08.01.80 HOT PRESS
The following interview with Dermot Stokes appeared in an August 1980 issue of Hot Press magazine...
Sussed! That's the only word for it. There we were strolling down the top of the grand staircase in Leixlip Castle, under the portraits of Guinnesses past on the walls, Colin, Henry and I, with two friends, when the butler's sybaritic eye booked us on suspicion.
He shadowed. us, dark and nocturnal, to the kitchen, where the stout peasantry were whaling away midst the pheasant. Stewart Copeland, just returned from riding a horse through the grounds was being molested by an advanced woman of middle years and a strong voice, who kept calling him Sting. He concentrated on a bottle of Irish whiskey, which helped him avoid focussing on his tormentor. The butler oozed in behind us and murmured his qualms to the ostler, a stocky man of about forty, with an outdoor brow and a jaw like a hoof. A solid fellow.
He blocked my path with the steely determination of a man sure of his status, between m'hoss and m'lud. His hands, salted by seasons slapping horses asses and tipping his forelock, flexed purposefully. Good man, Byrne, you take care of them.
What were we doing there, he asked. We'd just finished an interview with Andy Summers and we're down in the kitchen to fix up a few other things. "Well", he said, pondering his immortal words..."You can't fix them here". . And he was right. Accompanied by the hound of the Baskervilles we were directed to the gates and the outside world. We bade them farewell with some rockabilly blarney from a large Sony at full tilt. The bop don't stop, it only clip-clop.
What a night - not to mention the day. Back at the castle there was a regular beggar's banquet in the hall with Squeeze looking like a bunch of pickpockets rifling the spare ribs and John Otway like the ostler's crazed cousin from West Kildare. Desmond, the man of the house, staggered past us in a neat farm coat, carrying a tray of tomato ketchup, no less, as an irritable woman with an English accent whinnied despairingly at her children to do what they were told! A deranged flan of dates and marietta biscuits caused us to pause but not linger...
Poooof! Be the hokey! Materialising out of nothing more solid than air, none other than Patrick Moloney esquire, chieftain and piper, right there in the comer by the chimney, absolutely too good to be true! If this fellow is not one of your Leprechauns... And with a diddleee-eye he had his machine on his knee and was coaxing the divil to talk. Out to the steps with him then, to spray jigs and reels about with native abandon as the locals footed it in formation across the gravel. And despite the weird circumstances, a gorgeous piece of playing, with Sting, among others, rapt in silent admiration.
"Is the Hot Press an Irish paper", hallooed the lady who escorted Andy Summers and I up to Marina Guinness's bedroom.
"Yes", I replied.
"Oh well done!!", she bellowed, voicing the one upper class compliment I cannot understand at all.
"I'm not sure its such a great idea to stay here tonight", Andy mused. "A strange house. You sort of expect a panel to slide back and someone to leap into bed with you. Not that I'd object to that!!" Downstairs Stewart struggled with something approaching the reality of the idea. To tell the truth I couldn't be sure if he was a-mused or be-mused...
There's no bad feeling of any sort, because the whole reason this band thrives internally and make no mistake about that, it does, more so than anything I've ever been involved with, and hangs together is because we all get what we want out of life. We're not bound up in any way - we're not frustrated.
"When I think of my work with the Police, there are no problems, nothing that isn't right, nothing I'm pissed off about, no moot points. And, happily, our association with each other is proving profitable and mutually beneficial."
So said Stewart Copeland earlier this year when interviewed by Peter Owens about his Klark Kent activities. Confirmation, if it were needed, of the almost uncanny blend in the Police. Great songs, especially as singles, an absolutely gangplank-perfect image and enough musical sophistication to keep the heads happy. Some people have all the luck, eh Sting?
"Yes! I'm a very lucky person. I believe very strongly in luck - that it has a tactile nature... if you surround yourself with successful people, You become successful. I believe in that tactile thing, touching lucky objects and - I also believe in bad luck. Anybody who is bad luck, I will stay away from. And success is the same thing. It's contagious. Yeah, I think we have been lucky, in the people too. It's like a marriage really - in more ways than one; we see more of each other than of our respective families - we've lived out of each other's pockets for the last four years now, often shared the same bed because we couldn't afford separate rooms. We eat together at the time, we travel together - and in many ways the mere fact that we stayed together all this time is a miracle. Just the personalities - its a very lucky mix, not just as individuals, but also as musicians.
"It's not ideal. It's not paradise. There's a lot of agony in the group. There's a lot of pain that goes into the semblance of democracy, in dealing with egos and the rest of it. But we are very lucky compared other groups. We have this chemistry as well as having a very simplistic... gestalt. I mean, people don't see us, they see three blonde heads. They don't see Sting, Andy and Stewart, they see this image, which isn't forced. We don't have to dress up, or stick our tongues out or wear make up or silly hats. We're just three guys and we have this kind of corporate image which is... powerful. Corporate Image?!! Did I say that! I didn't say that, did I?," he laughed.
So do they think a lot about image?
"Well let's say we don't have to dress up. We all have faintly dyed hair, which is no problem. We're... aware of our appeal, as visuals go, and that's directed at mainly one corner of the market... Or maybe it's directed at everyone, but guys wouldn't admit to liking the Police for the way they look - But in many ways they probably do. I mean, guys who like, say, the Clash, wouldn't admit they were affected by the image but they are. The whole thing about the Clash is image, as far as I can see. It's a very very well thought out pose... I'm not putting them down - they're very good at it, especially Simenon. He's the classic photogenic guy, but every move he makes is thought out and it's all to do with image, I think."
And if photos are one part of image, then video, in one shape or another, is of growing importance. Take that film for 'Message In A Bottle' where the group danced in a particular skanking handjive (or... well, ya know the dance I mean). How many people now dance like that because they saw the group do it on 'Top of the Pops'? What we're into here is the manufacture of image, the development of image and of the audience's ideas.
