12.01.1979 - Trouser Press
Up in the A&M offices the joint is definitely jumpin'. Enough staff members to man a battleship are scurrying around performing (seemingly) important duties. Yet there's none of the barely contained hysteria one could find so easily in other Manhattan offices; it's more like the co-ordination of a gold strike. A&M is, as you probably know, one of the more successful record companies. They don't release staggering quantities of records (as do more bloated competitors) and their batting average is impressively high. One wall of the conference room - where I am watching a videotape of a certain three-piece rock band - is completely covered with gold records awarded to artists all over the pop music map: Peter Frampton, Herb Alpert, the Brothers Johnson, Styx, etc., etc.
There's a cheerful giddiness in the air as well. One of the employees corners a west coast bigwig with a query about Police T-shirts: "Who do I have to sleep with to get one?" She strolls away laughing at her own joke.
Forget Alpert and Frampton; right now the Police are the centre of attention. Perhaps the time for amazement at the success of "new wave" is past, yet a short glance back to last year fills the old heart with thanks that times can change so much so fast. This year marked the ascendancy of Elvis, Blondie, Joe Jackson, Cheap Trick and Nick Lowe as well as the Police. Twelve months ago the Police's 'Roxanne', out as a British single three months, was selling quite well as an import when A&M decided to release it domestically. Nothing happened.
Meet Jeff Ayeroff, one of A&M's idea people and a moving force behind the label's involvement in new music. (Ayeroff is executive producer of Propaganda, their latest hip sampler; on 1978's 'No Wave' his credit was "No Input/No Concepts.") He explains what happened next: "We had 'Roxanne' as a single, which we all loved at A&M, but radio wasn't that responsive. Radio is always behind the times, so we ended up with a great record that wasn't getting airplay simply because it was a single." The answer? Make the 45 an album cut! "We put together the "No Wave" sampler and the college market got into it." The Police were on their way. "No Wave," Ayeroff adds, "didn't sell much but it sold enough. It was an experiment and it worked. Roxanne got the much deserved attention."
Good for the Police. Even if you're sick of it now, 'Roxanne' was and is a great pop single (and almost a Top 20 hit), a perfect blend of vocal lamentation, white reggae sinuosity, and enough of a hook to make it all stick. Also, good for the Police because they're basically fun guys. Stewart Copeland (drums), Andy Summers (guitar) and Sting (nee Gordon Sumner - bass, lead vocals) are sincere about what they're doing up to the point that it makes sense; beyond that point they're self-deflating. Dumber self-aggrandising rockers can't turn off the bravado and Artistic Sincerity because that would burst the bubble. The Police don't have those illusions to sustain. What a relief!
Stewart's brother Miles Copeland, the Police's manager, enters the conference room first. After a brief introduction this fast-talking American gets on the phone for one of the many calls he'll be making while the band does the interview bit.
Next come Andy and Sting, casual entrants both in their dark suit jackets (is this a fashion?). Andy looks like a well-mannered TV thief in his blue track shoes; Sting is a bit more reserved than the chatty Summers, though comfortable in his star-like good looks. Andy is understandably cheerful. "We seem to be hitting a peak in England," he enthuses. "When we left the States last time we did a phenomenally successful British tour. 'Can't Stand Losing You' would have hit number one except the Boomtown Rats had a very strong single ('I Don't Like Mondays'). The whole thing has been a snowball." More like an avalanche: 'Message in a Bottle', their latest 45, sold 350,000 the first week out and went to number one the second.
Lanky Stewart Copeland now dashes in bearing enough video equipment to pass for a member of Eyewitness News. After shooting out the window of the 33rd floor at nothing in particular he sheds his gear and peers at the uninviting settings of bagels, lox and cream cheese. "Is that a lunch?" (No one is quite sure.)
Conversation with the Police is a scattershot affair that can go in any direction depending on who manages to hold the floor (usually Stewart). One subject the band unapologetically returns to from time to time is their image - all have blond hair (these days) - and how important it is. This is showbiz, after all.
Miles explains that the hair "was a fluke that worked and was then maintained." The three then-struggling popsters needed blond locks to secure a job in a chewing gum commercial.
Andy adds, "It would be naive to think that music is the first priority you have to think about. We're in an area where visuals play a strong part in selling records."
But, Stewart insists, "Our image happens by itself. We don't sit down and plan it out but we do have a strong image. Andy shrugs. "You can't get that heavy about hair. It's not a hairdresser's convention. My hair is blond anyway." Quickly he qualifies, "It's blonder now than it was."
The Police do try to monitor how they're photographed in order to avoid misrepresentation. For example, Andy points out, "What we don't want are attempts to soften up the group, make us look fluffy, vaseline on the lens - that whole trip."
Stewart says, "it's an effort, but we go down to the record company to look at photos, getting rid of ones we don't want used. Even so, some photos get through and we get pissed off. Mostly what you see is pretty accurate, though."
Tsk, tsk, you say. Too calculating? Not really. Note that the Police are talking in terms of negatives; they know what they don't want. Their image, however striking you find it, does not contain the ideological heaviness of, say, the Clash or Ramones. What do the Police stand for? Beats me.
