ROLLING STONEFebruary 01, 1981
The following article by James Henk appeared in the February 1981 issue of Rolling Stone magazine...
Policing the world - Blond heads give chase to international stardom...
"Did you kill anything on your way in from the airport?"
Sting, the blond-haired lead singer, song-writer and bass player for the Police, is not exactly joking. It's a sunny Saturday morning in a Mexico City, and we're sitting at a poolside table at the Hotel Camino Real, comparing notes on our initial impressions of the city. "When we got to the airport," Sting says, "we were walking down the ramp to the baggage are when the lights went out. All of them. It was pitch black. The next thing we saw was a little boy rummaging through a garbage can, looking for food. To top things off our driver hit a dog. I mean, you know how they drive here. I'm sure he killed it... Welcome to the third world."
These kinds of situations are nothing new to the Police. In the course of the past year the band has played shows in Hong Kong, Cairo, Bombay, Bangkok, Athens - and now Mexico City. Why?
"There are standard ways of conquering the world," Sting replies. His voice is quiet but gruff, and he carefully weighs each sentence before speaking. "The standard route is to play America and Europe, with an occasional sortie into Japan; then you're considered a major world-wide group. We tend to think of it in another sense: there are places that aren't necessarily rock markets, places I've always wanted to visit anyway. Why not go and play rock music?
"One of the best moments of my life was in Bombay, playing for an audience that had never seen rock, that had no idea how to behave toward it. There was an incredible range of social strata there - the intelligentsia, the media, the sophisticates, kids with no arms, beggars, hippies. Throughout the show I explained that this is dance music, please don't sit down - stand up in the seat or just dance. And by the end of the set, they did! They clapped in all the right places. It was quite emotional."
But the adrenalin rush of a successful concert in the East was just one of the things the band gained from its tour. "Western values are very materialistic," Sting explains "We think poverty equals unhappiness. It doesn't necessarily mean that in India. You see more despair, real despair, in Birmingham (England), where the standard of living is 300 percent higher. In India, people are dying on the street, living in cardboard boxes, but you don't see the kind of hopeless despair you a see in any British city or in a lot of American cities.
"What they say is, life is cheap. And in a way it is, although it's a horrifying thing to agree with. Life and death - it's their religion, and they have a way of coping with it. We don't."
Playing concerts in exotic places is not the only way the Police - Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers - have varied from the norms of the music business. Formed during Britain's punk upheaval (1976-1977), the band was one of the first to put out a home-made record, 'Fall Out'. The single was released on Illegal Records, a label started by manager Miles Copeland (Stewart's brother), and eventually sold about 70,000 copies in England. Next, the Police signed a unique deal with A&M Records. Instead of getting the standard huge advance - which ultimately must be paid back to the record company out of royalties and other profits - the Police opted for an unusually high royalty rate, thereby ensuring that if they became successful, the resulting monies would go to the group, not its label.
After joining A&M, the band bucked tradition once more and embarked on a tour of America when none of its records had yet been released. Again, the careful handling of finances was a prime concern, so the tour was a low-budget affair: the group travelled in a van, borrowed its equipment and played clubs in remote cities. The shows went well enough to convince A&M in America to release Roxanne as a single, and the song became a big hit.
Canny business moves like those, coupled with a fresh, accessible pop sound that incorporates elements of Jamaican music and even jazz, have enabled the Police to attain a greater level of world- wide success than just about any other new band. Their third album, 'Zenyatta Mondatta' (preceded by 'Outlandos d'Amour' and 'Reggatta de Blanc'), was released in October, entered the British charts at Number One and stayed there for seven weeks. In the US, the LP became entrenched in the Top Ten within weeks; as of the first of the year, it was still holding it's position (and nearing 1 million in sales), despite challenges from such pop Midas's as the Doobie Brothers, the Jacksons, Rod Stewart and Donna Summer. A single, 'De Do Do Do De Da Da Da', is in the American Top Twenty while another track off the album, 'Don't Stand So Close to Me'; which entered the British charts at Number One, has just been released in the US And they have achieved similar chart positions in such disparate parts of the world as South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, Italy, Japan and Germany.
The Police have sought this kind of success from the start and to them, it's no big surprise that they've achieved it. "Everybody in the business knows in his heart of hearts what it takes to be successful," Sting says "Whether you've got the guts to go through with that or not is another matter. The blueprint was really fashioned by the Beatles. The Beatles made these great plans for an odyssey; this British group from Liverpool, nobody knows them, and then they conquer the world.
