Interview: NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS (1981)

January 01, 1981

The following article by Chris Salewicz appeared in a January 1981 issue of New Musical Express magazine...

Sting instructs New York in the art of Police pop, posing and pontificating.

In New York City it is the coldest day of the winter. Later that night the temperature drops to zero degrees Fahrenheit. The woollen-enshrouded Sting leaves the warm lobby of the exclusive, uptight St. Regis hotel, just off the opulent Fifth Avenue a couple of blocks south of Central Park, and rushes nimbly through the freezing air to his waiting, ready-heated, powder-blue Cadillac limousine.

The limo aggressively pushes aside the late Saturday afternoon traffic, and bumps along the pot-holed steaming Manhattan streets towards Madison Square Gardens and The Police's first-ever headlining show at the 20,000 seater venue. It is the first American concert on such a scale by a punk /new wave group, whatever that group's credibility.

Nestling down in the rear seat of the car Sting seems glad of the company of photographer Joe Stevens and myself - we're apparently taking his mind off the evening's performance which, he confesses after it's over, had seemed full of potentially fearful pitfalls.

"Of course,"' he suddenly offers in a torrent of words, his conscience perhaps pricked by the Hollywood like trappings about us, "we got in through the back door in 1977. We weren't the real thing. Andy's age quickly gave everything away. But the revolution was upon us, and you had to pick sides. I thought, Well, I'm certainly not going to go with the Genesis mob - I'll go with something I actually agree with. And although in the initial stages I didn't really get off on The Sex Pistols' music, the attitude was so compelling I had to side with that lot.

"I was into serious music. I didn't even listen to rock music. Even now, I don't really listen to records much. I listen to the radio much more. Right now my favourite album is The Band's 'Music From Big Pink'. I never listened to Led Zeppelin or anyone like that. I could never stand those groups. In fact, to me The Sex Pistols sound was very much an extension of that. However it was the verbalising that went round it that really struck me.

"But then I really did get into The Sex Pistols; and my favourite album for a whole year was 'Never Mind The Bollocks'. It was so heavy! Paul Cook was a formidable drummer. It was the same for Stewart in Curved Air. They weren't happening then, and when The Sex Pistols came along, they knew they weren't going to happen again: a tidal wave came along and you had to either dive in or be drowned.

"We were in a curious position. Because of how old we were; and the experiences we'd had we could be fairly objective about the whole thing. I could see that punk was going to develop in some way. It was going to have to ameliorate: It was obvious that if you could ally that energy and that drive to a more musical form, it would be dynamite. And what I wanted to have was energy rock'n'roll allied to harmonic, melodic music.

"What I started off doing was structuring songs that had an eight-bar section of rock'n'roll coupled with, say 16 bars of reggae. Which, in fact, you can see in 'Roxanne'. And through listening to the various songs you can see how my writing gradually became more sinuous. There's a reggae element in 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', but you can hardly hear it. The music flows more now - there's hardly any breaks. Initially, though, it was just very crudely obvious that if you joined the two things together you'd get something else. And," he laughs, "now we've refined that down to the pap we currently present."

The limousine approaches the gates to the Madison Square Gardens complex. Sting gazes out of the window at the concrete expanse of this pantheon of the rock establishment.

"In America, no-one in their music press dares criticise you. They're part of showbiz," he suggests, making his first mention of something which he will later admit to being very much a part of himself. "They're part of the music industry - because you've sold so many units you must be good. There's no turnover whatsoever in America," he.adds, as the car pulls up the ramp leading to the backstage area. "That's why I'm so pleased about making it here. We're here for the next ten years now."

By last Christmas, The Police's 'Zenyatta Mondatta' album and 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' single were amongst the 20 best-selling LPs and 45s in the US. After the relative failure of the 'Reggatta De Blanc' album there, Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers are now securely re-established in the largest record market in the world, belatedly building on the success in 1978 of the 'Roxanne' single. This new American breakthrough climaxed a year in which The Police unquestionably had become The Biggest Group In The World. In the UK where each of their three albums have passed the million sales mark, they seemed to have become almost Bigger Than Life Itself:

That this should have happened in spite of the scornful sneers of punk purists is an irony not lost on manager Miles Copeland, Stewart's 36-year-old eldest brother and the boss of the independent IRS Records in America and Faulty Records in Britain. "No one came along and offered us any help," he tensely rattles. "With the exception of the merest handful of features, The Police have been consistently either slammed or ignored by the music press. Look at the NME top 50 albums of last year, and The Police are not mentioned once. Yet we sold in the first three weeks of release of the last album more records than the rest of the Top Ten albums put together. (So what? That was a critics' poll on quality not quantity, Miles-Ed.) It's almost unreal! Quite remarkable! The group has done more for the British music business than anyone in the last ten years - than anyone since The Beatles, in fact," he barks, obviously having decided not to spare the superlatives. "We brought The New Wave to America!"