The whole question of image makes Stewart feverish. "When we see a sticker that says 'Support the Police' - who f***ing thought that up? We go on tour and see it everywhere. We got a billboard on the Strip - that's supposed to be real jazzy - and there it was, as if we need jockstraps! The only way to get away from it is to give 'em some line of your own before they can come up with one themselves. Or the guys in marketing make the group something it isn't: 'The group that's gonna change the Eighties.' The kid hears that and thinks, 'What a bunch of assholes they must be!'
Take the Knack as a case in point. I actually think 'My Sharona' is a dynamite single, deserves to be number one. But when I look at a picture of that group I'm automatically filled with loathing. I despise that group. I would never go see the Knack 'cause I hate 'em. That's what a picture can do."
The Police are stars-maybe not on the scale of the Knack, but stars nonetheless. A procession of publicists with boxes of records for the band to autograph underscores that fact. Stewart bemusedly scribbles his way through a stack of discs, remarking, "It's something that always blows my mind - that because we touched a record it's different from another record in the shop. They're really into myth."
Andy: "That's what it's all about."
Stewart: "Who knows what it's all about? But if it gets 'em off I'll participate. When we walk out a stage door and a crowd of girls are standing around cooing and murmuring 'I love you' and 'You're gorgeous,' my feelings are just too corny to put into words. It just breaks me up. That's what you make music for, to turn people on, make them feel something, and there they are surrounding you with this charged-up feeling."
His rapture is ruptured by Miles. "Great. But they break into the dressing room, smash things..."
Stewart falls into step: "When we finally make our way through the crowd to the car they hang in the windows, climb on the roof, break the aerial off. Our cars get trashed every time."
"At the moment it's all very exciting," says Miles, "but if everywhere you go there's someone with a pen, you eventually have to become a bit reclusive." Miles adds he's considering using someone he knows as an impostor to fool fans. This piques Andy's curiosity.
"What's he look like?"
"He looks like you, Andy."
"A good-looking kid, huh?"
Sting says very little throughout all this chatter, alternately looking passively bored, leafing through my copy of the sleazy New York Post and plunking away randomly on a nearby piano. At one point, however, he wanders over and notices the question "Why so gloomy?" (in reference to the Police's songs) on my notepad.
"Gloomy?" he repeats, with a certain annoyed disbelief. "I don't disagree" - he continues - "they're not so much gloomy as introspective and about loneliness. But I'm not gonna write how wonderful the sunshine and trees and flowers are, because I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in what makes people tick, what makes people sad. That's just the sort of person I am. I'm not cheerful all the time." A little later Sting manages to escape from the interview.
The biggest asset the Police have besides their music is that Miles Copeland has been managing bands for a good decade. He knows all too well the pitfalls of popularity; Copeland worked with Wishbone Ash at the height of their UK success and also helped Renaissance and Climax Blues Band find decent-sized followings over here. He got out of that scene, he says, when he saw artists who'd achieved a degree of acceptance "refusing to take subways and taxis," spending far more money in studio time than their records would earn, and generally losing touch with reality. Besides being attracted to the new wave's energy, he saw a chance to work on a rational scale again. Currently he has to fight to keep it that way.
"What will happen in the next year is that more and more people will be making a living out of the group. So suddenly you've got all these people saying, 'You can't do this,' 'You can't do that,' 'You've gotta maintain your status.' Since there are only three people in the band and they record relatively cheaply; I hope the Police won't have to give way to things like that. As long as they don't fall into the bad habits of previous groups - touring with 45 roadies and five trucks, blowing money on the road - they'll have a lot of creative freedom. Financial worries don't exist anymore and the group maintains a very businesslike attitude in order to keep that freedom."
That approach has made possible an upcoming world tour that not only hits prime spots like Australia and Japan but also Bangkok, India, Egypt and Athens. As Stewart says, "For us to disappear from the marketplace for two weeks is gonna blow the record company's mind; nobody buys records in those places. We're just doing it 'cause we wanna play there."
"Even now," Miles notes with some impatience, "some people say we shouldn't tour because the record isn't out yet. The group was formed to play to people. So what if there's 10 seats left?"
As you read this, the Police's second album is out. 'Reggatta De Blanc' is immediately recognisable as coming from the band that recorded 'Roxanne' and 'Can't Stand Losing You'. The reggae licks have been integrated into the music, as opposed to their stiff employment on 'Outlandos d'Amour'; you're not likely to listen to 'Walking on the Moon' and think, "Here's another white band copping reggae." By the same token, the straight rockers kick with a well-timed force not found on the first LP. (Although, oddly enough, the standout in this regard is 'No Time This Time' a salvaged B-side from the days of 'Outlandos'.) The Police have grown up.
Stewart has a few words of explanation. "It was a real easy album for us to record; it only took three or four weeks. 'Outlandos' was recorded over a six-month period in bits and pieces. On 'Reggatta' we actually cancelled two weeks of studio time." Whereas on the first LP the songs had been rehearsed to death, "this time the material wasn't rehearsed but the band was. We knew each other's styles because we'd been playing together constantly for eight months, which we hadn't been doing when we recorded the first album."