"We're ambitious; we want to have power and I think occasionally you have to compromise yourself. The opportunities presented themselves and we took 'em. There's a very clear very simple gestalt to the Police. There are three blond heads and that's it. That sells. Once you get beyond that, there are three fairly interesting adults who actually speak coherently. There's some saleability in that. If you peel the layers, there's something underneath. It's a very simple image, but it's backed up. We're not hype."
From their earliest days, when the three musicians dyed their hair blond to land a part as a 'punk-rock band' in a chewing-gum commercial, to their current gigs in out-of-the-way places, the Police have been viewed by many staunch New Wavers as opportunists who latched onto the New Wave tag but not the genre's values, and then used that tag - and the media - to their own advantage.
"We had an objective stance to the New Wave," Sting says, denying that the group ever envisioned itself as a real part of the punk movement. "We were just there, just behind it, watching the effects, realising its potential and jumping on it with both hands".
Sting is the most visible member of the Police. As the band's songwriter and vocalist, his musical contributions are considerably larger than those of the other two members, and he is, to an extent, the group's spokesman. Most interviews concentrate on him, and often, only he is pictured on magazine covers. His visibility also results from the roles he has played in two movies - the Who's 'Quadrophenia' (he portrayed Ace Face, a cool, calculating mod whose personality, Sting admits, is in many ways similar to his own) and 'Radio On' (a British Film in which he had a small though critically acclaimed part.
But despite his enormous visibility, Sting, 29, remains a private individual. "I am fairly lonely," he tells me, fidgeting with the pages of Norman Mailer's 'Executioner's Song'. I'm not constantly crying in my beer or anything, but I have suffered a lot of loneliness. In many ways, I suppose, I'm misanthropic. I'm not terribly social. The real me is fairly isolated. I think I function better on my own, particularly creatively.
Sting whose real name in Gordon Sumner was born in Newcastle, England. His father was a milkman, his mother a hairdresser. Prior to joining the Police, he was a schoolteacher who moonlighted in jazz bands.
"I'm from a working-class background where getting on is very much a principle, except that the society I come from wants you to get only one step beyond. You could become a teacher, a civil servant, a doctor, maybe. To go beyond that, to become a public figure - they like it but they don't understand it. I suppose that background is very important to my drive. I don't want to be poor."
Like the other two members of the Police, Sting has a stable home life; his wife, Frances Tomelty, is a British stage actress (she appeared with Peter O'Toole in a controversial version of 'Macbeth'), and they have a five year old son, Joseph. "I'm basically a family man," he says. "That is incredibly important to me, because as a musician, you travel all the time, and you can get very disorientated if you don't have something you can return to as a base.
"We talk about our performances a lot. We argue a lot; we have different viewpoints. But she's useful because occasionally she'll say, 'Oh, you blew it,' and that's a great thing. There are very few people who will do that truthfully and creatively now."
As for his own acting career, Sting may take on two roles this summer (he won't say which ones), but in the long run, he sees more of a future in writing and directing. "I don't just want to be an actor," he says. "I think that's a very shallow ambition. I'd be a good actor, but I also like to write. I keep a journal, maybe 200 words a day. And I like to be in charge."
Sting has indeed been portrayed as a person who not only likes to be in charge but who is, well, ruthless.
"Yeah, I am fairly ruthless," he says nonchalantly. "If I find myself being compromised - say, within the structure of the group - if I'm dissatisfied with something, I'll fight tooth and nail until I'm in command. There's no pussyfooting in our group. We don't skirt around each other; we go straight for the jugular. We know each other very well, and we know where it hurts. It's not ultimately destructive; its ultimately creative. Friendships come second for me, as far as musical ones go.
"There's a competitive spirit in the group; there are three very strong egos. But I write and sing the songs, therefore I tend to dictate the musical direction. We do have a semblance of democracy, which is important. The other two members do talk a lot; they're not gagged or anything.
"But the fact is, the most efficient way of running the group is to have me sing, because I'm a good singer. I perform the songs on-stage. If there were another singer-songwriter in the group, I'd be relieved in many ways, actually, because it's a heavy responsibility. The other two write songs, but in their heart of hearts, they hope that Sting is going to come out with the hits, the ones that get played on the radio."
