07.07.2007 - MOJO
Soundcheck. Not long now; the comeback gig's only three hours away. But they don't look nervous. Even when their faces appear in enormous close-up on the big screens above them. Even though tonight, May 28, 2007, Vancouver GM Place hockey arena, it's their first concert proper for more than 20 years since they broke up in discord and disarray. They're talking to each other on-mike, meeting each other's gaze with grave attention, their intimate conversation echoing around the banks of empty bucket seats.
Civilised problem-solving, it seems.
"There's more juice in this than we're getting," says Stewart Copeland after a minute or two of 'The Bed's Too Big Without You'.
"It's nice to when we jam on it," says Andy Summers. The others nod.
Then Sting concludes, "It's something we can rehearse and get right." They group-hug and wander off.
Until 8.30pm when the 21,000 crowd audience stand up as one and roar a great breaking wave of welcome-back; no worries, no doubts, no concern for musicianly minutiae. Just, 'Message In A Bottle'... "Yaaaaaay!" Forty-two thousand hands shoot up in the air as it were Wembley and Hurst had just scored a last-minute winner. That is what happens when a comeback hits the spot: d?©j?? vu and a whole new ball game.
Every song's a winner, every floodlit chorus and lonely verse. The crowd even cheers when the band launch into atonal counterpoints of their fetching pop melodies, those characteristic Police moments of molten construct-destruct when the band look at each other in wide-eyed speculation and alarm as if asking, "What key are we in? What song were we on before I got lost playing this?" Proof, if it were needed, that The Police didn't get to be the biggest band in the world in the early '80s by being the pristine smoothies of repute: they did it by standing up as three spiky individuals together, fighting for success, for their music, fighting each other; a band barely under control, sustainability not an issue or option.
The next morning, in the clubby, dark wood dining-room at the band's hotel, Sting looks tense, perhaps bemused, only a couple of steps away from in-shock about what's happening to him. His handsome face has lately accepted middle-age ¬ñ taking on a lean, sculpted look. Possessed of a commanding physical stillness, he talks with quiet thoughtfulness. "Everyone had a great time," he says, "but I was having a great time and thinking, 'Oh God, wrong key... change that... this needs more rehearsal.' This is my job. This is me. Throughout my solo career it's been, have to be perfect, have to be in control. And now I can't be. But I know people love it, this human, shambolic thing rather than note-perfect Stingworld. And I'm learning to run with it. I mean, Stewart's a wonderful, but totally unpredictable drummer..."
In a nearby Greek restaurant, the unpredictable drummer buzzes. Plug into Stewart Copeland and you could light a small town. He's always been this way, words or drumbeats over-revving, knowledge and opinions about everything under the sun, ebullient with laughter. "Some of those songs," he crows, "the improvisations were 20 times longer than intended, and that's the real thing. In rehearsals we've been saying, eight bars of this, eight bars of that. Some of our most earnest discussions have been on that subject. I'm not counting any bars. I don't know what I'm gonna play"
"Here's the rub. For Sting, music is a religion. For me, it's a simple pleasure. For him, it's something you build and construct. For me, it's something you feel and play without thought. But it is fucking important. My philosophy now is wake up every day saying 'Give Sting what he wants'. And he wants this little change in what I play on 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. So on-stage we're coming up to that point and my conscious brain is saying, 'I'm gonna play Sting wants!' when, oops ¬ñ my hand played what Sting doesn't want. What can you do?"
"Stewart and I are mirror opposites," says Sting. "But that's a gift to me. I have to empathise, I have to master the... there we go, control again. You know, it's my desire to be spontaneous too, I want to be flying in a joyous cloud around the band, but I need the ground to be stable under my feet."
Creativity through conflict always was the Police way. How's it going? In reply, Copeland draws a mountain range in the air: "There were fights and there still are. Verbal, they were never physical. These days we're on a three- or four-day cycle. We're playing nicely, then the little rubs and grinds start, you know, 'Stewart, don't play that', 'Sting, I wanna', Then, Nyanyanyanyannnnnn... 'You fucking...!" Stomp off. Errrrrrgh! It drives me nuts and I'm thinking, I don't need this, I'm not going to put up this. Then a little later it's, 'Sting?' 'Stewart?' 'You know I love you.' 'You know I love you too.' (he sniffs, slobbers, laughs). Two grown men kissing and hugging tearfully. After that we're on our best behaviour. Until he starts. And I start. Fortunately, we've all had teenage children and we know about the tantrums, the emotionality ¬ñ it's amazing how much we use our parenting techniques on one another."
Up in the hotel penthouse, amid the scattered debris of his music and his family, Andy Summers has put on a few pounds and a few lines, but seems a far more tranquil and easy-going fellow than in the past. Reviewing current intra-band relations, he raises an eyebrow and summons reinforcements from his studies of Zen and Karl Jung. "Sometimes," he says, "we have to get to a place where we're all telling one another, 'You're fucking shit and you can't play at all'. Then we start laughing and it's all lovey-dovey. You have to get this Buddha-like approach, otherwise it's going to kill you. My attitude is, be kind to Sting and Stewart, try to serve their needs. At the same time, I'm carrying so much of the music I have to be very assertive. I don't think Sting's always right, but I do trust his innate musical sense, so I can say, OK go along with this, keep him happy for now. Because he's going to realise what's wrong. And he does."
Last autumn, when Sting first considered a Police reunion, he spent some time telling himself he must be out of his mind. But he rejected such pessimism. "I have good instincts," he says, "when I follow them."
December 5, 1976. "A thousand quid? You're not worth it," says the scrawny kid with a beard and a chequebook. Sonja Kristina and Stewart Copeland stare wanly at him. Their band, Curved Air, have just played a great end-of-term show for the students of Newcastle Polytechnic. And here's this whippersnapper social secretary saying the show was crap. Standing beside them in the dressing room I feel sorry for them. More so because they've just been telling me they're bankrupt, the VATman on their trail, and after six years, they're going to call it a day.
As weekly music mag Sounds' man in the North-east, I know Kristina and her drummer boyfriend Copeland somewhat, and they ask me if I could take them to a local gig ¬ñ maybe take their minds off their troubles. Luckily, my favourite Newcastle band are playing ¬ñ soulful jazz-rock, fantastic repertoire, Peter Green, Return To Forever, they write a new song every week so the set's always changing, terrific...
Last Exit are on in the canteen at St Mary's teacher training college. Some Horace Silver piano piece sparkles as we walk in and stand at the back. There's no stage, lights up, the band to one side among the tables. The bass player, Gordon Sumner, who's been Sting for a couple of years by now, is wearing a trim beard and dungarees. He starts to sing Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine'. A hundred or so students stop talking, listen, and then give out matey hometown whoops of approval. Sting smiles, thank-yous and goes into one of his own songs, 'I Burn For You'. A torch song, dead slow, Sting stock-still, eyes straight ahead.
Everyone in the room stands transfixed. Even Copeland and Kristina look mildly interested. But what they're thinking, I later learn, is this. Stewart: "Mmm, he's got something. And I need a bass player." Sonja: "I can see him in a stadium."
When the band take a break, I do the introductions: "Sting, Sonja and Stewart from Curved Air..." What appears to be a desultory conversation ensues. I'm thinking, with no notion of the future, what an odd pairing they make: Sting, the son of a Wallsend milkman, Copeland, the son of an American international politico-espionage operator who co-founded the CIA. What Sting, a constant diarist, later recalls in his autobiography, Broken Music, is, "I can't help feeling that Stewart's sizing me up. He says if I should be in London any time soon to give him a call. I'm flattered but notice he doesn't pay the same compliment to the rest of the band..."
Curved Air play their farewell gig in London before Christmas. Last Exit, meanwhile, prepare for their own farewell, to Newcastle. They rule the roost in their hometown, but they can't get a record deal. Demo tapes and the odd sparsely attended "showcase" gig in London just won't do it. Although Sting's songwriting has landed them all a publishing deal with Carol Wilson of Virgin, even her own company's record label has rejected them. So Last Exit have decided they have to move to London.
Sting is utterly determined. Although he's recently married to actress Frances Tomelty and they have a son, Joe, only a few weeks old, he's given up his job teaching at a primary school. I interview him for Sounds about the trails of an unknown band from "the sticks" and he says, "The band is more important than security. The worse the economic situation gets the more heroic it seems, this odyssey you have to go through. But I wouldn't change it. I'd rather be in Last Exit at the moment than in the Stones or even Yes."
Fascinated by punk, Copeland and Kristina had haunted the Roxy and the Vortex since the autumn. Looking beyond Curved Air, Copeland had thrashed out some very short, fast songs on his guitar and he wanted a new band. In early January, he called me in Newcastle and asked for Sting's number. They talked briefly and Sting said he'd maybe see him in London.
On January 6, 1977, Last Exit played their goodbye gig at the University Theatre bar. A couple of nights later, Sting and Frances packed his Citroen Dyane with two bags of clothes, two guitars, a rocking chair. "This is all we have," he writes in Broken Music, "but we are elated... I feel that my real life is only now beginning." Beyond that imagined "real life", he remembers his dreams with striking precision: "to be recognised as someone unique, defined by my voice, by my ability as a songwriter, to have the world know my songs and my melodies just as they had known and acknowledged the songs of The Beatles."
While Sting's family began their London life sleeping on the floor at a friend's flat, the other members of Last Exit, apart from Sting's closest friend, keyboard player Gerry Richardson, deferred their departure from Newcastle.
Sting signed on and spent all day fruitlessly flat-hunting. Within a week he'd called Copeland, dropped by his and Kristina's Mayfair flat ¬ñ delusively grand, since it was a squat ¬ñ and arranged to come back for a jam along with a new guitarist friend, Corsican punk Henry Padovani. Although Padovani could barely play a chord ¬ñ his best credential, given the times ¬ñ the two prepared carefully for Sting's first tryout with 'The Police' (Copeland had the name from the outset). They donned leathers and shades, says Padovani, "and when Sting arrived with his baby in a travel cot, we'd adopted the pose of dangerous rockers, silent and moody. Sting was wearing dungarees. He must have thought we looked like a bunch of idiots."
Certainly, when Copeland hammered out a few of his songs, Sting felt "musically appalled". But he liked them both ¬ñ and, as he recalls now, glimpsed the opportunity to "harness" Copeland's can-do energy to his own more reserved obsessiveness ¬ñ so he thrashed along. Soon The Police became his only, albeit pathetic, hope. Carol Wilson admitted that she'd tried every record company extant on Last Exit's behalf and not a sniff. Within weeks, the band dissolved, leaving Sting and Richardson adrift in the capital.
While Richardson played piano in a topless bar until making his escape via a job as Billy Ocean's MD, Sting began offering Copeland his own songs, Newcastle's jazzy pop favourites. "Stewart stopped him each time," laughs Padovani. "Sting, you still don't get it. Write us something like, 'My job is a heap of shit and I'm going to smash everything up!' That we can play.' I could see Sting seething inside and then he'd play at three times his normal speed. Stewart loved that." Sting did a few passable early shots at the new vernacular: 'Landlord', 'Dead End Job', 'Visions Of The Night.'
But all they had was rehearsals. No gigs. No money. A phony punk band, they lived real punk lives, ducking and diving. Copeland and Kristina cleaned houses for ¬£5 a morning. They were all more worried about Sting and his family, though. "The baby must have been in his thinking every day," says Padovani. "He was freaked out about money. He hardly went out and when I went round to his flat I would always have some food with me and put it in the fridge."
Finally, Stewart's brother, Curved Air's hyperkinetic former manager Miles, got them some gigs. Temporarily in ruins himself, he booked a UK tour for New York punk Cherry Vanilla. When she couldn't afford to bring her rhythm section, he said he knew just the boys to fill the vacancies ¬ñ at ¬£15 per night.
Copeland and Sting backed her on several tours through to early summer, with The Police unleashed a support band. They played their first-ever gig on March 1 at Newport Stowaway: 10 songs in 17 minutes, Padovani clanging away more or less at random. Audiences saw straight through their fake punk posture and refused them even the credit of a good gobbing. Still, by may they had released a single, 'Fall Out', on Miles Illegal label. Stewart borrowed the money, arranged the pressing, designed the label, carried boxes of records to the shops himself. And the band's name and handcuff logo seemed everywhere in London, stencilled or postered on walls and hoardings ¬ñ not through any looming cult following, but because Copeland and Padovani got out there after night at 3am with the paint sprays and buckets of paste.
Padovani says it was just a matter of "Stewart and I figuring, 'How the fuck are we going to keep Sting in the band?' And, although Sting denounced their music ¬ñ "Rubbish!" A joke!" and so on ¬ñ he did appreciate their spirit and Copeland's passion and entrepreneurial ability. Thirty years later, he still shakes his head in wonder at the memory of "Stewart's can-do American attitude. I wanted to weld myself to them. And then, of course, it was volatile..."
Nonetheless, that month a different opportunity put pressure on triumvirate unity. Musical pressure. Carol Wilson's boyfriend, Mike Howlett, a former Gong bass player and later a producer, invited Sting and Copeland round to form a new band, Strontium 90 ¬ñ initially for a Gong reunion in Paris which involved innumerable ex-members playing with their current bands. Howlett brought along a guitarist, Andy Summers, a respected '60s veteran of everything from Zoot Money to Soft Machine to classical guitar studies, then touring with Kevin Ayers' band.
Amid the pixies, teapots and spaced hippydom of the Gong show AT Paris Circus Hippodrome on May 28, the tuneful rock grunt of Howlett's Strontium 90 attracted some attention. But nobody spotted the first appearance together of Sting, Copeland and Summers as historic. Except maybe the guitarist himself.
The morning after the Paris gif, Summers cornered Sting over breakfast and said, "It seems I should join The Police." A little later he pulled Copeland into a caf?© in London and gave him the same treatment. Although as he says now, it didn't make any sense, "I thought, 'This band is nothing, the songs are shitty, why would I want to do this?' Me, still embracing bourgeois values like wanting to be able to play your fucking instrument. It was ridiculous for me, wasn't it?" Yet he liked Sting's voice and Copeland's "absolutely fanatical drive". He kept nagging them until Copeland and Sting surrendered, although they did warn him he wouldn't like it.
They told Mike Howlett they'd stolen his band and he accepted it "like a gentleman". A month later, The Police, with Padovani and Summers, played their first gig at the Music Machine, London on July 25. Next, according to Copeland, Summers turned "the death stare" on Padovani, whose incompetence he could not abide.
Two weeks later, after a fractious and futile studio session with John Cale producing, they agreed their dear friend Padovani had to go. Sting told him face to face. He accepted with short-lived resentment and long ¬ñterm generosity: "If Andy hadn't arrived the band would have died," he says. But Copeland fell to fearing they'd just blown their lone vestige of "hipness".
Summers, who turned in his retainer from Kevin Ayers to prove good faith, still bridles at the enduring notion that he was a "cruel bastard who pushed Henry out, as if everyone else were innocent". He insists that, "This is the stuff groups are made from: conflict, desire, betrayal, and strategies that Machiavelli would be proud of." In truth, he'd recognised an urgent anxiety within himself: He knew he had little time left to shape his own musical life. "I saw that I could go on forever being a very good sideman, but in me the strongest need is to be an artists and a supreme musician." He adds forcefully, "As far as I'm concerned the group didn't start until I joined."
It looked that way when the new trio played their first gig. Sting says that at Birmingham Rebecca's on August 18, "out of sheer desperation, panic and I suppose character we somehow manger to kick off the shackles of self-doubt and despondency and within the first eight bars of the first tune begin to play with unrelenting power... The crowd, at first tentative, begins to go crazy."
For a while they stayed high on their Andy Summers honeymoon. As he recalls in his autobiography, One Train Later, he briefly became the driving force and morale booster: "Not holding anything back I demand more, push for musical excellence even if it's for a one-night show. Sting says nothing but sees a new set of possibilities and the seeds are sown." Meanwhile. Sting was thinking, "This is the kind of musician I could write for, the kind of musician I could entrust with my songs, who could inspire me, who could realise the music inside my head..."
But then everything stopped dead again. "No gigs, no press, no prospects, no future!" Sting would groan at the memory. When Padovani, by then much improved on guitar and holding down a job with Wayne County & The Electric Chairs, helped them out by scrounging a few support spots on a European tour he found Copeland at a low ebb. "Stewart felt a total failure," he says, "His group, his creation, was on the point of separating... He realised their music would never find a place in the current punk scene. The situation was catastrophic. Sting must have thought he had spent his life working on his technique and his writing, all for nothing."
On that Wayne County tour, when they reached Paris, The Police checked into a flea-ridden hotel behind Gare Saint-Lazare. In the foyer, Sting noticed a poster for a Com?©die Française production of Cyrano de Bergerac. When he went out he passed an alley full of prostitutes, some quite young. That night in his room he started murmuring, "Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light..."
Tonight I faced 8,000 kids, the majority of whom ¬ñ I think ¬ñ adored me. Most of them wanted to sing with me to make me feel good. They have a responsibility to me," said Sting, smiling at how strange this sounded. But meaning it. It was the middle of a midwinter night, December 1980. We sat comfortably in the back of the a leathery chauffeured car, driving back to London from a concert at Stafford Bingley Hall. Maybe I looked at him oddly, because he went on, "I am objective about the adoration. I enjoy the feeling of power, but I don't believe in it myself."
I was catching up with The Police for a book I co-wrote with Hugh Fielder. That December and again in January 1981 we interviewed them hour after hour: London, New York, St Louis and Los Angeles, cars, planes, hotels, their dressing rooms and their homes ¬ñ although Sting was starting to say things like, "I don't really have a home, I have a refuge."
He'd made it all right, but he was at the stage of wrestling with it more than he enjoyed it. It's all too much, it's all too little. He'd declare, "I believe strongly that money is freedom and power and now that I've had a taste I want it. I don't want to be in anyone's hands any more, I don't want to be told what to do because I have to feed the kids so I have to do a duff gig backing a duff cabaret - I've had that. Up to here. It's degrading." You could hear the milk bottles chime in his memory from the years of getting up at four to help his father, smell the stale beer stink from all the working-men's clubs where he'd accompanied the singer or the stripper.
He moaned about the Virgin publishing deal, reckoned it had cost him half a million (a couple of years later he sued them; informed onlookers called it a draw). He boasted ¬ñ in a grumbling way ¬ñ "We support the record industry of Britain. We're the only act that pays." He'd been using that line a good deal, we'd heard, to the annoyance of many on lower pay grades.
The niggly, malcontent undertone persisted. It bottomed out after The Police played New York club The Ritz the night following their January 10 debut at Madison Square Garden. "I got upset with the audience. You cunts aren't taking a blind bit of notice are you? Wanky and self-indulgent. A shameful performance. I was despairing, I cannot rationalise it. I am at the pinnacle of what I've been trying to get for the past nine years and desperately unhappy."
The Police found themselves through 'Roxanne'. With a bit of money from sessions in Germany for a Summers connection, avant-classical composer Eberhard Schoener, they bought some time at a rehearsal studio in Finchley. By no means Sting's first decent tune, 'Roxanne' did prove the test-bed for 'Policification'. Sting conceived it as "a jazzy bossa nova", which could have brought out Copeland's allergies. Instead, he led Sting into hitting the second beat of the bar, bass and bass drum simultaneously. Key to the door. A touch of reggae ¬ñ hardly surprising as they'd all been listening to Marley and others for a couple of years.
The fresh approach captivated Summers too. His book's techno-poetical flights describe finding "high, cloudy chords coloured by echo and delay" that fill Sting's songs "with air and light". Before long, he reckons between them they conjured a "sound for which there is no previous formula, a space-jam-meets-reggae-meets Bartok collage with blue-eyed soul vocals".
Although occasionally "sullen" as he watched his own songs slip back down the queue, Copeland said he could recognise the artistic verities behind this turn of events. He acknowledged that, while "berserk" Police punk offered its satisfactions, it wasn't exactly profound, and that "the West Indian influence put some depth on what we had."
They decided to go for an album and, after much ringing around, in January 1978 they discovered Surrey Sound in Leatherhead. A former village hall converted by young local GP Nigel Gray, it offered 16-track at ¬£11 per hour. Gray loved The Police from the off and they liked his attitude too. As engineer/co-producer he proved a good match: enthusiastic, open to creative adventure, outspoken on occasions (he says his training as a doctor gave him the degree of arrogance to eyeball such high-octane characters). Reminiscing about "good old Nigel", Copeland praises him as a "a really good referee. He understood the dynamic of the band and he was able to steer a battle to the conclusion that resulted in good music."
Sporadically, over the following year they recorded songs that became 'Outlandos d'Amour' (which cost ¬£2,000) and 'Reggatta de Blanc' (¬£9,000). At first, they paid their own way, hand-to-mouth when they got a few gigs or a windfall like the fateful Wrigley's chewing gum TV ad. Sting wangled them a job, which involved posing as punky "youths", through his wife Frances's agent. Then the ad people said "There's just one thing, you have to be blond". A crucial look was born ¬ñ albeit "like some old whore" in Summers' estimation, on first glance in the mirror. But The Police felt sure that, musically, they were onto something. At first, though, nobody listened. Virgin Publishing's Carol Wilson remembers playing it as readily as they had Last Exit. "I think that was partly because the Police were still a laughing stock," she says. "They were at an all-time low. I couldn't see anything else we could do with them."
In March, Miles Copeland came down to hear what they were up to. Gray rolled the tapes while he sat reading and muttering, "Crap! Progressive garbage!" Until they tried 'Roxanne'. Sting claims he actually watched Miles's ears redden as he listened. When it was over he leapt to his feet and hollered something like "Guys, that is a raving classic. I'm gonna take it to A&M tomorrow and we're gonna get this record out."
In credit because he'd brought Squeeze to A&M, Miles went to them with The Police and the kind of offer any label would love to hear. Great single, album to follow, he said, and he didn't want an advance so the deal was risk free. All he asked for was their best royalty rate and a guarantee they'd release it in America. Deal. It meant that if The Police sold records, they'd get rich quick.
