They Can Play. Can They Play Nice?
In a high-ceilinged studio at the Lions Gate film complex earlier this month, the Police were rehearsing for a very public first gig: opening the Grammy awards broadcast last Sunday with their 1978 hit "Roxanne" before announcing a world tour the next day. Sting, 55, on bass; Andy Summers, 64, on guitar; and Stewart Copeland, 54, on drums, were working through a list of two dozen songs. For the first time in decades the Police would be back together for more than one night. "I've trapped myself back 30 years," Sting said.
The old Police sound was a lean, nimble, pointillistic approach to syncopation and space that Mr. Summers called "the sound of tension," and that tension sounded intact as the band kicked into "Message in a Bottle," with its jumpy guitar riff and stamping beat. Half a minute later Sting waved the song to a stop. "Pick," he said tersely, his voice slightly irritated. "It doesn't work."
Mr. Summers had been playing guitar with a pick, not his fingers as he used to. "You thought for a second that he wouldn't notice?" Mr. Copeland cackled. Mr. Summers shrugged: "I played it with a pick all day yesterday, and he didn't say a word." He abandoned the pick, Mr. Copeland shouted "One! Two! Three! Four!" and in an instant the song was galloping forward again. It was just another moment of readjustment for three headstrong musicians rebuilding a tricky alliance.
Twenty-four years ago the Police ruled the rock world. Their seven-year career had been one unbroken ascent: each album outselling the last, each tour bigger. In 1983 they had claimed the mantle of the Beatles by playing Shea Stadium.
But as all three freely admit, their years as rock stars together were also years of bitter conflict, sometimes to the point of fistfights backstage. "We would be playing arenas and feeling the love pour onto us," Mr. Copeland said. "And then you would come backstage, to the guys that mattered most, and feel the unlove." From the beginning they had been three disparate personalities. Mr. Copeland is voluble and extroverted, Sting earnest and pensive, and Mr. Summers looks happiest talking about chord changes and guitar gizmos. What connected them was the music that they fought over most determinedly of all.
"We didn't go to school together," Sting said. "We didn't grow up in the same neighborhood. We were never a tribe. There was friction for the right reasons. We care passionately about the music and we're all strong characters, and nobody would be pushed around. So it was part of our dynamic. We fought cat and dog over everything."
Although Mr. Copeland founded and named the Police, Sting quickly emerged both as the band's voice and its hitmaking songwriter. But the band's songs were simultaneously taut pop structures and improvisational melees, with Mr. Summers layering on complex chords and guitar effects, while Mr. Copeland's drumming shattered and precisely reassembled the beat. As the Police worked up Sting's songs, decisions were often made two against one. Sting grew to feel constrained.
"I wanted no rules, no limitations," he said. "Bands that stay together have to toe the party line. And I wasn't willing to do that." And so, when the band wound up their 1983 stadium tour, Sting struck out on his own. "We were the biggest band in the world, by all intents and purposes," he said. "And I just thought: