MELODY MAKERSeptember 01, 1979
The following interview with Alan Jones appeared in the September 1979 issue of Melody Maker...
Sting - A nice, ordinary bloke plays for higher stakes...
It's a basement flat in Bayswater, just beyond the casbah rowdiness of Queensway. Sting is in the small front yard when I arrive. He's leaning against the whitewashed wall of the house, his arms folded across his chest, the telephone receiver cradles between the side of his head and his shoulder. Beneath the open window of the living room sits a movie director's chair. The red canvas is stretched loosely over a wooden frame. Sting's name is printed boldly in large white letters across the back. Sting continues his telephone conversation. Two shy schoolgirls pass. One looks down into the basement yard. She recognised Sting, giggles. She shouts to him, waves through the iron railings.
Sting barely notices. The telephone is ringing again. He apologises for the interruption, takes the call. It's someone from the Police office. The band's new single has been voted top of Capitol Radio's 'Hit Line'. Sting conveys the news with glee. A roadie arrives with plane tickets. The Police are flying to Holland the next morning for a television show at the weekend. They'll be back in London the following Monday to finalise preparations for their British tour. There's another telephone call. Sting smiles again. He's just been told that 'Outlandos d'Amour' has gone platinum in Holland.
The afternoon is full of such distractions. Sting enjoys the bustle. He seems to come alive, to thrive on the constant activity. The attention is, after all, another kind of flattery; a further acknowledgement of the Police's success.
The flat is not especially grand, certainly no ostentatious advertisement for Sting's recently won affluence. It is tastefully, almost soberly, furnished and decorated. There is a colour television in one corner, a stereo in another. Prints, photographs and paintings hand from the walls. Shades of brown dominate, giving the room a comfortable warmth.
Sting falls back into a luxurious velvet armchair, immerses himself in its embrace. He has strong, handsome features: a broad forehead, high, perilous cheekbones that give him an imperious look. The mouth is wide; it could be cruel, but he is quick to laugh. His laugh is a sandpapered chuckle and its softness finds an echo in his voice, which is seductive, coloured by his Newcastle accent. It seems to float you into its confidence.
He's relaxed here; clearly, he enjoys the security of his home. It is, one suspects, a retreat whose privacy he defends zealously. He lives here with his wife, Frances, and his three year old son. The air of domesticity settles easily on him. He seems unselfconscious about it. He relishes it, in fact, and makes no secret of it.
"As you can see," he says waving a hand around the room. "I do want things around me that I wanted as a kid. I wanted a house of my own. I wanted a car. I want to send my kids to a good school. I don't think there's anything phoney in those aspirations. There's a humorous side to it, too...I mean, I'm aware of the middle class caricature - the ducks on the wall, you know. But I haven't got them yet.
"But all this is part of me. I try as far as possible to disguise the fact that I am home-loving, average house-husband. I have a family life that is quite normal. And I don't see any point in trying to promote an image of myself as a kind of rebellious playboy."
He chuckles at the idea. "I mean, someone like Phil Lynott has this wonderful playboy image - you know, a girl in every bed and all that. I think it's very funny. But people eventually start seeing through it. One day the world catches you with your hair in curlers and there goes the image, blown away."
He pauses for a moment, them smiles, teasing. "I really do feel rather ordinary," he says. "Sometimes."
Whisper the name: Mont de Marsan. It was at the second of Marc Zermati's mad punk binges in the South of France that I first met Sting. The Police were so far down the bill at that festival in the summer of 1977 that their name barely made the posters.
The festival headliners - the Clash, the Jam, the Damned; the London punk elite - were all flying into Mont de Marsan from Blighty. The supporting cast of English bands - among them the Police, the Boys, the Maniacs and the Tyla Gang - and a detachment of intrepid rock hacks travelled by coach to Mont de Marsan. The journey took 37 hours. In Paris, 16 of us shared what was basically a single room divided by hardboard partitions. The hotel was so dreadfully seedy it brought tears of disbelief to our tired eyes.
The drive from Paris the next day was horrendous - 17 hours in a clapped-out old banger of a coach driven by a speed freak. There was no air conditioning, less food and a drink was out of the question. We arrived in Mont de Marsan feeling like a ragged platoon of boat people. And the worse thing about reaching the village was the terrible knowledge that two days later we'd have to suffer the same appalling conditions on the weary journey home.
Sting can now recall that terrible adventure now and savour marvellous ironies that fate held up its grimy sleeve. The Police were virtually unknown then, they were disliked and frequently dismissed. Their future was as bleak as a gravestone on a Yorkshire moor and without any sign of immediate promise. Two years later he has gold records hanging on the walls of his lavatory and a bank balance that must send his bank manager into paroxysms of delirious delight.
"It's undreamed of," we says. "Just this last year we've been presented with financial problems that are just bizarre. Shall we become tax exiles? Shall I buy an estate in Ireland ? It's fun, I must say. I mean, I'm not complaining. It's just that because we're a small group we've been able to keep costs down and make an extraordinary profit.
"People criticise us for being a nice little business. Well we are a nice little business. We're a damn good business. And we've made money because not only are we a great band, but we're also very intelligent. We're not in debt up to our eyes, like most groups. The mindless spending of ¬£100,000 on one album is something we avoided because we recognise that it's so mindless.
"Most bands just don't make money. They just squander it on producers and cocaine and lots of other bullshit, and it's disgusting. There's so much idiotic excess. It goes beyond enjoyment, you know...
"Like, I heard this absolute horror story about X (drummer with a multi-platinum heavy metal band). He apparently has this huge bag of cocaine on stage and at each gig, at the start of each number, he'll reach down and dig up a handful of coke and just sort of spray it all over his face. Just to get through the number. So at the end of each gig the roadies are crawling all over the stage, sniffing the Persian carpets which have got, like, thousands of dollars of cocaine all over them... The waste is appalling."
Stewart Copeland had been nursing the idea of the Police throughout most of 1976, but his idea only began to assume a coherent identity when Curved Air - whose drummer he was then - played a concert in Newcastle. Phil Sutcliffe, a local journalist and a contributor to 'Sounds' took Copeland to see a Tyneside band called Last Exit who were playing at Newcastle Polytechnic. The story has been told before, but a little elaboration will do no harm.
"It was a terrible gig," Copeland remembers. "The band was a sort of sophisto Newcastle Chick Corea affair. Everybody was in their mid-thirties and balding. And the numbers were all seven minutes long and very intense. They'd moved the venue from a small hall to a smaller classroom and everyone was standing at this bar wondering where the band was supposed to be playing. There was no stage. There were two reading lamps on a desk - that was the light show. Every time somebody walked into the room you could hear their footsteps echoing on the floor. It was absolutely, incredibly awful.
"But they went down a storm. Just because of Sting. Because of his raps with the audience. Because of his singing. Because of his presence. The group was dire. They'd do these really jazzy swishes on the piano or the cymbals..." He holds his head in his hands and laughs loudly at the memory. "But Sting," he continues, "had then what he has now. This fantastic presence. It was really pretty obvious that he had enormous potential."
The commercial emergence of punk - of which Copeland was an early champion - allowed the drummer the opportunity of liberating himself from the redundant confines of Curved Air. He found a young guitarist, Henri Padovani, and persuaded Sting to move down to London to join the Police. Padovani, whose musical talents were restricted was subsequently sacked. Andy Summers was enlisted in time for Mont De Marsan.
I don't remember anything specific of Sting from that nightmare excursion, though we were introduced by Andy Summers. I'd known the guitarist for two years, as a member of Kevin Coyne's band, and, more recently as a Kevin Ayers sideman. I was more bemused by Summer's unexpected appearance in what I took to be just another group hopping on the punk bandwagon than I was interested in Sting. The Police had just had their hair dyed blond, I recall, and frankly I thought Summers had lost his marbles.
"A lot of people thought I'd lost my marbles," Summers reflects. "I think when I first announced to a circle of friends that I was joining this new wave group called the Police, there was definitely a certain amount of sniggering behind my back. Especially when the dyed blond hair appeared. That really was the big snigger. They might have laughed but I didn't give a shit. And, obviously, I'm having the last laugh now. At first there were a lot of jokes. Now there's actually a bit of cap-doffing. I think we've earned it, actually."
Summers surrendered a secure career as a musician to join the Police. There were times, he now admits, when he doubted the wisdom of the commitment. The first year was especially depressing, he remembers. The Police played a mere dozen gigs in the six months that followed his arrival. He recalls gluing up posters in the freezing snow for their gigs at the Red Cow. The group was starving and he was being supported by his wife. "I felt like I'd just put my balls in my mouth and taken a big bite," he says.
What pulled him through that period of desperate uncertainty was the conviction and confidence of Stewart Copeland and Sting. He was impressed by the sheer force of their personalities.
Stewart's great enthusiasm and rive was immediately conspicuous," he observes. "He and Sting were overwhelming in their preoccupation with the Police. You just don't meet that many people with that kind of drive and energy."
Miles Copeland, Stewart's brother and manager of the Police, also remarks upon the extraordinary conviction and self-confidence displayed by Stewart and Sting during those grim, unfortunate months.
