The following article by Susan Whitall appeared in a November 1979 issue of Creem
Police report: Message from three bottle blonds...
January 1979: We started receiving phone calls here at BH Central of some urgency from John Pidgeon, one of our English writers who also tolls for Melody Maker. Normally a subdued Britisher, John was extremely excited about this new band, the Police. He'd written a story for Melody Maker and he wanted us to run one as well. It was a strange name for a band, we mused in our usual caffeine stupor, and promptly went back to proof-reading. Even English excitement can overwhelm you, though, and when Simon Frith's voice was added to the din, we decided to run the story. Then the record hit the office and excitement reigned for the next few weeks. The guy's voice was just so... different. "Strangely appealing" was one office opinion. "Almost painful," came from another enthusiast.
By the time we got the story in it was April (June issue), but national press had still been slow to pick up on the band. 'Roxanne' was, of course, one of those classic radio songs that roused you out of bed, and had you wondering the rest of the day who the hell that was. Here was white reggae so accessible it was... not really reggae to the average listener. One of those "I don't know what it is but keep doing it" pleasurable sensations... It was a sound that pained most reggae purists I talked to, but miscegenation seemed to be the harsher criticism they could come up with. As Joe Jackson put it in a recent 'Trouser Press' (claiming that his remarks were "general") "a pseudo-reggae beat on the verses which changes into a rock beat for the chorus."
A black friend of mine in a local reggae band said his first impulse was to jump out the window when he heard the name of the band; I suspect their platinum blondness is rather an affront to him too.
What the hell, what the heck. They said it about peanut butter and jelly, Frank and Mia, crotchless pantyhose etc. America took the Police to its bosom in a paroxysm of maybe-we-hip-after-all emotion. New music for the masses.
March 1979: So you want some aggravation? I've got some aggravation for you. There I was basking in the afterglow of my first Police concert, trading backstage banter with the band's amiable lead guitarist, beer in my paw, when I get paged to the front of Canton, Michigan's "Center Stage", where before I can find the person paging me, I am physically ejected from the club by a six-foot-plus bouncer for having a bottle of beer in my hand - some Michigan law is cited as they haul me away - and I'm manhandled onto the sidewalk with no way of getting home. The manager of the club, who has engineered all of this, jeers: "So write a lousy story about us - what do I care?" It might have taken eight months, but you got it, chump.
April 1979: I resumed my conversation with Andy Summers backstage at the Bottom Line, in New York. He has heard about the incident, and said that, due to that and other hassles, the Police would pass on that venue again. I am impressed by the band's social conscience.
The Bottom Line audience failed in their job for all the cliché reasons - too many journalists and biz people more interested in whether they've got a full or partial tab from A&M than in the new British sensation. I sat with Steve Clarke from the NME and Angie Errigo (a former NME writer, in the States to research a book on women in rock), an educational experience in itself as Steve had been sent over by the NME to research this suddenly-huge-in-America phenomenon. Nobody back on the home front wanted a "Gee whiz they're great" report, to be sure, so Steve's edge of British scepticism kept me from banging the table too hard. He liked them, but... Andy Summers' guitar playing was perhaps "too self indulgent." When I apprised Andy of this later, during our in depth Detroit chat in November, he grinned benevolently, "Ah, he's full of shit. He can't write either."
"That's the thing about the English press," Stewart Copeland opined. "They actually participate in the music world. American press write good reviews about things they are enthusiastic about: they're more informative -0 informing their readers of what's happening. But in England they egg the groups on, sort of like a shadow cabinet. They're like the prosecution. I think it's a good thing that when a group is really successful, instead of just having a fan of the group write it up and make it easy, they really do examine everything. Our album was given the second album treatment, which is standard, which is the close scrutiny."
Sting: "We survived it, though. The English press isn't that impartial - it does have its favourites. Certain groups are overrated because of that; I don't want to mention names but there are a few, who are actually outside of that press thing and are accepted."