Sting: "We got into videos by deciding to stay away from television as much as possible. I think television has a demythifying quality about it - I'm talking purely professionally here - I don't want to be a TV personality. I think there's a certain smallness about that. Film is different. It looks distant, strange, as if there's a gauze over it, whereas on videotape - its here in the room. And you know the local newscaster like you know a friend... The distinction I'm making is between videotape, where there's a video camera and film, where there's a film camera. I don't really like videotape. I don't find it very - enhancing. We said let's not become a TV group - I think the Rats were caught in that one. They became TV personalities, along with David Muir and Malcolm Muggeridge - accessible as a TV personality. You can turn him on and off. The Police are a little less accessible because we don't do videos...
"It's a question of atmosphere. If you think of the difference between 'Coronation Street' and 'Dallas', 'Coronation Street' is like the woman next door, 'Dallas' takes place in America - but what's more, it's on film, and its just one step removed. It looks as if it's more of an illusion, more of a special thing. We'll stay away from video camera tape at the moment. But our films have been very well received and very influential - for 'Message In A Bottle', 'Roxanne' and 'Walking On The Moon'. If anything they made the records. Not entirely, but they were responsible for them being number one hits. All over the world - But anyway, they were filmed! We didn't appear on television - we've done that as well, but now we'll steer clear of it."
As Andy pointed out, in Marina's room, they have also worked on a movie shot around their world tour last year, another for 'The Old Grey Whistle Test'; and another of last December's English tour, for ITV. They're also involved in a film called "URGH!", which will include a lot of top name groups, like Blondie. The mention of Blondie brought up a survey that had just been completed in Britain which showed that something staggering like 25% (or more) of all girls under 20 wanted to look like Debbie Harry. Video tapes and films obviously had a major role to play - Andy agrees, with his tongue somewhat in his cheek.
"Yeah, you can't deny it - it's part of rock music. You know - you're supposed to want to go to bed with your favourite rock star. Sex is a big part of the whole thing... image... kids want to identify... want to look like the star... its part of it, for young people. Older people go beyond it. And obviously it's been part of our success - because we're all so incredibly good looking. But - y'know. You can have lovely hair. But if you can't play you won't be successful. That's what's going to be interesting about video. Everybody's going to try to make amazing looking people, and they're all going to look like Top of the Pops. It'll finally drop right off, I think, because I don't know if rock music will come off well on video..."
Time will tell. But I think it'll have to be the music that'll make it. You can listen to a good tune over and over, but how many times can you see a video without getting bored with it?
"I think the actual video disc is going to be more interesting, because they'll be able to put old movies on them. And probably you'll find all the worst and least imaginative people will get their hand in fast, because that's the way it always seems to go - people with money and no ideas at all. Eventually then it'll get cheaper and peter out... "
You could be forgiven for assuming, what with all their opinions that the Police think hard about the image-projection factors (!) of their films. But you'd be wrong.
Sting: "There are few considerations. We perform the songs, mime to them badly - generally we just dance to them in a particular environment. We made 'Message In A Bottle' in a dressing room in the Lyceum in London - what we got was an image of three guys enjoying themselves... and acting like idiots. The new film is for a song called 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' which is about a relationship between a teacher and a schoolgirl - we did it in a school, and there were some schoolgirls involved but we didn't tell the story... there was no narrative as such. We just danced around in teacher's outfits and had a laugh really. A lot of the songs have pretty mournful sentiments, but on film, ironically, we're all smiling and jumping up and down. I don't feel there's any betrayal there it's like a dance of death!!
"It's a pretty natural thing. We haven't got some mastermind sitting at a desk saying "now boys, I want you all to wear earrings for the next six months then we'll merchandise Police Earrings. There's nobody does that - they couldn't dare!!" (The funny thing is that when he acted the voice of the Svengali manager, he gave him the same U.S. businessman voice as Police manager Miles Copeland).
"We're all fairly vain - we all think about how we look, and there's a projection in that sense. But I don't yet believe the superstar rhetoric that a load of people in our position get to. It happens slowly, so they slowly start believing they're god-like - I don't believe that because it has happened very quickly for me in many ways - I can still be objective about it. I think we're a unique group, and that's why we're successful - because we're instantly recognisable, and you can't actually pin us down to any genre except our own. The band is a successful synthesis of various elements - a chemical reaction that was successful."
It is ironic to see the Police being iconised and courted by the quality in Leixlip Castle. 1976, out of which they emerged, was supposed to have ended all that. On the other hand, revolt inevitably becomes style. The Police can't be expected to be an exception - they'll be sought out whether they like it or not because they are young, attractive and successful, and, inevitably, as their success grows on their shoulders, they too become another kind of aristocracy. At the same time they are aware of the ironies, and remain detached enough to know the pitfalls.
"The timing was perfect for what we arrived at, which was a combination of reggae and more vigorous white music - punk, I suppose. From that starting point we continued on to develop what became the Police style, which is pop-oriented mass appeal music. But good music, I think."
And image, of course. The perfect combination. Interestingly enough, through one thing and another, probably mostly experience and plain intelligence, they also seem to have no ego problems when it comes down to who gets photographed most. In London Stewart Copeland commented on what had been called ¬ëthe inadvertent focus on Sting.'
"It's not inadvertent at all, it's a very logical focus. My visual image of the Police, as opposed to 3 corners of a triangle is that there should be one single identifiable image above all else (Picks up Hot Press (Vol 3. 24, Jam cover). I mean look at that cover, none of those faces will stick in my mind and so the whole value of scoring a front page has been diminished. And they're only a 3-piece as well. The thing is you've gotta understand is that the Police have had a very extreme amount of recognition in a fairly short space of time. My face has been on a zillion front pages, I've got plenty of things to hang up, and I've achieved as much of that as I need really. I mean all over the world, I've got as much visibility as I can handle, and it's kind of hard for people to imagine that you can reach a point where you've had enough of that - but it does actually come about."
