06.03.07 ROLLING STONE
The Police - A Fragile Truce...
It's the reunion Sting swore would never happen. What brought the Police together again, and how long can it last?
The music is lean and gleaming, an instantly familiar fury of hyper-reggae drive and hit-record choruses. The Police are rehearsing for their first tour in twenty-three years in a gymnasium in Vancouver. Opening night is a week away, in a local arena. But the Police sound better then ready, tight and implausibly fresh - as long as they keep playing.
The first two numbers, 'Message In A Bottle' and 'Synchronicity II', go by in perfect blurs. 'Spirits In The Material World' does not. Sting, sitting on a wooden stool as he sings and plays bass, abruptly cuts the song in midchorus.
"Is there another way to play that chord?" he says, looking across the stage at guitarist Andy Summers, who calmly asks why. "There's a fluff in there, to be honest," Sting replies bluntly. Then he turns to drummer Stewart Copeland.
"Is that the right tempo?" Sting asks, adding with polite authority, "Let's try it again."
So it goes for the next two hours. Sting repeatedly hits the brakes, fussing with the groove or Summers' guitar tone. At one point, Sting and Summers debate a three-note lick in 'Walking In Your Footsteps' for half an hour. Sting has Summers play it over and over, in different ways. Summers obliges with the poise of one who's been here before.
"It's all in the detail," Sting says after rehearsal, without apology, in his kingly hotel suite complete with a working fireplace and the roaring fire to prove it. At fifty-five, he still looks much as he does in Police photos from 1978: Fit and blond, with his hair cut in a short, even burr on top, like a low-altitude mohawk. "Andy and Stewart may disagree with me," he goes on. "They think we should jam more. I want the details to be precise."
Sting, who was the band's dominant songwriter, is frank in explaining why he has reunited the Police and committed to a world tour that goes into next March: "to go back, retrace those steps and make the band better. I have played these songs for years. I know things about the music I didn't know then or couldn't express. I'm a better bandleader now than I was then."
When the Police dissolved, without public announcement, in March 1984, after five albums and more than seven years on the road, they were the biggest trio in rock, a sellout stadium act with eight Top Twenty US singles. Their final studio album, 1983's 'Synchronicity', had spent seventeen weeks at Number One in Billboard. (Police album sales now total over 22 million in the US).
Copeland, Sting and Summers were also at each other's throats, as famous for their tempers as for their explosive shows. In his 2006 memoir, 'One Train Later', Summers recalls a blowup during the sessions for 'Ghost In The Machine': "Sting goes berserk on me, calling me every name under the sun with considerable vehemence, leaving everyone in the room white-faced and in shock."
Copeland says his 2006 documentary, 'Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out' - compiled from reels of Super-8 film he shot during the band's first lifetime - has no footage of actual fighting, "because Sting works out. He used to run, like, twenty miles a day then. If you're trying to squeeze the life out of him, it takes two hands, with no free hand to film. So I never got that shot."
But in Vancouver, there are no raised voices or fisticuffs. A tall, brassy American as loud and direct in his opinions as Sting is cool and fixed in his, Copeland, 54, is blasé about the British bassist's attention to minutiae. "We'll be fiddling with tempos," he says, "until sound check on the night of the first show."
Summers, the group's other Englishman, is funny and practical about the chain of command. "I say let's serve the singer - give him what he needs," the guitarist, 64, says at dinner. He speaks from professional experience, more than Copeland and Sting had when they formed the Police in 1976. Before replacing original guitarist Henry Padovani in 1977, Summers played with a series of great, eccentric British singers in the Sixties and Seventies, including Kevin Ayers, Kevin Coyne, Zoot Money and Eric Burdon in the last lineup of the Animals.
"It's not a democracy," Summers says of the Police. "It's an ego-cracy." He grins. "We all have one. But Sting hears things. I respect his abilities. Maybe I can learn something. And if it's not working, I'll say so."
In rehearsal, the Police show how the truce and labour have paid off when they get through songs such as 'Driven To Tears' and the jazzy fireball 'Murder By Numbers' without stopping. Copeland's haunted-ska strut is crisp and fierce. Summers' dancing hooks and spidery runs sparkle through milky treble. Sting's bass lines are firm and melodic. "I couldn't do this if it was just for the money," Sting says in front of his fire, in a low, even voice. "It's about me having a good time - hearing the music develop. That makes me happy. I want them to enjoy it too," he says of Copeland and Summers. "But they can't enjoy it unless I'm having a good time. I'm doing this for myself," Sting confesses. "I really am."