Stewart resumed: "We really feel very strongly that we broke in England in spite of the press. They never helped us at all and they never contributed to our success. We weren't discovered by them like the Clash were. The Clash were the creation of the press... it turned out the press were right and the Clash were an important group. But with us they didn't because in the beginning there were a few factors that contributed to our unhipness. The fact that two of us, Andy and I, had played in known groups and were much more seasoned musicians. Also, the fact that we actually didn't play punk music."
He laughed. "Actually, we're the same age as the Clash - the Clash are older than all of the punks, they aren't 18 or anything. But they actually played punk music and we never did that. We played the Roxy and the Vortex and all those punk venues but we stuck to playing what was at our level. We didn't step backwards to jump on the punk bandwagon."
Probably a revisionist attitude; if the Police didn't jump on the punk bandwagon, they used it as a lift to their eventual destination. The early singles on Illegal, the packaging of 'Outlandos' led to a confusing image, which the band cannot claim total innocence of. When they argue good naturedly (more or less) amongst themselves in an interview situation, it points out the basic truth about the Police; they really can't agree as to what they're doing, and they accept it as a creative tension that's ultimately to their benefit.
At the Bottom Line, the Police percolated nicely, but I sensed a holding back, almost as if they were saving their real fire for a bona fide, paying audience, a subtle f*** you to the heavies. It wasn't until November '79 that my to-date peak Police experience happened. They'd been booked into a large capacity theatre in Detroit by the manager of Bookie's, Vince Bannon, but when that fell through he slotted them in the smallish new wave club for the night. An anonymous A&M person predicted rioting in the streets outside the club, and it seemed a good bet.
In keeping with their image, the Police were extremely casual about a sound check, arriving too late to do much about one, and opting for an interview with myself and Dave DiMartino instead, in the time allotted before their midnight show.
We sauntered a few clubs down the McNichols gay bar strip to Menjou's, a comfortable establishment catering to gay men, with the Police advising each other with fervour not to bend over. We convened in a private room, a group including the band, ourselves, our intrepid photog Bob Matheu, and a nice but rather AOR-orientated young lady from CKLW. Coffee and conversation oozed forth.
So how did debuting in the English charts at number one feel?
Stewart Copeland, always quick on the draw: It's really a good feeling. We're awed by it really because the album hadn't been heard on the radio, all they had was 'Message In A Bottle' and that had only been out for a couple of weeks. It was 'Outlandos', the power of 'Outlandos', which is still in the Top 10. For four weeks we had two albums in the Top 10, whereas a year ago we had nothing.
What caused the change?
Stewart: We became a better group.
Sting: We've got good music. Better record.
Stewart: I think the reason why we had never gotten anywhere before was because we never had a chance, on record. It's like, there's two different things you have to be good at - one's making records and other's doing gigs, which take different talents, different art forms. But it was making a good record that made it a possible to make our ambitions a bit bigger. And then when we played America, came over here and played every night, two shows a night, we got really good on stage too. So when we went back to do the second album, we were a much better group.
Are you all very satisfied with the album (Reggatta de Blanc)?
Sting: Yes, yes... we love it.
Andy (looking thoughtful): Well, there's always little things... small things I would change. Nuances, etc.
Andy: Yeah! There are here or there.
Stewart: Are you saying that our record is less than perfect?
Andy: No, I'm just...
Stewart and Sting: Turncoat!
Sting: You should have said something in the studio if you had your doubts...
Is there anything in particular that you would have done differently?
Andy: No, no nothing major. Just little things here or there...
Sting: He'd like to have his name in front - "Andy Summers."
Stewart (tries to get serious): I think it's a great album. It was actually very easy to record. We wore ourselves out making 'Outlandos'. But with Reggatta, we didn't do any rehearsing for it at all, and none of us had heard the tunes we were going to do. Because we play together so much and are familiar with each other's language, music language, we arrived on the arrangements for the songs very quickly and without any groping in the dark.
Sting: We're just that sort of group. We go in and we do the job. We don't deliberate over it.
Sting, have things changed for you much since 'Quadrophenia'?
Sting: I'm rich and famous... Have you seen it?
Stewart: Did you understand it? Did you find any difficulty...
We were going to ask you if Andy and Sting could relate more to it, being English.