It's not all that hard to understand why Sting, gestalt or not, is the pivot of the projection. Photogenic to a fault, he must grace a million bedroom walls and a thousand and one nights. Curious things abound - he and I are about the same height, yet several people swore they thought he was taller. It's not just the controlled power and bouncy self assurance of someone who is fit. There's also the cool of someone for whom the cards fall right; someone in confident command of his situation, and the methods and means of image control and projection. To the extent that he and not a superstar's acolyte, cuts all their hair.
"There's a lot of bullshit mystique attached to haircutting. If you take your time, it's simple - in fact I'm quite proud of my tonsorial creations!!!" (laughing) Still, being the object of fantasy and desire has its drawbacks. 'I find myself in the position of being an icon - I never exactly wanted it - never really planned for it. What I wanted was to be a musician. Then this came about.
"Some rock stars are purely image," he adds, "there's no real substance to their art. "But at the same time I could see it happening to me therefore I've managed to rationalise and control it. I could see what was needed so I did it as a matter of professionalism, but the end, where I am today, wasn't intended."
Probably the only place he can move in relative ease is London. "I own London. I'm very much at home there, everybody knows me. And I don't mind being spotted. The people there see a lot of Faces anyway. They say hello Sting if I'm getting a tube or how-ya-doin' Sting if I go to a club. And it's fairly cool. If I turn up in a club in Newcastle there'd be a riot!! I like London. Having succeeded there I feel very... courtly!" Aristocracy indeed.
At the time of the interview Andy felt that the then half recorded new LP, 'Zenyatta Mondatta' represented a linear progression from the previous two, but not a radical departure. Sting, last week, when the LP had been mixed wasn't all that willing to commit himself to such generalisations, although he discussed lyrical changes at length. But first to the whole idea of 'change' and 'development': "I don't see albums as unified wholes - I think that's a pretentious idea, a 60s idea, where an album was a concept. All I see in an album is a collection of songs, and a fairly random collection too. What unifies it are the individuals who take part in the exercise. So... to talk about developments from album to album is a bit disconcerting. I'll try to discern developments when you ask me, but I don't think in those terms. I think of individual songs, separate from the other songs on the album and from the other albums. The output is just ordered in albums. There's no real plan. There are, perhaps, trends you can detect, but they're not conscious ones."
So does he see himself changing as a songwriter?
"In that I'll be writing different sings, yes!! People have been asking me for the last 6 months how will the next album be different and I say "well... it'll have different songs on it!!" Of course it'll be different, but you'll be able to recognise by association. There are some songs on the new LP I'm very proud of... the first song on side two, 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da', and although it sounds like gibberish, the lyrics actually say something. I'm proud of that song. In a sense I suppose I'm getting better at writing songs. Getting to be more of a craftsman."
Which is development - though it would be hard to beat 'Message In A Bottle', from its irony to its classic short story twist-in-the-tail.
"I like that song a lot - I'm proud of it. But the thing is, you have to better that. The next one has to be better, yet its usually worse."
As for whether or not the songs come about from personal experience, he commented "I don't think that's at all essential. I mean Agatha Christie wrote hundreds of murder stories but I doubt if she ever committed a murder or was involved in one. That's the power of imagination - there's nothing amazingly pure about something that's been done from personal experience. It's probably the easiest way to write because you have lots of actual facts to draw on. Imaginary writing is a whole different ballgame. But my songs are a bit of both. Most of the songs about loneliness and alienation are personally felt things. Even though we treat them in a poppy manner - they are nonetheless meaningful for me, anyway. And as I travel the world, I see different things that change my ideas abut the world. There's 'A Hole In My Life' and some other songs are about that. If anything that's what is different on the new LP. Whereas the first two tended to deal with the individual and the individual situation, the new one is more to do with people as a whole."
So there he sits with a battery of guitars, mini-studios, books and pads, in his Yamaha sweater and blue baggy jeans songwriting. "This is how I do it - I get a pad here and in it are written... titles. There's a list of titles, half of which are on the new album, half of which are potential songs. I always start from the title and work backwards. The title is usually the hookline, or the chorus. The germ of the thing, and you work backwards from that. The procedure is very conscious, and very thought out but the actual lines that appear are really unconscious. I've got the germs of a few songs when I was half asleep. Just waking up... immediately have to rush to that piece of paper and write it down. I've read a lot about it. I've read a book called 'The Act of Creation' by Arthur Koestler in which he scientifically analyses the moment of creative thought, where, according to him, the brain has different compartments and everything is well ordered, but in kind of semiconscious states those compartments sort of dissolve and ideas that should be in one place kind of seep into another and then you get a creative spark and something happens. And I would go along with that. I think that in a dreamlike state, you get ideas. but the actual hard work is a conscious thing. Once you get that idea you then, with a lot of discipline, piece it together."
And does he work with bass or guitar?
"It depends. Both... or piano... 'Walking On The Moon', I wrote in a hotel room in Munich. I'd been completely drunk in some disco, and I got back to the room and had the whirling pit, and I was just singing that riff... du-du-duum, du-du-duum. So I got up and sang it and I was walking around the room, which was the original title for that song!!! (laughs), "Walking Around The Room!!"
"There's a lot of paranoia attached to writing - in what - as a writer of words, you'd also get it... you get blocks - "Jesus, I'll never write another song! I'm dry. Completely dry! There isn't an idea in my head! I've learned to work with that - what I do is, when I get in that state, say "forget it." I don't push it. Read a book. That's what I'm doing this afternoon. I should be writing songs but I have this pair of pliers here which have to be removed before I can actually write a song. So I'm reading 'Lolita' and 'The Secret Life of Plants' and 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'. I tend to read about four at once. You can get ideas from books..."
As for the group working together, with rare instrumental exceptions, forget it. They each bring their songs along to the session at which they are 'policified'. But no group writing.
Sting: "I find the creative thing a very private enterprise situation. Co-operation is also compromise, and that's the last thing we need. Especially writing songs, which are the basis of the whole industry."
