Sting vs. Elvis Costello in a race to betray their punk roots
There is a portion of Police and Elvis Costello devotees who have single-mindedly followed both artists' careers through three decades, tenaciously collecting each cherished release and carefully housing them in clear vinyl slipcases.
There's also a large contingent of mutual casual fans — the ones who will probably attend the artists' concerts and yell for "Roxanne" and "Pump It Up" all night and get worked up that "they keep playing all this other shit instead." And there are the Gen-Xers who pine for the punk rock that actually scared people and want to see alumni from the Class of '77 before they pass into the ether and do an American Express commercial. No matter our divergent paths from the vaunted "early punk" days of the Police and Elvis Costello, we must all know the truth:
Sting and Elvis Costello were never really punks.
Rather than blurt out the rest of the bad news — that Sting and Costello were about as punk as Henry Winkler was the Fonz — let's make a little game of it. We'll start each man off with five safety pins, because they did their share of punk gigs, where the phlegm flowed freely. For every display of punkish pride, we'll award a safety pin, but we'll take one away if we sense anything your card-carrying, leather lapel-pinned punk might deem a "sellout."
1977: English school teacher Gordon Sumner (minus one safety pin), nicknamed "Sting" (+1) by jazz musicians (-1), forms a band with Stewart Copeland, son of a CIA chief (-1) and drummer for prog rock outfit Curved Air (-1), and Andy Summers, who played in Eric Burdon & the New Animals, during those final years when they sang eight-minute songs about girls named after tabs of acid (-1). Desperate for money, Sting and his charges dye their hair blond and impersonate punks for a Wrigley gum commercial. While this proves they are bogus punks, the Sex Pistols proved that nothing's more punk rock than taking the money and running (+1).
British pub rocker Declan MacManus Costello is fortuitosly rechristened Elvis by his manager shortly before the King of Rock 'n' Roll falls off his throne in Graceland during one last pharmaceutical poop. Stiff Records immediately prints up more "Elvis is King" stickers (+1). Ready-to-gig Costello forms the Attractions with ex-pub rocker Pete Thomas and classically trained pianist Steve Nieve (-1). Bassist Bruce Thomas says at the audition that his dream gig would be Steely Dan. He becomes the bassist anyway (-1).
1978: The first Sting composition to chart in the U.K., "I Can't Stand Losing You," is banned by the BBC for being about suicide, a point made all too clear by the single's cover, a picture of Stewart Copeland with a noose around his head while standing on a block of melting ice (+1). When The Police give their first two albums French names, they subconsciously endear themselves to fans of Plastic Bertrand (+1).
Costello and the Attractions are booked as a last-minute replacement for the visa-troubled Sex Pistols on Saturday Night Live (-1). Costello decides to perform "Radio Radio," a song that hadn't been cleared with the network censors. The stunt gets them banned from SNL for 10 years — which was a blessing because, unlike Costello, the show would suck for most of those 10 years (+1).
1979: The Police's "Message in a Bottle" incorporates the calypso phrasing of Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" and "Star-O" by creating new nouns such as "sea-o," "me-o," and "despair-o." Politically correct even then, Sting is careful to withhold the 15th letter of the alphabet in the final verse, ensuring that a hundred billion castaways are not looking for a home-o (-1).
Costello says, "Somebody should clip Sting around the head and tell him to stop using that ridiculous Jamaican accent." Jah, mon! (+1). On his antagonistic Armed Forces tour, Costello manages to enrage hippies like Bonnie Bramlett and Stephen Stills (+2) and fans who complain about being shortchanged by Costello's 45-minute sets with no encores and blasts of ear-splitting feedback to clear the hall out. This tribute to German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1966 piece "Solo for a melody instrument with feedback" goes unrecognized and is instead viewed as the snarky actions of a bratty pop star (+2).
1982: Sting has a surprise solo hit, reaching back to the boring '20s for "Spread a Little Happiness," from an old English musical, Mr. Cinders. (-1)
With Imperial Bedroom, Costello makes further inroads into orchestral pop (-1). During this time, Costello is frequently photographed smiling and more than ever inclined to mention George and Ira Gershwin in interviews (-1 for each Gershwin).
1983: Sting goes through all the trouble of name-dropping Carl Jung, then writes two songs called "Synchronicity" that have nothing to do with each other (-2).
On Punch the Clock, Costello makes his first foray into jazz when he enlists trumpeter Chet Baker, a jazz musician as punk as you can find, to play on "Shipbuilding" (-1).
1985: Oh, yeah? Miles Davis, a jazz musician as punk as you can find, enlists Sting to make a vocal appearance on his album You're Under Arrest (-1). Sting proves his credential as a jazz musician by raiding Wynton Marsalis' band for players and driving a wedge between Wynton and his brother Branford (-1). The same year, he appears on records by Arcadia, Dire Straits, Hal Wilner, and Band Aid. To Sting's credit, on "Do They Know It's Christmas?," he sings the line about "the bitter Sting of tears" with a completely straight face (-1).
1987: Costello begins a songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney, the man whom Glen Matlock got kicked out of the Sex Pistols for liking (-1).
1991: Sting beats Costello to the classical music label Deutsche Grammophon by 10 years with his recital of Peter and the Wolf (-1). Punks, resist the urge to call this a Deutsche bag!
1996: Costello teams with Burt Bacharach on "God Give Me Strength," and the pair write a whole album together in 1998, infuriating the network of Dionne Warwick psychic friends who felt she should've gotten a crack at these songs first (-1).
1999: Sting's chart fortunes are back on the rise with "Desert Rose" a song he collaborates on with Algerian-born raï singer Cheb Mami (-1), a man who is currently under an international arrest warrant after being indicted in October 2006 for "voluntary violence, sequestration and threats" against an ex-girlfriend, and failing to answer a court summons (+1).
2003: Costello announces his engagement to jazz singer Diana Krall (-1) and releases North, an album of piano-based love ballads dedicated to his Canadian bride and dirges about his former marriage going south (-1).
2006: Sting releases Songs from the Labyrinth, an album of Elizabethan lute music (-1). The following year, Deutsche Grammophon will release a live album of this, featuring a lute-driven reworking of "Message in a Bottle" (-1).
Final tally: Sting: -4, Costello: 1.
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