Interview: SWEET POTATO (1979)

May 10, 1979

The following article by Jim Sullivan appeared in a May 1979 issue of Sweet Potato magazine...

Backstage after the first of four sold-out performances at the Paradise...

Backstage after the first of four sold-out performances at the Paradise, Stewart Copeland is relaxing, intermittently sipping a beer, and mostly trying to explain the particulars behind the phenomenal rise of his band The Police from the midst of the British punk pack in 1977, to the position of a bona fide contender in a country which has treated most new wave exports with a mixture of indifference and loathing. This is not to infer that America has uniformly rejected the punk revolution which swept Britain two years ago, but acceptance in America as been largely critical and not commercial; in England the two went hand-in-hand uprooting the established system. The artists that have broken through in America - most notably Elvis Costello and now the Police - have been connected with punk tangentially, not intimately. Both Costello and the Police have punk allegiances, but both are musically more expansive than the polemic sounds of, say, the Sex Pistols, who (face it) for many people are the barometer of punk rock.

The debt the Police owe the progenitors of punk is one Copeland is readily willing to admit. "What happened to the music scene in England is that the punks kicked down the doors of the music business establishment; they broke through the rigid system that blocked out any new talent. In England now, everyone likes to say punk is dead and punk failed in America. Well, punk hasn't failed in America. There's new talent everywhere in England - Elvis Costello, the Police, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet, Joe Jackson - and, it's coming over to America. There are so many good groups in England, it'd make your head spin. And it's happening because the punks kicked down those doors."

Copeland speaks of the "the punks" with the professional detachment of an academician. One senses that he never felt a real part of the scene, despite his support and admiration for it. In fact though, the fledgling Police were essentially a punk group, not dissimilar from dozens of other newly formed groups on a convenient bandwagon, on a temporary basis to get their bearings. For a time it was exciting but Copeland felt they'd become limited by the punk trappings.

The original group was formed in January 1977 by Copeland, an American drummer who has lived most of his life abroad, fresh from a disappointing experience with Curved Air. "I learned a lot from Curved Air," he says ruefully. "It was a situation where the band goes into record an album and automatically there's a budget of $40,000-$60,000, which means you've got to record something that must sell 500,000 copies. It just has to or you're out of the business.

"Record companies feel they've got to get the right producer doing it so it's a guarantee. They try to guarantee everything by spending more money which means you can't take any chances at all. I'd be saying, 'Why don't we try it like this? Some people might not like it, but others might really like it.' And I was considered a naive idealist."

Copeland whines paternally, mocking the tone of some unnamed executive, "'C'mon, we're in a business Stewart. This isn't a game, this is a profession... There's a lot of money involved.'"

"You're working for the man," he continues. "There's limousines driving you around and you've got an army of roadies, but you're working for the man. When you have your record done, you've got to go in to the record company with it and sit down with them in their business suits while they sit there listening for the hooks - the killer cut."

So, for this next venture with the Police, Copeland vowed to do it differently. He recruited Gordon Sumner (who is called Sting by virtually everyone, his mother included) from a day-time job as a teacher and coach, and from his after hours profession as a bass player and singer in a big band type jazz group. Guitarist Henri Padovani was enlisted to round out the trio. Importantly, Copeland intended to stay free of any costly debts to the label he signed with, and to keep complete control of the musical format.

Eventually, Sting and Copeland started to feel compressed by Padovani's limitations. Copeland says, "Henri was a punk guitarist - he could play three chords really well, really good rock'n'roll - and that went down great at the punk clubs, which is where we were playing in those days. But Sting and I felt there was more to say, and we'd reached the end of what we could do."

Ex-Kevin Coyne, Kevin Ayers and Soft Machine guitarist Andy Summers joined in August 1977, and they played two dates as a four piece before Padovani left. With Summers' more versatile style and Sting's emergence as a singer, songwriter and frontman, the Police kicked into high gear and started to develop their own distinctive sound.

"I was leading the thing at that point," Copeland recalls, "but as Sting got involved - he could see the excitement and energy of these kids - he realised that we weren't trying to play punk music as such, we were just playing music directed at those kids."

