THE DAILY TELEGRAPHJuly 14, 2007
When the Police split up 23 years ago, they were the world's biggest band... and possibly its most competitive. As they embark on a £100 million reunion tour, Chris Salewicz looks in on their rehearsals at Sting's Tuscan villa, and finds they've swapped punch-ups for pilates
OK, everybody: pilates on the lawn at 8am tomorrow,' Sting says as he heads up the stone steps of his 20-room Tuscan mansion to bed.
It's 11pm. Limping slightly, drummer Stewart Copeland, who at 54 is a year younger than Sting, and guitarist Andy Summers, sipping from a mug of camomile tea, follow soon afterwards.
Their work attire - T-shirts, vests, tracksuits - indicates the concentrated, physical approach to their daily rehearsal schedule for the Police's reunion tour, which includes exercise sessions and nutritious meals.
Their daily morning fitness regime, overseen by a teacher flown in from London with an armoury of machinery, will ensure that they are at their physical peak, and hopefully heal a back ailment of Copeland's, problematical for a drummer.
Sting himself instructs his colleagues in daily ashtanga yoga sessions. By late evening, when the final studio rehearsal ends, all three band members are exhausted.
It is 23 years since the Police, then the world's number-one band, split up. The group that Stewart Copeland formed in 1977 using the British punk explosion ('a flag of convenience,' Sting later admitted) as a springboard, had seemed unlikely contenders for success.
But the combination of bass-player and former English teacher Sting's intuitive songwriting and high, keening vocals, Summers's skilful guitar work, and Copeland's polyrhythmic drumming proved irresistible.
The band's synthesis of hypnotic reggae rhythms with traditional pop and rock'n'roll (they were one of the first mainstream white bands to do so) unleashed a string of hits. After their classic song Roxanne broke through in 1978 in the USA, their album Outlandos d'Amour entered the British charts, where it was to remain for the next 96 weeks.
Since then, the Police have sold more than 40 million records, including the perfectly paced hit singles Message in a Bottle (1979), Walking on the Moon (1979), Don't Stand So Close to Me (1980), Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (1981), and Every Breath You Take (1983). The band's complex song patterns confirmed the Police as highly intelligent exponents of the pop form.
In February it was announced that the band would perform one final tour - more than 1,770,000 tickets sold out in 90 minutes.
'I didn't anticipate there would be this much nostalgia in the world,' Sting says, genuinely surprised.
His hair is dyed blond, but he is the only one of the three to have returned to the band's original iconic peroxide image: the passing years have turned Copeland's hair silver, while Summers - who, startlingly for a man of 64, seems even more boyish than the other band members - has a full head of slightly theatrical-appearing brown hair.
Following such an extraordinary reaction from their fans, the band began three weeks of rehearsals in Canada.
At which point, according to Copeland, they were obliged to confront an unpalatable truth: 'Has anyone noticed,' he asked his bandmates, 'that we suck?' There were two different solutions, he now recalls. 'One was to deconstruct and analyse every bar and, as composers and arrangers, correct every flaw. The other was to shut the f*** up and play music and listen to each other, to feel each other's pulse, and to cure our problem that way. And now we're just about there.
'I think that it's going to be pretty good from now on. But it's been a very rocky road. What has sustained it is that one of the main aspects of competition between us is: who is going to be the most diplomatic? Who is going to be the most supportive? Who's going to do the most push-ups? Who's going to care the most about the set-list? Who wants to be the last person to say, "All right, let's take a break." With that attitude we've been able to get through some deep stuff: there's a lot of hugging and kissing going on - sometimes to the point of embarrassment.'
But here at Il Palagio, Sting's ruggedly beautiful 600-acre estate, everything seems very amicable and gentlemanly.
Situated 1,000ft above sea-level, with its own pair of wooded lakes, Il Palagio is a 30-minute drive from Florence, and for the past 10 years has been Sting's main home - the tax advantages of living out of Britain clearly contribute to its appeal.
In England, Sting owns an imposing property in Westminster and Lake House, a landscaped estate near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, while in the US he has a home at the Malibu Colony outside Los Angeles - the actor Larry Hagman's former house - and an apartment in New York.
Although the American residences could be as financially advantageous as Il Palagio, they lack its profound sense of serenity - a 10ft-high bronze Buddha, recently imported from Thailand, dominates the private chapel at the side of the house.
