NEW MUSICAL EXPRESSSeptember 01, 1979
The following interview with Nick Kent appeared in a September 1979 issue of New Musical Express magazine...
The long yarn of the lore...
Alongside the habitually garish or else just plain boring film posters that currently besmear the walls of London, the advert for 'Quadrophenia' stands out like a veritable 18 carat pearl in a hat-box full of Woolworth's trinkets. Beneath the amply-shaped letters of the film's title, in stark black and white stand the enterprise's main participants: Steph, the sallow dream girl next to Jimmy with the sheepish half-smile, while away to their far left impish Toyah Wilcox promiscuously pouts next to 'Ferdie', the hard-nosed, pill-pushing 'rude boy' of the film.
And yet of the nine figures in the' line-up, the eye can't help but centre its gaze on the Ace Face, fourth from left, his dress, demeanour and overweaning arrogance instantaneously drawing your attention to his lanky brittle frame. Head bowed ever so slightly, his snake eyes stare sullenly at nothing in particular whilst his dress sense alone - the tight fitting mohair job, three-buttons and side vents places him in a different league altogether.
After all, in a film touted as being the definitive statement on the mid-'60s mod culture, Ace as portrayed by Sting, the purists argue, is the only real mod amidst a proverbial sea of 'scooter boys' - the would-be mods of the time.
This consideration plus the fact that Sting himself carries off his role with chutzpah (in fact although he denies having seen the film, Sting's characterisation of Ace as the ultra-stylish hoodlum well immersed in the acts of violence he perpetrates can't help but recall Pierre Clementi's role in Bunuel's '60s classic 'Belle de Jour' - the two even dress the same, wearing full-length leather coats and carrying canes whilst their faces are similarly contorted into looks of continuous ruthless arrogance) has all in all consummated an image that is bound to catapult the Police singer/bassist into the realms of mega-stardom.
Having only ever encountered Sting in the most superficial of circumstances prior to an interview conducted last week, it struck me that the egocentric viciousness of Ace and Sting's own character (he'd always struck me as a mild-mannered sort) were at distinct odds with each other and that the vividness of Ace's character would cause him some personal grief in the long run. However, Sting himself is only too amenable about destroying my doubts.
"Ace is very much part of my own character, I have a very, very strong ego and those scenes - like that in the Brighton Dance hall when Jimmy attempts to steal my limelight by dancing on the balcony - well, that look on my, face, were that to have been a real situation, would be exactly the same.
"In fact, Ace is very, very much half of my character."
Police drummer Stewart Copeland, himself a man scarcely bereft of ego drive, readily backs up Sting's self-analysis: "Seeing Sting in 'Quadrophenia', every aspect of the character he was playing I could relate to him personally."
"The Ace character is very, very close to the personality I take on when I'm onstage. I will not be upstaged and it's become a very strong part of the human chemistry working in the band. Basically it's me vs. Stewart at times - we both have these enormous egos - and Andy (Summers, the Police guitarist) sort of coasts along over and around the two of us. The safety gauge factor is that Stewart, Andy and I are all too aware of the pitfalls of ego excess and have, whether consciously or subconsciously, 'ritualized' the whole process. So, like each time we get together Stewart and I have this heavy argument, say, right at the outset of session so that we can get all that antipathy out of the way and get down to constructive work."
Constructive work for the Police has been ignoring the grim early days when the band's name (Copeland is responsible for the christening) was 'Persona Non Grata' amongst the hard-core punk crew and everything was an uphill struggle, ceaseless touring and a bout of recording from which the second album 'Reggatta de Blanc' has been laid down, mixed and finished up well in time for its late September release date.
A single listen to the album displays a more evenly constructed and developed set of songs again with Sting taking the lion's share of the song-writing credits although Copeland is responsible for a third of the material. Two songs - 'Does Everybody Stare' and 'Contact' - are solo compositions from the latter whilst the title track, in a brisk, well-structured instrumental that became an established additional jumping-off point from 'Can't Stand Losing You' after countless live performances is credited to all three participants, as is the albeit Sting-dominated 'Death Wish', which matches a convoluted Bo Diddley rhythm against a highly effective choir of Stings.
The latter's own songs, whilst striking home on all the most effective bases that made his best numbers on 'Outlandos d'Amour' work so well, tend to be more expansive, be they the straight-ahead ultra-commercial rock thrust of 'Message In A Bottle' (the next single), the roots reggae form of 'Walking On The Moon' which, like 'Roxanne', matches off a strident reggae on-beat against ringing chords instantly locking themselves into one's subconscious, or a number like 'No Time This Time', the archetypal 'road' song with an incredibly busy bass line or another inventive reggae construction with strong lyrics entitled 'The Bed's Too Big Without You'.
As the tape plays the songs, Sting struts about the room, proclaiming, "I think this is far more of a good dance album than the first one. That's one facet I'm really pleased about."
