The following article by Gibson Keddie appeared in the April 1997 issue of Bassist
I know my mind is made up...
Many a 'proper' musician must have been horrified by the sudden onslaught of punk rock's notable anti-technique stance, a musical Exocet missile launched just as the 70's lurched past their soporific mid-points; kids wanted to hear youngsters in bands of their own age playing songs they could relate to and have fun with, not be indulged by self-indulgent geezers with beards and O-levels in guitar-playing, who deigned to release a record every so often in order to pacify the masses. Still, as John Peel said of the punk revolution, "The fun suddenly came back into music. You don't know you're bored till it stops being boring."
Punk rock was rapidly reaching epidemic proportions. The populist media loved it, if only because there's nothing like young people having fun and doing illogically outrageous things to inflame the indignant readership. Constant exposure was assured. Grown musicians trembled visibly and feared for their technique. Gordon Sumner was surely excluded from participating in the already-rolling new wave bandwagon on various counts - well out of his teens, he was an experienced jazz-playing musician with a diverse list of influences.
So was he threatened by punk's trashy speed-fuelled frenzy? Far from it: in typical Sting 'main chance' style, he spied the opportunities offered by the radical changes sweeping through the old guard...
Just a castaway...
'Bassist' music editor Paul Scott, a fellow North Easterner, reckons he was at the gig where Stewart Copeland saw Sting in action. Sting's band, Last Exit, were supporting rhythm'n'soul perennials Osibisa at Newcastle Poly. Curved Air, one-hit progsters with 'Back Street Luv', featuring the very delectable Sonja Kristina (Copeland's belle) on vocals, were playing at the Mayfair down the road. American drummer Copeland, on a pre-gig wander about, popped in to see Last Exit - and contact was made.
At the behest of Stewart Copeland, Sting, along with Last Exit's keyboard player Gerry Richardson, moved to London in search of the big break. Copeland reckoned Sting could be a force to be reckoned with: "I had some ideas that I knew Sting would really take to - like the on-beat of reggae, for instance," commented the tall drummer, who had long since seen the writing on the wall for Curved Air and was looking to establish new directions.
Though there were some sketchy plans for a band with a new sound, very little happened after the two moved down, and a disillusioned Richardson soon retreated to Newcastle. Sting still keeps in touch with his old band muckers, though: he guested with them on a local gig a couple of years ago, and Gerry Richardson plays Hammond Organ on Sting's 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot'.
The Police (great name) first pounded the beat as a trio with French Corsican guitarist Henri Padovani, but ex-Soft Machine, Zoot Money and Dantalion's Chariot (snappy name) guitarist Andy Summers later came in to fill out the sound. Summers could see real potential in the raw elements of the Police, and the band played as a quartet for almost a year before Padovani quit, leaving the trio that would become known by the whole world.
Copeland's idea for a new sound was starting to happen. A growing (new) wave of punk revisionism meant anything pre-1976 was out (except The New York Dolls, Iggy and the Stooges and the 'new cool' of reggae). New bands were being formed by the minute, practising, gigging, then splitting up all in the same week. Many an older muso lag saw great potential in a serious hair chop, followed by some radical anti-wardrobe get-up, in order to get in on the action; The Stranglers, Squeeze and The Damned, for instance, all contained suspicious traces of such re-invention. Ironically, the 'corporate' short blond-haired look of the Police came via a, makeover to appear as - guess what: - a punk band for a Wrigley's gum TV advertisement. Overall, times were often not good for the fledgling reggae-ists and such alternative work was often sought to keep the wolf from the door - Copeland occasionally augmented his income by reviewing drum kits for a musicians' magazine!
The band had recorded some fairly dismal pre-Andy Summers punky thrashes early on which just didn't happen; 'Fall Out', Dead End Job, Landlord. Once they were trio-ised, however, Summers' studied approach allowed the band the necessary room to capitalise on the strength of their more inherent and natural individual talents.
"Before the Police, I was a wailing blues guitarist," laughs Andy Summers, "but solos were taboo when punk was at its height, so we kept the songs really short and played them pretty fast. Then I got to be known as a top rhythm player..."
Eventually £1,500 of borrowed money allowed them to record some songs at Nigel Gray's fledgling Surrey Sound studios, and A&M picked up the album for distribution. A single, Roxanne, released after 'Can't Stand Losing You' had nearly rippled the chart waters, set the band on their way. 'Can't Stand...' was re-released to be a big hit second time around. At last fame beckoned.
The Police were managed by drummer Stewart Copeland's brother Miles, who remains Sting's co-manager to this day. An aggressive young ideas man, Copeland seized the chance to launch the band in America via the traditional route of a series of reputation-building grass-roots club gigs. The late 70s was the era of the first really cheap air fares to the States, thanks to Sir Freddie Laker's Skytrain budget jumbo jet flights, and a few bands seized the 'budget travel' opportunity to dip a toe in the Stateside music scene, carrying their guitars as hand luggage. Miles Copeland organised several such arduous and gruelling no-frills jaunts for the Police, until eventually Learjets and limos became the band's usual mode of travel. The struggle must have been made success doubly sweet. "We've been a long time preparing for this," reflected Andy Summers, ensconced in the back of a limo while on tour at the time of the band's hedonistic peak. The Police had a limo each, natch...
Sting's solo career coincided with the dismantling of the by now huge Police organisation. Full of hate and loathing for each other, they took a questionable decision to re-record their hits as one last attempt to work together: the sole fruit of this project was included on the subsequent curtain-closing hits compilation, 'The Singles'. Ten years passed before 'The Police: Live!' saw the light of day, mainly because the threesome were most unenthusiastic about the prospect of working together on the project. "Not to mention the difficulty of trying to fit in the mixing and production chores for the album with the blond one's schedule," added the tall drummer, not without a hint of irony.
In a deliberate attempt to subvert the over-riding notion of him as a catchy pop tunesmith, Sting reverted to an overtly jazz feel for 1985's debut solo album, 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles'. His band du jour consisted of some of the biggest young lions of new jazz at the time, including Branford Marsalis, Omar Hakim and Darryl Jones on bass, with Kenny Kirkland adding the weight of his experience on keyboards. Though Marsalis' wailing sax work lent blue-note jazz cred to the album, the songs maintained unfailing commercial appeal, though it was strange to find these young American jazzers playing on a track written as a paean to the British coal mining industry, in a musical comment on the epic miner's strike.
The album track 'Russians' saw Sting looking back at the Cold War, a theme of global concern expanded on the next studio album, '87's 'Nothing Like The Sun', which followed the live double set 'Bring On The Night'. By now Sting was lending his fame to a number of causes, including the plight of the Brazilian Indians and their diminishing rainforest.
The death of his father caused him to re-focus on his Newcastle roots, and he jokes darkly about the album 'The Soul Cages', which resulted from his attempts to deal with his loss, calling it "an album for the recently bereaved - a small market, but always there." However, the album's strongest song, 'All This Time', though reminiscent of his early days in the town, is upbeat enough in mood and lyric.
Fans and band members alike were relieved to see the return of the jokier Sting in the songs on 'Ten Summoner's Tales', with even the title a pun on his own surname. Strong, pure pop songs written with real effect (and no cod-jazz pretensions, either), performed by the strongest, leanest band Sting's had since his Police days - Dominic Miller on guitar, another polyrhythmic skinsman supreme in Vinnie Colaiuta, with only Kenny Kirkland remaining from the 'new jazz' days.
1994's 'Fields Of Gold - Best Of..'. was an efficient enough if slightly over-weighty, representation of the man's post-Police track record up to that point - and, of course, it included the mandatory extra specially-written tracks 'When We Dance' and 'This Cowboy Song', so that completists were forced to buy.
The good news is that Sting seems to have rediscovered his joy of a good pop song, and the upbeat tunes are taken to new heights on his most release, 'Mercury Falling'. His constant use in recent times of a beautifully worn-in, mid-50s 'transition' Fender Precision gives him the exact plump, mellow tones he needs for his Stax-influenced soul bass parts found in abundance on the new album. It seems he has gone full circle, back to the celebratory spirit of the Motown and Stax songs he used to perform with Last Exit in the North East all those years ago.
Doing that Sting Thing - Ever experienced the audition from hell? Guitarist Dominic Miller did when he first tried for Sting's band...
Dominic Miller met Hugh Padgham while doing a session for singer Julia Fordham. Hugh told him that he was going to produce the next Phil Collins album and Dom asked if there was any chance he could play on it. Hugh thought it was very unlikely as it was Daryl Steurmer's gig.
Says Dom: "I accepted that, but for some reason I called Hugh up and asked him again and, to cut a long story short, they let me come along. I did about six songs on the 'But Seriously..." album. It was a big break, getting my playing out in the open like that - my mum was really impressed! Doing the Phil Collins thing led me to doing more sessions, until I was doing two or three a week. Then Hugh called me up and told me that Sting was looking for a guitar player. I thought that there was no way I was going to get it. I always thought the Police were quite good, although I didn't have any of their albums, but I knew Sting was a bit of a jazzer, so I reckoned there was no way I could keep up with that and that I wouldn't get the job.