Indeed, the Police have traded an often tentative, forced sound for one that positively reeks of self-assurance. But there's one problem. With the exception of the haunting 'Message in a Bottle', an airy update of 'Gimme Shelter' and a few others, the Police perform almost casually, sometimes forgetting to put forward the songs. Mind you, 'Reggatta De Blanc' consistently cuts a groove most bands would be lucky to stumble across at all. Only the Police sometimes sound as if they're playing more for themselves than an audience.
"We're not gonna work the same formula again and again with each album," Stewart declares. "Not only is that a cop-out artistically, it's a dead-end. When you repeat a formula it limits your career." Perhaps by virtue of their distinctive identity the Police will be able to write their own rules; perhaps it won't matter what they play if they continue to play this impressively. We'll see.
On the other hand, you can admire this band primarily for the great singles-type tunes found on both albums and let everything else slide. Stewart at least implies an awareness of this viewpoint when he boasts, "I guarantee you in any other group, a line that would have been used in rehearsal is, 'But we haven't got a 'Roxanne' on the album.' That's where groups f*** up, by looking for that. On 'Reggatta' there isn't a Roxanne, but there is a 'Message in a Bottle'."
The Police might be a little affronted if you termed them a hit machine - that is a gross oversimplification - but they're unpretentious enough that they probably wouldn't be bothered too much.
Andy puts all this Artistic Stuff in perspective with a typically succinct, good-humoured analysis: "We work in a genre that's not that obscure. We play in a certain style and that style has become popular."
One interesting sidelight of 'Reggatta' is how Stewart willingly blows his Klark Kent identity by singing on 'Any Other Day'. This Klark Kent fellow has released two loopy pop singles ('Don't Care' and 'Too Kool to Kalypso') and there's no mistaking the connection when Stewart opens his mouth. Still, he tries to play it cool, sort of.
"I've been heavily influenced by Klark Kent. It's very difficult when you're in contact with him not to adopt a lot of his style. I don't know all that much about him. It's very hard to get hold of him. He just hands me the tapes and I pay the bills. He's got a lot of responsibilities; he's heavily involved in business. He hasn't got time to record a lot of stuff. I've gotten an album out of him but I'm gonna see if I can get him to do a few more tracks to round it off.
"I wanna get him on-stage - I'm sure he'd be a great stage performer - but he's got commitments as the head of the Church of Kinetic Ritual. Maybe someday he'll explain that to you himself.
"But this is a Police interview, or we would talk about other acts I'm A&R man for as well. I'm a high executive A&R man as well as an accomplished musician."
Andy can't resist any longer: "You're pretty wonderful, aren't you?"
The show that evening, the first in the group's US tour, is thoroughly impressive. Live, the Police are endlessly intriguing; with only three instruments it's easy to follow the inventive, nimble ways they interact. Sting's melancholy voice floats above it all like a restive spirit. They stretch their songs like rubber bands, spacing them out in a way that probably wouldn't work on record but makes perfectly seductive sense live.
As I enter the conference room the next day, Sting and Andy are teasingly taking Stewart to task for breaking 0 in drumsticks in a week. It's obvious there was something in the air the day before - pre-tour jitters? - that's no longer a problem. Sting in particular has perked up; maybe it's due in part to his having just bought himself a Nikon camera.
Stewart attributes the Police's flexible performing style to the fact that they hate rehearsing.
Andy prefers a more proper explanation. "It's called the uncertainty principle and it's something we like to keep in our playing generally. It adds a certain edge to what you're doing when you know you're almost certain to f*** up in each number. You've gotta be on your toes and you've gotta keep listening. There's a tendency these days for musicians to rehearse every note from start to finish and that ends up making a lot of music sound sterile."
What sticks in my mind most of all are some remarks Andy Summers made when everyone else had cleared out of the room. As a backup musician who's worked with the likes of Kevin Ayers and Eric Burdon, Andy's been around long enough to have developed a critical, if not a jaundiced, eye. More than Sting or Stewart, Andy seems to take a step back when he considers the Police and their fortunes. Being a pop star doesn't make him worry that the music will get lost. "When you attain this level of success you sign more autographs, do more interviews, more picture-taking, a hundred times more of all of that then playing. It's about looking the part, but that's part of pop music. I quite enjoy being able to spout off here and there about how I feel about the world, as irrelevant as it may be.
"You do start taking things seriously when you get thousands of letters from very young kids and you realise they put you on a pedestal. It all becomes a reality after having read about it for years with other musicians."
What to do?
"You try and be responsible. You don't go around advocating taking acid first thing in the morning. It's a delicate line you have to tread, because a certain amount of responsibility is thrust on you - there you are playing basically a wild kind of music and people believe in you.
"The hardest thing for us now is to keep expanding musically. We've got this position that's hard to hold onto. In a year or two, if things keep going this way, we'll have to pull back and not tour so much.
"It would be wonderful if we were able to last ten years - the best groups have managed to do that. I think there's enough in us that we could pull it off."