Talking about the Police's music, he proclaims-that he sees the band as being purveyors of "hopefully great pop music... we are not definitively a 'pop' group. We make pop music."
When asked to define his perspective on the term 'pop', Sting immediately refers to the Beatles.
"I think you've got to use The Beatles as the ultimate yardstick for pop greatness. I certainly do."
Which at least displays an ability on the part of the band's perpetrators to get a salient angle on their own music. The Police, after all, are a group that has been dogged with all manner of what must be pretty disorientating snubs and bouquets. On the one hand, the new wave elite appear to regard them with an alI-to-eager contempt, whilst the old guard - everyone from the Stones and The Who to Ted Nugent, for God's sake, tend to use them as the token 'new' band to give the glad-handed 'thumbs up' to. Charlie Murray, when he went on the road with Ron Wood and Keith Richards' New Barbarians, recalls periodically being asked by either the Two Stones or else Ian McLagen (who, it should be stated, has acted as the band's unofficial P.R. man for some time now, turning on a number of prestigious megastars - Richards and Jaggers principally - to the 'Outlandos d'Amour' album) what he thought of The Police as though every mention of their name would cover up any hint of their ridiculously insular listening tastes and general ridiculous inability to latch onto what is really happening among the young groups, particularly the ones rising from their own long-deserted homeland.
Meanwhile the desperate likes of heavy metal icon Nugent inform our own Paul Morley of their unabashed love for the likes of 'Roxanne' and, after virtually every gig the band played on their last three U.S. tours, the likes of Foreigner or crass jazz-funk operators like Stanley Clarke would turn up backstage to offer verbal bouquets.
On the other end of the scale, the band are considered a shallow venture by many of their new wave peers. It's certainly a feeling that the band themselves are more than aware of.
As Stewart Copeland remarks: "That whole thing is such a drag, basically because I actually happen to really dig Siouxsie and The Banshees and when we've encountered each other at Top Of The Pops, my first reaction is to go over and say, "Hey I really liked your music." But they always behave so ultra-cool as if to actually confer with us would be tantamount to some grand display of heresy on their part. The same with Johnny Rotten and Public Image."
Copeland, by the same token, finds a lot of the old guard's back-patting anything but complimentary.
"I mean, when it got down to Foreigner and Boston - like we'd always make a point of going on radio in whatever town in the U.S. we happened to be playing in and after getting over the initial shock of confronting a 'punk' band quote-unquote who didn't vomit over the record deck or swear three times per sentence, the D.J. would ask us our opinions on the American rock scene and we'd of course, rail off against Boston and Foreigner etc. I mean, those names are so easy to roll off the tip of your tongue they were inevitable bait. So like in every radio interview across the States we'd be putting down those two bands in particular and then, all of a sudden, at some weird gig like in Poughkeepsie (laughs) there were Foreigner backstage after the gig telling us how good we are. And it was hideous!"
Taking an objective an overview as possible on the band, it appears a fairly obvious statement of fact that The Police have joined the ranks of Cheap Trick, The Cars, Blondie and The Knack as ambassadors of accessible 'New wave' - basically the music that scarcely deserves to be considered new wave as in 'innovative' or 'original' but instead functions on the level of pairing off a strong, agreeable image with what can only be defined as 'sprightly, well-crafted late '70s pop replete with strong hooklines and a pristine sense of texturing'. The end result, whilst rarely if ever worthy of being described as ingenious, is certainly often very clever and devilishly catchy.
In other words, as Sting will only too readily agree, the Police are in the vanguard of punching out 'new' pop.
All of which is a mite disconcerting only if one bothers to check with Police mainman Sting's past. Born and raised in Newcastle Gordon Sumner got both his nickname and musical christening from playing in local trad. jazz bands.
"The lay-out would be that in certain pubs there'd be a drum-kit, double-bass and piano at least so that anyone who fancied could jump up on to the rostrum and have a bash."
Having learnt the rudiments of first the double-bass and then electric bass, Sumner's juvenile visage would frequently be noted amongst ageing die-hard semi-pro Newcastle jazzers. His youthful exuberance coupled with the fact that he was prone to wearing a baggy sweater sporting thick black and yellow stripes gave him a definite waspish look that naturally created the nickname.
"First it was the old trad. jazzers and then all of a sudden, it stuck. My friends called me 'Sting', literally everyone. Even my mother."
From casual thrump-ups at the local pub, the by-now locally renowned Sting came to lead a somewhat more youthful but nonetheless considerably more mature-in-age bunch who called themselves Last Exit (moniker gratis Hubert Selby's "Last Exit to Brooklyn").
A jazz-rock outfit they ,were according to their ex-singer/bassist, "the best band in Newcastle at the time. I mean, that's not a boast so much as a simple straightforward fact. We were the hottest band in Newcastle. Big deal. y'know (shrugs). My ego could scarcely be satisfied with that measly situation."