"The band was Stewart's idea, " Sting concurs. "He got me interested in this project. He's written songs for a singer and I went along with it for a while but I was a songwriter too, and gradually I began to write songs for the vehicle, The Police. For some reason or other my songs replaced Stewart's."

Sting admits there were conflicts at the start. "We're both very strong egos and we're both very different personalities. For him to write something for me is quite difficult. I couldn't write a song for him. So as the singer, you do have a certain advantage. He can write a humorous song that I'll try to interpret but more often than not, I'll fail."

It's true. Sting seemed uncomfortable with 'Fall Out', a single Copeland released on his own label, Illegal Records, before signing with A&M. It's a straight punkish rave-up from the pre-Summers days, and while it's a passable tune, it has none of the nuance the Sting-written Police material contains.

It is Sting's emergence as a writer that has brought the Police its success. They began playing with the reggae influenced material in rehearsals but didn't think of doing anything commercially with it until Copeland's brother Miles (who was now managing the band) heard 'Roxanne' and was knocked out by it. He brought the song to A&M and returned with the news that they wanted to release it as a single.

Initially, 'Roxanne' failed in England. It was banned by the BBC for its lyrical content, which Sting snorts at. "If anything, it's a moralistic song," he says, adding that he just learned it's now finally on the BBC play list. Why? "Success in America gives you credibility," he answers matter-of-factly.

Indeed 'Roxanne' has succeeded in America. A long time staple on album orientated radio, it recently cracked the Top 40 as a single and it has bolstered the album 'Outlandos d'Amour' to #28 on Billboard's album chart. Was the Police surprised?

"Yeah, I'm flabbergasted," said Sting. "I knew it was a good song, but there are so many hurdles to go over to have a hit."

Copeland starts with modest dignity, "I'm really pleased and gratified..." Then emotionally he bursts out with "Surprised? Well, when I heard it I said, 'this sounds like a hit single to me, goddamit, it should be...' and so it is, great! If it hadn't been, I wouldn't have been surprised either. But it demonstrates the American people have more taste than the music industry gives them credit for. It doesn't have the sweet strings, the big plush sound, and heavy production and all that cellophane wrapping. Hopefully, 'Roxanne' is a sign of better things to come."

'Roxanne' opened the door, but the album is full of songs that are similarly built around reggae verses segueing into bouncy pop-rock choruses. It can be both a benefit and a hindrance to the band's direction Sting admits. "Sometimes we do sound a little samey. As a three-piece we're presented with difficulties all the time, but I have a suspicion that the Police are moving to an area of music that Weather Report is moving to. Weather Report is really heavy jazz musicians and they're moving from jazz to a new frontier of music; we're moving from rock to a new frontier and sooner or later we're going to meet."

Copeland is more analytical about the group's somewhat rigid reggae to pop structure. "I'll tell you why," he says, pleased that the question came up. "Because the reggae rhythm is just totally different; it's the most revolutionary thing in rhythm since the backbeat. The beat is in a completely different place. If you put the beat in one place - bang! you're in rock; if you put it in another place - click you're in another thing. And that's why it sounds like a sudden transition, but in fact there are lots of shading of each in both styles that I play in. It gets into your bloodstream and it won't leave you alone. The actual licks that we play are not licks you would find on any reggae record - they're our own kind of concoction. Once you take the rhythm beat, the pulse, from one place and put it somewhere else, it just opens up millions of possibilities."

Live, the Police attempt to explore some of those possibilities within the framework of the material they've already recorded. (They haven't yet rehearsed their new tones for the stage.) "The band changes every night, " says Sting. "Our numbers aren't structured: there's a lot of improvisation. We take chances in the hope our music will develop naturally. Once a night something happens that has never happened before."

At the performance I witness, during a break in 'Roxanne' the audience split into two groups to chant "Roxanne, no" in counterpoint to Sting's vocal. He says, "I've heard them sing 'Roxanne' before, but never in a competition."