"Sting on his own, but especially under the influence of Stewart was not about to be put down by anybody. Sting has a very strong opinion of himself. I don't mean he's wildly egotistical, but he has tremendous self-confidence. Stewart is exactly the same. And with the two of them, the confidence was doubled. It didn't matter to them that people were putting them down, that they were unfashionable, that most of the other punk bands looked down on them. They knew that one way or another they would survive, that they would come through.
"Sting always knew that he was good, and if someone came along and said that he was talentless sonofabitch he thought there was something wrong with them, you know. If someone, came along and said, 'Hey - you're a loser, you're full of shit...' He'd feel sorry for that guy, because he knew that guy must have been an idiot. He knew that he had the ability.
"Sting always knew he was going to be a star. Like he knew that the Police were going to be successful. Anyone could have seen that Sting was a person of obvious talent. An idiot could have seen it. But the trouble with this business is that it often takes the idiots a lot longer to open their eyes."
Sting was born in Wallsend, a working-class district of Newcastle. His recollections of his childhood there are mostly affectionate, but never sentimental. His earliest memories are of a street dominated by the Tyneside shipyards. He remembers his amazement as a child watching the skeletons of ships rising above the streets, gradually taking shape above him. "We'd watch them being built," he says, a faint taste of incredulity still apparent in his voice. "Then, after about six months, they'd fall into the river and sail away."
His father was an engineer, ambitious and eager to improve his family's fortunes. When Sting was five the family moved into a better, middles-class, neighbourhood. "I knew we'd taken a step up the social ladder," he smiles, because we had a house with a garden". His parents ambitions took him even further away from his original background. They encouraged his academic promise. He was a bright pupil: one of two students in his class to pass the 11-plus and qualify for grammar school.
"Immediately," he says, "all your friends and contemporaries were shaved away. Your friends considered you an outsider because you went into the town to the grammar school and you wore a different uniform. They were at secondary school, you weren't, so you were different. In a way, I grew up not having many friends. They didn't want to know - they were all preparing to leave school and get jobs. Down the mines. In the shipyards.
"I was totally bewildered, caught on this academic treadmill. I wished that I was at technical school - somewhere where they taught you something practical. Iron work or metal work. Then I would have had something obvious to aim for. I could have gone to work in a factory, or become a draughtsman. Grammar school was so nebulous, you know. It was just a good status symbol for my parents, having their son at grammar school, going to university.
"I felt less mature, less sophisticated. I was really tempted to leave school, to get a job." He didn't. He passed more exams and went to Warwick University to study English. He was there for a term.
"I was lost, totally lost," he confesses. "I decided that it just wasn't for me - I mean, I thought that leaving school meant getting rid of your uniform, I thought it meant freedom. Being at university wasn't freedom at all. It was more of the same in a different uniform. So I decided to leave."
He returned to Newcastle, worked for six months on a building site and then joined the Inland Revenue. He clutches at his hair in mock desperation at the memory. His career in the Civil Service was not illustrious. He was threatened with the sack and decided to leave gracefully. He enrolled at a teachers' training college in Newcastle. "It was a total lack of imagination on my part that took me back to college," he says. "I just didn't know what else to do. My life was falling apart around me."
There was, he thinks, one central focus for his life at this time: music. An uncle who had emigrated to Canada had left behind a guitar. When the uncle returned to Newcastle five years later he found that Sting had himself by strumming along to records.
"I'd listen to the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks. Learning the chords to 'Dead End Street' was a major breakthrough", he laughs. He was determinedly catholic in his listening. When he was 14 he borrowed some jazz albums from school: "I didn't like any of the records, but I thought it would do me good. I'd listen to album after album of Thelonious Monk piano solos and I thought - this must be doing me the world of good because it's just so awful. Gradually it grew on me. It was the same with blues. I'd listen to loads of blues albums, and I just didn't like them. But I persevered because I thought they were doing me good. It was like having to take some kind of medicine.
"Eventually I grew to love things like that. But at first it was a real effort. I just endured them because I desperately wanted to be hip, you know. There was an elite group of us in the sixth form. Very snobbish we were. We knew who John Fahey was. We'd heard of Thelonious Monk. We'd heard Jimmy Witherspoon. We were horribly precocious".
He didn't start playing in bands (at least none that he will admit to) until he was 18, after returning to Newcastle from Warwick University. By this time he was thoroughly disenchanted with rock music. He often found himself drinking at a pub called the Wheatsheaf. Newcastle, he explains, has a tradition of Dixieland jazz. The bands play in the clubs and pubs, and the musicians used to congregate regularly at the Wheatsheaf for informal sessions. He remembers all these old guys sitting at tables with their drinks and instruments, swapping solos getting drunk. There was a resident rhythm section in one corner. The bass player's name was Ernie and occasionally he'd allow Sting to sit in with the band while he went off for a quick jolly-up. "He had this big double bass. I used to get up, play two numbers and get blisters that wouldn't go away for three weeks. Eventually I got the hang of it, learned to play."
