Interview: NEWSWEEK (1983)

August 01, 1983

The following article by Dave Friendly appeared in an August 1983 issue of Newsweek magazine...

Led by superstar Sting, the rock trio has beguiled U.S. audiences with its mix of reggae, rock and charm.

Watch out the Police are in town. It's the fourth night of their current eight-month world tour, and backstage at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena the three winsome blondes known collectively as the Police are preparing for a performance. Lead singer Sting, a.k.a. Gordon Sumner, is hanging from a gravity device that forces the blood to his head. "I feel like a bat," he shouts, flailing comically. "Somebody get me a field mouse." A few feet away, wearing a pair of black roller skates, drummer Stewart Copeland is lost in 'A History of Warfare'. Nearby, equally absorbed, guitarist Andy Summers winds his way through Jorge Luis Borges's 'Labyrinths'.

Precisely at 9:15, the group comes to life. The books snap shut, Sting descends from his perch and the three jog to the darkened stage. Wham! The sight of them sends 17,000 fans in the packed arena to their feet. On-stage, Sting becomes a prancing rock acrobat. He sprints up and down, projecting Jagger-style charisma and bouncing lyrics off the back wall with his high, powerful voice. Behind him, Copeland propels the songs with the taut, bright drumming that throbs at the very centre of the Police sound. At stage left, Summers fills in spare, fluid chords that draw on subtle jazz and classical shadings. It's a smooth, highly professional performance, and the crowd loves it; they never even think of sitting down through two hours and 20 songs. "We take a lot of risks out there," says Sting. "We may not be the tightest band, but we're the best."

The best? Maybe. Unique? Without a doubt. Consider, to begin with, the Police's disparate members. Copeland 30, the band's one American, is, the son of a CIA official who moved his family around the world. He played in his first group at the age of 11 in Berlin. Sting, 31, grew up in Newcastle and taught at a convent school while moonlighting as a musician. Summers, 40, was a journeyman British rocker who played with the Animals, among others, then took four years off from rock to study classical composition.

Those different influences funnel into some of the most intelligently conceived, well-crafted pop music around. Thanks to songwriter Sting's catchy way with a melody, the group has turned out one hit single after another. For all their energy, however, the group's songs are surprisingly spare and restrained. The Police allow their music - and their listeners - to breathe. "We are a pop band in the very best sense," says Sting. "We play to a lot of people at a lot of levels without compromising the music."

Millions of new fans seem to agree. Five years ago, on their first American tour, the Police played to just nine people in Detroit, at a club called Bookie's. This time, the sold-out Detroit dates are only a prelude to bigger things to come. Their current tour includes a stop August 17 at Shea Stadium; all 67,000 seats for the concert sold out in five hours. Their new album, 'Synchronicity', is No.1 on the charts. So is their hit single Every Breath You Take. As if that weren't enough, the powerful cable network MTV, one of the tour's promoters, is spot-lighting the band's rock videos.

Like many of today's groups, the Police have their roots in the British punk revolution. Back in 1977, Copeland, then playing for a traditional rock band called Curved Air, was eager to form his own group. He spotted Sting one night fronting a jazz band in a working-class suburb of London. "I have no idea how I did it, but I bamboozled this jazz musician into joining me in a punk band," recalls Copeland. Later the pair met Summers at a recording session, fired their first guitarist, and the trio was in place.

The Police quickly distanced themselves from punk. After dyeing their hair blond for a Wrigley's gum commercial, they decided to keep their Aryan beach-bum look. Their music also assumed a distinctly cool cast. Heavily influenced by jazz greats like Miles Davis, Sting introduced spare bass lines into their earliest songs. Summers, who had grown disillusioned with the dense "wall of sound" guitar styles of the late '70s, abandoned straight chords for guitar runs. The result was a vibrant sound that from the beginning owed far more to the enigmatic spaciness of reggae than to the thrash and bash of punk. Says Copeland: "It's the kind of cross-pollination that makes the sparks fly."

Equally critical was the group's early business acumen. When A & M Records signed up the Police, Miles Copeland, Stewart's brother and their shrewd manager, asked not for the usual huge advance on the initial album but for a higher percentage of whatever royalties were down the road. The gamble paid off: 'Roxanne', an edgy, irresistible ode to a French prostitute, was the first of a string of No.1 hits for the group, first in England and then the United States. It also established the Copeland family as power brokers in the music world. Miles founded his own Independent Record Syndicate (IRS) label; another brother, Ian, set up Frontier Booking International (FBI).

Then, in 1980, came the real turning point - the Police's offbeat, instantly famous world tour to cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bombay and Cairo. "In India you play to an audience that's not just kids," says Sting. "There are 40-year-old ladies in saris, local beggars and the chief of police. It's an education." 'Ghost in the Machine', released the following year, showed the results of that globe-hopping musical education. Rich and varied, it explored everything from whiplash funk to roller-rink calypso.

