you were “a man.”

It wasn’t until I was in college that I became a life long Police fan and purchased all of their LPs. It was the summer after my very, very difficult freshman year (my fault, mostly) that I heard “Every Breath You Take” on the radio. It was the perfect song. I knew from that first listen, based on some personal experience, that it was most definitely not a love song. A tale of heartbreak and obsession, it’s one of those songs that comes along and hits you so hard you know it’ll stick with you forever. It was a message I was in touch with at the time. I never get tired of that song. My first Police album purchase was Synchronicity which I bought the day after hearing “Every Breath You Take.’ It wasn’t until I got back up to college that fall for sophomore year that I started buying all of their albums while hanging out in record stores with my pal Drew. Synchronicity turned into one of the biggest albums of all time. The Police went from being a well-known, big act to being the biggest act in the world.

Sadly though, that massive success would spell the end of the Police. Sting decided they’d gone as far as they could. A lot of people say he was tired of carrying those other two guys. I’d say drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers were incredibly talented guys but Sting was “the man” in that band. It would have been hard for the Police to follow up the success of Synchronicity and perhaps Sting deciding to go solo was his way of ducking the pressure of having to top it. Many artists change their music to avoid the intense pressure fame and success bring. At the time we thought Sting’s solo thing was going to be a one-off and he’d come back the Police. Nope.

I, for one, was looking forward to Sting’s first solo album, The Dream Of the Blue Turtles. I always thought if you dug a band, if the main creative force of that band left, it was going to be automatically awesome. When we heard “If You Love Someone, Set Them Free,” the jazz-lite first single, we were beyond horrified, we felt “betrayed.” The communal feeling was “What is this crap?” Sting was apparently unhappy that people misinterpreted “Every Breath You Take” as a love song and “Set Them Free” was the “anecdote for the poison?” I’m quoting something I read back then, sigh. Needless to say, I didn’t invest in Sting’s first solo LP. Songs like “Love Is The Seventh Wave” didn’t help much. Gads, I dislike that song. I will admit the first Sting track that I thought had some potential from that LP was “Fortress Around Your Heart.” Lyrically brilliant, it was a track that resonated with me. I later heard his solo version of the Police song, “Shadows In The Rain” and I love that version. “Woke up in my clothes again this morning, don’t know exactly where I am, I should heed my doctor’s warning… he does the best with me he can” were lyrics that hit perhaps a little too close to home at the time.

After college, my corporate masters thought it was a good idea to exile me to Arkansas. Ft. Smith had terrible radio, all Madonna and Micheal Jackson who to my hard rock sensibility was like battery acid in my ears. I rarely listened to the radio in that town, but one lunch I had to leave the office and go to the dry cleaners. I didn’t have a cassette to pop in so I just let the radio play. The DJ was doing a lunch hour playing whatever music he wanted vs the usual heavily programmed, oft-repeated rotation. I had just pulled into the parking lot outside the One-Hour “Martinizing” place (whatever that is) when I heard the DJ announce he was playing a deep track from Sting’s new LP (Nothing Like The Sun, his second solo album), a cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” While utterly re-imagined with a jazz combo, it hit me hard. I love that song and especially Sting’s vocal. I went out after work that day and purchased the album. Who says I had impulse control back then? It began a long period of me being a big fan of Sting.

I actually really dug the entirety of the album Nothing Like The Sun, which I’d bought on vinyl. It was designed for that new format, CDs, so they had to make it a double-LP with only three songs on each side. I went with the unconventional vinyl as I was certain “CDs” were a fad. I followed Sting to the next LP, The Soul Cages. The title track rocked and I really liked “Why Should I Cry For You.” While I didn’t connect with The Soul Cages the same way I did the previous record, I was still on the Sting bandwagon. His next album was probably his biggest solo record, Ten Summoner’s Tales. Beyond the Chaucer-inspired pretentious title, was eleven great songs. There wasn’t a bad moment on that album. I still play “She’s Too Good For Me” and dedicate it to the Rock Chick.

I even liked his next album Mercury Falling. I saw Sting on that tour and if I had a bone to pick with him, it’s that he doesn’t play the Police material with any conviction. It’s like he’s embarrassed by the most popular part of his career. Sigh. Another track I play for the Rock Chick is from that record, “All Four Seasons,” although I realize I take my life in my own hands when I do that… “That’s my baby, she can be all four seasons in one day.” Brand New Day was another great Sting record but after that the wheels came off of my fandom. Sacred Love was, in a word, awful. I purchased that album, based purely on the momentum of my experience with Sting’s music but quickly had it in the stack headed to the used record store for sale.