Manuel Suarez is some sort of Mexican hero. Legend has it that he rode with Pancho Villa during the country's revolution, and since then, people say, he has been the real power behind almost all of its presidents. In addition, Suarez is among Mexico City's chief property owners. One of his latest projects is the Hotel de Mexico, a fifty two storey building that was intended to be the luxury hotel in the nation's capital. That was in 1968, when construction began. Twelve years later, only three rooms have been completed: the lobby. the penthouse Presidential Suite and 2,000 seat Grand Ballroom, which is where the Police are to play the city's first rock concert of 1980. "I was astounded when I heard that," Summers says. "My first reaction was outrage, and I didn't want to do the gig. Then I talked to the promoter; the reason for it is that he wants to take very precaution so they don't have trouble. They want to prove that it is possible to hold a rock concert here with a popular Western group so that maybe they can sign up other groups."
Summers, 37, was born in Blackpool, Lancashire, an English seaside resort, and was the last musician to join the Police, replacing Henri Padovani in the summer of 1977. Prior to that, he had performed with the Animals, Neil Sedaka and British eccentrics Kevin Ayers and Kevin Coyne; he also spent four years in Los Angeles, playing classical guitar and studying music at San Fernando State College. His sparse, chord-orientated guitar style has become as much a trademark of the Police's sound as Sting's high-pitched vocals.
The Police developed that sound during their first US tour, Summers explains. "When we came to America, we were really short of material, and we had to play every night - sometimes two sets. So we had to extend whole songs in the middle, and gradually they became other material: for instance 'Reggatta de Blanc' grew out of 'Can't Stand Losing You'."
Like the other members of the Police, Summers somehow always felt that the band would be successful. "When we got together , we felt that the group was very strong on all levels, and that it was only a question of time. The first thing for us was to see if we could become a good group and have fun musically. As time went on, the image part of it and all the rest started to come into operation. Then Sting caught on in a big way and we really rocketed."
Is he bothered by the amount of attention paid to Sting? "No, I don't envy him. I like to be anonymous, actually. I like to show off on-stage, and I enjoy the stardom part of it was well, but I'm glad that Sting has had all the attention, because he's been a fantastic focal point. He is the frontman and the singer, and he's the perfect archetype. He has everything: he's the right height; he's got blond hair, blue eyes; he's got a great voice; he's nice looking. He's the perfect lead man. That should be used to its fullest extent."
The cavernous Grand Ballroom resembles a Las Vegas showroom. It's filled with the kind of long tables you'd expect at a father-son banquet, each blanketed by a lily-white tablecloth and crowned with a single white candlestick. As New Wave music blasts from the PA - which, acoustic concerns to the wind, is located behind the stage and covered with the black plastic usually used to make trash bags - cigarette ladies stroll from table to table while waiters in black tuxes dish up free pizza.
When the lights finally dim and a taped version of 'Voices In side My Head' from 'Zenyatta Mondatta' begins to emanate from the loudspeakers. the sterile ballroom erupts with wild applause. As the Police take the stage and start playing 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', even the middle-aged nobs are out of their seats and standing on their chairs.
By the third song, 'Walking On The Moon', Sting has persuaded the crowd to hum along on the chorus. The show is tighter than those of previous tours. Obviously, lack of material is no longer a problem, and the band has wisely done away with the extended jamming that had caused too many of the earlier performances to plod along. 'Roxanne', and for the first time, the audience actually recognise a tune. The result is an outbreak of mania unlike any I've ever witnessed at rock concert. People begin throwing shoes and clothing up on the stage, which is shaking violently from the onrushing fans. Those who have remained in their seats are now standing on the tabletops. I can't help but wonder if this spells trouble for the future of rock'n'roll in Mexico City.
I saw that audience out there in suits and everything, and I thought it was going to be murder - total silence between songs. Boy, was I wrong!" Drummer Stewart Copeland and I are walking up a crowded alleyway, headed toward the city's "thief's market". "It was actually a lot like Greece," Copeland continues. "They couldn't sing in time or anything. When they were singing "Roxanne-oh!" at the end there, it was totally out of time."
We approach a stall, and Copeland stops to look at a multi-coloured blanket. He asks how much it costs and the bidding starts at 700 pesos (roughly 25 dollars). "You've got to be kidding!" Copeland replies. "I'll give you 200." After further bickering, he talks the price down to 300 pesos, but then declines to buy the blanket. "You can't do that in Egypt," he says as we walk away. "If you make an offer and they accept it, you've got to buy it."