Stewart: I've lived in England for about 12 years.
Were any of you involved as Mods or Rockers, or were you too young for that?
Andy: Yeah. I was a Rocker. It was great, incredible... the time. The movie is pretty accurate too.
Stewart: All the people that used to be Mods say it's pretty accurate. All the people that have been checking out the 1977 scene like myself, think it's a really accurate statement about the kids today. Like the scenes that were shot in clubs, they're dancing like that.
Sting: The nice thing about it is that it's a very English movie. It's not a sort of mid-Atlantic product, which English movies are famous for. They try to compensate for the fact that they've got to sell it in America. As long as the Americans can get past the language problem, it's a very well made, professional movie.
Stewart: Just before the movie came out there was a sudden Mod revival. I don't know who started it... maybe the Who, but I don't know. How could the Who start something like that?
Sting: Before 'Quadrophenia' came out, there was 18 months of publicity. I'm sure that had a lot to do with it. They were auditioning acts long before the movie was made, so you had a sort of buzz going on. Jimmy Pursey wanted to play Jimmy and Johnny Rotten was up for something. And the Jam were doing well...
Andy: The Jam were really sort of the ones that got the word out. Again, a Mod band. And cliques grow up suddenly, that the in thing was to be a Mod.
Stewart: That's the exciting thing about London, that there's new fads every month and I fell like a real old provincial because there's a whole scene that's sprung up out of nowhere.
Isn't it the case, though, that someone always has to be "this week's thing"?
Stewart: What that means is that the spotlight is constantly roving around picking out neat little trips. There are still punks, there are still Teds, there are still skinheads, there are still Mods, there are still all those kinds of things. Particularly with us, we're popular with all of them, in our gigs you'll see different packs with different looks, with different flags that they wave and different favourite groups and all that. It's like something out of 'Clockwork Orange'.
Sting: As far as the spotlight changing all the time, the Mods are an important group, and the spotlight changes but it continues to go back to them, because they're still there.
But you don't think you could be carried away, as England's current "thing," No.1 on the charts?
Sting: The thing is that we're in America at the moment. It's kept our feet on the ground. We haven't gone completely berserk. We played a gig in West Virginia to five people the day we were No.1 in England with the album and single. There's no way we can get carried away when things like that happen in Virginia Beach.
Stewart: But it is good to be able to go back and forth across the Atlantic because the American audience is just so different. Even in different parts of America they listen differently. On the East Coast they're into the dirt and the grime. But in the Midwest they're into 'ludes - they all just freak out on the heavy metal that we play. On the West Coast, God knows what they think. They get into reggae - that's what turns them on. Overall, in America, they listen more closely to the actual music that we're playing - maybe because of the clubs with the over-21 age limit. They listen to what we're doing and appreciate it more, whereas in England the gigs are just hysteria freakouts by a lot of younger audiences. There, they're just listening to the pulse of the thing. They're much more involved, not with their ears, but with their whole body.
Sting: The thing with our group is that our audiences are very wide. We've got very young kids coming to out gigs and quite old people too.
Stewart: The interesting thing is that although that's the audience (young people) we originally selected, we keep reading things on other bands and musicians - musicians are kind of snobby about bands that they like and don't like - and we're really rated well among musicians.
Sting: Paul McCartney likes us, Chick Corea...
Stewart: Ted Nugent! We keep hearing it... I think it's a very interesting situation for a band that is like a pop group that has a strong pop appeal to a younger audience, but at the same time manages to titillate the tastes of more sophisticated ears as well. I think that's a pretty substantial accomplishment.
Andy: I think you're getting carried away a bit, Stew...
Stewart: That's the point! That's why they have the tape machine, so we can blow our trumpets.
Andy: We'll let other people do that.
Sting, a lot of your songs seem to be aimed, in a semi-erotic way, at women who have stepped on you.
Stewart: Yeah, Sting gets stepped on a lot.
Sting: The songs come from life experiences everybody's had.
My music is my favourite kind of music. As far as the subject matter goes, it's me. I'm not pretending to be a wild woolly playboy, or a rough rebel, or whatever. The songs are very simple songs about things that have happened to me - songs about loneliness, everybody's felt that, so it had wide appeal.