Stewart said broadly the same to Peter Owens "Well we all write separately. The creative sparks only fly when we're in the studio confrontation, elbowing and blustering. We're usually pretty scathing with each other and by the end we come out with tunes that are corporate. I'm talking consensus, not compromise."
Since they actually provide much of the machinery, and control most of the capital of the music industry record companies are one of the major elements in the machine that swings into action with a hitmaking band: Sting has pretty specific ideas on them:
"As a general body record companies are pretty duff. They're out to make money and the artistic considerations are virtually nil. We're lucky in that we have a better company than most - A&M is a small company not a huge conglomerate. But it's really how you approach the record company in the initial stage that counts. We went to them and said "here's our music, don't give us an advance, just put the record out", which they did - with the effect that they didn't own us. There was none of this serf-overlord business that occurs with most groups.
"Most groups in the top 100 at the moment are actually owned lock, stock and barrel by the record companies - we on the other hand are in the opposite situation, where we work in partnership with the record company. Because we didn't ask them for money in the first place, we have autonomy. Complete artistic freedom. And that's from looking at the record companies intelligently, not as benevolent big brothers. They're not, they're banks..."
It was Punk, and 1976, that created the initial climate of openness and experimentation that the music needed. After that it came down to the music. In an interesting footnote to this question of control, Dave Fanning's suggestion to Stewart and Andy that the Police sometimes "Did things on the cheap" drew Summers' ire down on his head.
"It's not 'on the cheap', it's part of a self imposed doctrine of working that we wanted - because we had to be some sort of symbol against everything in the previous ten years where bands got bigger and bigger, everything became more and more expensive like ticket prices and record prices... and the whole thing that happened in London in 1976 was a reaction against all that had gone before and we were part of it. That was the philosophy we came out with, and have tried to work with ever since."
So right now there's a new LP, the eagerly awaited follow up to 'Outlandos d'Amour' and 'Reggatta de Blanc', million-sellers and chart-based for many moons. But somewhere in there in the top 5 over the last year, a subtle change has takes place in the relationship between the Police, their fans , the record industry and, perhaps, their management and agencies. A challenge has become a responsibility - people expect demand that they come up with the goods. Now there is a dependency on the Police, with people hoping they won't fail - even to the record industry round the world, which, could come to love another bigseller.
"The machinery is all there", says Sting, "ready and waiting for a successful group, and it just appears around you and what you have to do is try and control it as much as possible. You develop a way of fighting back, of saying we're going to dictate who's gonna take our photograph, or where we go and what we say. It's really a way of keeping your sanity in a world that's quite mad. I mean - we do virtually what we did two years ago, but now, instead of three people in Islington, there are 30,000 people and that's... mad" and he smiles...
This madness manifests itself in countless ways. A successful band become the focus of all sorts of attention, some of it gratifying, some of it boring, and a lot of it unwelcome. One example was the story by the wonderful Sunday Independent on the house Sting and Andy were "buying " in Ireland - which of course, they weren't.
"I stayed in this place in Galway for two months and the papers were phoning up and they printed where I was living and the photograph and everything!! Y'know?! For every kidnapper, terrorist and psychopath who wanted to visit me or conversely every well-wishing fan!! And they can be about the same thing in my book sometimes!! Andy also complained about the story - "people began to come up there just like they did in London, where my phone number is still in the book - and I still get people phoning me up. That makes it hard to do any songwriting or anything like that because there's too many people ringing the doorbell."
That's the problem with celebrity status - privacy is lost. Sting agrees, but added, "I wouldn't call that the most poignant area of loss. In many ways its fun. In another sense I can't really go shopping without being aware that people are watching. First it's fine, then you just long for anonymity, being able to just do things without being scrutinised all the time. On the street I wear spectacles, not because I need them, but because it puts people off - they don't actually see you with spectacles. So I go about disguised!!
"They don't know what it's like - just doing normal things becomes extraordinary. People just don't believe it - you become a sort of a freak. A zoo exhibit. And that's the worst thing, being an exhibit when all you want is to live your life. See, in isolation, for someone to come to where you're staying and say 'hello, can I have your autograph, I'm a big fan' is really nice. It's a beautiful thing to happen, in isolation. But multiply it by 20 per day, which is quite possible; and it becomes unbearable - and it's not your fault, and it's certainly not the fan's fault, because as far as they're concerned they're an isolated incident. They found out where you live, so they came. The fact that there's thousands of people doing it is the media's fault - they have empty pages so they fill them with "interesting facts."
On one side it boils over into a frenzy. The hour after the Police concert at Leixlip was one example as enraptured girls stormed the fencing, squirming under trucks and over walls. "Aaaaandeeeeee!" the siren call. "Aaaaandeee Summers I love you - why don't you smile on stage?" and he smiles, from the safety of the artists' enclosure. That's her there, one of them with a touch of anaemia reddened out by the sun and hysteria. "Sting! I love you!" - "Hey! Stewart Copeland's brother! Why don't you smile!!"
It's not so far from the Sunday Independent's peasant curiosity and turgid showbizzybodiness to Jackie and the little girls' walls. Nor is it all that much further, in Andy Summers' book, to some of the rock media. The Police got it hard in the wild and woolly days of'76. "That was a period where everybody was hung up on punks and punk rock and it was obviously ridiculous for us to pretend we were punks because we were all experienced musicians. So we found it hard to get gigs. We went to play America; and 'Roxanne' and 'Can't Stand Losing You' became hits... and when we came back we found we were very popular. Huge crowds came to our tour - and after that the British media seemed to warm towards us.
"They found that we helped to sell papers, so they put us on covers and featured us in depth!!" Andy's cynicism is explained by Sting: "He hasn't made as much use of the media as I have." Sting and I also approached the topic through a discussion of the British music press. I don't read English papers very often for essentially professional reasons, but I remember one interview where Sting was asked about the implications of the fact that 'discredited' people such as The Rolling Stones like the Police, or a question to that effect. (These old farts like you people - shouldn't you feel worried? sort of question).