It was this dissatisfaction with the limitations of his environment that made Sting so readily follow up ex-Curved Air drummer Copeland's offer to come to London and form a band, even though he had a wife and child to support.
The early days of the Police's incarnation make for depressing reading in retrospect. With French guitarist Henry Padovani making the band a three-piece, the unit were forced, due to financial shortcomings, to back up the godamnful Cherry Vanilla along with her guitarist boyfriend and a long-standing keyboard player compatriot, a move that alienated yours truly for a start.
This need to supplement a wretchedly low income also caused the group to dye their hair blonde for a Wrigley's chewing gum advert, not to mention providing Sting with the initial chance to display his photogenic talents, later exploited to the full in 'Quadrophenia'.
Musically the Police still had a way to go before they found the sound they were after. A recording session with John Cale as producer was little short of farcical.
At this point, the Sting-Copeland-Padovani unit was being added to via the inclusion of Andy Summers, who had encountered the Police rhythm section when the pair had worked, on a purely session-work basis, in a Gong spin-off project referred to as Strontium 90.
Summers kept in contact and, once witnessing the group live at the Marquee, quietly but determinedly chose to force his abilities into coalition with the other members. The band as a four-piece - both Summers and Padovani on guitars- was short-lived to say the least; lasting precisely one gig plus the hideous John Cale session, where Summers recalls: "Cale being so drunk all the time that he'd leap about, raving about literally the most ludicrous things we were playing. For example, at one stage I was bashing out the 'Whole Lotta Love' riff for a joke and Cale dashed into the studio itself saying: "God, that's great, that's fantastic, we've got to record that."
Upon Padovani's departure (he went on to join Wayne County's Electric Chairs, a band he himself now fronts) the Police sound began to formulate itself. Sting, having first performed trad jazz, had been touched by rock more than immersed in it - but became very brisquely infatuated with the reggae 'on beat' rhythm and the myriad possibilities that reggae production - be it "dub" or whatever - had to offer.
Copeland recalls Sting's conversion to reggae.
"One time we had a party at Sting's and I, kinda working on a hunch that he'd relate immediately to the music, brought along a bunch of Wailers' albums, some Burning Spear, some dub records etc. And sure enough, Sting just latched on immediately to the rhythmic slant of the music, all the possibilities.
Sting himself more than willingly nominates Bob Marley as a hero and appears genuinely touched when I remark how his vocals on 'The Bed's', a track from the new album, sound unerringly like Marley's. Another hero of the singer's is Kevin Coyne - "He strips it all down, makes himself naked. I have to be drunk to take it, it's so heavy."
In fact, one of Sting's plus Copeland and Summers' to a lesser extent, greatest protestations, is that they haven't been given any credit for actually choosing the support acts they take on tour with them.
"Yeah, that angered me somewhat. I mean, it was literally down to us that The Cramps were the support act. We saw them and flipped, so that's how they got over here." For the next tour, the Police are bringing over a character named Wazmo Nariz from the States, an eccentric figure whom the band place in great esteem. The Police, by the way, have since their success made a point of headlining their gigs. This, drummer, Copeland regards as the only feasible way of breaking new ground.
"Like I really believe that the old cliche of second or third-billing to Ted Nugent in the States as a means of gaining positive exposure is a piece of shit. Yeah, I mean what is the fuckin' point of going onstage and being booed off by 60,000 people who don't know who the hell you are and don't care anyway. Some managers say 'Yeah, but you got exposure in front of 60,000 people'. Bullshit!" The Police mode of wooing the States has been going on for three tours now. At the last count, the band could sell out a 3,000 seat auditorium on average whilst the fourth shot should certainly see them doubling, if not trebling that quotient.
As far as success and the money that comes with it is concerned, the band make no phoney displays about loot not meaning that much.
Sting himself positively relishes the fact that he and Stewart Copeland will have made a clean quarter of a million apiece by the end of the year. More than anything, Sting, at 27 has struck proverbial oil with his first London-based rock venture and the impetuousness of his character hasn't been tempered by the failures and previous ups-and-down that Copeland and, most certainly Summers, a remarkably well preserved mid-30's session guitar veteran, have had to deal with.
The group are a force to be reckoned with, deserving neither the contempt of new wave elitism nor the sycophantic blessings of many of the old guard, who consider the Police 'acceptable'. The group themselves certainly have few, if any, delusions of grandeur. They simply work out on their own ever-expanding precinct and don't force their music down your throat.
"Great pop" is Sting's aim. 'Roxanne', 'Can't Stand Losing You', 'Truth Hits Everybody', 'The Bed's Too Big Without You', 'Death Wish', 'Message In A Bottle' are just that. Frustratingly catchy, clever but rarely clever-clever, the Police maintain a musical profile that deserves its healthy modicum of respect. Put simply, they put out. Catch it or let it lay are the two options available. They've made their choice, I've made mine.
The ball's in your court now.
© New Musical Express