The risk-taking leaves the Police open for miscalculations, as Sting admits. They tend to elongate their punchy material, sometimes robbing it of the power of a short song in favour of the tedium of a longer jam. But then again, there are moments where the improvisational tactics catch hold, and the band transcends the recorded work. Sting figures, "I think nine failures are worth one success."

I mention the 'Be My Girl, Sally' medley as an idea that seems to me to wallow in its attempted cuteness. "You've picked on something that people either love or hate," Sting responds. "Now, I'm pleased about that because it means it's special. If it were ignored, it doesn't means anything. People say they hate it, but it means there's something in it. I think it's a risk we took and it's not something you'll hear on many albums. It's a risk we took, once again,. It's poignant in a way; I means it's not great art. I don't pretend it's anything more than doggerel really, but I think it has a certain charm."

Sting is enjoying this mild combativeness. Going on, he says "'Masoko Tanga' is also an indulgent experiment in the same sort of vein. It's the result of an experiment by the group and a professor of paraphysics, who is famous for putting people under hypnosis, and under hypnosis they relive incidents from what seem to be past lives. That song I sang in a language I'd never heard; I don't know what it means."

"We finished the album and it was full of pop songs with heavy hooks - very radio orientated - so we said we'll take two chances, and I'm proud of them."

In addition to his career with the Police, Sting is a burgeoning actor as well, although his acting experience came about almost accidentally. Sting explains: "In the initial stages of the Police, we couldn't feed ourselves. It was very hard to get gigs, and we had to earn money, so I went out and sold my body - ,ore or less. I went out and got an agent in London and she used to send me for TV ads. And with uncanny regularity, I would get these ads and they'd pay amazing money. I was a model basically. I was paid for the session and then they pay you repeats every time it's shown. So I paid the rent that way."

Sting did the route - chewing gum, bras, cigarettes. "Because of the success of that venture my agent started to send for movies. The first one I went to was the Sex Pistols' movie 'The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle', and I got that one. It's boring; I hope it's never shown. I didn't enjoy working with the director and acting with Paul Cook was a nightmare. It's a very small cameo part and I play a homosexual member of a group called the 'Blow Waves' and we rape him in the back of a Chevy convertible.

"It wasn't much fun," he adds reproachfully. "I'm not gay so I was acting. I did it for the money because at the time we were starving. When I'm rich and famous they'll bring these things out but I don't care; I've got a two year old son and I want to feed him."

Sting's role in 'Quadrophenia' does make him proud. "It's a crucial role to the film. I play the bellboy and am also the top mod of Brighton in 1964. My character is a little bit of fantasy actually. My clothes are amazingly expensive; they cost thousands of pounds. I have this silver mohair suit, full length leather coat, impeccable silk shirt, silk ties, cufflinks... I was the basic mod ethic. They were working class kids who somehow got the money to buy amazing clothes. So my character is a bit of an extreme, the top mod. Jimmy (the film's protagonist) looks up to me as the king of mod-dom. In the end of the film, he sees me as the bellboy, so he's disillusioned in me and in the whole mod ethic. That sends him over the top, to commit suicide.

"It's a horrible character actually. It's not a sympathetic part, but it gives me a more credibility as an actor."

Sting describes himself as a big Who fan, though he was too young to be a mod in 1964. He met Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey last year and was on his way to meet Keith Moon, whose character he plays in the movie, when he heard of Moon's death.

"It was really strange," Sting recalls. "I was driving in the car with the director toward location. It was lunchtime and he was saying, 'Wait till you meet Keith - he's an amazing person.' He turned on the radio, and I swear, the first thing that was on was: 'Keith Moon dies last night from an overdose of drugs.' It was so heavy. I went cold, like a ghost; it had strange affect on the shooting of the film."

Sting is aware the film may propel himself and the Police into an even brighter spotlight when it's release. "It has an automatic built-in audience. It'll give me career... a different... credibility," he explains, searching for the right words.

There are risks as well. "Musicians who are also actors are walking a tightrope." Sting acknowledges. "Think of David Essex: he's a good actor and he's a good singer, but they don't take him seriously as an actor because he sings and they don't take him seriously as a musician because he acts. You have to be very careful; I am aware of the pitfalls - at the same time, I want to take risk.