One night Ernie failed to turn up. The group asked Sting to play. He brought along his electric bass and plugged in. "The band jumped into the modern world that night. It was the first time they'd ever played with an instrument that worked on electricity. They went crazy."
He was subsequently invited to join Newcastle's premier traditional jazz band, the Riverside Men, which he regarded as a considerable honour. "It was great. They all wore blue suits. The band had been together for about 20 years, which was the same age as the suits. They were a great band. Trad jazz is regarded as a bit of a joke, I know, but it can actually be very exciting. Especially really fast rags. I really loved it."
He felt little sympathy for the current mood in rock. Led Zeppelin and heavy metal and hard rock dominated the time. He thoroughly abhorred such music. In many ways, he says, he was a musical snob. He disliked all the local Newcastle bands, who were all surrogate HM dervishes.
"They all had long hair and flared trousers, looked terrible and sounded worse," he says. "I was only 20, but I didn't have any time for them. I was mixing with much older musicians, people who'd worked for years at their craft. I felt really proud to be playing with them. It was a great experience.
"I was conscious that there was some sort of apprenticeship being served. I learned to read music, worked hard practising every day. I was very enthusiastic. I was still a student at the teacher's training college, but I was earning a fortune every night. I had a brand new car. I was," he says, laughing, "very definitely the face of the college. Everyone used to come and see me play... There was, uh, a ratio of seven girls to one guy at the college... You could say that I was well looked after."
After graduating from college, Sting worked for two years as a teacher in Cramlington, a small mining village outside Newcastle. "The kids in my class," he recalls, were about nine or ten years old. You might laugh, but they were real delinquents. I loved them, though. They were lovely."
The affection he felt for them is implicit in his voice as he recalls taking instruments into the class for music lessons. Few of them had ever seen a saxophone or a trumpet; they were all thrilled.
"I'm not sure they ever learned anything from me," he says, "but I'm sure they had a good time. I never gave a f*** about teaching them maths or logarithms, I just wanted them to enjoy themselves while they still had time. I'm not sure what I accomplished as a teacher, but if one kid in that class becomes a musician or plays in a group somewhere, I think he'd have to be thankful to me for encouraging him.
"Actually, when I was on teaching practice once at a secondary modern school in Newcastle, I got one kid really heavily into the guitar and another kid really heavily into the clarinet. They used to write me letters when I went to college, telling me how they were getting on. Their parents had bought them instruments of their own, you know. I think that's the most useful thing I accomplished as a teacher."
He was not often enamoured of the approach of his fellow teachers, though. Especially those he encountered at the secondary school in which he briefly taught. "It was just a job to them. They didn't care for the kids at all. I felt really frustrated there. It was a very reactionary school, very conservative. It was hell, actually. No way were the kids there going to feel anything but resentment for school. I felt the same. I hated that school as much they did."
He was still teaching at Cramlington when he formed Last Exit. The members of that band were young, but had served the same kind of musical apprenticeship as Sting. They were all accomplished musicians, with aspirations towards jazz-rock sophistication. For the first time, Sting started writing and singing.
I was listening to female singers like Cleo Laine and Flora Purim," he says. "I had a naturally high voice with a wide range - I tried to model myself on them. I never tried to disguise the high voice. I never felt embarrassed about it. I used to love voices like that. McCarthey has that kind of voice - I loved him. It just cut through everything. Slices through the whole band. It doesn't matter if the band is playing at a thousand decibels - it's the kind of voice that cuts straight through."
The local success of Last Exit encouraged him to bring the band to London, in an attempt to win the attention of a record company. They played a series of gigs at the Nashville and the Red Cow, supporting groups like Plummett Airlines - "I remember we blew them off stage at the Nashville." They also managed to secure a gig at the with Kevin Coyne and John Stevens' Away. He remembers that gig especially, because it was the first time that the group ever received a review in one of the national rock papers.
"Karl Dallas reviewed it in Melody Maker. I remember there was a sentence about us in his review. I was thrilled . I remember thinking - 'At last we're a tiny microcosm in the rock business, at last we've been recognised!' I've still got the review. I've got loads of press cuttings now, but that was a breakthrough."
Last Exit touted their tapes around the companies. No-one seemed overwhelmingly interested. Virgin, though, offered Sting a publishing contract. He accepted. "It wasn't a good deal, but I was so excited that I took it. I thought, 'I'm a real songwriter' - it was like a trophy that proved I was a songwriter. I could talk to people about my publishers. It was another great thrill."
