NEW MUSICAL EXPRESSApril 01, 1979
The following article by Steve Clarke appeared in an April 1979 issue of New Musical Express magazine...
Pulling in America for questioning...
'Would they drop the bomb on us while we made love on the beach?'
I think this song's gonna be a classic," bawls the publicist, her voice just audible above the strains of the Police belting full-tilt through their frantic 'Born in the '50s'. We were the class they couldn't teach because we knew better... "It's gonna be used in films," she enthuses with speed-freak gusto. "It's gonna be recognised as a sociological document, you knowww???"
We-ell, the thought hadn't occurred to me. We were born, born in the '50s. The scene is New York's famed Bottom Line and the Police are into their fourth and final set of their two-sets-a-night stay. Robert Fripp, Daryl Hall and Lenny White of Return to Forever fame are in the audience. Mick Jagger, apparently a Police fan ever since Ian McLagen turned him onto their magnum opus 'Roxanne' has failed to show, despite talk that he'd asked for tickets. Impressed as I was last year by the fore-mentioned 'Roxanne' and its likewise reggae-imbued successor, 'Can't Stand Losing You', a cut which just managed to scrape the English charts, nothing had prepared me for the complete demolition job the Police are doing on my head tonight. They positively exude greatness. I'd caught last night's show, an enjoyable though not totally inspired affair smitten by bouts of self-indulgence and cockinessiness, where the group not only had the handicap of an ailing drummer - Stewart Copeland was recovering from a bad dose of flu - but also a crowd composed largely of New York music biz. Tonight's crowd is similarly aged (I reckon that at least half would be glad to see 25 again) and the predominant "fashion" is plaid shirts and jeans. One is also aware of an excess, compared to Britain, of long hair, and I spotted at least one male ponytail. There is but a sprinkling of punk haute couture. Still, the Police are no April ducklings themselves.
Sting (nee Gordon Sumner), whose Aryan good looks have already won him parts in several movies, is the group's front man. In 'Quadrophenia' he plays the part of Ace, the kingpin mod idolised by the film's central character, Jimmy, and in his most recent film, Chris Petit's 'Radio On', he has a cameo role as a garage mechanic who thinks he's Eddie Cochran.
On-stage he cuts a charismatic figure, his Geordie gift of gab holding him in good stead to establish a winning rapport. Both off-stage and on, Sting bears a remarkable resemblance to Snips, he of the late lamented Sharks and more recently the Video Kings. His vocals are consistently outstanding - ranging from an R&B holler sometimes reminiscent of Paul McCartney doing his Little Richard workouts to a pure, almost soprano redolent of Jon Anderson. And his bassmanship shouldn't be overlooked, either. Stanley Clarke, for one, gave it the thumbs up when he visited the Police backstage. Like his songs (he's written 99% of the Police's material), his bass playing is effectively simple. Complementing Sting's streamlined phrases is guitarist Andy Summers, who, as Sting puts it, has "a reservoir of talent" at his fingertips.
The set's highlight is So Lonely featuring a truly superlative solo from Summers that's anything but cliched. Perhaps the fresh-ness of his approach is because he rarely, if at all, listens to rock guitarists, instead preferring to listen to jazzers - "If you want to play guitar and make it fresh it's best not to listen to other guitarists." Play the album version of 'So Lonely' and you'll get a good idea of the scope of Summer's ability. Which leaves the Police's sticksman, Stewart Copeland, whose on-stage gait rekindles memories of Ginger Baker. He sits low and forward, paying a lot of attention to his cymbals. His drumming has the incendiary quality necessary for potent hard rock and the deftness of touch required for credible reggae. "Our sets can last anything from an hour to two hours," Sting informs me. "And we didn't form just to play songs. That's why we wanted a three-piece-the old idea of the jazz trio improvising."
Improvising here doesn't just mean some numbskull heavy metal guitarist soloing his platform heels off for 15 minutes at a stretch while the rhythm section lays down banal riffs. With not one of their songs clocking in under 10 minutes the Police have reintroduced - or should I say revolutionised? - the idea of a rock band improvising. Their improvisations don't just rely on solos. In fact they probably rely less on solos than on ensemble playing - rhythms, textures and vocals.