Yet, despite the scale of the house and its grounds, Il Palagio still exudes a cottage-like cosiness - a testament to the renovation work overseen by Sting's wife, Trudie Styler.
The actress/film producer has been in a relationship with Sting for the past 25 years and is the mother of four of his children (Mickey, Jake, Coco and Giacomo); his two eldest children, Kate and Joe (whose band Fiction Plane are supporting the Police on tour), were born to his first wife, the actress Frances Tomelty.
None of his children is in Italy, and neither is Styler, whom Sting refers to as 'The Boss'.
Sting has always been blessed with business acumen; he has even marketed the Il Palagio brand of olive oil, available at Harrods.
His personal fortune is estimated to be ¬£170 million, and he is the most successful international British act of the past 20 years.
His wealth is set to rise considerably with his cut of the ¬£100 million the Police reunion tour will bring in. He once joked to me that he bought his Tuscan domain 'for a song: well, maybe two.'
'If I had this place, I don't think I'd bother to leave it to go on tour,' Andy Summers says, laughing, as he gazes at the mist-enshrouded hills in the distance. Summers himself lives in Santa Monica in California, close to Copeland.
A year ago, few would have anticipated that the Police might re-form. Even now, watching the three of them together, you can't help feeling you are watching the scripted ending of a Hollywood fairy tale. So why have they decided to do it?
'Because Sting said so,' Copeland says.
Sting, ever pragmatic confesses that re-forming the group was a solution to a career dilemma.
'I woke up one morning last year, extremely happy that my classical record had just gone into the international pop charts,' he explains, referring to Songs from the Labyrinth, his album of lute music by the 16th-century composer John Dowland. 'I thought, "Well, what do I do now? What would surprise people? If I reformed the Police." Then I thought, "Are you out of your mind? Well then, that's what you do." '
But there is also a strong element of mutual therapy about the trio's reunion, as if they are finally facing and resolving the demons that drove them apart.
At the height of their fame, the Police were thrust into the absurd cocoon of rock superstardom.
They were three young men attempting to cope with its unrealities and extreme stresses - and not always successfully.
Both Sting's and Summers's marriages disintegrated. Soon after the break-up of the group, Summers and Kate, his divorced wife, got back together and remarried.
Copeland's marriage to Sonja Kristina, the vocalist with Curved Air, for whom he had been drummer, later collapsed, and he married again, to Fiona Dent, with whom he has three daughters.
After the band's break-up, in early 1984, Sting immediately launched into a solo career and appears - on the surface at least - to have enjoyed a trouble-free post-Police life. As the band's songwriter and singer he was always in charge, but is clearly sensitive about his position.
'I love these guys. I always have,' he admits. 'It's not much different from many years ago: Stewart and I fall into the same patterns as we always did, endlessly contradicting each other. But with hindsight and wisdom we know how to navigate our responses to each other, and how to do it without wanting to kill each other. I'm still a pain in the arse. It's not a matter of do-as-I-say: it's all about negotiation and give-and-take. We're back in a marriage that worked extremely well on one level and not at all well on another.'
In contrast, Copeland and Summers do not seem to have ever fully recovered from the break-up, perhaps because they were never certain the band had actually broken up in the first place.
Sting insists that in August 1983, at the beginning of the Police's final tour at New York's Shea Stadium, he had 'a conversation' with the other two. 'I said I wanted to go off and do something myself. The others had made solo records, so I thought it was my turn.'
'You know,' says Summers, 'I have no clear memory of sitting down and discussing that it was all over. It might be me, but I simply can't remember it. We were told by Miles Copeland, Stewart's brother, our then manager, not to say that it was over. But then he went on to manage Sting, and Stewart and myself seemed to get forgotten about.'
In 1992 there was a brief, unpublicised Police reunion at the party at Lake House after Sting's wedding to Styler. Summers tells me that he and Copeland played 'a couple of numbers' with Sting.
The pair were frequently in touch with Sting, who has always been supportive of their solo projects, but over the years it has seemed hard to pull the other two members of the band out of the shadow of the Police and Sting.
Yet in their respective, more rarefied fields of jazz recordings and film soundtracks, Summers and Copeland continued as stellar names.
A classically trained musician, Summers has recorded 12 solo albums, often in collaboration with other guitar masters such as Robert Fripp of King Crimson and John Etheridge, and headlined jazz festivals around the world.
