THE WASHINGTON POSTMarch 01, 1981
The following article by Edwards O. Welles Jr appeared in a March 1981 issue of The Washington Post newspaper...
When the Police hit town they come with with tons of technological wealth - the latest in lights and sound: they hit Washington as a loss leader, to turn albums into gold...
It was late morning when a door swung open and a bright winter's sun drilled into the gilded gloom of the Warner Theater. Outside a pair of tractor trailers droned at the curb, jammed with the latest in light and sound equipment. Tons of it. Out of the trucks it rolled in boxes bigger than steamer trunks.
This was a load-in, rock'n'roll terminology for the uncrating and setting up of the technological wealth big bands travel with. Load-ins are expensive; this one would run around $4,000, modest for a name band. A recent Doobie Brothers load-in in New York cost more than $20,000. When The Who do a big gig they come with 13 tractor-trailers. This is the big business of rock. Bands tour to sell records, as that is where the money is - not at the box office. They hit the road as a loss leader of sorts. They hit the road to turn albums into gold.
At 9 that night one of the hottest New Wave bands going, the Police, would come on stage and put out a sound whose core was dense with rock'n'roll, whose edges were embroidered with airier filaments of reggae, pop and jazz. It was a strong yet sonorous sound. It was clean like a mountain stream, surging like a river in flood.
The Police coalesced into a three-man band back in England in early 1977, and they lived scorned and little noticed for a year and a half. Then the magic happened, and the following grew. They cut a few record that rose high on the charts. Last year the Police toured - the world. In Bombay the poorest of the poor broke down stadium gates to hear them. In Toronto kids scalped tickets for $225 a pair. In England they drew 30,000 for one concert.
There was a strong, primitive current to this band's sound. It cut to the quick of people's common humanity and got them up, dancing. Now the Police were here to conquer America. Two years ago they had played here, hitting the dingy depths of punk clubs, pulling down $12 a one-night stand in Poughkeepsie. This time they meant business. They were here to get their message across through their sprawling electronic medium.
And that is why the road crew stepped on stage seven hours before the band did - for the load in. The road crew was a lighting designer, a lighting engineer, an electrician, two stagehounds, a sound engineer, and four "backliners" - men responsible for setting up the band's instruments.
Nick Bell, the lighting designer, was from London. He wore a plastic guitar on the lapel of his corduroy coat and smoked too many Marlboros. He had been lighting up concerts for more than a decade. How had he gotten involved? "I don't know - drugs, the Rolling Stones." He laughed. "Just kidding. I try and do this simply, not a lot of gimmicks. I create a mood to go with the songs and a few basic visual effects to raise the audience."
One effect was a white-hot blast of light that filled the house like Armageddon and rarely failed to send the crowd into a stage-rushing frenzy.
"This is dance music," Bell said with a smile. "You look at the audience tonight; there will be a lot of people jumping up and down out there."
Blue denoted light. There were 15 huge blue boxes out of which came python-thick cable packed with 40 conductors that cost $8 a foot, lamps called pars that aircraft use for landings, dimmer racks, control boards, and just about everything else under the electrical sun. The system drew enough power to strain the fuse boxes in five houses, and it cost close to $200,000.
As they bolted the light trusses together and winched them to the rafters, the stagehands built the P.A. stacks - pyramids of bass, mid- and high-range speaker cabinets - on each flank of the stage. Wire was dripping off the stage and snaking toward the rear of the hall. The sound would travel this course over 40 channels, get "mixed" on a console that looked like a part of the control room at Three Mile Island and shoot back through the P.A. system in a tight, melodic weave of bass, treble, drums, guitar, moog.
At their highest points the P.A. stacks rose 15 feet, awesome firepower for such a small house (the Warner seats just under 2,000). When the Police first hit Washington two years ago they came wedged into a station wagon with their equipment. A year later they arrived in a pair of 18-foot trucks, and now here they were in a pair of 18-wheelers and two buses outfitted like Pullman cars. It was a sonic array that caused Police lead guitarist Andy Summers, to say later backstage: "I feel sorry for you [the audience]. What you hear is 10 times louder than what we hear." Summers recently had his hearing checked. "It was perfect."
Out in the dark, in the nearly empty house, half a dozen students who were promoting the concert under the auspices of American University were hardly worried about going deaf. They were counting their good fortune; landing the Police had been a coup. "They're probably the number one band over in England right now."
"People over there would freak to get them for the price we got them for."
"Their album's starting to break real good over here. In another six months they'll be untouchable. This is perfect timing. They're on their way to the top."
Tickets for the concert had sold out in two days, with hard-core fans queuing up at 4 a.m. the day they went on sale. And now, here in the theater, there was shop talk about how you get in if you didn't have ticket's:
"Ticketron tickets Xerox real good."
"There were a lot of counterfeit tickets being scalped at the Springsteen concert."
"Oh yeah, some people got burned on that one."
I saw the Grateful Dead on Halloween at Radio City Music Hall. Ten dollar tickets were going for $125. I was honest this time and sold real tickets."