Copeland bounces up and down in something close to an orgasm of animation. This is probably true, as a matter of fact. If Copeland hadn't slogged round the States with Squeeze in June and July of 1978 as their roadie, and asked "every single kid who looked like a punk which were the hip record stores, the best venues, which. DJs in the area were into punk", and then noted down such information, it's unlikely that The Pretenders, The Clash, The B-52s, Talking Heads, and even Elvis Costello would have succeeded in America.

When The police themselves went over there for their first tour in the early autumn of that year, they were mainly playing dates and doing interviews with DJs discovered by the paranoid but likeable Miles, and his brother Ian, then working for a Macon, Georgia agency, and now running the FBI, the premier punk booking agency in the US. Flying over to New York on Laker ("Laker has been very significant in the history of The Police," says shrewd Miles Copeland), with one roadie, The Police played six weeks of dates, covering the American east coast and travelling in an old van that Miles had bought.

"We were the first British group ever to come to America and not to ask for Tour Support to underwrite the dates. At first the record company seemed almost mistrustful of us, as though they were wondering what we were trying to pull. All I said to the record company was, 'Please come and see us'. We were breaking even, picking up 200 dollars a night."

"I think," expands Stewart Copeland, "a lot of groups get held back, because they are only actually prepared to go a certain amount of the way, and when they get to that level they're not prepared for the further push. It's like, How confident are you that you can really do it? If you haven't got that total faith in yourself, maybe you're just going to go for as big a slice of the cake as you can get in one go - namely the advance. Then you'll know that for such a length of time you can have your £50 a week, though eventually of course, it will run out. Where The Clash made their biggest error was in accepting that money from CBS. But their second error was in missing out of their contract a very important clause. Namely, that they retain complete artistic freedom to release whatever they desire, which is something we certainly have - point 36.

"In fact that artistic freedom clause was a standard one until Lou Reed decided he wanted to get out of his deal with RCA, and fulfil his obligations by releasing four sides of hissing electronic sounds - 'Metal Machine Music'. RCA had to release it, and overnight that clause vanished from standard contracts. And it became something we revived. Whatever we give to them, they have to put out. A lot of what we do," continues the drummer "is commented on pretty negatively - their albums are done in three weeks, they're done really cheaply, they use a minimal road crew. But that's all a question of emphasis and the tone in which it's said - it can be made to sound really positive. They did their album in only three weeks! They do them really cheaply!"

But it was the involvement in The Police of the Copeland brothers that was a major cause of the suspicion with which the band were regarded by the anarchy set. Their musicianly and managerial involvements with Old Fart outfits were evident enough. Plus, they would have incurred xenophobic punk wrath simply for being American. But when their suspect CIA family background was revealed it was enough to make paranoid chaps wonder whether Chief Constable 666 might not have a hand in this little musical operation. I mean, just why were The Police the first Punk group to happen in America? It stands to reason it's a conspiracy intended to undermine the people's music... blah; blah!

The reality is that Miles Copeland Snr, a close friend of US Vice-President and former CIA man George Bush, was a high-ranking CIA official who, first in Cairo and then in Beirut, bossed the operations of what manager Miles casually refers to as "the company". Manager Miles - whose Newsweek view of world affairs is less metaphysical than that of his youngest musician brother, and who himself was to attend the Bush inauguration in Washington - wrote an MA thesis on how to bring backward nations into the 20th century. "As it happened I ended up taking under developed pop groups to success," he jokes. When The Police played in Cairo last April, the group's equipment was hindered by customs. The guy from the record company said, 'Is there anyone in the government you know?' Well, the only person I could think of was this fellow who used to live next door to us who was Nasser's bodyguard. I mentioned his name, and the fellow said, But he's vice-premier now! So I got on the phone to him, and all the problems ended."

"The thing you have to understand about Miles," says Sting, a North-East leftie, "is that he has this very laissez-faire rightist attitude in which he sees rock'n'roll as bringing freedom to all these obscure places we've gone and played in. As far as I'm concerned, though, the reason we've done them is because being a world-class group shouldn't just be restricted to being big in the Western world - the popular conception of it. It should mean you're a force everywhere."

Whatever, one wouldn't be surprised if Miles Copeland had political ambitions...

Their recent sins include the Tooting Common Christmas show that turned into a Black Hole Of Calcutta-like experience. Neither Sting nor Andy Summers will admit that the shows were ill-conceived - "Since when's rock 'n' roll been a comfortable experience?" wriggles Sting. It seems they were inspired to try the dates following the success of a French tour using a similar tent - those concerts, though, had taken place in mid-summer.

Also, there was the shocking 'Old Grey Whistle Test' live broadcast from Germany, in which the sound was so appalling that it could've caused a group of lesser stature permanent career damage. "From what we can make out about that," apologises Sting "it seems only half the stereo input was being mixed into the sound. It was a good gig, I remember. I mean, we're not a bad group live."