After Sacred Love, to a large degree, Sting disappeared as a solo artist for me. He did an album featuring him playing the lute. Yes, the lute. The main character in A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius O’Reilly played the lute. He did a chilly Christmas album. He did a Broadway play. He set some of his songs to an orchestral backing. He redid a bunch of Police and solo tracks with perceptible but slight alterations which left me thinking, “Huh?” The only thing he did during an almost 13-year stretch away from contemporary pop music that caught my interest was re-uniting with the Police for a hugely successful tour… which, naturally, he now says he regrets doing. Some people are just never satisfied. He finally returned to pop music in 2016 with 57th & 9th. I hoped it signaled a return to form and was ready to give Sting the benefit of the doubt but oddly, it left me cold. It was a very workman like effort. Well crafted and played but nothing I dug. The second half was very introspective and quiet. I thought, well, that’s it, I’m now permanently done with Sting.

Admittedly, my daughter and her beau recently turned me onto Sting’s collaboration album with reggae star Shaggy and to my surprise I liked it. It’s something I’d never heard before, Sting having… fun? It was a return to Sting’s early reggae-based music and he seems very engaged. I wondered if it was another strange detour or maybe, just maybe it’d spark something interesting from Sting in his solo career. “Waiting For The Break of Day” could have been on this new album and fit seamlessly… Everyone should check out at least that track if not all of 44/876.

I heard Sting had a new album coming out this fall. At this point listening to a Sting album felt like sitting up late at night with a tumbler of bourbon while thumbing through an old high school year book looking at pictures of that pretty girl from Geometry class in my sophomore year. I put on the first single from the new LP, The Bridge, a song called “If It’s Love” and… yes, it’s love! I should hate this song, it features whistling which I despise. I’ll be the first to admit, I consider any whistling in a song to be McCartney-level cheesy and yet this song is so catchy I can look past it. It tells the story of a man who awakes happy and smiling (“a muscle I rarely use,” which I can relate to) who calls his Dr to find out what’s wrong with him and it turns out, he’s in love. It’s such an earworm! It’s the best purely pop song Sting has done in years… I say that and yet there’s whistling! It’s an “Everything She Does Is Magic” meets “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”

What would the rest of The Bridge hold? Would I be as disappointed as I was with 57th & 9th? The short answer is that this is the best, catchiest LP Sting has done in 20 years. It’s my favorite thing he’s done since Ten Summoner’s Tales. The album starts off with the upbeat, “Rushing Water.” It starts with an insistent drum beat like water on a rock. Sting sings over a plucked electric guitar until the chorus explodes like, well, rushing water from a broken pipe. “The Book Of Numbers” is another solid midtempo rock song complete with Biblical imagery set in a bar. The second half does get mellow, much like 57th & 9th, but in the case of The Bridge, I like the mellow tracks. The LP is laid out like those old Rod Stewart LPs with a “Fast Side” and a “Slow Side.” The highlight on the mellow, back end is “The Bells Of St. Thomas.” A heartbroken man is awakened by church bells to find himself hungover in the bed of a rich woman… in Antwerp no less. To me, it’s one of the most evocative tracks Sting has ever written. 

Other highlights include “Harmony Road” which features a sax solo by none other than Brandford Marsalis who was in an early incarnation of Sting’s solo band and played on Dream Of The Blue Turtles. I thought I was having flashbacks. “For Her Love” is a beautiful love song that has echos of “Shape of My Heart.” There are a lot of moments on this LP like that, that remind you of Sting’s past glories while not reveling in them or feeling like cheap nostalgia. He seems to just be doing what he does well. I like the title track which is only Sting’s voice and a plucked acoustic guitar. “Loving You” is another standout track that could’ve been done just as effectively as a blues song, “if that’s not lovin’ you, then tell me what it is.” “Hills On The Border” is almost like a sea shanty but I dig it. Of the bonus tracks I liked his cover version of Otis Redding’s song “Dock Of The Bay,” but as long term readers know, I love cover songs.

If you’re like me and you’ve given up on Sting, or any artist for that matter, The Bridge is proof that there is always one more great album or song left. If someone’s art has moved you in the past, there’s a good chance that if you keep connected with the artist he will eventually pay off again. This is a real treat of a record and I urge everyone to check it out!

Cheers! And Happy Holidays to all of you!