He has also scored several Hollywood films and enjoyed critical acclaim for his work as a photographer. Copeland, meanwhile, has written the soundtracks for more than 40 films, including Wall Street and Rumble Fish.
Last year, both released valedictory statements on their work with the group: Copeland directed Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, a documentary based on footage of the group he had shot; and Summers published One Train Later, his critically acclaimed autobiography.
It was the section on the Police, he confesses, that he found the hardest to write: 'I almost left it out,' he says. Yet the book pulled no punches, especially about his working relationship with Sting.
There is a shocking scene in which Summers describes a studio session when Sting throws a rock-star tantrum, turning 'berserk on me, calling me every name under the sun, leaving everyone in the room white-faced with shock'. Indeed, this was the band who, from 1977 to 1984, were legendarily acerbic towards each other. Copeland famously broke one of Sting's ribs in a fight - although this is now put down to an accident during horse-play, an argument over Sting having borrowed Copeland's copy of the New York Times.
The book, it seems, finally permitted peace to flourish between the former band members.
Shortly after its publication last November, Summers received a call from Sting to suggest the band should re-form. 'The legend about us is that we were incredibly vitriolic with each other,' Sting says. 'But we weren't: it's just that we have different views. We still do.'
Summers often comes across as the older brother. 'Well, he still does stand aside while Stewart and I get on with tearing each other apart,' Sting admits. You wonder whether each member had their own specific role within the band. 'Nobody's role was or is quite defined,' Sting offers, characteristically equivocal. 'I was the singer and songwriter, Andy played guitar and Stewart was the drummer. But the singer then became the frontman, which he needn't necessarily be.'
'I think we each take each other's role at different times, and it tends to go around in circles,' Summers says. 'Two will be arguing, then the other one will just say, "Stop!" But with a sense of humour there are ways of diluting this. I've noticed that this time we are quite aware that we have a job to do: it's a huge sell-out tour, we've got to be good, and whatever the difficulties are, we come back together. I think we've all gained respect for each other, and we're ready to go out and totally enjoy it.'
'All three of us are having to dump our instincts to control situations,' Copeland considers. 'We all, especially Sting, have been controlling our own groups of people. There's only a very short list of players who can take that obsessive scalping - it's what you do when you're a bandleader. But when you're a member of a band you have to give up that way of controlling people. And I can see the enormous effort being made to give it up: to be patient and listen to the other members of the band who might have an idea. For Sting it's requiring a great deal of mental effort and discipline for a situation that to be successful requires joyful surrender. To enjoy being in a band is to enjoy surrendering to the best of your bandmates. To fold yourself in and have a corporate identity.'
Beneath the benign atmosphere at Il Palagio lies a steely rigour of professionalism.
For the past three weeks, the band have been rehearsing here, locked away in a studio across the cobbled courtyard from the main house.
However, you sense that they need to be here for another three years, partly because of a conundrum that ceaselessly raises its head: several of the band's hits have been reworked by Sting over the course of his solo career. 'Sting's changed these tunes but I'm insisting we're going right back to how they were,' Copeland says.
During rehearsals, there are moments in the studio that seem like outtakes from This Is Spinal Tap.
It is glaringly apparent that Sting is the bandleader, in charge of the songs' arrangements; yet, almost as though it is a matter of principle, Copeland seems intent on ceaselessly contradicting him. Sometimes visibly reeling from the ferocity of the discourse, Summers, as ever, is cast in the role of diplomat.
Copeland has a ready explanation for the dynamic between himself and the singer, referring to a joke Sting once made that has come back to haunt him many times.
'I am all about instant gratification,' Copeland says. 'Sting is about tantric sex. I am about "Yes"; Sting is about "No". I am about full-throttle-let's-expend-all-of-our-gasoline-right-now-and-explode-this-instant; Sting is about holding on and creating tension by not releasing. "Let's go for it here!", "No, let's not go for it here!" That's what we have conflict about.'
When the band start playing Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, Copeland fluffs the introduction. 'Sorry, I didn't know where I was: the acid was starting to kick in,' he jokes; this is a drug-free, and almost drink-free zone. Over dinner, later, Copeland is drinking tequila - 'but only one glass,' he says, excusing his hardly hardcore behaviour. 'Two glasses of wine and I'm drunk,' Sting declares, in support.