The limited edition set of previously released Police singles put out last Spring also created more than a small measure of controversy.

"We acquiesced to that because we were in Australia, says Andy Summers, "and the record company was in England, and there wasn't a lot we could do. But what we did say was that we wanted it to be in a limited edition, and not to be printed up in millions of copies."

This doesn't seem to concur with Stewart's claims of the group's artistic control, nor with talk within A&M that the singles sets were put out at the direct insistence of Miles Copeland! The greatest crime perpetrated by The Police of course has been the low standard of 'Zenyatta Mondatta'. Though Sting will admit that the best Police album certainly will be their Greatest Hits LP, none of the group, predictably enough will admit that their third album comprises shoddy material.

"The last album," Summers admits "was a bit of a cock-up. It was so rushed. We only had a month to do it in, yet had to take a week off in the middle to come to England and do the Milton Keynes concert. It was obviously an important gig, and we rehearsed the stage-show, came to England to do the gig, did another show the next day in Dublin and then came back to Holland to finish off the record. The last night we were in the studio we were putting the tracks in order until four in the morning, and we had to leave at eight the next day to go to Belgium to play a gig. We literally had to rush out of the studio, without getting a chance to really think about what we'd done, or see the tapes through and make sure the cut was alright.

"Whatever we've recorded, though I - and it's the same for the others - can't get any perspective on what we've done for quite a while. I get really paranoid. In fact I really like the album now which has really come about as a result of my little girl playing it about 12 times a day."

There were no complaints, though, about the group's Madison Square Gardens show. They transcended the size of the vast arena with an ease that belied there only being three musicians in the outfit and which was a tribute to their dexterity. During the third number, 'De Do Do Do', a vodka bottle was lugged through Copeland's bass drum. As the lengthy repairs got underway, Sting adlibbed his way through 'The Yellow Rose of Texas', getting the entire audience to singalong.

Photographer Joe Stevens was down in the front-stage pit for the whole of the set. "You know," he said, "I've seen Springsteen, another very good crowd manipulator, from that same pit. And you soon see that in order reach those people right up at the back of the auditorium, he's hamming it up and faking it quite a bit. But Sting wasn't doing that - he didn't seem at all contrived. Also, before the show he personally came and got me past the security guards and into the dressing-room; that must have been the first time ever at Madison Square Gardens that the headlining star has done that. Rod Stewart would never behave like that!"

Early the next evening I'm on the eleventh floor of the St Regis Hotel, in the living-room of Sting's suite, overlooking Fifth Avenue. Sometimes Sting seems a little too charming, often capable of a subtle glibness although that may be because he slips into the stock rap for a particular interview subject; it's a failing Stewart Copeland will also readily admit to with some self-censure. Even so, Sting is a shrewd, political conversationalist, and equivocal to the point of deviousness (to which he later confesses).

Confession probably comes naturally to him - Gordon Sting Sumner was brought up a Catholic. He attended St Cuthberts Grammar School, where he was taught by priests - "A most reactionary, fascistic organisation. Still, it gave me something to kick against."

It also gave him the means to rid himself of his Northeast accent, though a Newcastle burr still lingers. "I very quickly learned to speak Received Pronunciation. When I went to grammar school I quickly learnt that if you want social mobility you have to have two voices. And now I've also got a London accent when I want."

In ordinary conversation Sting is surprisingly soft-spoken, though that's probably an instinctive means of protecting his sometimes fragile singing voice (he appears to have a permanent sore throat). Now, though, he looks so fit under his South American tan and that combined with a new, rather conservative haircut to disguise a baldness problem, at first I hardly recognised him. An exceptionally well-read person, backstage at Madison Square Gardens Sting is considering Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess' very "large" book.

"Excellent. It's very interesting that the central character is gay, yet is handled so sympathetically and expertly by Burgess, who is totally heterosexual, as far as I know. That must have been very difficult for him to do - it shows his scope as a writer."

Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Joyce's 'Ulysses' ("It took me six months to read it, but I got through it.") and 'Finnegan's Wake', E, M. Forster's 'Howard's End' and 'Aspects Of The Novel' are all mentioned during our conversation the next day. Also with him in the dressing room is Sting's wife, Frances Tomelty, who starred in Peter O'Toole's controversial Macbeth. A bit of a show-off, Sting leaps on Frances in what seems just a little too much like a deliberate public display of his powerful sexuality. Perhaps it's motivated by the presence of Nina Myskow from the Sun, who-as Sting knows full well - is seeking out a story on the Beautiful Couple of The Police Man And The Actress. It serves him right that he falls off the couch onto the floor.

Frances is also a Catholic, an Irish Catholic - which explains why Sting chose Ireland to go into the tax exile he pretends he hasn't been in. "I'm not a patriotic person," says Sting, "which means that I have big rows with Frances, who's from Andersontown in Belfast. I can't separate chauvinism from nationalism, but she can even justify it to me. That's why I think rock'n'roll is so great... If you go to Argentina, it's more than just kids jumping up and down to music - they're actually saying 'F*** you!' to all the police around the stadium. Really, rock'n'roll has done quite a lot - it's the same three chords as well..."

