The Police never officially split up. They drifted apart after their 1984 tour 'Synchronicity' amid rancour over the band's direction. Sting, the lead singer and chief songwriter, was eyeing up a solo career. The guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland resented being under Sting's bass-slapping thumb.
With egos clashing like the cymbals in a Copeland drum solo, the trio went their separate ways. Sting became a global superstar, Summers and Copeland faded bitterly from view. There were fleeting rapprochements - they played together at an Amnesty concert in 1986 and at Sting's wedding in 1992 - but the trio's dynamics remained awkward.
"If I ever reform The Police, I should be certified insane," Sting once declared. Yet here they are, back on tour 30 years after their first record. There has been much talk of "healing" in interviews. Sting, confronted with his "insane" quote at a press conference, chuckled about owning a white coat. The man formerly known as Gordon Sumner doesn't lack chutzpah.
Perhaps that's why the great environmentalist allowed an advert for a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle to be screened before The Police's set at the Birmingham NIA. Sting's inconsistencies are glaring, yet they don't seem to bother him one jot. Reviled as insufferable by rock's bien pensants, the singer sails along with an air of blameless rectitude: the legacy of his days as a schoolteacher, no doubt.
The reason for his return to The Police's fold is opaque. Vast sums are being generated - over 0m on the North American leg of the band's tour - but Sting is surely wealthy enough to make money a secondary motivation. Genuinely mending fences with his band mates is a possibility, though that took a knock after their first comeback show in Vancouver when Copeland described the singer as a "petulant pansy".
It's most likely that he simply misses playing with two excellent musicians. Their NIA show was a reminder of how ambitious and technically adept The Police were. Summers' guitar-playing was dextrous and richly varied. Copeland's drumming was a study in controlled force. Sting's bass work and singing were faultless. Yet something was missing.
They opened with 'Message in a Bottle'. Sting, in sleeveless white T-shirt, skinny dark trousers and bristling blonde hair, resembled an immaculately preserved 55-year-old version of his younger self. Copeland, who is the same age, was also in good condition. Even the comparatively antique Summers, a 64-year-old who played with 1960s bands such as The Animals before finding fame with The Police, turned in an impressively busy performance, his hands a blur over his fretboard.
'Message in a Bottle' was a canny choice with which to start the set. Its lyrics are about attempts to communicate and connect - the castaway Sting sending "an SOS to the world" and receiving "a hundred billion bottles" in reply - which its sing-along catchiness also dramatises. It is the perfect stadium anthem.
Yet the band didn't stay true to it. A slow version of 'Walking on the Moon', elongated by a jazzy breakdown, sabotaged the song's lilting appeal. 'Roxanne's' exhilarating rhythms were interrupted by a tedious passage of musical noodling. Some of Summers' guitar-playing was exceptional, such as the wash of sound he conjured during 'Invisible Sun' and the deft feedback he employed on 'Walking in Your Footsteps'. Other times his solos would erupt into a song like noisy attention-seekers at a party.
The Police, scorned by fellow punks for being too musical, were always a mix of sophistication and populism. Twisty time-changes coexisted with earworm choruses; world music borrowings were incorporated into western pop. At their peak they were able to resolve the tensions, both musical and personal. But no longer. An unimaginative light show and absence of stage decoration focused attention on the trio, who interacted professionally rather than with warmth. Their musicianship was admirable but it lacked connection. The "message" was not heeded.
© The Financial Times by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney