The Police are number ten on my all-time list of favorite bands. Can’t believe I never saw ’em. Well, saw Sting a couple of years ago. But still. What the hell was I thinking? Well I guess I was thinking $225 USD to see Police and Elvis Costello is beaucoup bucks. Shoulda caught them in their heyday. C’est, as the French say, la vie…
Music was in an interesting, evolving place in the late ’70’s. The punkers had challenged some of the bloated (their perception) rock bands and brought music back to its garage roots. Disco had been popular for a while, then flamed itself out in a whirlwind of phony dance moves, bad hair, leisure suits and repetitive beats.
And then new wave came along. I’ve always figured the difference between punk and new wave is that the former (think Sex Pistols, Ramones) was more about three-chord bashups, snarly “fuck you” attitude, and limited playing ability. New Wave (think Elvis Costello, Talking Heads) picked up on the energy of punk but with a much greater emphasis on musicianship and good old fashioned melody and songcraft.
Released in late 1978, Police debut album Outlandos d’Amour was loaded with great, short, punchy tunes. Per Wikipedia, the title was a loose French translation of “Outlaws of Love”, with the first word being a combination of the words “outlaws” and “commandos”, and “d’Amour” meaning “of love.
From that album, the great “So Lonely.” (Sting, as he did so many of their songs, wrote this. Has he ever actually been lonely?) Everything works here – song, drumming, singing. Love the strangled-sounding guitar 🎸 solo on this:
So how did Gordon Sumner (Sting), Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland become a band? (Sting was called that because he used to wear a black and yellow sweater with hooded stripes, making him look like a bee.)
In the mid-’70’s, American drummer Stewart Copeland was playing in a British prog-rock band called Curved Air. (Two things – one – few punkers have ever played in a prog-rock band. They hate it. Two – Copeland is hands-down one of my favorite drummers of all time. His taste and timing are second to no one.)
Copeland saw Sting playing bass in a jazz-rock ensemble and was intrigued. The very fact that he was scouring jazz bands should give you some idea of what type of band he was looking to put together. Sting joined Copeland in London and together with a Corsican guitarist named Henry Padovani, formed The Police. Padovani had approached Copeland at a Curved Air concert.
“[Padovani} knew a few chords and he was really enthusiastic and when he’d had his hair cut and stuff he really looked the part,” said Copeland. “I mean, he could play guitar better than I could and I could play guitar better than Joe Strummer… well, in those days.”
This line-up actually released a single in May of 1977, a Copeland tune called “Fall Out.” It’s pretty fucking good and it gives you some idea of the energy these guys brought to the table. (You can hear Sting yell out “Henri” at the solo):
Right around this time, Sting and Copeland jammed in a band with guitarist Andy Summers (who was ten years older.) Summers was a veteran musician of British bands such as Soft Machine and the Animals. He also jammed with Hendrix, played on an orchestral version of Tubular Bells and, per his autobio, sold Eric Clapton the Les Paul he played on the Bluesbreakers album.)
“Clearly something happens when we play together,” Summers says. “Sting feels it, I feel it.” Summers, unlike a lot of his peers, grew up listening to and playing jazz. While his peers were playing blues, he was listening to and playing in bands inspired by the likes of Duke Ellington. He joined the Police and believe it or not, they were a four-piece band for a while. Wish you had a video of that? Voila!
Summers, wanting to play in a power trio, gave the other guys an ultimatum – Henri or me. Andy was clearly the better, more advanced guitarist. So in late ’77 they gave the other guy the boot and then it became Sting, Summers, Copeland.
And this worked because Summers’ greater skill allowed Sting as a writer and the band as musicians to expand their musical palette. (But Summers was derided as the guy that pushed Henri out of the band. Well, yes and no. As he says in his book, the decision was not his.)
I can still remember the first time I heard “Roxanne.” I was going to college at night in Boston and while driving home, heard this sort of reggae-ish rock tune with a great beat, cool singable lyrics and a fantastic tenor singer. Sting wrote this after wandering the streets of Pigalle witnessing prostitutes plying their trade.
Miles Copeland, Stewart’s brother, managed the band and loved “Roxanne.” They put it out and while it didn’t do so well in the UK, as mentioned it got a lot of play in Boston on underground FM station WBCN. The Police played locally at a long-gone dive called the Rathskeller, aka the Rat. Years after their breakup, they released a live album, one disc of which was recorded in 1979 at Boston’s Orpheum, a great Fillmore-like auditorium:
I think this band’s music works so well for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, great songs. But over and above that is the terrific interplay among these guys. Copeland’s drumming provides a tight, crisp propulsive feel with lots of space. Sting’s bass playing (underrated) and incomparable voice give it that “sound.”
And one article I read referred to Andy as their “secret weapon.” He is one of the very, very few guitarists equally capable of playing jazz as rock. The chords and scales he uses are not traditional and his use of effects and harmonics fills up the power trio much in the way Townshend does for The Who.
Next post: The Police conquer the world
Sources: The usual web sites; One Train Later: A Memoir. Andy Summers.