Last Exit were forced to return to Newcastle through the lack of interest and available work in London. They were making a reasonable living as the most popular and respected group in the North East. They were offered the support gig at most of the prestigious gigs at the Newcastle City Hall and once played on the same bill as the Manchester Symphony Orchestra, who performed the orchestral version of 'Tubular Bells'. The MSO was conducted that night by David Bedford. Mike Oldfield was understudied by a guitarist called Andy Summers. Oh, sweet irony!
Sting wasn't satisfied, however. He had been to London and wanted to return. His ambitions had been fired, he was convinced he could make it in the capital. He tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the rest of the band to accompany him. They were reluctant to forsake the security of the North East, but he decided to go.
"I packed in teaching. Packed everything I owned into a car and drove off. I'd just got married. The baby was six weeks old. It sounds dramatic and it was. My life suddenly just tuned over. I said, 'This is it'. It was the only way to do it. We were all in this car with the dog and we didn't have anywhere to go. We had a friend in Battersea, so we went there. We slept on the floor of his living room for two months. It was awful.
The only thing that looked hopeful was this group that Stewart Copeland had called me about the week before we moved. I told him I'd see him in London.
Stewart Copeland was living in a two-storey apartment in Mayfair at the time. He had a small rehearsal studio there, and he and Sting and Henri Padovani would meet and discuss the musical strategy of the Police.
Sting, Stewart Copeland remembers, was initially dubious about the project. "He was a typical provincial boy," Copeland says. "He thought he was going to get ripped off by everyone. He wasn't at all sure about the music..."
"Musically, I thought Stewart's ideas were shit," Sting recalls. "But the energy, the dynamism of the guy really affected me. I thought straight away - this is the bloke for me. Yes, I suppose I did see something of myself in Stewart. He's very egocentric. Very, very energetic. Very determined. Very intelligent. He realised what was happening at places like the Roxy. He's an opportunist. Like me."
Copeland admits that he was concerned that Sting's background in jazz would alienate him from the kind of raw aggression he was intent in harnessing in the Police's music. He remembers coaching Padovani before Sting came down from Newcastle to join them.
"Henri only knew about three chords. I used to say that in the very early days, when we first started gigging, that we had a 20 minute set and a 20 minute guitarist. He had a nice feel but he wasn't technically very proficient. I knew Sting was a sophisto jazz musician and was going to freak when he met Henri. Henri had never played in a group before, and here was Sting about to turn up having played for years with all these old jazzers. God, I thought he'd go crazy. I don't know how we managed to pull it off, but we impressed him enough for him to come back to rehearse the next day."
Copeland, by this time, was fully immersed in punk; in its music and its attitude. Sting wasn't so quickly impressed.
"He was a dreadful reactionary," Copeland says. "And it really showed in the early days. Which was one of the reasons we were never accepted by the punk elite. One of the first gigs we did was at the Nashville. Everybody on the punk scene turned out for it. And Sting... Sting did this thing where he said, 'Alright - we're going to play some punk now, which means the lyrics are banal and the music is terrible..." He just totally blew it. He didn't understand what he was doing then. God knows what he thought he was up to."
"I was reactionary," Sting agrees, "but that was just because I wasn't sure where we stood with all these punk bands. It took me a while. Stewart's enthusiasm carried me along for quite a while, until I actually started to contribute something to the group."
"I knew it was going to take some time to acclimatise Sting," Copeland says. "For those first few months Sting hated everybody he saw. We did some gigs with the Heartbreakers. I remember. Sting hated them. We'd wander down to the Roxy and he'd be going, 'Jesus Christ, what the fuck is this all about? Who are these people?' And a band would come on and he'd be totally freaked out. But the crucial thing was that he was immediately competitive. He'd see these guys and say, 'Look at these guys - they're causing all this media attention and they are shit. I can do better than f****** lot.' And he'd get wilder and wilder. He became very aggressive, very determined.
Both Miles and Stewart Copeland become antagonistic when the hostility and indifference of the Police's punk contemporaries is mentioned. Miles, especially, rants belligerently at the audacity of the group's early critics who condemned them for being merely opportunistic. Stewart is more reasonable. Sting says that it never really bothered him, though he was aware of it.
"I met a lot of those punks... Joe Strummer. Paul Simenon. Rotten. We were never incredibly chummy or matey. I don't think we ever had much in common with those people. I never got to know them very well. We were sort of untouchables as far as they were concerned. We weren't allowed to mix with the in-crowd. There was an inner circle which we didn't try to penetrate. I wouldn't have minded being part of the in-crowd. But at the same time I wasn't going to lose my temper if Dave Vanian refused to speak to me one night at the Roxy."
It becomes clear, though, that he does allow himself some small grin of self-satisfaction, having now become considerably more successful than those individuals who once shunned the Police.
