“Here’s a new song that’s guaranteed to bring you right down…it’s called ‘Don’t Let it Bring You Down’ [a few tentative guitar strums] It sorta starts off real slow and then it fizzles out altogether…”, jokes Neil Young to the crowd in the spoken intro to his song “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” from CSNY’s 1971 live album 4 Way Street.
Among Neil Young songs, it’s one of the Neil Youngiest. There’s the trademark guitar style, enigmatic lyrics, the melancholy and the mysterious. The song’s a perfect audio accompaniment for Young’s early ’70’s image as a hippie with patched and ragged jeans and flannel shirts, long straggly hair and plaintive vocals. Even so, it wasn’t one of his hit songs and got a little lost on After the Goldrush among “Heart of Gold” and “Southern Man”, not to mention Goldrush‘s title song.
Which all makes it one of the most unlikely of songs to be covered by a jazz fusion band. Sending it up a notch in the unlikely and unusual category is who covered it: a 23-year-old Gordon Sumner (a.k.a. Sting) and his Newcastle, England pre-Police band Last Exit (not to be confused with the 1980’s free jazz band of the same name). It was 1974 – years before the Police – and Sting was knocking around with the 4-piece band, handling bass and vocals, while going to school for his teaching degree during the day. Last Exit were a jazz band with fusion and pop inflections, who released a single and recorded some demos, but were pretty obscure. If not for Sting’s future path, they’d most likely be forgotten by now. That’s not to say they weren’t good. In fact, a few Last Exit songs and fragments of songs would find their way into Sting’s later work.
On paper, the Last Exit Neil Young cover sounds like a mismatch, but it actually works quite well. Sting’s fat bass sound and the deep groove the drummer finds, along with the subtle washes of electric piano and jazz guitar, highlight the backdrop. A tasteful piano solo enters in the middle. The track is Smooth with a capital ‘S’. It’s startling how developed and confident Sting’s vocal style already was. He sounds a bit younger of course, but his inflections and mannerisms aren’t too dissimilar from later in his career. His work with Last Exit is also a progenitor of his return to jazz immediately following the demise of the Police with his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles.
We can see why Sting was attracted to the song. Lines like “Blind man running through the light of the night” obviously appealed to his literary bent and the song even had a moon reference in “blue moon sinking from the weight of the load”. And we know how Sting likes his moon imagery (“Walking on the Moon”, “Moon Over Bourbon Street”, “Sister Moon”, to name a few titles). So maybe it wasn’t so far-fetched a cover after all.