"It's an old fashioned idea - certainly two years ago it wasn't too good for us. We had a few credibility problems because there was a party line you couldn't step over or you'd be considered an 'old fart.' There was this whole mystique of bands around the Sex Pistols and the Clash which we didn't really belong to, and so being cited by the Rolling Stones as an acceptable group didn't do us any good at all!! We became the Acceptable Face of Punk, or whatever, which was pretty reprehensible at the time!!
"Now our status is such that it doesn't matter a f***. It doesn't bother us at all. The Stones still like us. It didn't do us any harm in the end, in fact maybe it did us some good. And while it may not have helped our 'street credibility' I still got a thrill from it - that someone like Keith Richard had actually heard 'Roxanne' and liked it and would say so. I had a fan thrill from that - I was a fan of the Rolling Stones and having them hear my record was quite a turnaround. That, obviously, affects his own attitude towards younger groups.
"Yeah - If I don't like a young group I'd say nothing - but if I do like them - I really like U2 for example. I like their single. I've never seen them live, I didn't catch them at Leixlip, but think 'Tick Tock' is f***ing amazing, and I would say so to Hot Press. I said it before, that I think they're great, because I think they would appreciate that. On the other hand if I slagged a new group, it's the last thing they need - to be slagged off by somebody who's made it. It's the worst thing that could happen to them - totally counterproductive. But a group that is good, and on the way up, should get encouragement."
Which brings us back to the rock 'n' roll media which is often far more hostile and brutal to young bands than they deserve. Sting agreed wholeheartedly but went on to qualify his comments: "I think the rock 'n' roll press are real villains in that - but on the other hand I think the British music press is great. It keeps somebody like me on his toes. I know there's more than a good chance this new album will be absolutely torn to shreds, and that's right, that we should have that threat over our heads, because otherwise we might get too complacent. They do a job, and I respect them for that. I don't always agree with what they say. As far as stomping on fledgling band goes, though, that sort of thing is totally counterproductive.
"We had all that in the beginning - "Forget this group - throw them in the dustbin" type reviews!! And all those guys have been eating their words ever since. I've got some marvellous things saying we had absolutely no commercial viability whatsoever!!! I've kept them all!! So they get egg on their faces in time, but it's a double-edged thing, y'know? I appreciate the criticism, especially if its intelligent and caring. I think a journalist has to care about music as much as a musician. Because they do an important job. They're very influential, and they should care about musicians - because musicians are their livelihood, and in the need to destroy the odd icon, they shouldn't overstep the mark. Because they have destroyed bands in the past. We're at a level where, well, if the album is panned, I'll be disappointed, but I'd just say you have your opinion and I have mine. I won't slash my wrists!! On the other question of my 'sponsoring' a group like U2, who knows? It might do them harm!! Like the Stones and us!!"
But none of us would seriously think so - including, at a guess, U2. Sting mentioned that Bono had come up to him the other week and said thanks a lot for that mention in the pro-Leixlip issue of Hot Press. Its typical of U2, I observed. On another occasion I remember Bono making a similar comment to me about a review I'd done of one of their records. What struck me most was the simplicity and straight forwardness of his remarks. He wasn't trying to use the connection, to manipulate me into liking him any more. Later in the interview Sting returned to the point.
"It's funny - I'm just picking up on what you said, about Bono coming up and saying thanks for the review and not wanting to manipulate you - that's always a problem with the music business... the manipulative edge to be nice. I try to make myself as urbane and approachable as possible, but I'm always wary of actually manipulating the system, of fooling people, for professional ends. You can become too self analytical, too paranoid, about what you say. But it's a strange situation sitting here talking, going through this tape recorder and then reading it three weeks later. It's not a natural communication - I'm very aware of your Sony, and Hot Press, and journalists as a whole. And I'm also aware that, if I wanted to, I could manipulate this for various ends - for political ends, or egotistical ends. You have to be aware of the possibility, and control it and it's a difficult thing to do. But. then I suppose its also difficult to interview people, having only met them, and probably not knowing a lot about them."
Which it is - although occasions where you interview someone with no real knowledge of them are often the easiest - once you can talk together it becomes just another casual conversation. The real problem for a journalist arises when he or she cares particularly about an interview, and worries about misrepresenting the interviewee, or about imposing their own prejudices and beliefs on the interview, or about the ethics of invading the subjects privacy. In the end it comes down to a belief in the worth of what you're doing, and in your own ability to communicate something of the person you're talking to without demeaning or distorting them.
As Sting says, journalism is not a particularly natural means of communicating, but on the other hand it is no less 'natural' than television or film, and is arguably a lot more real, and, given the amount one can say in its confined spaces, it allows musicians to say a lot more, to define themselves more clearly or to cloak themselves in more mystery and, yeah, to create an image of more depth, if less immediacy. One way or the other musicians and the music press have come to some form of accommodation, co-existing in an uneasy peace in mutual dependence and common dislike of the vulgar excess of the straight press. It's a mean old world and we all need as many friends as we can depend on.
There were moments at Leixlip where it seemed like a bomb had fallen and the geeks were in the streets. A hail of missiles passed over the frontstage area rivalled in intensity only by the stream of unconscious girls ground onto the barriers and passed over the wire to the John's Ambulance. One person gave up counting the casualties after 40. Then there were the security people who removed everyone except photographers from the frontstage area with extreme prejudice, leaving reviewers with the gross choice of reviewing the gig from the backstage area; where they couldn't see it, or going to the only place outfront where they could get into the crowd, which was so far out that, you got it, they still couldn't see it.
But in the long term these were minor irritations compared to the flagrant, direct assault on the band by a handful of gibbons in the crowd. Of all the extra attention brought on by fame and success, surely theirs is the most unwelcome. Horrible and completely inexcusable. They could have inflicted great injuries not only on the band but also on those between. As it was Stewart Copeland suffered a severe gash on the leg from a smashed bottle. You can understand the venom of the group's response though perhaps it's as well nobody took Sting up on the command to bring 'em back because having a goon ripped apart by the crowd wouldn't have done anyone any good in the long run. Afterwards Andy Summers was urbane - detached, even.