"I like the irony of the fact that we've stuck to our guns and eventually won through. Our success in America is especially ironic. We were forced to turn to America, because here virtually every door was locked to us. And we did it, where all the elite bands from England totally failed. And will continue to fail, I think. They have nothing to say to America that America wants to hear. They don't want to hear the Clash. There's a minority on the coasts, maybe, who think it's very fashionable to like the Clash. But the heart of America is the Midwest. That's the reactionary, conservative, Ted Nugent territory. That's the area you have to break to break America. And they don't want to listen to bands like the Clash out there.
"You know," he says, warming to his theme. "I really think groups like the Clash and the Sex Pistols had it too easy. They had such an easy victory. It was a walkover for them. I'm sure it's not as satisfying as having been right down there and then swimming up to the surface through all the shit like we had to. In many ways that's probably why the Sex Pistols split up. It was all too easy for them. They were just catapulted up there without any problems. They were their own biggest problem. They just couldn't cope.
"We've been through it all and we've grown with it. We crawled and then we walked and now we're running. And we'll keep running until we fall."
Stewart Copeland says that his principal difficulty with Sting in the early days of the Police was simply keeping up his morale. They were playing gigs at first for a fiver a night, the press was against them (they say), they were without a following. It was like one long shout into the dark.
"There was only one real crisis, though," Copeland mentions. "Sting was offered a job with Billy Ocean for 90 notes a week. We were starving at the time. We were playing with Cherry Vanilla for a fiver a gig and sometimes she couldn't even pay us that. But I really put her over a barrel. I forced the money out of her. Just to keep Sting. He would have gone, I know. 'Cos he's a real breadhead, and he goes for the money. If it looked to him like the Police was about to fold, he would've taken that job.
"I'm glad that happened, 'cos whenever he now says, 'Shit - I wrote Outlandos, I'm the Police' - I can say, 'Oh, Yeah? If it wasn't for me, mate, you'd have joined f****** Billy Ocean. The gig lasted four months. So, four months later Sting could've been back in some pub in Newcastle in a jazz group."
The tenacity of the group and Stewart's overriding determination that they would success despite the odds stacked against them - carried them through those months of doubt and disappointment. And slowly the circle began to turn in their favour. Andy Summers joined, Sting realised that the songs he had been withholding from the Police because of Padovani's lack of technique could now be played. He would no longer have to compromise his more sophisticated inclinations to accommodate a musically backward guitarist. And, just as important, he made a significant connection with reggae.
"I'd always wanted to make a connection between the energetic music of punk and more sophisticated musical forms," he explains. "There was this amazingly aggressive music full of energy on the one hand , and I wanted to take it and bridge a gap between the interesting chords and harmonic variations and this wild energy. And what eventually allowed me to do it was listening to reggae. Bob Marley, especially. I saw a rhythmic connection between the fast bass of punk and the holes in reggae. I got interested in trying to write songs that combined these apparently diverse styles. I think we succeeded with 'Roxanne'."
Andy Summers has touching memories of the afternoon that Sting presented the Police with the song. "We were rehearsing in this piss-awful cellar in Finchley. It was freezing cold and the rehearsals were going dreadfully. I knew that Sting had had the chords for 'Roxanne' for ages. I remember him playing them for me once in Paris. We weren't getting very far with anything, so we said 'let's have a go at that song'... Sting had written the lyric by this time and he sang it and we messed about with the chords. We changed it around, played it backwards and thought, 'Mmmm. Not a bad song. Rather good, in fact.' Then Miles came along to see how we were getting on. He had this real punk-religious glint in his eye. So we played him all the more obvious songs and he told us that mostly they were shit. Then we played 'Roxanne' and he flipped.
"I thought it was one of the f****** great classic songs of all time," Miles Copeland says now. He took it on to A&M who picked it up and released it. The group felt very pleased with themselves. It was a minor hit. The profits enabled them to fly to America. The circle continued to turn in their favour.
Each member of the band refers to a specific gig, a specific moment when they realised they were, after all, going to find success at the end of the water-chute. Stewart remembers a gig at the Marquee, Sting thinks it was probably discovering reggae and finding a form for his songwriting. Andy Summers probably still thinks it was when he joined Sting and Stewart. But Miles Copeland has the most intriguing memory.
The Police had just started their first American tour, were driving eight hours a day across the continent, chasing good fortune and headlines. They played a gig in Syracuse. There were four people in the audience.
"Most groups," he said, "would have said, 'Shit - f*** this'. The Police went out and played one of their best gigs. Sting actually introduced the audience to each other. And one of the people in the audience turned out to be a deejay who was really blown away. The next day he started playing the Police really heavily on his show. That gig turned out to be one of the most important they've ever played. That's why I think their success is such a tribute to their conviction - they play each gig as a challenge. They'll play anywhere, to anyone. They're prepared to do anything for success."