Around 3 p.m. the four backliners moved in. Their job was to worry over the music at its source the way medieval monks worried over manuscripts. Each member of the three-man band had a backliner who set up his instrument and stage equipment. The fourth mixed sound and played it back on stage monitors so the band could hear themselves. His name was Roy Tough and he was from Liverpool. Sound had been his ticket out of working-class England.
"On stage you lose your sense of presence," Tough said. "Any sensible musician needs to hear what he's lacking. The drummer like to hear the bass and vice versa."
Tough's job was to take 24 channels of sound and mix it through six outlets, create sonic reference points around the stage, spin a secure cocoon in which the band played their concert within a concert.
Jeff Seitz worried over the drums. He pulled all shapes and sizes out of their boxes and began tightening, tapping cockinging his ear for pitch. He threw open a footlocker full of drum stands, tossed them out on the stage and built them into a metal thicket. By the time he was done, they held a profusion of snares, tom-toms, and octobans - long tubular drums that sounded like a rain forest on a full moon night.
He set up nine cymbals that varied in diameter and thickness so they would deliver sounds across the spectrum that went by such trade names as "crash," "ride," "pang," and "swish." This was science, and from it art would flow.
Seitz worked in centimeters, moving a stand to the left a shade, then back to the right, tightening down a cymbal, easing off a quarter-turn or two. He worked on his hands and knees with a flashlight and duct tape. He was a sound technician who knew how to make it sound like thunder over the mountain. An he was a notable musician in his own right, having filled in for drummer Stewart Copeland at one Police concert -- a concert at which the band played two encores.
Seitz, 31, was from New Jersey. So was Danny Quatrochi, 26, who polished the notes of bass player and lead vocal Gordon Summer, stage name Sting. Both had scrambled on the musical fringe in Jersey, playing small bands, finding it a hard go. "Every time we came in off the road it was, 'Well, see you later,'" Seitz said. "I wasn't on retainer; the bills would start to pile up." Seitz shelved his dreams to be a great drummer and took a job painting the walls in a sound studio, "hoping to get in good with the producer."
As for Quatrochi: "I was a welder, but I wasn't into the 9-to-5 scene at all." Still, Quatrochi and Seitz kept their contacts with the music world. It was a world in which roadies were always quitting because they lived deep in the shadows, and unless they were with a hot band they could count on the work being long, lonely, thankless. So a little over a year ago a couple of Police roadies quit. Quatrochi got a call from a friend at A&M records: Would he be interested? Quatrochi knew Seitz.
Seitz recalled: "It was right before they went on world tour they asked me if I wanted to go with them. I said 'Well, uh, yeah.'"
So they toured the world, and for Quatrochi, never before out of the States, "it was culture shock every three days." Bombay, "where people were living in the street," was the biggest jolt, but it was also the highest high. The band played a charity concert there in front of Indians from Brahman on down. "We didn't know what to expect," said Quatrochi, "the crowd went wild."
It was affirmation perhaps that the Police was putting out music that was seminal, something that could pierce the heart of an old and eastern culture.
So here they were back in the bosom of western civilisation living life close to the top. Quatrochi was taking the wraps off a $10,000 sound system he had helped design so that Sting, the bass player, could hear himself loud and clear on his stage monitors as the concert roared around him. The system could take a routinely timid and fuzzy bass note, "boost, compress and equalise" it so that it shot out of the speakers clean as lightning. As he plugged jacks into outlets, fiddled with gauges and dials, Tough and Tam Fairgrieves, the fourth backliner, troubleshot a menacing buzz out of the system, tracing the problem back from speaker to amp to main through a jungle of wires.
The work was often rote and painstaking, the hours long. Past midnight, well after the band had moved offstage, the crew would still be here, taking it all down and apart, loading out to move over to Baltimore and do it all over again the next night.
But the travel was great, the money solid at least $600 a week, over and above expenses. It was a paradox - a life of toil, a life forever in the footlights. Seitz, a thoughtful soft-spoken man, worried "that this was starting to take a toll on my son [age 6], me being away a lot and him not really having a father." Later he would say: "I'd still like to try and make it with a band. Hopefully, I can develop some contacts through this group."
The band stepped on stage at 6:40 p.m. to check the sound. They were three blond men who looked like Danish princes. Sting, the bass player, and Stewart Copeland, the drummer, were tall and 29 years old. They wore jeans, leather and cowboy boots. Andy Summers, 32, on lead guitar, was shorter and had a rumpled academic air. He wore crepe-soled shoes.
After a few fits and starts the music came thudding and lifting out of the system, filling the empty hall with a clean, resonant sound. After all the hours of dead air, it was a jolt of adrenaline, the first few notes building into a preconcert jam. Summers later would say of the sound checks: "It 's the one real free moment of the day. It's when the muse strikes. At a sound check we came up with a great riff a few days ago. It wiped everybody out. We just looked at each other and said, 'What was that?"
Quatrochi saw it differently: "My feeling is one of relief at seeing it all plugged in and working."
They jammed for about 20 minutes, picking intently, then sat backstage in the glary dressing room light and waited. The trappings of success surrounded them: Heineken by the case, a catered meal, an accountant figuring how to keep weekly road costs under $50,000.
