The Police rose from phony '77 punks to global '80s stadium kings before crumbling in a fug of verbal cruelty. Now they're back. Phil Sutcliffe joins their world tour for the full astonishing story of chaos, coke and power struggles, and finds they still ''drive each other nuts''...
Soundcheck. Not long now; the comeback gig's only three hours away. But they don't look nervous. Even when their faces appear in enormous close-up on the big screens above them. Even though tonight, May 28, 2007, Vancouver GM Place hockey arena, it's their first concert proper for more than 20 years since they broke up in discord and disarray. They're talking to each other on-mike, meeting each other's gaze with grave attention, their intimate conversation echoing around the banks of empty bucket seats.
Civilised problem-solving, it seems.
"There's more juice in this than we're getting," says Stewart Copeland after a minute or two of 'The Bed's Too Big Without You'.
"It's nice to when we jam on it," says Andy Summers. The others nod.
Then Sting concludes, "It's something we can rehearse and get right." They group-hug and wander off.
Until 8.30pm when the 21,000 crowd audience stand up as one and roar a great breaking wave of welcome-back; no worries, no doubts, no concern for musicianly minutiae. Just, 'Message In A Bottle'... "Yaaaaaay!" Forty-two thousand hands shoot up in the air as it were Wembley and Hurst had just scored a last-minute winner. That is what happens when a comeback hits the spot: déj?? vu and a whole new ball game.
Every song's a winner, every floodlit chorus and lonely verse. The crowd even cheers when the band launch into atonal counterpoints of their fetching pop melodies, those characteristic Police moments of molten construct-destruct when the band look at each other in wide-eyed speculation and alarm as if asking, "What key are we in? What song were we on before I got lost playing this?" Proof, if it were needed, that The Police didn't get to be the biggest band in the world in the early '80s by being the pristine smoothies of repute: they did it by standing up as three spiky individuals together, fighting for success, for their music, fighting each other; a band barely under control, sustainability not an issue or option.
The next morning, in the clubby, dark wood dining-room at the band's hotel, Sting looks tense, perhaps bemused, only a couple of steps away from in-shock about what's happening to him. His handsome face has lately accepted middle-age - taking on a lean, sculpted look. Possessed of a commanding physical stillness, he talks with quiet thoughtfulness. "Everyone had a great time," he says, "but I was having a great time and thinking, 'Oh God, wrong key... change that... this needs more rehearsal.' This is my job. This is me. Throughout my solo career it's been, have to be perfect, have to be in control. And now I can't
be. But I know people love it, this human, shambolic thing rather than note-perfect Stingworld. And I'm learning to run with it. I mean, Stewart's a wonderful, but totally unpredictable drummer..."
In a nearby Greek restaurant, the unpredictable drummer buzzes. Plug into Stewart Copeland and you could light a small town. He's always been this way, words or drumbeats over-revving, knowledge and opinions about everything under the sun, ebullient with laughter. "Some of those songs," he crows, "the improvisations were 20 times longer than intended, and that's the real thing. In rehearsals we've been saying, eight bars of this, eight bars of that. Some of our most earnest discussions have been on that subject. I'm not counting any bars. I don't know what I'm gonna play"
"Here's the rub. For Sting, music is a religion. For me, it's a simple pleasure. For him, it's something you build and construct. For me, it's something you feel and play without thought. But it is fucking
important. My philosophy now is wake up every day saying 'Give Sting what he wants'. And he wants this little change in what I play on 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. So on-stage we're coming up to that point and my conscious brain is saying, 'I'm gonna play Sting wants!' when, oops - my hand played what Sting doesn't want. What can you do?"
"Stewart and I are mirror opposites," says Sting. "But that's a gift to me. I have to empathise, I have to master the... there we go, control again. You know, it's my desire to be spontaneous too, I want to be flying in a joyous cloud around the band, but I need the ground to be stable under my feet."
Creativity through conflict always was the Police way. How's it going? In reply, Copeland draws a mountain range in the air: "There were fights and there still are. Verbal, they were never physical. These days we're on a three- or four-day cycle. We're playing nicely, then the little rubs and grinds start, you know, 'Stewart, don't play that', 'Sting, I wanna', Then, Nyanyanyanyannnnnn... 'You fucking...!" Stomp off. Errrrrrgh! It drives me nuts and I'm thinking, I don't need this, I'm not going to put up this. Then a little later it's, 'Sting?' 'Stewart?' 'You know I love you.' 'You know I love you too.' (he sniffs, slobbers, laughs). Two grown men kissing and hugging tearfully. After that we're on our best behaviour. Until he starts. And I start. Fortunately, we've all had teenage children and we know about the tantrums, the emotionality - it's amazing how much we use our parenting techniques on one another."
Up in the hotel penthouse, amid the scattered debris of his music and his family, Andy Summers has put on a few pounds and a few lines, but seems a far more tranquil and easy-going fellow than in the past. Reviewing current intra-band relations, he raises an eyebrow and summons reinforcements from his studies of Zen and Karl Jung. "Sometimes," he says, "we have to get to a place where we're all telling one another, 'You're fucking shit and you can't play at all'. Then we start laughing and it's all lovey-dovey. You have to get this Buddha-like approach, otherwise it's going to kill you. My attitude is, be kind to Sting and Stewart, try to serve their needs. At the same time, I'm carrying so much of the music I have to be very assertive. I don't think Sting's always right, but I do trust his innate musical sense, so I can say, OK go along with this, keep him happy for now. Because he's going to realise what's wrong. And he does."
Last autumn, when Sting first considered a Police reunion, he spent some time telling himself he must be out of his mind. But he rejected such pessimism. "I have good instincts," he says, "when I follow them."
