RELIXFebruary 01, 1984
The following article by Jeff Tamarkin appeared in the February 1984 issue of Relix magazine...
The Police cop an attitude...
A little over five years ago, the last week in 1978 to be precise, I received a phone call from the editor of a local newspaper for which I was writing. "Go and interview the Police," he said.
"Which precinct," I asked, having no idea what he was babbling about.
"No, dummy," he continued. "The Police. They're a new British band. And they're not at any police station, they're at CBGB's."
"OK, if you say so," I replied, shrugging that an assignment is an assignment. "But is there anything I should know about them?"
"Nah, they must be just another punk band if they're playing at CBGB's," said the ed. "Oh, yeah, there is one thing. The lead singer is a guy named Sting and he's going to be appearing in the film version of 'Quadrophenia'.
CBGB's was almost empty that night. Maybe 50 local punks and winos lingered about, with a handful of die-hards crowding up against the stage. The Police - there were three of them, I counted - came out and put on a rather energetic set that didn't sound that punky to me at all. It was forceful music all right, but there was an obvious high level of musicianship at work here. And they seemed to have quite a grasp of reggae rudiments, which they incorporated nicely into their rock. I approached them for an interview and the group, its entourage and the reporter (me) convened to a local restaurant.
I learned that this was their first trip to the States - it might've been their first night here - although the drummer, Stewart Copeland, was an American citizen whose father worked for the CIA and who'd lived in strange locales such as Beirut. I also learned that he had been in a British progressive rock group called Curved Air prior to joining the Police. The guitarist, Andy Summers, another blond, had put in time with prog-rockers, most notably Kevin Ayers and Kevin Coyne, and had been a member of the last bunch of Animals that Eric Burdon had recruited long ago. And then there was the one named Sting, the actor. I learned that he could be a mite difficult to talk to. My first impression was that he was quite a fan of himself.
It was obvious even than that this band had plans to make it, and they weren't going to let critics pigeonhole them. "We never wanted to be part of the punk thing," Copeland told me. "We just liked playing to the punk crowds because those kids were hysterical to play to. Then the press decided that we were too sophisticated to be punks and started calling us bandwagon-hoppers. Even though we were there before the press came.
How much can you do with three chords and a lot of screaming, anyway?" Sting chimed in.
Today. of course. the Police are used to a lot of screaming, but it doesn't emanate from the stage. Instead, thousands of little girls screech their lungs out at the bleached bombshells who have somehow managed to become the biggest rock band in the world in the half decade since the CBGB's date. A few months after my initial encounter with the hottest threesome since Moe, Larry and Curly, 'Roxanne', the reggaeish number that was so impressive at CB's, began its climb to the top, followed by the album 'Outlandos d'Amour', the first LP from a British new wave group to crack the American top 20.
The Police didn't have to stay on the CBGB's circuit very long. Within a year they had graduated to three-thousand-or-so seat halls, and as everyone knows, they've since worked their way up to Shea Stadium hugeness. But at times it seems as if their self-infatuation, especially in the form of Mr. Sting's ego, has grown concomitantly with their fame. And grown to legendary proportions. judging by his statements to the press.
For instance, this Sting quote, from a recent book on the Police: "A&M Records has no control over content (of our albums). It's a great temptation to present them with an album of farting - they'd be legally bound to give us the money. There's a part of me saying, 'f***ing great! Rubbish next album!' But if that was really the case I wouldn't want (to do this) anymore. I'd rather open a greengrocer's shop."
Although there hasn't yet been an album called Sting's Greatest Farts, many police fans and observers have taken to wondering just how long the group can last now, given their well-documented negative attitude and the increasing bickering among members. Sting, especially, has taken to spouting outrageous statements whenever he opens his mouth to the press. And whether he means them or not, it can only be a matter of time before any band would wilt under the pressure brought on by continuous in-fighting and ego-tripping.
In the same book that contained that brilliant quote about Sting's desire to record his digestive problems, ('The Police' by Phil Sutcliffe and Hugh Fielder published by Proteus Books), Sting readily admits that the Police is nothing more to him nowadays than a vehicle through which to establish his solo success. In a recent MTV promo, he can be heard joking that "I'd like to place an ad for another band," but when he repeats the same sentiments in interviews in a more serious tone. one has to wonder just why Sting sticks around long past the point that he has to. He says, matter-of-factly. "I'm out for myself, and Stewart and Andy know it. As long as the group is useful for my career I'll stay. As soon as it isn't, I'll drop it like a stone. All for one, one for all - f*** that. That's very limited. This is the longest job I've ever had. I want something else. I'm not seriously suggesting that the Police are splitting, but the next time we play I'll have to really want it."
Hardly the words of a musician satisfied with the current state of his art, which is a shame, because despite all the hype and teenybop attention. Sting and the Police have managed to release five albums' worth of innovative music which has constantly grown and stretched. Few other bands which have approached the level of success attained by the Police can claim to have done so without pandering to the obvious commercial formulas. Even the mega-hit 'Every Breath You Take' sappy as it is, is somewhat gutsy in its approach and immensely sturdy - it holds up after numerous listenings, whereas your average top-10 wimp song becomes nauseating after the first time, or before.