"The audition was really funny. I was really nervous, tired out and completely shitting myself! I turned up carrying my pedal board in a bin liner - really tacky, and all the roadies were very amused. So I got up on the rehearsal platform, plugged myself in and I wasn't getting any sound whatsoever, which made me even more nervous. All this time Sting's just standing there being cool and I'm not being cool! All the roadies were looking at the amp, and rushing around like they do, trying to find the fault. They checked all the plugs and leads, they even changed the valves in the amp, but they still can't work out what the problem is. Finally, one of them comes up to me, reaches out towards my guitar and simply turns the volume up ! And it works! At that point, I thought: 'Okay, I've blown it. It doesn't matter what happens now...' Next, Sting asked me if I knew a song called 'Fragile'. I didn't. I said, 'Is it one of yours?' By which point the roadies were in fits of hysterics. I'm blushing and I'm sweating - it's like I'm in a sauna! So, Sting plays it and instantly I'm home - it's a sort of Brazilian thing which I've played all my life.
We played for about 15 minutes and then had a coffee break. Sting says to me: 'Do you want to do the gig?' I said, 'Well yes...' And it just didn't register at all.
Frantic and fun, with punky pretensions over-ridden by Sting's pop-jazz melodic sensibility. Catch songs aplenty, plus inspired playing from all, with an edge 'live' feel to the production - and of course the early hits, 'Can't Stand Losing You' and 'Roxanne'.
Reggatta De Blanc
The Police start to hit the mark with infectious number 1 singles in 'Walking On The Moon' and 'Message In A Bottle', but the gap between the quality of songs like the singles and 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' or 'Bring On The Night' compared to the rest of the material renders the album slightly patchy and less consistent than its predecessor. Likeable title instrumental track, though - and, as ever a real lesson for every musician in constructive use of space to get the groove.
The album titles are getting phonetically sillier, but the Police are learning fast about what they're good at and, in doing so, managed to create a wealth of well-produced, mass populace-friendly songs. The world is almost theirs. In addition to mainstream pop success ('Don't Stand...', 'De Do Do Do)' the superior rhythms throw up a massive surprise hit as the New York led disco scene discovers 'Bombs Away'. Check also the unstoppable groove of 'The World Is Running Down'.
Ghost In The Machine
Sting tries to 'get deep' by borrowing ideas from author/psychologist Arthur Koestler's writings while also broadening the sound of the band with keyboard washes and guitar synth backdrops (often rendered flat with Sting's voice buried in the mix). The dark mood of 'Invisible Sun' set new standards for the band in terms of content and mood, though Sting still refused to grow up ee-yow-ing all over the bippity-bop charm of 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'. Overall, though, iffy production does nothing to disguise a weak collection of song ideas.
More focused than 'Ghost', with a much less fuddled production. Revered by many fans as something of a classic, this album represented the Police at the top of the rock hyperleague: after this, they split. Their attempts to 'sophisticate' their earlier more direct style occasionally turn sour, but there are flashes of real inspiration, including the superb multi-segment song structure of 'Synchronicity II'. This album is again overtly 'dark' in content, but there are some nice moments where the band again shows the confidence to use creative space, especially on 'Tea In The Sahara'. The star track is surely 'Every Breath You Take', a number one across the globe.
Every Breath You Take: The Singles
By 1984 the Police owned the world and they decided to try and re-record their best known material with full-on production, unaffordable in their earlier days. Only one song was recorded (the surprisingly impressive 'Don't Stand So Close To Me '86' before Sting and Copeland tried to kill each other in the studio, so what we have are the singles in their unadorned pop beauty. Classic.
The Police Live!
An often stunning demonstration of the trio's sheer power as a dynamic live force. This two-disc set is sourced from two different tours, 1979's 'Zenyatta' tour (pulled from the mixing desk of a live radio broadcast) interestingly juxtaposed with the mega-budget 'stadium' sound of the 'Synchronicity' tour recorded in Atlanta in 1983. An off-centre start to the first set, where the engineer only seems to have one channel working, is suddenly rectified halfway through the first song and, like a genie from the bottle, the power of the band surges through uncontained. A fascinating opportunity to glimpse the band at both ends of their American onslaught. Andy Summers' supervisory production allows the listener to really share in the event. The ability of the band to transcend the limitations of their trio format is awesome, and each song is a treat. Though the second disc is Andy Summers at his technology obsessed height thanks to an infamous skyscraper-sized effects rack (remember those Roland ads?) he uses the available sounds in an intelligent manner and always complements the singer's show. Special mention, too, for Stewart Copeland - a drummer like this means never needing a rhythm guitarist to fill out the gaps!
Message In A Box
Capitalising on box-set mania, this collection is for anal completists only, some rarities, including the very unpromising first single release, 'Landlord'/'Fall Out'. And not even everything they ever did, either. Humbug.
© Bassist magazine