"There's two responses to a situation like that - the immediate reaction is directed at the ones who are involved but you get more philosophical later. We had trouble once in Wolverhampton with a bunch of skinheads who invaded the stage. Sting handled them very well - instinctively. He said afterwards he was scared shitless, but he just grabbed one and said, "Listen mate, those people out there paid to see me, not you, so dance onstage if you like, but don't come between me and them," - and it worked."
Sting, on the other hand, even two months later, is still considerably upset about the gig. "I've never had anything thrown at me in my life. That was the first time, in my entire career. I've dealt with trouble before but to have to work under those conditions and stay cool, I found virtually impossible. After the first ten minutes - you saw all the bottles - it was quite a fleeting thing, but there was a bottle thrown at me almost every three minutes... and its frightening . And I had no interest in playing that day after that, or smiling or performing. I'm actually quite a violent person, and I'm not all that gentle, and being absolutely defenceless and being able to do nothing about it - having to stand there for an hour and a half whilst these missiles were thrown at me was the most frustrating thing that's happened to me since... since I was born.
"That day was a nightmare for me. I wanted to kill that day and the day after, when the press said 'they didn't perform that well.' Well, I'd like to see the guy who wrote that write his piece with bottles flying at his head. I don't suppose - I hope - the kids who threw them didn't realise what they were doing, because if one of them had hit me - and they were all aiming at me! - I could have had brain damage my eyesight could have gone... and they were all aiming at my head basically. I'm no coward - I stood there, we did the whole show, we did an encore, but f*** me, it was dangerous. I mean Stewart was bleeding badly, he got badly cut. When I think of the horror that could have happened. I mean some kids in the audience were carried away when bottles actually landed on them and I feel sorry for that, I feel responsible for that, because the bottles were being aimed at me and they were missing."
The question in the long run is what motivates people to throw bottles at the band in the first place. It's all to easy to place it in a certain social backdrop and explain it all away in terms of frustration and deprivation. But it's not like that - this is nothing like baiting police, chasing bailiffs, joy-riding or stealing. It isn't like chasing supporters of a rival football club. It has no element of fun or anarchy, not of a social basis. It's not even like the ritual bottles between mods and rockers and skinheads in England in which, recent studies have shown, there is little personal contact, and what matters is the event, the adrenalin rush, the completion of the ritual, not the violence of which there was very little. This thing is vicious, psychotic even. Would people go to a football match and try and maim Kevin Keegan? The people who threw bottles at Sting are similar to the people who push supporters of rival football clubs off trains - machismo is the cult of manhood, and these people believe in the machismo of violence. They prove themselves by inflicting injury.
"Well, we attract the whole cross section of society, so there's bound to be a few - but your defenceless - there's nothing you can do. As I say the whole idea of playing to 30,000 is ridiculous, but there were about 5 or 6 kids there, who had no interest in the music. More fool them, because they probably paid to get in, then waited patiently with their bottles. I think they're just complete idiots. In a way I fell sorry for them - now, in the calm light of today. I didn't feel sorry for them at all that day. I felt very, very violent, and was not to be approached for several days! I was very upset because it had never happened... if it happened every gig, we'd be used to it, but it was quite a shock to me."
For the record though, if we're talking about psychopaths one or two of the bouncers at the gig should take a bow though. Sting takes the point.
"Not a situation I want to go through again. But as well, the bouncers - they created an atmosphere in the beginning before we went on there was a fight out front, that was brought about by half the bouncers with f***ing great, what-you-call'em, nightsticks! I couldn't believe it! It was so different to our normal gigs. The trouble is, as (ahem) an artist speaking for artists, if that becomes the form, then there won't be any gigs. I don't need to got out there and have my life threatened. My normal philosophy, if I'd been very cool, would have been to completely ignore it. From the beginning I tried to - you know the idea, 'if-you-ignore-it-they'll-stop-because-they-want-attention' - it's a psychological problem, they've had no notice taken of them ever and this is their big moment! They throw the bottle and... if I ignore it they'll stop. But when Stewart has hit, aw god, I just felt very angry. And in many ways I blew it."
Andy Summers, just after the gig commented: "A lot of people go to a gig and get wired up and feel like letting go, because - well, times are hard all over. But on the other hand, it's only a very small percentage who would react with violence. And the Police are there to entertain, to play to the crowd, not to cater for the ¬?% who might be violent."
The problem of course is that bouncers and bottlers and aggro come in between the two groups who set the gig up in the first place - the band and their fans. Violence is a scorpion in a bridal chamber. At Leixlip what should have been a celebration turned into a donnybrook. Band and audience were not allowed to get together - and that was a pretty big audience to go away frustrated. Later I asked Andy how he felt about playing to crowds of that size.
"Well obviously there's a gratification involved to know that you are that big and can sell that well, but, at the same time, in terms of actually playing, it makes very little difference. You don't actually play better because there's more people there. Ideally I'd prefer to play to about 2000, but there's a point at which that becomes unfair to all the people who want to see the group, because they can't all get tickets. When it gets over 2000 from the playing end of it, it makes very little difference. The numbers begin to lose meaning."
Although the adulation must change the nature of performance. Sting: "Your confidence is obviously enhanced by the constant confirmation the what you do is acceptable. In fact almost anything you do is greeted with applause - so you don't feel sheepish amount doing things. You know it will all be seen as entertainment. Therefore I'm a more assertive performer than two years ago, now it's effortless - there's not that much to fight against, apart from complacency. You have to push yourself all the time. But we do care - I care about how I am, I don't want to become what most rock stars become, gibbering loonies!!"
Whatever about on-stage assertiveness, the Police are thankfully short of rituals and clichés (though Sting laughed when I made the observation. The music isn't used as cannonfire to cow the faithful and, for something that enjoys mass appeal, is astonishingly sophisticated.