"I want to swamp our sound with vocals the way reggae does," explains Sting. "Reggae is most the most important innovation since the back-beat," states Copeland. Their collective dexterity is such that they can draw out one of their numbers for a good 12 minutes and still keep boredom at bay. Of course, it doesn't always work, but the results justify the risk element. Their collective sense of spontaneity is little short of miraculous. They're also great fun.
The following day the Police are driven uptown to Harlem to do a photo session amidst the crime statistics of the New York Police Department's 28th Precinct. Photographing the Police at a New York City police station, especially in Harlem, the city's meanest neighbourhood, was too good a PR scam for A&M Records to resist. Despite the band's reluctance to take part in what is, after all, a corny idea, they're won over by the co-operation of the local cops.
"How does it feel locking up a bunch of white guys for a change?" gags a white plainclothes detective to a black uniformed officer as he poses outside a cell containing the Police. "They're a rock group?" asks a black woman as they pose in front of the station's main desk. "I hope they sound as good as the Bee Gees."
Though hardly in the same multi-platinum league as the Brothers Gibb, the Police have broken big in the States on their first try. 'Outlandos d'Amour' burst upon the American charts in a big way, reaching as high as #23 in one trade magazine, and 'Roxanne' got into the low 30s in the singles charts, quite an accomplishment for a rock'n'roll single in this day and age.
Shortly after playing New York the band returned to England only to re-embark on their American activities a few weeks later. They expect to spend most of the rest of 1979 in the States. For these dates they'll be pulling in $6000 a night - not bad for guys who still mean next to nothing in their native land and just last December playing their first US dates for a paltry 200 bucks. Or, to put it another way - and this is what's really significant: the Police are ahead of the Clash, the Stranglers, the Sex Pistols, the Boomtown Rats, et al., as the first of the new wave groups to crack the seemingly impenetrable American market. Elvis Costello is, after all, a solo artist.
This knowledge is particularly heart-warming to the Police seeing as how they were originally written off by people in the British music press who should know better (but rarely do) as "bandwagon jumpers." As Sting once said: "We're too young to have been into Woodstock and all that and we're too old to be punks. We're stuck with being wise in one way and naive in another. We didn't elect the dinosaurs of rock. They'd already been put up there by people older than us. Our generation has to establish itself as well, and we're not going to vanish just because we're over 23. What do people expect us to do? We got such a lot of flak from the press because Stu had been in Curved Air," he complains.
Successful or not the Police are still reluctant to have their skeletons dragged out of their respective cupboards. Andy Summers, the oldest member, once played with the Animals. When I ask about it, he asks if I'm going to use it in my piece. Andy had been playing for 15 years - and moved to Los Angeles in the late '60s to help Eric Burdon salvage the Animals. He lived with Burdon in Laurel Canyon, and the liaison lasted nine months. The next three-and-a-half years he spent at music college in California, returning to England after attempting to form a band with Tim Rose. While in California, Andy married Robin Lane, a songstress and former girlfriend of Neil Young, who can be heard trilling on 'Round and Round' on Young's classic 'Everybody Knows This is Nowhere' album.
Like Robert Fripp, Summers was brought up in Bournemouth. In fact Fripp, then very much the novice, took over from Summers when the latter quit playing with a band in a hotel in Bournemouth. And it was Fripp who helped Summers land a gig with (of all people) Neil Sedaka when he returned to Britain in 1973. Subsequently he worked alongside David Essex as part of 'The Rocky Horror Show' before playing for two years with Kevin Coyne, an experience of which he says: "I think he's a genius, but it was a bit like working with a bomb."
Just prior to the Police he gigged with another English eccentric - Kevin Ayers. Summers met up with Copeland and Sting while taking part in the Strontium 90 project, a Gong spin-off, in the summer of '77. The latter had formed the Police in January - with another guitarist, Henri Padovani - and since they weren't exactly tearing the world apart they were supplementing their income with session work. Summers was asked along to watch the Police at London's Marquee club. "It seemed obvious to me," he recalls, "that the three of us - without Henri Padovani - would be a really good group."