And so their audience began to grow. In America. In Britain. Sting became the obvious focal point. He didn't flinch from the spotlight. "And God, he loved it," Stewart Copeland smiles. "He took to it naturally. Comfortably. One might say casually."
I asked Sting later how he felt on stage at Reading in front of 30,000 ecstatic fans. He smiled. "I felt like God, and I love it," he said.
"Sting is the public face of the Police," Stewart Copeland says. And, of course, it's true. Sting is the one to whom journalists rush most eagerly for interviews. It is towards him that the photographers gallop, shutters clicking like frantic dice. It is his face that beams from the front pages of the music press. It is to his bank account that most of the royalties from 'Outlandos' and 'Reggatta de Blanc', the new album, will be credited. The small miracle here is that such attention on one member of the band doesn't precipitate all manner of internal warfare.
"I don't care how much money Sting earns," Stewart Copeland firmly declares. "I'm really proud of him. It doesn't surprise me that he's turned out to be a great songwriter. It doesn't surprise me that he's turned out to be a f****** superstar actor either, the bastard. I don't resent him his success. I was prepared to hand over the group to him, remember. I wanted him to write. I wanted him to sing. I wanted him in the group. The main thing is to have good songs and be a successful group. F*** the arguments...
"I've seen a lot of groups where the bass player is buying his first apartment out of the royalties from the first hit record and is feeling great... then, hey, he sees the fucking guitarist buying some f******g mansion 'cos he's got twice as much from the publishing alone 'cos the songs on the album were his. So the next album comes along and the bass player says, 'Hey - I've got all these songs and I'm leaving unless we record them.' There's a million stories about groups being ripped apart like that. And I'm determined that it won't happen to the Police. So I don't care how much money Sting makes. I hope he makes lots and lots and lots of money. I'm more interested in safeguarding the future of the group".
Sting, equally would not like to think that his diversification might in any way threaten the internal stability of the Police. At the same time he is anxious to dispel any suggestion that because Copeland and Summers so politely tolerate his activities outside the Police the group is therefore run on the lines of a garden party at Buckingham Palace...
"We're a tough band," he says. "And I can be very ruthless. I mean, we sacked a guitarist we all liked. We all loved Henri as a person, but because he stood in the way of our musical progress we sacked him: It was ruthless. But it had to be done. We sacked him in pieces. I started it and Stewart finished it off".
"I do think that work should come before friendship. We're all friends, obviously. But if I'm angry about a work situation, I won't let friendship get in the way. I'll be very angry. Stewart's the same. We really do fight a lot. It's a very hard, committed relationship. It's not always nice or polite. It's often very, very tense."
Sting tells a rather crucial story about himself at one point during our conversation. We had been talking about his childhood in Newcastle, his youth, his schooldays. He mentioned that along with music his other great passion was athletics. He had been the Northern Counties 100 metres champion. He had raced in the national championships. He came third. He never raced again.
"You're either the best or you're not," he said. "I realised when I came third that there were two people in my age group who were better than I was. And there was no possibility of me beating them. So I just stopped running. I didn't want to be part of the pyramid. I wanted to be on the top. I like to be the best. I only want to be the best. I enjoy being the best. I am an egoist. I wouldn't get on stage and do what I do if I wasn't, I'm supremely self-confident about everything I do."
"One thing I'll say for Sting," Miles Copeland had said "he never fails at doing anything. Every single audition he went to for a movie or for a part in a commercial - he always got the part. Either he's got luck or he's got a winner look about him or something. He just succeeds. I think part of it is his conviction that he is great, and he knows what he's capable of. And he's also got the right credentials as far as looks go. That always helps. Generally he's lucky. He's also talented. He's also a good person. It's a rare combination. And usually those combinations are very successful."
"I'm not really surprised that Sting has been successful in movies," says Stewart Copeland. "He always looks so great, anyway. He has a real rapport with the mirror. He enjoys being looked at. But only when he's being Sting. Like, people say that he's not wild, that he doesn't party after gigs. That's because he can only keep up that kind of intensity of being Sting for a limited amount of time. Then he has to switch off. And he can only do that when he's alone in his hotel room. He won't even come down to the hotel lobby if he thinks there might be a photographer there. He has to be Sting in front of the camera. He'd have to keep up the persona. That's his career. His whole art form is down to the way he looks. That's why I'm not surprised by his success in movies. Everything about him you can see is part of his art form and he really gets uptight if you try to get around behind it. Because he really does put out a lot all the time. He gives people plenty to look at and conjure with. And that should be enough. He's not exactly two different people, but there are differences...let me put it like this: when he shows up he's on stage and when he's not on stage he doesn't show up."