Andy mentioned that Sting and he were into jazz, which was overlaid on reggae, both of which are crucial to the way the group treat rhythm and utilise space. They use space like other bands use notes and chords - this isn't an easy thing either to conceive or execute and it seems ironic that one of the more skilled of bands should achieve such commercial success.
Sting: " I don't know if I agree. It is sophisticated, and it does take a certain amount of skill and feel to play, but it's actually in essence very simple and, for me as a musician, the quest I'm on is to refine what I do even further. There's a lot of space in the music because I believe music is not just noise, its silence, and I'm constantly trying to find less things to do on the bass. When we do a tryout, we take things out, we don't put them in. And I think what we end up with is very simple, but the process by which we get there is quite complex and sophisticated. So what we want is apparent simplicity and fairly rigorous process. You're obviously a musician, and someone who listens closely to music, but most kids don't realise the processes that are involved. They just listen to the music - and I appreciate that. Not everybody's got a musical ear. I mean a lot of people like the Police. We cross the barriers not because we're great musicians, but because its simple music."
Well then, does he see the audience becoming more sophisticated? Does he see the Police challenging their audience in any way - after all an audience that won't let you move can be as big a danger to a band as the music industry machinery or the straight press.
"I think there's a danger for many groups in our position to be trapped by an audience that doesn't really want to hear you do anything other than the hits. They come along to witness rather than to hear. And we'll try very hard to combat that. The fact is that when you play a new number that isn't on a record, the kids will tolerate it, but they don't really want to hear it. So you get stretched between Art and Entertainment. I don't want to grill kids - I don't want to put them on a rack any time I go on-stage. You have to satisfy some of their expectations, but you also have to - you say stretch. I'd say surprise. I think the idea of stretching minds is a bit over dramatised. What we try to do, rather than band heads off walls, is seduce through music. It's much more subtle - I'm not painting us as saints here, I'm just more inclined towards a less violent approach. I think that headbanging and mindstretching are things I'm not that good at. What I am good at is seduction. Musically speaking, of course."
Along the way to the seduction they use a lot of effects - so that they frequently seem far more than a three piece. Andy, for example, has a footboard filled with pedals and effects, which he can use separately or together - time and practice have ensured that the electronics are now an integral and unconscious part of his playing.
Sting: "We use a lot of echo - it makes you sound bigger. We use harmonisers through which my voice is pseudo-double tracked. It sounds like two voices singing - I play bass pedals, they sound like organ notes and one is tuned to fifths and the other is tuned to single notes, so I can play triads (basically major chords) and that's going on all the time. Then Stewart is the loudest drummer in rock'n'roll! Onstage anyway!! So we sound bigger than a three piece - and it only serves to exaggerate the space we leave. It's very loud at times - but it goes from incredibly loud to nothing. Most groups have a mean they play at - they're loud!! - but we use an enormous PA and we're loud, but we're also very quiet. It's part of the seduction thing, y'know? You don't want to deafen people, you want them to enjoy noise - noise is enjoyable in brief bursts."
They amplify the drums, and Stewart uses repeat echo on stage. He plays with echo, as does Andy - and Sting on the voice. It requires a certain amount of planning.
"Before the gig if we have a chance to sound-check, we synchronize echo speeds - each song has a different setting and we check that beside our set list is written the speed it goes at. A lot of hard work went into that sound and I think it's worth it, especially with digital instruments where, instead of approximating on a dial, you can actually punch in a number like 30s, and that means speed. If we all punch in 30s , we have synchronization with echo. I love echo. I love things swimming in echo. Bathroomy noises!"
But of the three of you, you're the only one, for whatever reason, to have felt the need/desire to get involved in another musical projects...
Stewart (tersely): "Well I never got involved in 'Quadrophenia' or anything like that did I? And that was definitely a project that was great, I thought it was a dynamite movie, it did wonders for Sting and therefore also the group although the group happened before the film did, but the film was a positive boost to the group. People say 'Are you ever worried that Sting's going to go off' into his film career' - well no I'm not worried, I'm certain he's going to go off into his film career."
Sting has done two films, which is a lot less than some people think. The thing is that he always seems to be on the cards for something or other. Does he see it as an area of ongoing activity?
"Well for the past year it's been an area of frustration for me because I've been offered maybe five major movies by big studios. Francis Ford Coppola offered me one and John Boorman. Anyway the scale of offers has been grand, and almost every month, I've had to weigh up what it means to be in the Police and a potential film career. You can't have them both, and I've always plumped for the group, because I'm a musician, not an actor - but there's a sort of attractive world, sort of saving at me saying - come over here and do this, and it's a bit frustrating. I'd like to do another movie but there just isn't the time. So I've got used to turning them down. But maybe next year, or the year after that, if the offers are still keep coming, I will do something - but nearly every month I read scripts."
The other members of the Police have their own parallel projects. Stewart has Klark Kent and a long term interest in film-making "Behind the camera." Andy has been offered a French film to do next year - "to act in it and do the music. That's upcoming for me. I obviously would also like to record on my own because there's a lot of things I'd like to do that aren't satisfied within the Police."
Andy expressed an interest in writing film music as well, which with Stewart's behind the camera intentions and Sting's acting opens the possibilities of the Police mutating into a cinema outfit.
Andy: "It's nice to work with creative people and work on projects other than just being on stage. I mean, I really love being on stage, I love performing in front of people, but that's not everything. I like to do other things as well. There's a lot to do in life apart from playing one rock'n'roll gig after another."
Sting himself has also thought about a solo LP: "It'd be interesting. In fact that's one of the things I've been doing in Keystone - playing around with the idea of me on my own, which is nice. With local musicians. In a few years time, I'll be very surprised if the Police are not doing something outside of rock'n'roll. If not, I'll go completely mad! I'm talking about music, films, writing... I'd like to do other things because it does get boring, touring America for six months. But then our touring is pretty out of the ordinary. We've been some amazing places and will continue to do so. Largely because of the economics of the group with only three people, you don't have all that much gear. This December we're going to South America to play, which is quite a departure for a group like us. We'll play Rio and Caracas and Mexico. We've been to India and Bangkok and all these weird places.