Do you want to be considered a "pop group"?
Sting: The nice thing about being popular is that we're rich now. We sell a lot of records and we have to admit we like selling records and we like being commercial. It so happens that the music we like making at the moment is very popular... We don't compromise ourselves. Two years ago, we were making the same kind of music.
Have you, in the past, looked down on bands who were just out to sell as many records as possible?
Sting: I look down on the Knack, actually, because they're in the same league as we are, in that they're a pop group. But they're actually cynically clinical, and are put together by an industry machine. And you can feel it in the music - there's no soul there.
Andy: The British pop charts especially were filled with all that stuff, certainly up until the New Wave thing came in. Chinn and Chapman. who wrote things for Suzi Quatro and about six different groups. And they were very manufactured, like the same beat, very formulated songwriting. And that's so glib.
And now Chapman's over here producing the Knack.
Sting: Yeah, you've got him now.
Stewart: We've got a lot more confidence than that. We're prepared to go out on a limb if we know that's it's good.
Name something you've done that you consider taking a chance.
Andy: A lot of kids picked up on that, got involved with the group and found that they could like that track, even though the timing was weird.
Sting: We take more chances onstage actually, than we do on albums, because the live shows are very different from the albums. There are more rough edges.
Andy: You keep finding nuances every night and you keep reworking material, and it keeps shifting around. It's a beautiful exercise.
Sting: The only risk is that sometimes it's not very good. Sometimes you go over the top a bit. But we're not discouraged by that, we feel it's better to take a chance onstage and if you fall nine times and succeed once, it's worth it. It keeps us fresh, alive...
Andy: There are a million groups reproducing their albums note for note from the start to the end of the show. We may even be too much in the other direction.
Sting: It comes from being a three piece group. A larger group couldn't do that, couldn't improvise the way we do. Because there are only three colours in the painting we can throw them around.
Stewart: We've stuck with each other more. We have to listen to each other more closely. Therefore, we can go out on a limb and it's really taken us to interesting places that we never would have go to otherwise.
Stewart, do you feel more at home in England now?
Stewart: I actually like America a lot. The only thing I don't like is the look of the place. The actual society functions much more efficiently and excitingly, there's much more room for ambitions here, but basically it's ugly. Aesthetically, America sucks. But in practical things, it's great.
Andy: It's a nice way of dividing up the Pacific and Atlantic. I think.
Stewart: And then England has the music scene that is so far advanced from anything here. America doesn't have a music scene. Whenever America invents a kind of music, it always comes from the blacks. And the Americans turn their backs on it until it goes over to England and then an English band brings it back to them.
Sting: Is Aaron Copland black?
Is Aaron Copland a relative of yours?
Stewart: No, but I wish he was. I'm a real fan of his.
Sting: Do you want to know what I think is wrong with American music?
By all means...
Sting: It lies basically in radio, and the way radio is structured. You turn on the radio station, WKLPL-5 or whatever it is, and you'll hear the same music for a whole hour.
Stewart: It's narrowed in on one sound.
Sting: So you turn to another radio station. It's a different kind of music, but it's the same sound for another hour. Therefore your average listener who listens to one station won't hear anything else. He won't hear any soul music, black music, or country music. All you hear is heavy rock, there's not any intermingling of music cultures and the music stays stagnant. American bands are playing like English bands played ten years ago. They haven't realised that music is moving on and drawing sources from elsewhere. And I blame radio, it's down to them!!! (Sting presses his face into the tape recorder, and delivers an enormous raspberry).The English stations play everything, the whole works.
Stewart: Every English housewife is familiar with the Sex Pistols...
Andy: And the thing is, that the main radio station doesn't have to get ratings for advertising. That's the difference. It's one thing to moan about American radio, but it's based on money and everybody's got to keep their jobs and get ratings. So where do you start?
American Radio Girl: Where do the English radio stations get their money?
Sting: From the people. (Fists are raised) It's a socialistic type of setup. There's no advertising on the radio.