Sting, perhaps fortunately, is less abstract when it comes to discussing his movie career. He finds it amusing, in fact, that so much emphasis has been placed on it. He has, he reminds us, appeared in only two movies (having, been excised from the Sex Pistols epic) - 'Quadrophenia' and 'Radio On'. His wife is an actress, he explains. Her agent suggested that he might possibly, find some work in commercials to help subsidise his career in music. He went along to his first audition. He got the job.
"It was incredible," he says. "Do you know how many jobs there are for actors? Do you know how many actors are out of work ? To go for your first job and actually get it is virtually unprecedented. And then to go on and get seven more in succession is unbelievable. With each one, I went in and said. 'Hi, I'm Sting.' And they said 'The man for the job!' So naturally my confidence blossomed. I was ready for anything."
He was reluctant, though, to audition for 'Quadrophenia'. He thought he was too old. He knew that both Jimmy Pursey and Johnny Rotten had been tested for the part. He was eventually persuaded to meet the film's director Franc Roddam.
"I washed me hair, went down to the studio, met him and sat around discussing Herman Hesse - 'The Glass Bead Game', I think. Suddenly, he said, 'You're perfect. You look perfect.' I got the job that day. It transpired during the conversation that followed that I was going to appear in a two million dollar movie. And I'd never even been in a school play."
The cameo appearance in 'Radio On' came about in the same manner. His agent sent him along to meet Chris Petit the director, and he was offered the part. "I just sing 'Three Steps To Heaven' and sit in a caravan," he says of his role. "It's not exactly 'Ben Hur'".
He has just turned down the leading rote in the 'Rock Follies' movie (which has just been abandoned). He didn't want to become associated with rock movies he says: he doesn't want to do another film with any overt connection with music, though he would like to pursue a career in films.
"He won't do anything unless he thinks there's a good reason for it, though," says Stewart Copeland. "He's ambitious. He wants to be huge. But he won't do anything that he thinks is beneath him. He's playing for higher stakes. He's turned down the Russell Harty show - or the Parkinson show, I can't remember. Something like that. He just won't do it. I mean it's the kind of thing that Elkie Brooks would break an arm to get on. Sting just doesn't want to know."
There is a part of Sting's personality that appears to react frivolously to the success he is presently enjoying. Everyone will tell you how much he enjoys the attention of his audience and the media. He'll tell you himself how much he delights in the idea of being a sex symbol (his own description). He loves being recognised, he says. He loves being stopped in the street and asked for his autograph.
"It means that I'm doing my job well." he says. "It means I'm successful at what I do." He wants to remain accessible, he doesn't want to turn people away. As Miles Copeland says, however, he might soon find the pressure greater than he imagined. "Talk to me this time next year and I'll tell you whether I'm still enjoying it," he says, grinning.
He is aware, though, that with success comes a certain responsibility. "I'm in quite a responsible position. A lot of people will read what I say and take it seriously, so I have to be very careful. But I'm prepared to accept the responsibility. If you have a coherent opinion you shouldn't be reluctant to express it. If you have nothing to say keep your silence. But on some issues I do have views that I want to express, given the opportunity. I want my voice to be heard. But without abusing the position I'm in. I mean it's not going to sell any records - it's divorced from all that. But it's still a part of being successful. I accept it. "It's hard, though. It's one of the pressures. But I enjoy it more than being looked at."
The Police, Miles Copeland had told me with characteristic modesty could prove to be "another Who another Rolling Stones. I think they could be a legendary force in music for the next 10 to 15 years."
I wondered whether Sting thought he would be happy with the status of a Jagger or a Rod Stewart. "I really don't see myself becoming a playboy, you know. I'm a family man. I'm very down to earth. I have a wife and a child and I'm very happy, we have a nice flat in the centre of London. I can't see my life changing that radically.
"I don't take drugs. I don't even smoke dope. I don't even smoke tobacco. I drink occasionally. I don't mean to sound boring but the avenues of excess aren't actually open to me. I don't have any habits that vast amounts of money will exaggerate. I know I'm arrogant. But it's largely a professional arrogance. It's a useful tool for me. If I wasn't arrogant, I wouldn't be as successful as I am.
"I think it would be false for me to be modest. I'm a great singer and I know it. I'm a great songwriter and I know it. Largely because the competition just isn't there. There's very little competition actually. Of course this kind of arrogance will antagonise some people. But I don't think it's a vicious arrogance. There are people who don't like me, obviously. I'm not beloved by everybody, for God's sake. But a lot of people," he says with a thoroughly disarming smile, still think I'm really rather a nice bloke."
© Melody Maker magazine