"I suppose it's like the end of the century equivalent of getting to the Antarctic - (laughs). Amundsen got there first, and we got to India first! And there's a lot of bands keen to do those places. I think the Rats did Taiwan. Playing to different cultures as a kind of cultural exchange thing is quite interesting. I mean India was sooo (pause) ...unbelievable. The event of the year for me. It was so joyful... so horrific. That place! It changed me. Changed the way I think. If there is a change in the songs on this album, it's down to India - the few days in Bombay. The experience of a culture so alien to our own that it knocked me out.
"Incredible. Absolutely... incredible. One of the things I did notice though, one of the things you can't get through magazines or television, is that although a lot of the people live in absolute squalor, absolute degradation and poverty, real poverty, they are generally happier than the average citizen of Mosside, say, or Belfast. Or the poor areas of Birmingham. There's a spiritual side to their lives that rationalises misery and there's no real despair. I mean you see despair in London. You can see it in the street - I just have to walk around the corner from my home in London to see despair. That was hard to pick out in India - even, like in among it."
The problem in the West is in expectations. In India a lot of people are happy to get from today to tomorrow.
"Yeah, but there's something about the European mind. I think we've lost our souls - we've been dehumanised by industry and the industrial processes that have been going on for the last few hundred years. And it's almost impossible to reverse. Rock is part of that machinery and occasionally it swims out of that morass of despair. But it's a desperate situation - I really fear that the end of the world, whether it's real or symbolic is... nigh. I wouldn't pin my hopes on the future."
Throughout the span of human history the future, like the past, has often loomed larger in people's considerations than the present. Some people have spent most of their time living or planning for one or the other. Religious and political faiths have claimed millions of followers by promising the good life - next time.
We remain proud of the achievements of our rational minds, yet the knowledge that it gives us of the past and the future, alongside our capacity to exploit, has made us the most miserable species on earth. It has also made us the most dominant, the most creative and , sporadically the most actively happy.
Recently, however, a change has come over our vision of the future. We have left the peasant's morose forebodings for something new. Nowadays it is young, intelligent committed and positive people, the ones who should be in the vanguard of the drive into the future who are sounding the warning bell about where we're going.
Britain in particular has trouble in store. The prosperity it gained by pillaging the possessions of its colonies has disappeared and it is faced with the galling fact that it is finding it difficult to support its population. It's easy to go over the top, to prophecy civil catastrophe and Jasus knows what, and who knows; the optimistic view may be right. Maybe it will work out. But on the other hand, there's over 2 million unemployed in Britain and the recession is starting to look permanent. Between one thing and another a generation or two should see out the worst of it, but there's bad luck and trouble between now and then.
The music industry too must look with care at the changes that are queuing up, for many reasons - money may be scarce, but on the other hand in the future it is expected that leisure industries will be the area of major expansion. For bands like the Police there's a simpler, more immediate response. With all other entertainers, after all, they offer some small solace and enjoyment to a people in some need of relief. Sting no longer believes in the political solution to any problem. "I used to. I had a strong belief in Marxism, but I've lost all faith in political ideology, whatever. I think if there is a solution to the problems of the world, it's probably a spiritual one, as corny as that sounds. I've lost faith in human agents."
But the Police themselves have a response to the problem of 'a whole generation with nothing to do'.
"We've got involved in that because of the tax situation. We've decided that any work we do in England goes to charity and rather than just give it some vague body. We're working to set one up to do with music in that we can channel funds into youth clubs to buy musical instruments or PAs or stuff like that. That's undergoing planning at the moment with an MP, a Conservative MP actually, but an MP nevertheless, to make it legitimate and that should be in operation next year. I think we...owe kids a lot. My comfort and remuneration is the direct result of kids going out and buying our records. So I feel it's our task in many ways to help them in any way we can.
"We've donated three lorries to a thing called Taskforce in Liverpool, which is like - they go around painting old people's homes. The trucks have our names on them; Sting, Andy and Stewart(!). And that sort of thing makes us feel a lot better about earning a lot of money and - I think it does a little bit of good. You have to think of the kids - because, Jesus, unless something happens soon what are they going to do? I mean, I spent two years on the dole, I know what it's like... but there was always a job at the and of it; there was always the choice of doing something at the end of it. But they've got nothing..."
As for Sting himself, what does he see in his own future? There's the film offers but also...
"Because I've proved myself in rock'n'roll, I'd probably successful in something else. I write. I write every day, and if a subject that was big enough came up I'd like to try writing a novel. I know that sounds, y'know, nyah nyah, rock star writes novel but I have been writing since I was sixteen, I'm quite serious about it. And if the time ever came up I would definitely give it a go. So, being given opportunities like that - I won't pass them up. Once there's time I'll try almost everything. Whether I succeed or not is beside the point. Financially I suppose, I'm fairly secure, I don't have to worry any more about... feeding the kids, Y'know? Which I did have to worry about once. Actually my greatest ambition is to be a decent father. To be someone that my children would respect. I don't respect my parents that much. It's quite important for me to have my children's respect. I don't mean to be a doting father, but just to be someone who did the job well, because I think it's important."
That's a big ambition.
"It's a huge ambition."
And don't the rigours of touring, and the constant absences from home make that difficult, even unrealisable?
"They do actually, which is why I think about it a lot. But, perhaps in the future; since that's what we're talking about I can get to spend more time with my family, and become more of a family man. It's one of the things I miss - it's one of the areas of pain which I've got, that I don't see my family, which I think a lot of. But it's certainly an ambition of mine, if I am given the time, to channel my energy into that, because I believe very strongly, in it. Even if we are the last generation..."
© Hot Press magazine