This was business. There weren't a lot of drugs going around. Copeland talked about not feeling nervous, but rather a "professional tension. I've got to get it right for an hour and a half each day." Sting, meanwhile, was to patch up a wounded voice.
Two years ago The Police came to Washington and stayed in a $8-a-night (each) hotel. They toured, in a station wagon with their gear, hitting such high spots as Virginia Beach, Willamantic and Lawrence, Kans. "We played this place in Poughkeepsie where the audience was two d.j.'s, a barmaid, and the owner," said road manager Kim Turner.
"And a dog," said Sting.
"We got paid $12 that night. That was our percentage of the take. I was embarrassed to take the money."
Now it is Bombay, Cairo and Madison Square Garden. The band was headed for South America.
"What do you say, Stinger," said drummer Copeland, looking to their next swing around the globe, "Japan, Australia, New Zealand, do a week in Bali, then maybe a gig in Kenya?"
Sting grunted as he poured himself a cup of tea and honey.
"I'd like to do a whole African tour," said lead guitarist Summers.
"Set up in the jungle and jam with the Balinese for a week," said Copeland, now not letting go of the idea.
"Yeah," said Sting, "bore the natives to death."
Sting, the son of a Newcastle milkman, himself a school teacher until the music demon took full possession, was sardonic, while Copeland, an American, seemed ingenuous. He had gone to college in California. He had grown up in different places around the world, thinking his father in the employ of the U.S. State Department. "I didn't know he worked for the Company [CIA] until he wrote a book about it."
Copeland ran on wide-eyed confidence: "Most musicians are egotists. If they haven't made it, then they say, 'I'm waiting to be discovered.' If they have, then they say, 'Well, things are as they should be.'"
Summers, a native of Bournemouth, seemed the anchor of the group. He was an engaging, literate man who likes Paul Theroux's work. After reading his The Old Patagonian Express, Summers hungered to go and do a gig in Patagonia, where the oceans meet at the tip of South American. He was a "total nut" when it came to photography, and a man who studied art to get perspective on his own: "If you study 20th-century painting, say, it forces you to think in terms of colour and texture rather than just chord progression." Listening to Summers play, one knew he thought a lot about colour and texture.
So he, like the others, was not a punk off the street. He was a man who had spent four years studying and playing classical guitar. He had lived his ideals and known high and low. He had soared with Eric Burdon and the Animals. He had sunk with the Police in those lean, early years when there was little money but much hope.
But music for him "was an obsession from the world go," a form through which to "put into practice the ideals we all cherish." He said he felt lucky because everyone was "always looking for the right group," most would never find it, and besides music as a career was "so hard full of disappointment." He said that with a shudder, realising that the field was littered with failure and that maybe all of this was just a dream. Then after a pause he said: "We are finding things together all the time now. We are honing our Police style."
Summers was sipping coffee. As he spoke, Quatrochi and Fairgrieves, for the second time that day, tuned the band's five guitars, two synthesisers, and custom handmade double bass. Their concentration was a measure of how the Police left nothing to chance, a reminder of how in Summers' words, "We're lucky to have such a good crew."
Things were winding down to concert time, and the feeling of "contained adrenaline" was rising. The air grew taut in the room and people reverted to small rituals. Copeland meticulously wrapped his left hand in strips of duct tape to keep it from getting savaged on the edges of his drums. Sting stepped to a sink in the corner and shaved. Summers picked up his guitar and paced. But before he did, he said this: "When I joined the group, I knew it was right. There are no weak links here, It's really strong."
Strong was the sound that night as the Police bounded onstage and moved into a music that hit with a jolt, yet flowed in search of deeper places. Sting and Copeland were fury and force. They built the castle. Summers, with his soaring lead guitar, put on the turrets. Summers was a man of touch. As he sailed off into his leads, he would often move with short, deft leaps - fine, free movements you'd expect less from a human and more, say, from a gazelle on the Serengeti.
Summers wore a baggy black suit with wide silver stripes and high-topped sneakers. The outfit gave him a Chaplinesque air. Copeland wore running clothes, Sting painter's pants and an undershirt. This, after all, was showbiz - intelligent men backstage coming out looking like loony kids. What deepened the contradiction was the high technology, processing simple sounds, weaving them into a dense tapestry.
And yet the art came through, driving a stake cleanly to the heart of contradiction. "We work from instinct," Summers had said earlier. Instinctual, primitive music in the true sense of the word. It reached past the stomach to the heart, past the heart to the soul. And there it grabbed.
Instinctual - Sting raised the crowd to be his chorus, filling the hall with a rolling echo that swept from wall to wall. And that was how he left them, singing that tribal chant as he and the band fled the stage, crashing open the heavy stage door and with a mighty leap gone. The chorus kept on, undampened by the rising of the house lights and the beckoning of the dark city streets outside.
It was something you'd expect to hear perhaps in Bombay or Cairo, not in Washington. It was a stirring footnote, a suggestion that in the sound the Police put out lay the seed of a deep and common language, a language they wanted the world to discover, to speak.
© The Washington Post