"It's not a conflict at the moment because my vocation is to be a musician. I'm best at that. I haven't really proved myself as a Laurence Olivier, so I'd be stupid to say I'm not going to play music anymore. As far as I can see, it's an interesting sideline to the band. It's complementary, really. If you're careful with the two mediums it can give you more power, more freedom. Basically, that's what I really want - the freedom to do as I'm pleased creatively and socially."

Six months ago, few people could have predicted the Police would be in the position they are today. At that time the Police packed up their bags and along with road manager Kim Turner flew to the States via Freddie Laker and lined up a series of gigs in the East. They did so without the support of A&M. Copeland explains simply, "We came over here to see if Americans liked our music. The album was not due to be released until next year and supporting a group without an album didn't make seem to make good business sense. Instead of having a big deal where we waited for some chart success in England and would bring us over supporting Styx or something like that, and losing money on the first two tours and hope to make money after that... we came over on Freddie Laker. For $200 a night we could break even." And in the process, stir up a considerable amount of press, radio and fan attention - which they did, particularly in Boston when they play the Rat.

Sting adds, "We've been offered some tours with Boston and Foreigner but we're not going to do it, because we feel we're a headline band. We'll get to the big arenas as the headline band or not at all. It may be arrogance; I think it's good business sense as a support group goes on and if they're lucky the audience will clap. Generally they just hate you - not because the music is bad or good - just because it's a ritual and the Police are not filler; we never will be."

With the start they've gotten, chances are the Police won't have to condescend to opening status on any bill. Copeland notes with more than the usual degree of surprise that the Police go over well in the Midwest - an area traditionally hosting non-heavy metal, or non-pseudo art-rock. The Police's first "official" US tour starts in Los Angeles and after a break to record two European gigs, resumes back in the States later this month.

Work on their second album continues but because of the success of 'Outlandos' there is no pressure to release it until perhaps, next winter. Sting promises some heavy jazz influences along with the reggae/pop mix and Copeland says adamantly that they will not just duplicate the last one, adding "We're doing to take just as many chances on the next album as we did on the last."

Exactly how many chances the Police took on 'Outlandos' is debatable. With the exception of the two songs cited by Sting earlier as experiments, the album is heavily laden with commercially accessible hooks, mostly based in chorus/song title. Still, they exploring new turf, taking bits and pieces from conventional forms, and piecing together their own sound. Sometimes spare, sometimes full bodied, their music is propelled by Summers' flexible lead guitar, Copeland's dextrous drumming, and Sting's voice, high and full of emotion, capable of great expression - ranging from the tongue-in-cheek humour of 'Can't Stand Losing You' to the soft please of 'Roxanne.'

"This is the first rock group I've been in," says Sting. "It's a different type of music than jazz - more direct and simpler. But I find the more the group expands, the more successful we get and more freedom we get, the more we can expand our musical expression." And with the good base they've got now, the future indeed looks promising. One has to agree with what Copeland said about the initial punk surge: it may not have commercially succeeded, but it opened a lot of doors from some creative groups. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with challenging the dinosaur enough to make him move, because you can't overtake him.

© Sweet Potato magazine



May 1, 1979

How does one describe the Police, a trio that concludes their debut album, 'Outlandos d'Amour', with a politico/punk anthem ('Born in the '50s'), a whimsical ditty about fondling inflatable dolls ('Be My Girl, Sally'), and, last but not least, 'Masoko Tanga', a chant from a past reincarnation of the lead singer, Sting, after he had been hypnotised by a noted British paraphysicist? Throw in the reggae influence pervasive in many Police tunes and the Mozart T-shirt Sting is wearing when we first meet and it is obvious that all available pigeonholes have been clogged with guano...

May 1, 1979

Police - The case of the bleached blonds: "Street credibility...," mutters Stewart Copeland, the American drummer in Britain's Police, as he wearily runs a hand through his peroxide blond hair. "Street credibility is full of shit. It's something journalists invented to pass the time of day. Anybody who claims to have street credibility is lying through his teeth." Guitarist Andy Summers and bass player Sting nod their peroxide-blond heads in agreement...