Soon after this, Miles pulled off another business coup. He persuaded Sting that to avoid money rows and acknowledge the others' creative work, he should split a third of his publishing income with Stewart and Summers ¬ñ 16-plus per cent each, that is. "Sting might have said it was rammed down his throat," laughs Stewart now. "But it was recognition of how the band made a song what it became on the record ¬ñ Andy's chord voicings on 'Roxanne', for instanced."
Only Gray suffered in the Miles whirlwind when he turned down a percentage on the then putative 'Outlandos D'Amour' in favour of the barrelhead of cash he needed, then didn't get paid for a year anyway. Even then, the single flopped first time out in April 1978 and optimism promptly deflated. Five gigs between May and September. The summer dragged like a near-death experience...
And in the end, maybe it was Sting's face that did it. A peculiar question I asked him on the road from Stafford was, "When did you become beautiful?" He had an answer: "When I was 25 I think (1976-7). You know the Talking Heads song 'Seen And Not Seen' from 'Remain In Light'? It was a bit like that. I almost imposed it on myself as a result of that feeling... that it should be." He said it sounded strange to say it out loud.
In October 1978, for the first time he felt the effect of his face on a mass audience. The Police appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test. Sting lived it like a star for the day. The BBC flew him to Manchester from Brighton where he was filming his conspicuous bit part in Quadrophenia. They sand their second single, 'Can't Stand Losing You', Sting to the front and centre, spiky blond hairdo, shades, black leather jacket. And the next day he realised he'd been noticed, he had entered "the land of other people's awareness... a distinct temperature change in any room that you walk into."
'Can't Stand Losing You' charted, at 42, and suddenly The Police were on the move. In erstwhile absence of UK action, Miles and third brother Ian Copeland, the old hippy/Vietnam veteran turned radical rock agent, deployed them as guinea pigs for the new indie tour they were setting up in America to give British new wave acts a chance over there. The Police flew Laker Skytrain, the first low-cost airline to New York ¬ñ 60 quid each ¬ñ and were on-stage at CBGB 90 minutes after landing. They played 23 dates in 27 days with an Econoline van and one roadie, earned 0 a night, just about covered costs. They played flat-out no matter what. Legendarily to six stray punters in Poughkeepsie, and sharpened the act no end.
"On that tour The Police became dogs of war," says Sting today. "We stayed in the cheapest places, shared beds. Coming to America, paying for ourselves and playing the dodgiest clubs. Grinding out forward movement. That's what bonded us. Bloody-mindedness."
Grateful to have a support act on an Albertos Y Lost Trios Paranoias tour when they returned, The Police suddenly found that everything had changed. Just released, 'Outlandos D'Amour' climbed slowly up the charts (in America too). And teenage girls started screaming at them. In no position to get snobby about who loved them, The Police embraced their "boy band" moment. "As IT came over the hill, I though, 'Yeah!' and I went for it," Sting said in 1981. "I am married, I have a kid ¬ñ what girls get with The Police is real sexuality. The Bay City Rollers was jerking off. Kiss me quick. With The Police you can actually get fucked."
Gerry Richardson observed the band's reaction to this transition with a jaundiced muso's eye. In spring 1979, he played keyboards on their final rock-classical stint with Eberhard Schoener. "I remember how unbelievably ambitious Andy and Stewart were," he says. "'On' all the time, checking every mirror, 'How do I look?' I thought, 'What a pair of twats! Well, Sting has got it too. He even had a backstage costume. A boxer's dressing-gown! But they were very hard-working..."
Back at Surrey Sound, recording 'Reggatta de Blanc' around their German ready-cash excursion, The Police relished a sense of combining professionalism with inspiration. Arrive punctually at 10am, stop at 8pm, put their whole lives into it betweenwhiles.
Sting's writing had begun to dig deeper into himself, his capacity for controlled brooding. He'd only get drunk deliberately and 'Walking On The Moon' came out of one of those nights ¬ñ a murky bar, the whirling pit at the seedy hotel, and a tune tumbling out of him, "walking round the room" he droned to himself. 'Message In A Bottle' and 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' emerged as he learned better how to use what h experienced ¬ñ one of his fundamental conditions being loneliness (from being away on the road and then again from growing up in a family where nobody talked about what mattered to them). "Loneliness hits me, but I use it," he said. "I glorify in it."
Summers, in turn, gloried in the band "picking up speed" around these songs: "It's sad music that elevates you. 'Message In A Bottle' has that bittersweet strain. You can find it in Mississippi blues or Bach or Indian music and it's all tied up with a sense of rage and frustration."
Nigel Gray enjoyed the study in group dynamics as Sting and Copeland worked with their old master guitarist: "Andy would go right in, 'Right my solo'. And because he's an old bluesy jazz player he'd do something a bit clich?©d and predictable. Then Stewart and Sting would be really scathing and he'd shout, 'Well, what do you want?' They'd be, 'Oh anything!' and he'd get so pissed off he'd do something stupid. 'I'll show you, atonal, weird, something you couldn't possibly like!' And that's what's on the album. Off-the-wall fantastic solos."
For the next two years after 'Reggatta de Blanc's' release and immediate success in October 1979, it was all momentum. Non-stop touring, UK, Europe, USA (150 American dates in 18 months). Chart action: re-released 'Roxanne' Number 6 and re-released 'Can't Stand Losing You' 2, then 'Message In A Bottle' and 'Walking On The Moon' both Number 1; 'Outlandos D'Amour' 6 and 'Reggatta de Blanc' Number 1, while both went Top 30 in America.
With The Police ready for anything, global-minded Miles Copeland decided the time was right for fantasy and reality to get acquainted. If they acted like they were already the world's biggest band, even though they weren't... He conceived a tour which, in early 1980, took them to places way off the beaten track. India, Hong Kong, Egypt, Argentina; 19 countries, the grandest gesture.