That's where the irony lies: that beyond all of the ridiculous trappings that surround the Police, from their sex symbol posing to their brushes with the press, they are still one hell of a good band. Even their top 10 singles remain a breath of fresh air on the otherwise polluted airwaves: 'Synchronicity II', 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da', 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', and the others manage to sound inoffensive among the schlock on the airwaves even after the sound of Sting's exaggerated vocal mannerisms have long passed the point of becoming an annoyance.
The Police have always managed to find new musical inspiration since day one. Their early reggae-tinged pop is as far away from their more recent ethnic and experimental music as Boy George is from ZZ Top. But according to Sting, the group's commercial success is accidental. "Our most creative material just happens to be our biggest hits as well," he has said, and listening to their albums one is struck by just how true that is: the Police do have the fortunate knack of knowing how to go for the charts while stretching their musical boundaries at the same time. "We could easily keep playing places like Madison Square Garden and have our audiences screaming for two hours," Sting once said. "But instead we choose to work hard and stretch. We've always had a pioneering spirit."
That spirit has taken the Police to geographical locations where few rock bands - let alone bands of their stature - have dared venture. South America, Bombay and Cairo are hardly stops on the average rock tour, yet the Police chose to play in those places and others that are equally removed from the world of big bucks rock and roll. Even though they lost money by travelling to those areas, the Police felt that the experience was valuable, that the idea of turning on masses of people whose culture generally excludes trying to hide a six pack of Bud in their boots to get past the security check at the local stadium where Iron Leppard is playing, was more important than adding a few more millions to their bank accounts.
Sting told an interviewer that playing in India was one of the most rewarding experiences of his career. "It was just like a scene from Gandhi," he said to Musician magazine last year. "When we walked out there they politely applauded, and I told them that we're a dance band so I'd appreciate it if they danced. And by the end of the show we had a stage invasion. All the old ladies in their saris got up with their umbrellas, and we had them screaming and shouting and yelling and jumping up and down. That confirmed my belief in music as a universal phenomenon that can work anywhere."
So why then does Sting insist on trying the patience of his two bandmates and seeing just how close he can come to pushing the group towards a split? It seems that every time he utters something into a reporter's tape recorder Sting makes sure that the world knows that he doesn't always get along with Copeland and Summers. Newsweek quoted him as saying. "It would be stupid of me if I thought the group was the be-all and end-all of my existence... When I get bored with it the band will stop... I don't want to be in Las Vegas 10 years from now being the balding chap in a tuxedo who sings Roxanne." In the next breath, the same person (born Gordon Sumner) will stop and ask the reporter, "Am I being too pretentious?" One hardly needs to give him the answer; it's obvious that he already knows it.
Yet you can also use the argument that it is this competitive spirit and tension between the group that allows it to keep coming up with new musical ideas. After all, its only when rock bands become too content that they become lethargic, so perhaps it's to their advantage that the members of the Police get off on kicking each other down at every turn. Andy Summers, perhaps the most imitated guitarist of the 80's, nonchalantly shrugs when asked about Sting's jabs at him and Copeland, and whether he's satisfied with the group's present state. "I don't want to be satisfied," he said. "I want to go on itching and trying to scratch that itch. If you become satisfied, you're at a stage of rest - it's death."
Sting himself downplays the name-calling. Although he knows he does it, he says that it's only the journalists who dwell on the problems within the group, and that the three of them have worked out their relationship so that they can continue to make good music in spite of themselves. "Journalists are always trying to get into the politics of the group," Sting told writer Jim Green in 1982. "They're trying to get dirt on how I supposedly ride rough shod over the others, because it makes good copy. If I could get away with it, I wouldn't do any more interviews. Some are enjoyable, but the music says it all."
"People get burnt and I'm not apologetic about it," Sting says in the Sutcliffe/Fielder book. "I know it happens - musically and socially. I've always said that ambition is stronger than friendship, and people have been shocked by that, but I actually believe it. I'm not justifying it morally; I'm just saying I think that."
On one hand, Sting constantly castigates the above quotes. But on the other, he readily admits that the Police would only function as a unit, that individually the band's members could not produce music that is as satisfying as that created by the Police. "Yes, I need the group," Sting finally admitted to one interviewer. "They're the best musicians I could work with But at the same time, there's a great desire in me for freedom. I really get trapped sometimes in all aspects of my life and I have to get up and kick and punch. That's just my personality, my psychological problem."
And in the end, it might just be Sting's inner conflicts that throw the final punch. While Summers and Copeland have learnt to deal with Sting's harangues, Sting himself seems to have trouble coming to terms with his own position. He basks in the glory of fame, yet his sense of self-doubt in regards to his own precarious position as pop star with an ego equal to his commitment to his art, keeps him from achieving happiness. "If you're determined to be an artist you have to be hungry," he said in a recent book, "and my life now is too easy. I'm full. The artist in me is looking for death, destruction. Artists are perverse, they're not normal. I'm not normal."
Millions of teenage girls might disagree, and many more won't even care what their idols have to say as long as the blond wonders continue to look good on MTV and on the posters that hang on their bedroom walls, and as long as the radio keeps blaring the music of Sumner, Summers and Copeland every hour on the hour. And maybe in the end that's all that really matters, personal demons be damned. But the next time that Sting and his fellow coppers step out on a stage to sing So Lonely, one might be forced to think about just how much they really mean it. And that would be a real shame.
© Relix magazine