It was whilst he was playing in the pit-band of the Newcastle local rep that he met leading lady Frances. They were married soon afterwards, in 1976. "He was the reason we got married of course," Sting stage-whispers, pointing at his son, Joe. "Soon afterwards we moved to London with the baby, and the dog, and all our possessions in a Citroen Dyane. It wasn't to do The Police - it was to get out of Newcastle. Stewart's idea was just another feather in... quiver in the bow (laughs)... Or whatever - it was one of those. And it was the one that turned up.

"I packed in teaching around July of '76, and I'd been on the dole in Newcastle for a few months. I thought, If I'm serious about being a musician, then obviously I can't get anywhere in Newcastle. I've reached the pinnacle up here. So I decided to move down, and we slept on the floor for about four or five months, with the kid in the carry-cot. I'm quite enjoying having money now, because I've never had it before... There isn't much difference between rock'n'roll and teaching, mind you. It's the same job. You're entertaining delinquents for an hour. I think the phenomenon in the classroom is not teaching, it's learning. And your job is to create an ambience in which one can learn. That's what I'm doing onstage -

I'm not telling kids anything, I'm just creating a mood which they can feed on and give to. I think it's the same job, basically. I'm not here to pontificate. I'm just there to create the mood where we can have some sort of intercourse. Mass intercourse. (Laughs) Oh yeah, that's a good term. Mass intercourse - gerrem off!"

In the hotel suite, Frances and Joe are readying themselves to go out. A large bunch of inflated balloons Frances is holding trail behind her at head level. "It's the only way to travel!" she quips. Seizing the opportunity, I beat all of Britain's dailies to the punch by asking if there is any rivalry between her and Sting.

"Of course there is," she snaps back. "It's a very creative rivalry," Sting expands. "I really want her to get on, because I couldn't live with a little housewife. I'd be straight out the door. We have to be equal. I'm very for Women's Lib, because I think it not only liberates the woman, it also liberates the man. And Frances' career is as important to me as mine is. It's mutual parasitism, I suppose."

In a couple of hours' time Sting is due to leave the hotel to be driven down to the Ritz, the venue where The Police are set to play a "secret" gig that really everyone in New York knows about.

"We're playing this gig as a bit of a political thing, really. After all, at the beginning we said that we were a simple group who only wanted to play small clubs. We're saying that we've proved we can play Madison Square, and now we're going to play a smaller date. The first time we played in LA was at the 5,000 seater Santa Monica Civic, and the next night we did a Chinese restaurant. It's a statement about how versatile we are."

It's also very good for your credibility.

"It's good for our credibility... it's all showbiz - let's face it, rock'n'roll's ancestor is music hall, not High Art. There are loads of charades that go on - in live gigs, for example. Everyone knows when you go off at the end of the set that you're going to come back for an encore, but people suspend their disbelief for that period of time. It is music hall. That doesn't mean it's any less valid. The Police are a pop band, certainly not a rock band - to me that means someone like Aerosmith. We are making music for window cleaners to whistle.

"When we did our first big English tour, when 'Roxanne' was number 16 in the charts. I was sitting in my hotel bedroom in Stoke, and they were painting out in the corridor. 'RO-OX-ANNE... 'Ere, Bill passus that yellow paint will you? ...YOU DON'T HAVE TO SELL YOUR... 'I thought, Blimey, I've done it! I loved that. It's fantastic to write a song that anyone can whistle. You can't whistle 'Death Disco'.

"Certainly what we're producing is not elitist High Art: But; equally; I think entertainment's an art. I think my songs are fairly literate - they're not rubbish. 'De Do Do Do', for example, was grossly misunderstood: the lyrics are about banality, about the abuse of words. Almost everyone who reviewed it said, Oh, this is baby talk. They were just listening to the chorus alone, obviously. But they're the same people who would probably never get through the first paragraph of 'Finnegan's Wake', because that's 'baby talk', too.

"I know that sounds pretentious, but in that song I was trying to say something which was really quite difficult - that people like politicians, like myself even use words to manipulate people, and that you should be very careful. It's quite a serious song, but because it's by The Police it was just written off as being garbage. I think if I stick at being a lyricist and a composer, then when all this wears off and my head drops off... I'm serious about being a musician and a composer. I don't think it stops when your guitar strings drop off. When all the High Art musicians in ten years' time are working as taxi-drivers, I'll still be a musician.