Andy: But you have to look beyond that - there are a few radio stations over here, college radio stations, that are really valuable because they don't have to make ratings. College radio is very important to us, especially because the first time we came here, completely unheralded, it was the college stations that really caught on to us. Then the others began to hear us and the AM picked up and so on.
And they're supported by the government...
Andy: Absolutely. There's a grain of hope somewhere.
So you'd like to see Big Brother take over the airwaves?
Sting: No, not Big Brother. I'd like to see the people take over and play everything. Not the industry. Because the radio playlists are decided by people behind desks with fat cigars. (He adopts a nasal drawl) 'So how are we gonna sell our new motor car?' So they buy advertising and they make sure that the regulars on that radio station are directed towards their buyers, or what they think the listeners will like, or what will make them buy their f***ing motor cars.
But there was some guy with a cigar working form A&M doing the same thing for you - calling up and saying "Play the Police single."
Sting: No way!
Stewart: 'Roxanne' had already broken. So the guy with cigar at A&M is just cleaning up after something we've already accomplished.
Andy: With the college stations, they weren't pushed into playing it. They do have people going around, but if they're not naturally enthused by it, they don't play it. When we came here the first time, we went a lot of the college radio stations, and they were very interested in reading about the new wave scene in England and reggae music, because there were very few bands over here that could talk to them about that. With 'Roxanne', it was a single from a band that had new wave connotations, and it was an accessible record. And I think there was a certain amount of relief.
Stewart: What other groups have accomplished as far as airplay is good for everybody. So far I can appreciate what they've done but not their music. To get a record to No.1 is really good news, because take all these people with cigars - when a new wave record comes in and the cover looks "punky", they'll listen to it, whereas they wouldn't have done that before. The same thing happened in England - there was a revolution. All the A&R men suddenly had to go back to the scuzzy old clubs and get back in there looking for bands. All the CBS executives who don't know shit about anything - nobody on their staff under 30 - and they didn't know what to sign, so they signed up everything.
Sting: But the important thing for success in a music market is crossover. And I think your magazine is as much to blame, because it's a rock magazine. There's no black artists, no reggae, there's no country artists. It's a rock magazine and it's the same as radio - it's heavily compartmentalised, and the readers don't know anything about their models. I'd like to see you take an interest in other musical areas apart from rock'n'roll because I think that rock'n'roll is dead. Absolutely dead.
But you still get your paychecks in the mail?
Sting: Yeah, we get paychecks in the mail in the mail but that doesn't mean we have to be complacent and satisfied with the business. I think it's dying.
Do you think there are many bands in England or here that are heavily influenced by the Police?
Sting: Yeah, bands like the Members have been influenced by us... the Specials too.
Stewart: Actually, they play a different kind of reggae variation. They play a ska, which is like baby reggae. It's like to reggae what Bill Haley is to rock. Another thing wrong with American press is that it's all monthly. It's also not national, it's down to one city. So ideas spread from city to city very slowly. Any kind of change or activity takes such a long time in America.
Sting: Well, that's because of the size of the country...
Stewart: Yeah, but if there's any kind of event that has an effect that spurs things to happening, like Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols... that was an event that inspired the whole country, and the whole music scene. But in America, they would've had to pull the same stunts in every city across the land to gain recognition.
Radio Girl: I don't know if I agree with that. For example, the Knack. The Knack was playing in Los Angeles, and...
Stewart: Yes, but that was three year's later, a band with new wave connotations...
Andy: Plus they had a million dollars spent on them for promotion.
Stewart: Yeah, it was a big, huge machine rolling into action...
Radio Girl: Yes, but also, most music directors and program directors in Detroit have friends in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta... and they talk to these people weekly and they hears what's hot in those cities. So they're gonna listen to them, and they're gonna take more notice of this band
Andy: Oh yes. Sorry.
(Suddenly Sting is on his feet, exclaiming "Our national anthem!" as the first bars of Herb Alpert's 'Rise' filter in from the jukebox. The threesome jump up and salute.)
Stewart: Oh, yes. Our audition for A&M records, we had to play 'The Lonely Bull'.
Sting was probably right when he said all of this correlates to the size of the country.
Sting: America has been in this century a hotbed of culture and a hotbed or art. And it's not any more because it's been strangled by industry. It's still full of great music, I'm sure, and still full of great potential musicians and innovative music. But how can it possibly get out when it's actually being throttled by industry.
Stewart: Something that's interesting about this place is the standard of technical ability of the musicianship is something that always astounds English musicians who come over here. The support acts we get - "Damn! That guy's a bit clever, isn't he?" - but the music they play is crap, totally uninspired shit! In spite of their standard of ability being much higher than it is in England.
Andy: I must say that there are exceptions... Wazmo Nariz is brilliant.
Any other American stuff you guys like to listen to?
Sting: Yeah, we like B-52's, Screamers, Devo, the Swimming Pool Cues...
Stewart: But in America you don't really hear of a group until its huge.
Don't you think that black music in this country is also in bad shape?
Sting: Yeah, black music's dead for the same reasons. It's not taking in any sources from anywhere else.
Andy: Christ, you watch the 'Midnight Special' and see all those clone funk groups, they're sort of middle-aged blokes with those ridiculous clothes on... that is really the end for me.
Sting: The American bands we respect, almost to a band have had to go to England to make it. Blondie, Talking Heads, the B-52's, the Cramps...
We really enjoyed that picture of you in the NME... what was that, 1965?
Andy: Oh yeah, great! I loved it actually, I mean let's have it out more in the open.
Stewart: Any burning issues you want us to solve for you?
Sting: I think you should declare war on Iran.
Stewart: That really would be the cleanest, easiest thing to do.
Sting: Just go in there and ... you know! I mean, you did it to North Vietnam. You could just go in and wipe the place up. Great! Do it! Three days of napalming and there'd be no one left.
Any plans for a new album?
Sting: We're going to break up... (joke)
Andy: Probably next year, say in March, April. We're doing a world tour now which will take us up probably until around next May, actually...
Stewart: These commercial pressures to follow up... you know, we don't feel them. We're doing fine. We make a great living out of being a "cult" group, because of our economic situation. Because we've got it under control. I mean, we can exist pretty independently of airplay and all that stuff. That was our intention in the beginning when we formed our own record label for 'Fall Out', and 'Outlandos' was recorded for Illegal records. It was done because we didn't think we'd get airplay. The fact that we've gotten it is just fortunate.
Andy: Our manager actually told us not to get hooked on having No.1's. That's not our policy.
Sting: I'm hooked already! I'm totally addicted to success!
Are you worried at all that the more successful you get, the less people will be able to relate to the song lyrics?
Sting: It's very hard actually, as a songwriter, to be on the road all the time, because you find that your life is so divorced from normal people's lives, that you feel like "What am I going to write about?" Getting on planes every day, hotel rooms... If anything I think a songwriter should take a sabbatical - work in a factory for three weeks or something, just to get back into normal life.
Stewart: It's true. You enjoy working and being on the road, but on the other hand because you have to get to the next gig and get on a plane and get to the next hotel, you're not actually participating in the tapestry of life, which actually is a drag because it takes us out of the context of the people we're writing songs for.
Sting: We'll probably get into drugs and Eastern mysticism to get our songs. In fact, some of us already are...
Stewart: We'll just keep on playing as good as we can play, and if we lose a lot of people along the way, well that's the way it goes.
Sting: Our trip to India should be interesting.
Just don't shave your head.
Sting: I'm going to! When we go to India, I'm going to swim in the Ganges, shave my head, the works. That's the only way we'll make the international papers.
Andy: You can only find out as you go along... People are always asking us questions like "What have you been doing, and what's going to happen...?" We only started a year ago and it hasn't stopped. We don't know yet how we do this. It's an ongoing situation. And we make it stay that way.
When are you guys going to do your rock opera?
Sting: Oh, we've done that.
Andy: We are a rock opera.
Sting: You'll see it tonight.
Stewart: We have one of those in the dressing room after the show every night. (high voice) You play the bumble. You spit up.
Sting: You're fired.
Stewart (high voice): You're fired.
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