It was this simple and easy. One day last November, Sting asked himself, "What the fuck do I do now?" The answer shocked him. "If you'd asked me a week before I made this decision," he says, shaking his head in lingering disbelief, "I would have said, 'You're crazy, I'm not doing that.'"
He did not like his options either. "I didn't want to do another lute record," he says, referring to 'Songs From The Labyrinth', his surprise classical hit last year. Sting also had no interest in making a new solo album.
"What clinched it," he claims, "was thinking, 'What would surprise people? What would surprise me?' Surprise is everything." He smiles with devilish satisfaction. "It certainly surprised the guys."
So did the speed with which the reunion became reality. A week after Summers and Copeland learned of Sting's decision from his manager, Kathryn Schenker (at a meeting originally set up to discuss thirtieth-anniversary album reissues), Summers was reading contracts. "It moved with lightening speed," he says. Three months later, the Police played at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. The day after that, they announced the tour with a press conference and mini-set at the Whisky A Go Go. where the Police made their L.A. debut in March 1979.
This reunion is not the band's first. Sting, Summers and Copeland played at a wedding in 1992 - when Sting married his longtime partner, Trudie Styler, an actress and film producer - and again at their 2003 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Police also did three shows on the 1986 Conspiracy of Hope Tour benefiting Amnesty International. But an attempt that year to recut old songs for a greatest hits album began with disaster - the day before the first session, Copeland broke his collarbone playing polo - and ended worse.
"The studio was booked for three weeks," Summers recalls grimly. "If Stewart hadn't fallen from his bloody horse, we would have jammed and out of that may have come something new. Instead, we had a Synclavier and a Fairlight" - two sampling keyboards - "and a big fight over which was better. I played my guitar part on the first night [on a remake of the 1981 hit 'Don't Stand So Close To Me']. The other twenty days was those two arguing about the two machines." Sting's curt assessment of the fiasco: "It was too early."
Sting's solo success and Summers' and Copeland's own full lives after the Police did not stop people from throwing money at them to reunite. Summers, who has made a series of strong solo records, remembers a pitch he got from Brazil: "A million dollars to play three songs. I didn't want to call Sting, but I had to make the gesture. 'I hate calling you, but...' 'No.' 'Bye, sorry.'"
After the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia in December 2004, Copeland emailed Sting, suggesting a Police benefit concert. Sting replied that he was doing his own charity show. "I've been forthright about being keen on the idea of a reunion," Copeland says. "But for me, it's not a career move." Since doing the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film 'Rumblefish', Copeland has scored more than sixty movies and television shows in addition to writing orchestral works and a 1989 opera, 'Holy Blood and The Crescent Moon'. He was so busy outside rock that he stopped playing drums for ten years, until 2000, when he joined the trio Oysterhead with Phish's Trey Anastasio and Primus' Les Claypool.
But Sting "is a recording artist who has to plot his course very carefully," Copeland concedes. "For him to take twenty steps back like this, it's a career move - and the reason he can call me with the expectation that my answer will be an immediate yes."
Summers and Copeland cite the premiere of 'Everyone States' at the Sundance Film Festival last year as a turning point. Summers joined Copeland at the screening: Sting did not, although to Copeland's and Summers' shock, he showed up at the after-party - "I like surprises," Sting reiterates - setting off cameras in the room. "There was a vibe, three blond heads sticking out of an inky blackness as one thing," says Copeland, whose hair is now closer to a white snowdrift.
"We absolutely looked like a band," Summers says. "For me, that was where the seed was sown."
"Things, I suppose, were brewing," Sting admits, but shrugs when asked why he then plunged headfirst into something he had avoided like a sour memory for half his life. "I'm not claiming infallibility. I just had a feeling this would be the right time. The hoopla and the ticket sales prove that. It's the perfect time."
The North American leg of the Police tour is already one of this year's most successful tours. (Ticket prices range from to more than 0, with gold-package seats going for almost twice the latter. The band is donating a portion of the proceeds to WaterAid, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to improving sanitation and safe-water access in poor countries.) Sting does not need the windfall. He has homes in London, Southern California and New York and a villa in Tuscany, where the Police rehearsed for four weeks this spring. Copeland calls it "the magic Stingdom."
"I'm not going to change my life at all as a result of this tour," Copeland says. "I live a very simple life. I drive a Jeep Cherokee and have one house. And if you subtract the money, this is still a good idea. You get to play to crowds that will go nuts and tour the world with songs that everybody knows."