"In fact, I don't believe you can deliberately create art. I think it's only art retrospectively. It was to have a function first. And our function is to be heard in factories. It's to be whistled - it's a placebo, if you like. It's only art in five years time. I'd like someone then to decide, 'Well, that song 'Roxanne' had a simplistic kind of beauty to it.' But that's not for me to say. When you think back to your own adolescence you can probably remember all the number ones you ever heard. Right now I could probably sing you the whole of 'Oh, Pretty Woman' by Roy Orbison, and I haven't heard it in maybe ten years. Or all The Beatles' songs... And so can everybody if they're pushed. Or old Hollies songs.

"I find it great that we're actually in that league now. I find it hard to believe that in ten years time people may think of us in the same way that I think of The Hollies. A brilliant, fantastic pop group. I hate it when we're compared with the Beatles, but The Hollies I'd actually go for. Because like us they were a classic singles pop group.

"Part of our appeal that I'm very proud of is the young girls. There's a great tendency to treat 14-year-old girls and housewives as a sub-species, as if entertaining them makes you the lowest of the low. That's really fantastic."

Well, secretly a lot of rock groups don't seem to really like girls very much...

"Well, it's all that, isn't it?" He holds his fist and arm up erect in a certain well-known gesture. "Go and see Status Quo and it'll be very onanistic - it's all boys, and they might, as well get their cocks out as far as I'm concerned. That's not what we're into - we're into sex," he laughs at this show of machismo, "Of the hetero variety. I think it's a much healthier scene to be in, even though you do get jibed at for being pretty boys. And, in fact, I think there's something in our music for just about everybody. Which I know is why we sell a lot of records. I know we're not so hip in the NME, but we're the darlings of the dailies these days. The Sun keeps following us around. Which in fact, reaches a lot more people. And if we mean what we say when we claim to be a pop group then (laughs) I suppose the paper for us to be in is The Sun. Which is a pop paper.

"It's very insulting, though, when people talk of our music in terms of, Oh, it's just a formula! We're not breeding some science project! It's a real insult, in fact. We just do what's natural to us: "I'm getting to the stage," he fires up; "where I don't care what I say anymore. I know what I'm doing, and I know what I feel good doing, and I'll do it. And to hell with you all! There was a time when I really cared and I could be very deeply hurt by bad criticism, but I really don't react like that anymore.

"I look on The Police," he continues, "as a group that has two very distinct phases, the first one of which was a failure. When the band first started, it was definitely Stewart's group and it was using Stewart's songs, which were totally sub-punk, and I just couldn't relate to them at all. The first few months I was living in London was when I was signing on the dole and in the afternoon I'd go along and play with him, almost just as something to do. I mean, in my jazz bands in Newcastle I'd been used to playing in diminished chords. And then Stewart presented me with all these two chord songs.

"Anyway, for whatever reason, Andy saw the potential of Stewart and I and joined the band and knew all the chords I'd like to put in. He was like a reservoir I could dig in. And it was then that I started to write songs again. Some of the things we play are fairly sophisticated harmonically. And a guitarist who's been playing for nine months - which was what Henri Padovani, our original guitarist, had - is miles away from achieving them. It's no sleight on Henri, who was quite a reasonable player. It's just that where I wanted to be musically, Henri couldn't be. But the second incarnation of the group was with Andy's guitar and my songs."

In the not so early hours of the next morning following the trio's return to the hotel after the successful Ritz blitz, I find myself in the lounge of Stewart's suite. One floor beneath Sting's, it's almost an identical layout; a matter which I find slightly confusing. Stewart sits on a not quite identical couch in the same position as Sting had sat. Frances has been replaced with the excellent Sonja Kristina, the drummer's live-in lover since the days when she was lead singer with Curved Air. Stewart -who with his gangling, ungainly long frame and with his eyes popping from his permanently implanted contact lenses looks not unlike the Walt Disney character Pluto - was also in the final edition of Curved Air. And there is a sticky moment between us when he realises it was me who once described that group as lamentably crass".

Considering that at the time he read the review he wanted to bop me on the nose, it is to his credit that he is now able to see the humour in the situation, and, with a sidelong glance at Sonja, he even admits that the reason Curved Air decided to take what became a permanent sabbatical in '76 was because they just weren't happening. Now, in his ambitious pursuit of success he flirts with a faintly amoral philosophy that permits him to indulge in such dodgy concepts as the production of the notorious Moors Murderers record.

On the other hand, he is often denounced as the worst kind of ego-maniac, when that is just a paranoid misunderstanding of his supremely confident energy. Like Sting (and Andy to a lesser extent), Stewart's a professional communicator who probably loves every aspect of this media game. It seems completely right that, as an ultimate PR scam, he should've edited Record Mirror the week Zenyatta Mondatta was released. Predictably, Stewart has a good solid perspective on the success story of The Police.

"I have not failed," he tells me, "to notice the absurdity of the way that I am now allowed to sit here and pontificate away, and everything I say is believed to be of immense value. The classic one, of course, is when you'll be standing in the middle of a dressing-room, and you just blurt out something in error that normally you would have cringed in embarrassment to have said. But before you can put your hand over your mouth, and wish you could disappear into the floor, you find that all the road crew and everyone else in the room are all guffawing loudly at this profound joke you've just made. Very odd.