"That tour was about glamour," Miles said. "The band saw it immediately. The spirit of adventure. Most groups wait until they're 10 years into their career and they're dead before they look at the outside world. I said, 'Look, the energy is now. Let's have the whole world selling for us for the next 10 years'."
Sting called Bombay "the greatest gig of my life, emotional beyond belief". Then he nearly got jailed in Cairo because he shouted at the chief of police for beating up a fan. (Later, the same thing happened to Summers in Buenos Aires except he actually kicked the cop ¬ñ humiliating apologies ensued along with glimmering awareness about the real politics the Copelands had grown up with.) But the tour proved to be the end of band innocence in other ways.
With another album needed, Sting took his family to Dublin for a couple of weeks and demoed 10 songs, making his own arrangements on guitar, bass and drum machine. That July when he arrived at the studio in Wisseloord, Holland, he wondered whether this time Summers and Copeland might care to more or less copy their parts from his blueprint...
Today, Stewart Copeland can offer an understanding perspective on this development. "Sting's a complete musician. When we got to 'Zenyatta' he'd had the validation of a lot of hits and he had the obligatory rock star home studio. When he brought 'Roxanne' to us he was charmed that we loved his song: 'God, you like it really? Andy, you think that guitar part would make it better? Oh thanks!' But for 'Zenyatta' ¬ñ which I think is our worst album - because he's obsessive , he arrived with every aspect of his songs fully crystallised to the point of perfection in his mind.
"However, for me, if it's gonna be I'm playing a session on somebody's else's record, I don't wanna! I'm going to struggle to make this band a collaboration ¬ñ which is what I created it for."
Back in 1981, though, a few months after the 'Zenyatta Mondatta' sessions, Copeland expressed himself less reflectively: "I don't want to get snide but you should listen to some of Sting's original demos!" he snorted. "Very straight. No effort to make an interesting musical statement. 'Canary In A Coalmine' and 'Man In A Suitcase' were almost candy pop. We needed something with a bit of meat on."
Nigel Gray came to Wisseloord feeling disgruntled about being refused a co-producer's percentage on the album. Even so, he'd midwifed the band sound and he couldn't let it slide. "Sting's demos were really laid back and jazzy," he says. "Well, I'd known the band since before they were famous so I wasn't at all in awe of them. I said, 'You can't do that! Go out there and Policify them.' In fact, it wasn't a big fight. Sting accepted what we were all saying with good grace. But he never spoke to me again after Wisseloord ¬ñ I suppose he was pissed off at me telling him what to do."
For the first time, The Police left the studio dissatisfied. While an album featuring 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', 'Driven To Tears', 'De Do Do Do De Da Da Da' and 'Shadows In The Rain' clearly had plenty going for it, they'd been rushed. They finished recording at 4am on August 9 and started their next world tour in Werchter, Belgium, at 9pm that night. A new kind of pressure bore down on them.
"'Zenyatta' was the cusp between the thrill of conquering the world and the responsibility of being the conqueror," says Copeland, in hindsight. "Big record company honchos would hang out in the studio, discussing sales figures and pulling Sting aside. We were acutely aware that we were Creating A Product For The Marketplace. The relationship between ourselves got pretty heated under those condensed conditions."
Regardless, momentum and some good tunes did the trick. 'Zenyatta Mondatta' hit Number 1 in the UK, 5 IN America. The gigs multiplied, sold out and grew bigger all the way through to Madison Square Garden.
About three in the morning after that December 1980 Stafford gig, we arrived at Sting's house in Hampstead. Over cheese sandwiches, port and brandy, he started talking about lyric-writing. He said he'd begun all "me me me", but, with experience, turned to "what's happening outside ¬ñ 'Driven To Tears', 'When The World Is Running Down You Make The Best Of What's Still Around'. But soon he drifted away from intellectual defence of his work and got down to what he saw as the dirty truths of the craft.
"It's ruthless," he said. "I thank God for the times I was down, the time my girlfriend left me. I'm praying for something to fight against now... This is scary. I even cynically think about the day that Frances and I might break up. I'm devoted to her and yet I can see how useful alienation is. When you look at it, it's horrid. But this life, it's too easy. I'm full. The artist in me is looking for death, it's looking for destruction."
So perhaps the new level of strife within the band ¬ñ which they all talked about constantly ¬ñ was just what he needed: destruction to the point of creativity. "In the Police I fight tooth and nail for what I want," he said. "Stewart is a very similar character. I'm very much into rivalry. Stewart and I are rivals, always will be: he's at the back and he wants to be at the front. He's a lead guitarist in the guise of s drummer. Whereas Andy is the lubrication between us. He weaves his way, it's the survival instinct, he's been through a lot and he knows how to do it."
Hearing this quote a few weeks later, Copeland said it was fair enough, except that Summers was nothing like wary, emollient figure Sting portrayed, but a fierce scrapper on his own behalf. (These divergent perceptions remain: in Vancouver Sting refers to Summers as a "conciliator", while Copeland sees him as more of an onlooker who "wants to be on the winning side if there's a lynching round here").
"It does require a lot of self-confidence to work with Sting," he said. "He eats people. It's because he's got such an incredible output of everything it takes. Unless you have a high opinion of yourself, when you're stuck with him working day after day it can be very trying on your self-esteem. However, at the moment Sting is a bit demoralised. It's not surprising and it's overcomable. He's not going to leave the group lightly or irresponsibly. I think this is the best gig for him ¬ñ and when it isn't off he'll go... If Sting's had enough, the friendship is more important than another year of good money."