And so it was to be. Summers initially swelled the ranks to four (they debuted as a quartet at the Mont de Marson "punk" festival in September '77), but shortly after became sole guitarist when Padovani departed. Stewart Copeland joined Curved Air fresh from college at the behest of their manager, his brother Miles Copeland, and he lives with Air's croonette Sonja Kristina. Brother Miles, a dead ringer for John Denver, is a brash fast-talking American with a string of successes in the music biz. He now manages the Police.
While gigging with Air (I could never fathom their appeal) in Newcastle, Stewart was introduced to Sting, then playing with a local jazzish combo called Last Exit. The Police are Sting's first rock band. He'd lasted one term reading English at Warwick University, then after a series of dead-end jobs got himself a job teaching football to nine-year-olds at a convent school. "I had the time of my life," he recalls.
Watching him in Last Exit, Copeland was impressed, and after Curved Air's demise he telephoned him with the offer of the two forming a group. The Newcastle outfit were getting nowhere fast, so Sting accepted the proposition and moved south to the Big City. He slept on Stewart's floor for five months while they rehearsed, and with the addition of guitarist Henri Padovani the Police were born. Their first single, on Stewart's own label - the aptly titled Illegal Records - was a pogoer's delight by the name of 'Fall Out'. It failed to chart.
In March '77 the Police joined forces with Cherry Vanilla, herself taking advantage of the rise of punk. They opened her shows, and two-thirds of them (Sting and Copeland) provided the rhythm section for her own set. "The first nine months were depressing," recounts Andy. "I'd gone from being relatively cosseted to having to hump my own gear about. There was no money about and it took us a while to find our musical style."
"We've been through some really bad times," Sting echoes. The fact that 'Roxanne', released by A&M, and its successor 'Can't Stand Losing You' were frowned upon by the BBC because of their subject matter - the former is a song about a mythical French prostitute while the latter deals with the unsavoury subject of suicide - only made matters worse. The British music press also had a down on the Police. Hadn't two of their members previously worked with such staunch old wavers as Curved Air (yeeks) and the Animals! Never mind the music, such pedigrees and the fact that the band weren't even within gobbing distance of their teens ensured that they lacked whatever spurious credibility was in demand at the time.
Between August '77 and October '78 the Police did just 12 gigs, and it wasn't until their tour of the US East Coast, they say, that they really hit top form. That was in December, and they'd taken the unusual step of embarking on a US jaunt without an album out to promote. All that was available in America at the time was Roxanne as an import. Consequently A&M didn't pour any money into the tour, a low budget affair for which the group took the bare essentials in the way of equipment and travelled on Laker's Skytrain. The economics were such that even though just being paid $200 a night they managed to break even. The strategy was masterminded by Miles, who'd brought over other British new wavers on a similar shoestring basis. "I consider myself a catalyst rather than a dictator," Miles opines. "I never thought of having their hair dyed blond."
In actual fact, the Police's image isn't quite as carefully cultivated as it appears. The three bleached their barnets only after being asked by Wrigley's Chewing Gum to appear in a TV ad as a "would-be punk group." In America Miles's initial problem was to persuade the music biz that these British "punks" wouldn't make it rough for all concerned. "The Stranglers really f***ed it up for new British bands over here," he claims. "I had to tell these people that the band wouldn't wreck their theatres."
When Copeland told the US biz that the Police's album, 'Outlandos d'Amour', was made for a mere $6000, they couldn't believe it. "It takes time to bring round the heads of record company people who've been into progressive rock for the past five years." But A&M did have one ace up their sleeves in breaking the Police in America - a good college radio promotion man. College radio is becoming more and more important in America. It's the breeding ground for a lot of the new DJs. They're inclined to be more "progressive" than the ordinary MOR - rock and disco - obsessed channels and picked up on the Police with considerable alacrity. So, though hardly the kind of fare associated with American FM, the Police were soon being played on the major stations.
"Americans are at long last waking up to the fact that there's a new generation of rock band," reckons Miles. "They've been listening to all this shit on the radio and along come the Police. It's got to be refreshing for them. We've been working a year to crack this place and now we're doing it."
"It" (success in the States) has come faster and bigger than we expected," says Andy Summers, luxuriating in the back of a Cadillac Fleetwood limousine. "Our timing has been impeccable." He adds: "I've had several shots at this before." By the texture of his complexion you know he's not lying.
© New Musical Express magazine