"I also definitely have set raps on interview topics that I can wheel out at any given moment. I even find these days that I slip into them in the middle of ordinary conversations. As soon as the discussion hits any possible interview subjects, I just take off on the standard rap. The opinions I offer in all interviews, incidentally, are equally liable to frequent change," he adds as an escape clause.

The pre-Police history of Stewart Copeland has been nurtured adroitly into a now fairly well-known mythology: he only lived in America for the first six months of his life before his trombone-playing Masterspy father moved first to Cairo, then Beirut in the Lebanon. The youngest of the three Copeland , brothers, Stewart was the most immediately musical, and before he was 13 he was playing drums in groups formed by the precious members of the Beirut American community. In his early teens "the company" posted his father to London; and Stewart attended on a scholarship a co-educational boarding school in the West Country, along with grand-children of Haile Selassie. In terms of the liberated life he claims to have enjoyed in Beirut, he found England constricting.

"My very first job as a professional musician," he says "was the one I had in Curved Air. Immediately I got the gig we went off on a tour of France, and it was very quickly apparent I was jumping in a bit ahead of myself. I really wasn't quite up to it. I was quite convinced I was going to be sacked, and I thought the only way I could save myself from this was by getting myself some publicity. So I wrote a letter on some spurious topic to Melody Maker and they published it immediately. And I didn't get sacked, because events took another turn." He glances again in the direction of Sonja.

He doesn't believe that events in The Police are about to take any unexpected turns.

"Everything connected with this group has happened very quickly indeed," he says. "There is this succession of significant landmark events. And if and when The Police split, I feel that it will likely be for some coldly logical reason. Although at the moment, and bearing in mind the very different ways in which each of us has coped with our changing fortunes, we each find that the future still looks best with us working together."

One kip, two kippers and a few hours later I find myself down in Andy Summers' room. Beneath his ostensibly serene and sophisticated near-regality there lurks a knave-like impishness that befits a someone once featured in Jenny Fabian's book, 'Groupie', the salacious account of late '60s underground rock in London. And he was the only member of the group to continue the post-Madison Square Gardens festivities beyond the party at the statutory chic restaurant provided by A&M Records. He went on to a Lower East Side club called The Jefferson, distinguished by a hat-check man who wore a stocking over his head and a suspender belt and stockings on his legs.

For a long time one of the finest rock guitarists in the UK, the classically trained Andy Summers' addition to the ranks of The Police was yet another cause of extreme suspicion by hard-core punks. Not only was Summers in the mid-30s, but suddenly to adopt a punk stance was unconvincing considering he was a foppishly stylish beat musician with Zoot Money's Big Roll Band, then acid prince of the psychedelic generation in Money's next outfit, Dantalion's Chariot. Summers had then played with Eric Burdon's New Animals, quitting that group in 1969 when they concluded an American tour in California, and enrolling in university in Los Angeles where he studied music for four years.

He left his course and America to return to Britain for "personal reasons" shortly before he was due to gain his degree. Back in the UK, Andy played first with Kevin Coyne and then Kevin Ayres before eventually joining The Police in late summer of 1977. One of the more absurd blights on the considerably credibility-blurred Police was that Summers eventually came to join the outfit as a result of a connection with the ultimate hippy group, Gong.

"When I eventually decided to join The Police full-time," he explains "it was mainly Stewart's songs that were being used, most of which were pretty dodgy. They were all ultra-punky, and ultra-fast, and totally meaningless. (Laughs). It wasn't very enjoyable to play because there was no feel in it. I didn't enjoy it at all. I'd joined in the spirit of this could be really good. We could really do something here with a three-piece group. But when initially we were playing it was just a disappointment, because it wasn't gelling as I imagined it should. It took quite a while, but eventually we started to see and feel the direction in which we should be going. We got more reggae-type songs, and started to spring out of that.

"The really early stuff, though, was diabolical. But when the offer came to join The Police it was a question of, Oh alright, let's burn the boats. There was no immediate future with them. There was no money. It was back to pushing the van to get it started, loading the gear yourself, and rehearsing a lot and just hoping and trying to move along an inch at a time. It got pretty heavy over the first year when really nothing happened. After I'd been in the group for about six or seven months Miles agreed to manage us.

"Over the summer of '78 it really did get quite desperate. It seemed like nothing was happening. Sometimes when despondency would set in I would pull my seasoned trouper bit and do my best to keep chins raised: Come, on chaps, I've been through this one. As you get older then hopefully you can be more rational about some of the more bizarre things that happen, and get them in better perspective."

Though it is Sting who writes the vast share of the group's songs, Andy Summers isn't restricted to the guitar parts the bassist comes up with.