Of all the members of the Police, Copeland, 28, probably feels most at ease with the band's unusual tour routes. Born in Virginia, he spent most of his youth in the Middle East, when his father, Miles Sr. was a CIA agent and US diplomat - a connection that is now paying off. "When we were playing in Egypt, it was Ramadan, a sacred month of fasting when absolutely no one works," he says. "We were having trouble getting our equipment into the country, and for a while it looked like we wouldn't be able to play the concert. Finally, Miles got in touch with the vice-president, who he had gone to school with, and things got taken care of."
As we head off through the throng of shoppers, I ask him why the band has chosen to play these shows. His answer is simple: "When you're arriving at the Cincinnati airport from Pittsburgh, and the only place you have to look forward to is Cleveland, it's a pretty appealing idea."
Actually Copeland is the founding member of the Police. After attending college in Berkeley, he went to England and joined Curved Air, an early-Seventies progressive-rock band. Inspired by the enthusiasm of punk, Copeland decided to form a band. His first recruit was Sting, whom he saw performing in a Newcastle club.
"I knew Sting had what it takes," he says. "At first, Miles couldn't see it, because in those days, Sting was a jazz singer. But take him out of the world he was stuck in, and shake it all up, and he's obviously got a natural, instinctive kind of originality. No matter who discovered him, he would have happened. Fact is, this is the way it did happen, and I can take pride in discovering him."
It was Stewart who did the bulk of the songwriting during the early days of the band. "I was writing the kinds of songs we could play in punk clubs, because that was the work that was available and those were the kids who were fun to play for. It wasn't until Andy joined the group that Sting began to write."
Since then, Copeland's output has pretty much been confined to his solo projects, done under the name of his alterego, Klark Kent. "Klark Kent," Copeland says slyly. The man who redefines music as we know it. I've had to answer these accusations before, and all I can do is humbly point out that I'm just a drummer in a rock'n'roll band and hardly capable of the movie works, ballet works or incredibly intense, almost dense poetry not to mention religious writings and any of the sociological experimentation and archaeological work, done by Dr. Klark Kent."
But seriously I ask, have the Klark Kent projects come about because the band refuses to use his material? "When it comes to Klark Kent," he says with finality, you can make up your own rationale."
By this time we've wound our way around the market and are back where we started - at the stall selling blankets The salesman remembers Stewart and is determined to make a deal. They finally settle on 220 pesos. "Eight dollars is a pretty good price," he says of his purchase. "Good, that is you really want a brightly coloured blanket. That's the only catch!".
The Police seem firmly in control of their lives and their futures, more so than any other band I've run into. They've managed to reach the top of their profession, more or less on their own terms, and they've done an admirable job of dealing maturely with the pressures that confront and often destroy, groups of a much lesser stature.
"If I were nineteen and this were happening to me, I think I would be as crazy as Sid Vicious," Sting told me. I can understand him. There's so much pressure, and if you're not strong, it destroys you. Every year there's a casualty."
But, he added, a lot has to do with common sense "Rock & Roll is so well documented, and there is such easy access to its history that the pitfalls are already there in the blueprint. All you have to do is walk around them. It's fairly obvious."
The Police have indeed avoided most of the obstacles. But commercial success is not the same as artistic success, and great rock & roll doesn't often result from practical considerations, or from people who have plotted every step of their careers. Even so, if the Police's music doesn't have the urgency or importance of, say, Bruce Springsteen's or the Who's, it's at least a refreshing change from the usual Top Ten dreck.
"I think what we provide is functional entertainment," Sting said. "It has a use. I just try to write as good a song as possible; it's a craft. A lot of pop songs are rubbish; a lot have no meaning at all. I'm not criticising them, because I think they have a function, too. But other songs have a core of meaning, and that's the kind I like to write."
In addition, Sting is smart enough to want to stay in the business only as long as he's satisfied with what he can produce. "I don't think we'll be relevant in two years," he said. "I think we will have said all we have to say within four maybe five albums. And then we will have to stop. I just hope I'm not greedy enough to say, 'Let's carry on.' I've made a lot of money; I've made enough to be able to say, 'Okay, leave it.' I want to be able to say no!"
© Rolling Stone