"No, don't need the money - it's nice get it," Summers says, noting that royalties from Police album sales "have been incredibly good over the years." As important to Summers is the deep imprint the Police have left on young bands like the Arctic Monkeys, Maroon 5 and the Fratellis (the latter two are opening stadium dates for the Police). "We got into that lovely top drawer where our records were essential for a certain generation," Summers says proudly. "We left this energy, this mythology. Maybe," he suggests, "it's because we stopped before we blew it."
Sting's development as a songwriter and the leverage that came with delivering hits changed the balance of power. What had been a three-for-all became a majority of one. "Part of the frustration was that Stewart and Andy were driven to write," Sting says. "It's difficult to tell somebody it's not a good song, and it was usually me."
Sting is thoughtful but not nostalgic when asked about particular Police songs he is singing in rehearsal. He describes his early lyrics as "doggerel that rhymed." He is kinder to the bleak power reggae of 'Driven To Tears', from 'Zenyatta Mondatta': "I was writing about the war and famine in Biafra (in Africa). I think about Darfur now when I sing those lyrics and wonder if we've learned any lesson at all."
Sting has no problem going back to 'Synchronicity's' 'King Of Pain', a song that became his image for many years. "I sing it like an actor would," he says. But he acknowledges the personal history in the words. "It was written just before 'Synchronicity' was recorded. I was in Jamaica with Trudie. My first marriage had just broken up. I was not the happiest of people.
"The Police wasn't a particularly happy experience for me," he says flatly. "Getting what I had desired for so long - success - and finding it didn't equate with actual happiness made me even more unhappy. What is happiness? Where is it? It's not in selling millions of records. It's not in being hugely famous or desired by all these people. It must be somewhere else. I needed to get out of the Police to find it.
"It wasn't my intention to punish Stewart and Andy in any way," Sting insists. "I was following my instincts."
Today, Copeland, Sting and Summers are honest and respectful in assessing how each of them has, and has not, changed. "It's like living with a keg of dynamite - the fuse is always burning," Summers says. "Stewart and Sting are very different, very tense. Sting thinks about things and talks quietly. Stewart is flamboyant, very outward. It's like the sun and the moon trying to create another planet. But if they were both dark or both outgoing, it wouldn't be as interesting."
"I've always appreciated Stewart as a person and a musician," Sting says. "He does get excited - way too excited - but that's him." And, Sting concedes, "it was his band. God bless him - he's very sanguine about what happened."
Copeland is, in fact, ecstatic. "Sting's my guy!" he crows. "I found him. I'm proud of him. When they shouted his name at shows, I was like, 'Yeah, that's my guy.'
"I think it's about sibling position," he says. "When you're the youngest, it's easy to identify with older brothers, and my brothers were very charismatic when I was growing up. Even when you're a shining light yourself, there's always a brighter bulb standing next to you.
"There's nothing more natural for me in the world than standing next to a brighter source of light - I don't mind," Copeland says with his own beaming smile. "It just better be pretty fucking shiny."
The Police are in the Gym, back at rehearsal. Today, they get through the whole set, all the way to the atomic-pop encore 'Next To You', which opened their 1978 debut album, 'Outlandos d'Amour'. Sting pushes his voice higher and harder too, as if he's decided to stop deconstructing the songs that made him rich and famous and start enjoying the year he will spend playing them.
For now, that's all it is - a year. "Beyond that, I don't have any plans," Sting claims. "This is a fun ides, for now."
Copeland and Summers accept that. "It is very liberating," the drummer says happily. "If we were thinking, 'Gosh, I hope Sting writes an album and sticks around for another tour,' then we'd have to kiss his ass every day," he adds, cackling.
"I think at one point Sting was going to write a couple of songs, but he hasn't so far," says Summers. "Sting is not the kind of guy who wants to be pushed into anything. I am with him on that point."
During a rehearsal break, in a weight-lifting room he has taken over for his yoga exercises, Sting sits ramrod straight on a cushion and considers a question about his emotional commitment to the Police, a band that changed his life, then explains what he hopes to get out of the tour.
"I'm not so much committed to the idea of the Police," Sting says quietly, "as I am to the idea of reinvigorating the relationship with those two guys, to see what happens. I'm curious.
"There is a maturity in all of us," he observes, "even though the energy between us is kind of puppyish. We have all raised families, maintained marriages, maintained careers. It has given us resilience and some blisters. I like them," he says of Copeland and Summers. "I like them more.
"But it's an interesting position to put us in, a little petri dish," Sting says, before going back to rehearsal. "It's different than the way it was twenty, thirty years ago. We are able to navigate better. Stay friends."
He pauses: "I hope." Then he laughs. "There's no guarantee, though."
© Rolling Stone by David Fricke