"We start off with the basic core and then as far as I can I personalise everything. For me the more interesting material is where I have as much freedom as possible to change the chord structures and fragment as much as I can. Which is what happens particularly in songs like 'Shadows In The Rain'. I fragment the original chord structure completely, because I'm only playing with the bass and drums and the whole harmonic area is totally free for me - I can do more or less what I want over just the bassline. In songs like 'The Bed's Too Big Without You' it starts to sound very jazzy, very like Weather Report - chords are very strange.

"I think that musically this group is pretty sophisticated. And it quite surprises me, because we're getting away with it which I like a lot: we're playing a music which is as sophisticated as it is, yet people like it so much. It's incredible all the slagging that we get. I can't quite understand how we get up people's noses as much as we seem to do."

Despite Sting being the main creative core of the group, Summers is unlikely to complain that he isn't getting his fair share of composing royalties.

"The thing is, Sting writes really good songs. He writes for his own voice and obviously has an advantage over Stewart and myself there. We have to write a song and hope that Sting will sing it," he smiles. In fact, the main thing for Stewart and myself is to should give it a go. That's one of the really good things about this group: we've never compromised ourselves - we've only ever played what we feel we could enjoy playing. We never had to try and be commercial, or think about a formula. Admittedly we sat around and thought about what we didn't want to sound like, but it was more a question of what to avoid, than what we actually wanted to do.

"Sting does really work very hard at those songs, but he is a natural. The reasons for his appeal apart from that are very obvious: basically he's very much an archetype - very much the blond hero figure."

Six floors up, the blond hero figure is back on his couch, sipping from a glass of Perrier water.

"I like the game of the media," he admits. "I really enjoy it. It's just part of my job as frontman for the group."

Sting concedes that there has been a measure of good luck in the connection between his personal fortune and that of The Police. 'Quadrophenia' went on general release the week 'Message In A Bottle' went to number one, for example. He also insists that his massive success hasn't made him prey to becoming s psychological disaster area.

"I think I'd have much more difficulty in coping with failure. Any person who aspires to this sort of life has rehearsed it many times in his mind; they know what's going to happen: the patterns are already well set down. You've only got to look at the blueprint that any successful group has been through. I wasn't surprised by anything that's happened to us, really. Once we'd started on the conveyor-belt everything was fairly clear.

"It didn't do my head in: I'm still fairly objective. I don't believe it all, though at the same time I enjoy where I am. I enjoy most situations it puts me in. I enjoy this," he waves an arm about the room. "I enjoy going onstage at Madison Square Gardens. I even enjoy being asked for my autograph. But I don't believe it all. I got Egotist Of The Year award in one of the papers," he laughs, "but I don't deserve it. I really don't.

"I know it's our turn to be numbered and you just have to go through what you have to go through. We enjoy our life, which tends to make you a target for other people. Actually," he continues, "I sometimes think, Well, we're at the stage now where we've actually achieved what we set out to do. Why don't we knock it on the head? It would be nice to have it stopped before we became the Rod Stewarts. There's a terrible danger in becoming the caricature rock stars - the fat, opulent, decadent rock stars."

Does such unbridled hedonism hold any attraction?

"No, not at all. I'd hate to be there. I couldn't bear to live such an indolent existence. I'd rather do something else. One of the things I have going for myself is an alternative career simmering away."

So did Elvis Presley of course.

"Elvis did, yeah. But he was stupid. He didn't have any brains, that bloke. That was the problem. Brilliant charisma. Great face. And then he makes GI Blues. Mind you, making musicals is totally anathema to me. I don't want anything to do with it. 'Radio On' though, was a really great vehicle for the music of Ian Dury and Kraftwerk and Wreckless Eric - that's all there was to it, really. It was like a three hour promo movie in black and white. It's done really well around the world, you know. It is a good movie. Beautifully filmed. It was nice to be in that, because it was very... obscure," he smiles knowingly.

Good credibility picture.

"It was. It was perfect. It came out at the same time as 'Quadrophenia'. So it wasn't as though either was a flash in the pan. I enjoyed being in it. I'm going to make another film with Chris Petit. 'Radio On' was a very cheap film - only about £50,000. And I got about 20 quid for it. They had a great lighting cameraman - the bloke who filmed Wim Wenders' 'The American Friend' which is one of my favourite movies. I loved Chris' way of directing, where I could just really be myself.

"That wasn't me in 'Quadrophenia' at all. I was nothing to do with mods. When that whole mod revival happened we exploited it, and for a brief while I became a figurehead for it. People ask me now, though, what I think of mods... Well I don't like them. I'd rather have a motorbike. But it was well used, I think. I'd wear a parka at the odd gig..."

Are you always very conscious of the appropriate props?

"Mmm," he nods. "The teachers gown. I wear that onstage during 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', both because of my history, and because of the song itself."

A parka's a more machiavellian one.

"Yeah. Well, in the film I play this very sharp, silver-suited guy - top mod. And the guy I'd play with the parka on used to be at the other end of the scale. I thought that was quite clever to present yourself in the film as quite a God-like character, but onstage to still have that genre about you, but to be at the other end of the scale."