Sting took a somewhat different stance. "We've seen too much of each other. I've always said that ambition is stronger than friendship. People have been shocked by that, but I believe it. All for one, one for all? Fuck that. That's very limited. I'm out for myself and they know it! As long as the group is useful for my career I'll stay. When it isn't I'll drop it like a stone... I do sometimes think, I want this to end."
The ''Zenyatta Mondatta' tour ended in Australia, February 1981, but, after the two years they'd been through, normality seemed beyond their grasp. In One Train Later. Summers ¬ñ who already had one young daughter with his wife Kate ¬ñ writes of the emotional dislocation which cost him dear: "...dazed and confused, I stupidly decide to spend another three weeks photographing in Asia... I am compelled to stay on the road, not wanting the illusion to stop for a minute. With this decision, I exchange my marriage for 40 rolls of film." (That June, Kate phoned during the 'Ghost In The Machine' sessions to tell him she wanted a divorce).
With Sting in London filming deeply odd three-hour sci-fi morality play Artemis 81 for the BBC, Summers began his excursion in Bali, accompanied by Copeland and Sonja Kristina (whose first baby was born the following year). Fuelled by the local magic mushroom omelettes, Summers shot stills at a manic pace while Copeland studied the island's wonders through the lens of his Super 8 movie camera. As a performer herself, Kristina could just about relate to this hyperactive detachment. "Bali made me realise that, although Stewart really does care about people, he had his own agenda," she says, "and his own direction and he would never hold up for anybody else. There he was just filming everything and I was thinking, I'm going to have to stay on his heels because he's not going to look around and see if I'm there, he's flying, he's immersed."
Although, they came to stardom as men of some experience nothing had prepared them for this life with all the scenery shifted. "The curious thing about adulation," says Copeland, in his commentary to his Super 8 Police documentary, Everyone Stares, "is it starts to feel like obligation. You want to say, 'Groove on the music.... But why are you looking at me that way?"
All too often, hell was other people. "People are relating to us in a different way," wrote Summers, "as if we have a power that sets us apart, and they stare at us with a milky look of adoration." Amid floodwaters of overheated, sycophantic, drugged-up neediness, he sees the three of them as "the still point and in some ways the least damaged" because they did have a level of gang-hard mutual care, "guys toughing it out together."
But when they recorded that summer, at George Martin's Air Montserrat with the relatively quiet Hugh Padgham replacing Gray as co-producer, their backs-to-the-wall camaraderie melted away. Despite the most consistently strong set of songs they'd recorded ¬ñ including 'Spirits In The Material World', 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', 'Invisible Sun', 'Secret Journey' and Summers's 'Omegaman' ¬ñ they tangled themselves in musical power struggles. Copeland's film commentary notes, "We're starting to not support each other... it's getting lonely in this band..."
Policifying Sting's preconceived arrangements became an ever more contentious issue. He brought along Jean Roussel, who played piano on his demo of 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'. Summers and Copeland fiercely resented his intrusion and Roussel flew back to New York three days later. But the track defeated them anyway. Copeland says they tried it "reggae, punk and jazz, fast, slow, sideways, upside down and backwards," before they "surrendered" to what Copeland called "Stingosis" and overdubbed drums and guitar on Sting's demo. "Nothing came even close to that demo," says Copeland. "Andy and I looked at each other ¬ñ give it up. We surrendered. The hit record is Sting's demo with my drums and Andy's guitar overdubbed."
Sonja Kristina always liked Sting but she has a tart explanation for the troubles worsening during the 'Ghost In The Machine' period: "Sting was never really into drugs until being around coke. It had a bad effect on his personality. It made him less considerate, therefore more prima donna-ish and tiresome."
"I'm sure," he says now. "Cocaine is horrible. It makes you feel uncomfortable in your skin. I was lucky I couldn't get too much of it into my system because it always blocked up my sinuses. I realised it was so stupid taking it that, some time after we recorded 'Ghost', I did it one last time, said some kind of ritual incantation and got rid of the rest. I never took it again."
Summers gave the album's final howl of rage when he heard that A&M had chosen 'Omegaman' as the first single in America, until Sting vetoed it. Even so, he says the three of them did their best to hold together in the aftermath. Offered separate limos, they refused so that they could "talk about everything" and avoid secret sulks.
Over the next 18 months the tours continued, rigorous as ever, while Sting went to war with Virgin Publishing and his marriage top Frances Tomelty broke up (shortly after the birth of their second child). By the time The Police flew to Montserrat again in 1982 to record 'Synchronicity', they could no longer keep a lid on their emotions any longer.
Producer Padgham swiftly sent them to separate rooms to record "for sonic and social reasons"; Sting inevitably, in the control room, Summers in the studio, Copeland in an adjoining house linked by TV monitor. Copeland said the atmosphere was "poisonous". They barely got through it. At different points, Summers walked over to George Martin's house for restorative tea and sympathy, Padgham called his own manager for help, and Miles Copeland was summoned to rally the troops. Years later Sting admitted that, at that time, "I was terrible to work with, I was unsympathetic, aggressive, mean, selfish, egotistical." But he also maintained, "When we were making 'Synchronicity' there were terrible, terrible fights, and I think that's our best work. I don't think there's a historical precedent for the way The Police sound on that album. It's unique to us."
If the charts are any judge, he was right. 'Synchronicity' turned them into the biggest band in the world ¬ñ and especially in America, where it was Number 1 for 17 weeks, while 'Wrapped Around Your Finger', 'King Of Pain' and 'Synchronicity II' became smash hits, and 'Every Breath You Take' went on to rival 'Yesterday' as a global radio staples. "That was a fabulous summer, 1983," sighs Summers, reminiscing to MOJO about the breakthrough year when they played New York's Shea Stadium to emulate The Beatles. "For the first part of the tour we flew to gigs from his mansion in Bridgehampton outside New York. For Shea, they picked us up on the lawn with a chopper. It was rock legend. It was a fantastic, very heady night, everyone lit their lighters. Sort of a religious experience."