Even at the height of their success, the Police were never excessive drinkers. They were certainly - as an associate explained to me at the time - 'heads', with a fondness for altered states: in Summers's book there is a hilarious description of a mushroom trip that he took with the late John Belushi, as well as honest accounts of the band's then dependency on what he describes as 'Bolivian marching powder'.
Such behaviour has long since been abandoned, though. 'I couldn't get near to doing what I do if I was fuelled by Jack Daniels and class-A drugs,' Sting admits. These days, the only example of excess appears to be the amount of bottled water being consumed.
After running through Every Little Thing, Don't Stand So Close To Me is attempted.
'Stu,' Sting asks, 'is there any way you can play an off-beat during the chorus? It just needs something to cement it together.'
'That chorus is off-balance, which is part of the charm of it,' Copeland replies.
'To me,' Summers adds, 'without that great off-beat it sounds like jazz.'
'I'd hate not to give the people what they want to hear,' Copeland explains.
'I'm not changing the bass-line,' Sting insists.
'We've deconstructed this song, and broken it down. And we've come back to what was there originally,' Copeland reminds them.
Beneath all this battling lies a deep affection. A factor often overlooked in the public's perception of the Police - and subsequently of Sting - is their innate sense of humour. Privately this translates into endlessly mickey-taking, that seems harmless, but which serves to remind you that at one time, within the band, this could cross the line into bullying. Even now, there are moments in the studio when you can almost hear the deep breaths of restraint being taken - as if otherwise they all might start hitting one another.
Dinner is served on a baronial table set out in the cobbled courtyard in the warm open air.
In what seems possibly ironic fashion, the starter is a small portion of fish and chips, complete with mushy peas.
Curiously this is followed by asparagus; I ask Sting if this is what he would have followed fish and chips with when he was growing up in Newcastle with his milkman father. 'Yeah, sure,' he laughs. 'Vegetables were things that came in tins. Like spaghetti bolognese.'
Later, Sting is immersed in watching Chelsea trounce West Ham. When I ask him why Newcastle, whom he has supported since a child, so consistently underperform, he feigns anger: 'I don't know what you're talking about.'
There is a suspicion that the only football Copeland knows about is played with an oval ball. I ask him about the imminent arrival of David Beckham in Los Angeles and he doesn't quite seem to know what I'm talking about.
But he does confess to having been useless when he had to play football at Millfield, the liberal, West Country public school he was sent to by his father, who was once the head of the CIA in the Middle East.
How do you reply, I ask Copeland, when people say this is a pension tour, that you are just doing it for the money? ' "F*** off!",' Copeland laughs. 'Look, what part of getting together to do a world tour, and playing to 80,000 people screaming at you every night, on songs that everybody loves, don't they get? Oh, you mean they are going to pay me, too? Cool!'
'I do find it faintly embarrassing that all we've got is the old stuff to put out,' Summers admits, referring to the The Police Anthology album released last month. 'I'd like to see us do something more, because the vitality is still there. The intention is to go out on this tour and be as forceful as anyone out there - as we always were. I think what lines up with that would be making another record, if the creative juices are still there.'
'Make another record?' Copeland asks, shocked. 'I couldn't give a rat's arse. This tour is going to take us through February. Another album then means another three months away from home. "Guys, it was going really great when we did that tour: why are we doing this? And now we've got to promote it." I don't need to spend three years doing this. At the end of one year we will part as friends. Sting and Andy are two of the most important people to me, whom I've abused and had disagreements with, and they are every bit like siblings. This is going to be a great year. Why want more?
'Once upon a time I used to look on the whole idea of the Police in reverence - rather like I would look at the Grammies that the group got. Now I could stub my toe on my Grammies and I wouldn't get a thrill from them.
"The whole Police deal is exactly the same: it doesn't quicken my pulse any more. That sort of expires. You move on: I have new friends and a career and a family and it's a really, really distant thing. I'm Joe Public now: I'm a suburban dad - I drop my kids off at school, I work for directors. I have people above me and below me on the social scale. I'm just a working guy. And I really like that life.
'So it's sort of like if Led Zeppelin called up: "You want to go around the world and play in stadiums?" "I'm a film composer: moi? Sure, why not." And then here's the kicker: you get to be the original guy in the group. Suddenly I get to go out on stage under those bright lights and can actually be what it says on the tin again. And that is about as near to the reality of it as I can describe. It really is an alien thing. But I'd do it for free.'
© The Daily Telegraph by Chris Salewicz