December 5, 1976. "A thousand quid? You're not worth it," says the scrawny kid with a beard and a chequebook. Sonja Kristina and Stewart Copeland stare wanly at him. Their band, Curved Air, have just played a great end-of-term show for the students of Newcastle Polytechnic. And here's this whippersnapper social secretary saying the show was crap. Standing beside them in the dressing room I feel sorry for them. More so because they've just been telling me they're bankrupt, the VATman on their trail, and after six years, they're going to call it a day.
As weekly music mag Sounds' man in the North-east, I know Kristina and her drummer boyfriend Copeland somewhat, and they ask me if I could take them to a local gig - maybe take their minds off their troubles. Luckily, my favourite Newcastle band are playing - soulful jazz-rock, fantastic repertoire, Peter Green, Return To Forever, they write a new song every week so the set's always changing, terrific...
Last Exit are on in the canteen at St Mary's teacher training college. Some Horace Silver piano piece sparkles as we walk in and stand at the back. There's no stage, lights up, the band to one side among the tables. The bass player, Gordon Sumner, who's been Sting for a couple of years by now, is wearing a trim beard and dungarees. He starts to sing Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine'. A hundred or so students stop talking, listen, and then give out matey hometown whoops of approval. Sting smiles, thank-yous and goes into one of his own songs, 'I Burn For You'. A torch song, dead slow, Sting stock-still, eyes straight ahead.
Everyone in the room stands transfixed. Even Copeland and Kristina look mildly interested. But what they're thinking, I later learn, is this. Stewart: "Mmm, he's got something. And I need a bass player." Sonja: "I can see him in a stadium."
When the band take a break, I do the introductions: "Sting, Sonja and Stewart from Curved Air..." What appears to be a desultory conversation ensues. I'm thinking, with no notion of the future, what an odd pairing they make: Sting, the son of a Wallsend milkman, Copeland, the son of an American international politico-espionage operator who co-founded the CIA. What Sting, a constant diarist, later recalls in his autobiography, Broken Music, is, "I can't help feeling that Stewart's sizing me up. He says if I should be in London any time soon to give him a call. I'm flattered but notice he doesn't pay the same compliment to the rest of the band..."
Curved Air play their farewell gig in London before Christmas. Last Exit, meanwhile, prepare for their own farewell, to Newcastle. They rule the roost in their hometown, but they can't get a record deal. Demo tapes and the odd sparsely attended "showcase" gig in London just won't do it. Although Sting's songwriting has landed them all a publishing deal with Carol Wilson of Virgin, even her own company's record label has rejected them. So Last Exit have decided they have to move to London.
Sting is utterly determined. Although he's recently married to actress Frances Tomelty and they have a son, Joe, only a few weeks old, he's given up his job teaching at a primary school. I interview him for Sounds about the trails of an unknown band from "the sticks" and he says, "The band is more important than security. The worse the economic situation gets the more heroic it seems, this odyssey you have to go through. But I wouldn't change it. I'd rather be in Last Exit at the moment than in the Stones or even Yes."
Fascinated by punk, Copeland and Kristina had haunted the Roxy and the Vortex since the autumn. Looking beyond Curved Air, Copeland had thrashed out some very short, fast songs on his guitar and he wanted a new band. In early January, he called me in Newcastle and asked for Sting's number. They talked briefly and Sting said he'd maybe see him in London.
On January 6, 1977, Last Exit played their goodbye gig at the University Theatre bar. A couple of nights later, Sting and Frances packed his Citroen Dyane with two bags of clothes, two guitars, a rocking chair. "This is all we have," he writes in Broken Music, "but we are elated... I feel that my real life is only now beginning." Beyond that imagined "real life", he remembers his dreams with striking precision: "to be recognised as someone unique, defined by my voice, by my ability as a songwriter, to have the world know my songs and my melodies just as they had known and acknowledged the songs of The Beatles."
While Sting's family began their London life sleeping on the floor at a friend's flat, the other members of Last Exit, apart from Sting's closest friend, keyboard player Gerry Richardson, deferred their departure from Newcastle.
Sting signed on and spent all day fruitlessly flat-hunting. Within a week he'd called Copeland, dropped by his and Kristina's Mayfair flat - delusively grand, since it was a squat - and arranged to come back for a jam along with a new guitarist friend, Corsican punk Henry Padovani. Although Padovani could barely play a chord - his best credential, given the times - the two prepared carefully for Sting's first tryout with 'The Police' (Copeland had the name from the outset). They donned leathers and shades, says Padovani, "and when Sting arrived with his baby in a travel cot, we'd adopted the pose of dangerous rockers, silent and moody. Sting was wearing dungarees. He must have thought we looked like a bunch of idiots."
Certainly, when Copeland hammered out a few of his songs, Sting felt "musically appalled". But he liked them both - and, as he recalls now, glimpsed the opportunity to "harness" Copeland's can-do energy to his own more reserved obsessiveness - so he thrashed along. Soon The Police became his only, albeit pathetic, hope. Carol Wilson admitted that she'd tried every record company extant on Last Exit's behalf and not a sniff. Within weeks, the band dissolved, leaving Sting and Richardson adrift in the capital.
While Richardson played piano in a topless bar until making his escape via a job as Billy Ocean's MD, Sting began offering Copeland his own songs, Newcastle's jazzy pop favourites. "Stewart stopped him each time," laughs Padovani. "Sting, you still don't get it. Write us something like, 'My job is a heap of shit and I'm going to smash everything up!' That we can play.' I could see Sting seething inside and then he'd play at three times his normal speed. Stewart loved that." Sting did a few passable early shots at the new vernacular: 'Landlord', 'Dead End Job', 'Visions Of The Night.'
But all they had was rehearsals. No gigs. No money. A phony punk band, they lived real punk lives, ducking and diving. Copeland and Kristina cleaned houses for