Any lingering doubts about the Police's talent have been banished by Synchronicity, their current hit album. Hailed by critics as a pop masterpiece, it convincingly weds soaring melodies with brooding lyrics inspired by the break-up of Sting's eight-year marriage. It's easily the most personal of the Police albums: "To a certain extent my songs are confessional," says Sting. It's also the most moving, as the current tour demonstrates. Almost all the songs in the first half of the show are taken from the album - a gamble that few bands would risk. Extended, rearranged and re-embroidered in performance, the album's songs explode with new life, often surpassing the recorded original.

Offstage, there has always been a competitive spirit among the Police. "It's healthy," says Sting. "There's no point in us being nice as pie to each other when there's something as important as the music at stake." The group has survived near breaks in the past. Increasingly, however, the tension seems to have grown, fuelled by Sting's emergence in the past few years as a rock phenomenon. All three now pursue outside interests of their own, Sting an acting career, Summers and Copeland independent music projects.

In performance, those differences are smoothed away. After the show in Detroit, still soaring on the music the group gathers for a night-cap atop a local hotel. With Sting dancing to the strains of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' and the other two patiently signing autographs, the band is savouring its success. But not for long. At 1:45 a.m. road manager Billy Francis checks his gold Rolex. "Let's make it an early night, eh fellows?" he says. "We've got Cleveland tomorrow."

The Sting of Superstardom

"It would be very stupid of me if I thought the group was the be-all and end-all of my existence," says the most glamorous member of the Police, looking rumpled in a baggy sweat shirt and nylon warm-up pants. It is 2 a.m. and Sting sprawls tiredly across his hotel-room sofa, sipping a glass of orange juice. "It's my mode of expression at the moment," he rasps. "But it certainly doesn't satisfy all of my needs."

Even before the Police, when he was still Gordon Sumner, Sting's rakish good looks - chiselled chin, muscular frame, steely blue eyes - earn him small modelling jobs and a few TV commercials. He landed a bit part in the film 'Quadrophenia' (1979), a nostalgic look back at mods and rockers conceived by Peter Townshend of The Who. He was sufficiently impressive to win the lead as a devilish intruder in the allegorical 'Brimstone and Treacle' (1982). "I adore being on-stage," says Sting. "Those two hours a day make it all worth it. The rest of the time is just sitting in suspend animation." He has just finished filming 'Dune', a $40 million Dino De Laurentis spectacular based on Frank Herbert's science-fiction classic, and he has a stack of scripts to review at the end of the Police tour. It is clear that Hollywood has taken notice: Says David Lynch, director of 'Dune': "Sting is a brilliant, spike-haired bolt of charisma."

Sting's media image is both alluring and unsettling. He often raises a sarcastic eyebrow at the start of a reporter's question, and at times he is openly hostile. But be can also be a self deprecating charmer, stopping an answer in mid-sentence and asking, "Am I getting pretentious." His sarcasm is legendary. After the Police finished the first concert of their tour in Chicago; an eager MTV reporter asked Sting what he thought of the show. "I'm advertising for a new band," he dead panned. "I don't want to become a reaction to people's perceptions about me," he says. "If their perceptions are all mixed up and contradictory, that's wonderful. Then I can be myself."

Even on the road, Sting remains intensely private. He has kept a daily journal since 1974; during the last tour he spent most of his free time writing a screenplay. Just now he's programming his portable synthesiser to play Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony and re-reading Orwell. On sunny days he works on his six-month-old tennis game. He rarely listens to rock.

Sting finds his new celebrity disconcerting. "One of the great things about America used to be that I could be quite anonymous," he says. "We could just get on with the show, be famous for an hour and then vanish into the hinterland."

That has all changed - and with it the superstar's enthusiasm. "When I get bored with it the band will stop," says Sting flatly. "There is no kind of feudal tie between us. Now there's enough of a challenge and a freedom for me to feel good. But 10 years from now I don't want to be the chap in Las Vegas with the balding head and the tuxedo singing 'Roxanne'.

© Newsweek magazine


Jun 23, 1983

The Breathing Method. Sandy Robertson welcomes the resuscitation of The Police. I can never quite get over the rise to prominence of The Police. I always find my mind trailing back to those awful nights when they supported at that terminal of punk thrash, the Roxy, Covent Garden. They stunk, but they weren't punk. A sort of mutated, flailing breed of HM and Jazzfunk it was. Dire...

Jun 1, 1983

I can never quite get over the rise to prominence of The Police. I always find my mind trailing back to those awful nights when they supported at that terminal of punk thrash, the Roxy, Covent Garden.