But when that tour finished, on March 4, 1984 in Melbourne, The Police were done with triumph. Only indignity, low farce and discontent remained. After a two-year break, when they played the short Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope tour, they still "couldn't get along", says Copeland (the final show was at Giant's Stadium, New Jersey, on June 15, 1986).
Unfortunately, though, back in London five weeks later, they actually tried to record another album. Never more than chimerical, it stood no chance at all once Copeland had fallen off a polo pony and broken his collarbone. Still, cussedly, they decided instead to rework 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' as a bonus track for a hits compilation. No good came of it.
First, Copeland ineptly provoked what he now recalls as a "rare altercation which had nothing to do with music. We were working on this track and I'm reading a magazine and I say, 'Hey Sting, here's a review of your movie [his Sting-goes-jazz tour doc Bring On The Night[, and I start reading it out loud. It started negative and just got worse and worse. I promise I wasn't doing it to be abusive for amusement."
Sting walked out. Shortly, Copeland received a letter which read: "Dear Stewart, If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all". Sting refused to come to the studio while Copeland was there. So they fell into replication of 'Synchronicity' syndrome ¬ñ with added silliness. For a week or more they took turns adding and deleting one another's snaredrum samples, Copeland's Fairlight versus Sting's Synclavier.
To get the track mixed, Miles Copeland mediated, and on the final morning Sting arrived a little after Stewart. "He comes to me with a rose, a hug, and then ¬ñ flick!, a 12-inch switchblade!" Copeland chortles today. "He said, 'This is for you, Copeland'. We got along famously for the rest of the day and the snare on that single is a mix of the two samples."
But, not surprisingly, that was it. The Police were done, although they never made it official. Each of them had already made solo records and begun other ventures ¬ñ Sting's 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles' and several movie roles, Summers' Robert Fripp collaborations and a book of Photographs, Copeland's 'The Rhythmatist' and the Rumblefish soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola. But "the other two", as they now suddenly seemed, found the break-up tougher going.
Summers had a troubled period of adjustment. "It took me a couple of years to come back to earth," he reflects. "Not having the band, it feels like a missing limb, yeah, a phantom limb ¬ñ you keep looking around for it."
For years, Copeland effectively consigned rock'n'roll to the hobby corner of his life, though he can rationalise it all now: "I appreciated... aaaah, probably not enough, but I did appreciate the sanctity of the composer and the value that that Sting's material brought to the band. What I didn't realise was how irritating it must have been for him. He's got a beautiful piece of music and he's all ready to have his band play it ¬ñ and he has to negotiate? He couldn't stand it any more. So we had to part company." Or, as Sting puts it, "After all that aggro about the band, the band, the band, I wanted the song, the song, the song, no tailoring, no limitations from an image of what the band could or could not do."
Clearly, the reunion initiative had to come from Sting. Which means it had to be, as he puts it, "useful to my career" again. He accepts that as a basic reality, not a perception of cynicism. But more fundamentally its arrival concludes an extended series of rapprochements with his past.
Whenever Gerry Richardson, college music teacher and freelance jazzman, made an album with his jazz group or orchestra, Sting was there guest starring (as on his latest, 'This... Is What We Do', released in May). Last year, when Henry Padovani asked him to play on his album 'A Croire Que C'Etait Pour La Vie', Sting actually joined an "original Police" reunion with Copeland on drums (though the encounter was digital, not personal).
Then came Sting's up-to-1979 autobiography. When Copeland read it, he was so pleased he called Padovani and told him, " He didn't have a bad word to say about anybody." So that was a relief. As was Sting's reciprocally enthusiastic reaction to the candour of both Copeland's film and Summers' book.
Finally, last autumn, Sting woke up thinking about surprises, surprising himself. His lute project, 'Songs From The Labyrinth', successfully concluded he didn't fancy another solo album just now. So he told himself he was mad to even think about it and then the calls went out. He wanted just the threesome, no messing, no complications, The Police undiluted, he told them. They said great, that they wouldn't have done if it meant keyboards and horns and backing singers...
When they moved into Sting's Italian palazzo ¬ñ "The Magic Stingdom", as Copeland has it ¬ñ for a month's rehearsal pre-Vancouver, the old magnetism took a hold, especially in the evenings when, wine-mellowed (and with an MTV Unplugged mooted) they repaired to the stairwell with acoustic guitars, Copeland on bass, and just played.
"Sting's no virtuoso, but I go off into some weird place and he gets it, we both really feel it," Summers marvels. "Aah, we should have kept doing this. Something happens. It's undeniable."
"Those evenings were great," says Copeland. "After 30 years, I hardly know Sting really. He's a sphinx. But to see him with Andy, the juices flowing, this torrent of visceral musicality, it's inspiring to hear that coming out of Sting, undisciplined, unthinking..."
Naturally, Sting doesn't dwell on the joys of thoughtless indiscipline. "It's true we had very little common in the beginning," he reflects. "What we share now is the band history. But we're not that close, though I do love 'em. I love them as brothers. And now I've done all the planning, all the cajoling, all the bullying I possibly can, I have learnt that my pursuit of perfection is the right way to go but... I'm not interested in the result any more."
It might just work. At least, Copeland's drum skins, which notoriously used to say, "Fuck off you cunt", now read, "Kiss me you fool."
¬© MOJO by Phil Sutcliffe