Are you very machiavellian?

"Oh yeah. I'm very machiavellian. I'm very devious, in most every way. No apologies. I'm just very devious."

When I saw you onstage in Australia last year you were ill and obviously vulnerable, and so you seemed to amplify many aspects of your stage-craft.

"Tricky. When it's not going well you do fall back on showbiz tricks, and follow those, The Madison Square Garden show was pretty tricky. I was phased by the whole thing. I spent most of my energy trying to appear unfrightened."

The vodka bottle through the bass-drum must have kept you on your toes.

"Phew!... I haven't ad libbed in a long time. We used to do it every night. Something would go wrong, strings would fall off the guitar, or the guitarist would fall down. You'd have to launch into anything, just to keep things going. But these days we normally work like clockwork. But, in fact, I think it helped us in many ways last night. We showed a human side and the audience had to help us out. And that made the room smaller. It made everyone give us a hand to get on with the show. It was quite heart-rending, really. I liked the way they sang... It would've been a lesser show if it hadn't happened. That made it special."

You say that you're devious, and you're also an actor, how much of rock'n'roll is acting?

"A fair amount, I think."

When you stopped being Gordon Sumner and became Sting, did you become a different person?

"I think so, yes... I don't know, though, because the name came before I was a potential star. It was just a nickname like being called Buddy, or Buzz... No, in fact, I think I'm the same person. I've always been egocentric and extroverted. It's just the magnification of what that is in, a normal person. You get the opportunity to be even more extroverted, and you take it."

How devious are you being now?

"Very!" he laughs. "I don't know. I'm trying to suss you out. I'm trying to suss out where you're at and inveigle my way into... I suppose I'm trying to make you respect me. Even more devious than that. It's like peeling an onion. There's a certain amount of selection goes on."

You select how much of yourself you decide to give?

"Of course. Just as you do. I don't just sit there and open myself wide. See, there's a tendency to get very confessional in interviews. To give away things that might tie you up later. Early on I'd do that. They'd want to hear things," he laughs, "so I'd even make things up. Just to make things go better. I'm a very accommodating person. Now I don't do so much of that. I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning."

Do you invent myths? Or do you just embroider?

"I think one exaggerates and is very selective. Why be absolutely truthful? We're in the business of creating myth. Does it have to be actual fact? I could make my past more glamorous, I suppose. I haven't done a lot of it, but you do do it. Facts get distorted, anyway, through the process of being reported and printed. Then people précis what they read, and it gets right out of hand. In many ways you can't hold on to the truth anyway, so why bother in the first place?" he laughs. "Your past and your background are all part of what you're selling so if you can make it more attractive... why not?

"At home I've got a Gary Glitter book from 1972, inside of which is the story of his life in cartoon form - not only once, but twice! There are two separate stories of this man who became Gary Glitter in the same annual. I found that absolutely fascinating. Whoever did that must be very, very bright... There's now two alternatives to his history- a work of art! And you don't have to believe either of them, yet they're each equally attractive.

"The Nick Kent thing is very interesting - that he'd thought of that long before he became famous - that he would create a kind of enigma about himself. That's very clever. Very laudable, I think for anyone who wants to be public to have done that; it's almost like writing a novel. Why be faithful to the truth? I think it's part of the entertainment. Nick Kent's a very entertaining person. He's allowed to bullshit."

Although he already owns two cottages on the west coast of Ireland, Sting has recently bought his first home in England a house in Hampstead. "But I don't regard my houses as homes. They're more sort of refuges where I can go and hide away."

So you can become the reclusive rock star...

"I'll probably play at that for a while. What I want, though, is something to replace the buzz I get from doing this. Skiing is something I've seriously thought of just becoming a skier, and skiing down the hills for the rest of my life. But the other thing is crime! It's very appealing. I've definitely got criminal tendencies. It's a possibility I'm looking into. I was robbed at Christmas, while we were in the house. The night before New Year's Eve we were sitting in front of the piano, all drunk.

"I've got a really big Alsatian-Irish wolf hound guard-dog which just started going crackers. But we told it to shut up, and spent a while calming it down. Then half an hour later I went into the kitchen where I'd been taking some photographs earlier on. Two thousand quids' worth of cameras had gone, while we were in the house. I thought, Jesus, it must've been the guy's birthday. He just walks in and the cameras, the American Express card, they're all there. Quite a large part of me was really pleased for him. I was saying, That's really cool. The guy's got some bottle. And I sort of appreciated it on an objective level.

"I don't like the violent aspects of crime. I'm thinking more along the lines of Raffles (laughs). A gentleman cat burglar, perhaps. Something fairly harmless but exciting. I can just see it in the Sun - Sting! Cat Burglar Policeman!"

© New Musical Express


Aug 1, 1980

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...

Apr 2, 1980

A Passage to India... (Part 2)