Interview: RECORD (1983)

August 01, 1983

The following article by Jonathan Gross appeared in the August 1983 issue of Record magazine...

Twilight of the Gods - Being an account of how three musicians and two entrepreneurs turned the music business upside down and an inquiry into why the Police won't give up the ghost...

Toronto - The theme is priorities; the name of the game, ambition. To illustrate: when once, in adolescence, life itself hinged on whether the New York Rangers could at long last win a Stanley Cup, it now doesn't so completely dominate the daily passions as much as that peculiar filigree of pain and pleasure known as "the girlfriend."

The Rangers are still close to the heart but at some indeterminate juncture were shuffled down a ways. This is a story about that kind of experience as it relates to an entity called the Police.

Once, not too long ago, it was extremely important to be the Police, to be the Police On Tour, to be the Police On Record, just as it was important to document their activities, just as it was important to see, hear and read about the Police. And that might still hold true, especially when considering the alternatives.

No, we're not going to give up Sting, Stew and Andy for, say, the charisma of Steve Wozniak. Or Nina Blackwood. But the band can only be as pressing to the world as it is to itself. And when Stewart Copeland whines, a little more than half-seriously, that this current North American tour is dragging him away from the meat of the English polo season, or when manager Miles Copeland can produce no suitable explanation for such distasteful, mercenary, unimaginative moves as a Shea Stadium date, or when Sting's general level of enthusiasm evokes images of some of the great contractual holdouts in baseball history, you gotta start thinking.

Oh, and that was polo we were talking about back there. Stew has been playing the sport of landed gentry and Town & Country trust fund twerps and Jerzy Kosinski since he was in school.

"It's an addiction, especially if you can afford the ponies," says Copeland Stew from his home in Bledlowridge. "I can't believe I'm being dragged out to tour, right in the middle of the season."

But add to his ponies the impending birth of Copeland's first child by his wife Sonya Kristina and his recent adoption of her teenaged son, his work on two films (Francis Ford Coppola's 'Rumblefish' and his own 16 mm punk epic titled "So What!", and rock's most well-regarded drummer can be excused. His priorities are changing.

Sting was caught in Mexico City, fulfilling yet another villainous obligation on Dino De Laurentiis' $50 million epic production of Frank Herbert's 'Dune'. At that point, two weeks prior to rehearsals, he had no real idea what the band would be doing on stage other than a substantial block of new material from 'Synchronicity', the album hailed as the greatest interim work of all time. Sting (aka Gordon Sumner), recently separated from his wife, British actress Frances Tomelty, was spending a lot of time in L.A. and had dabbled in some serious jet setting. He too was playing a new set of cards.

Guitarist Andy Summers was incommunicado in Japan and unavailable even for a proxy. But his outlets are opening up too, from last year's 'I Advance Masked' collaboration with Robert Fripp to his burgeoning career as a photographer.

There's also manager Miles, the oldest of the Copeland triumvirate that also includes Ian, the head of the powerful FBI (Frontier Booking International) agency. When he's not talking TV and movie deals, he's saying "No" to offers for the Police.

He is the stopper, perhaps, for this whole argument.

"How many times do I have to say it? Sting goes out and does a movie and everybody thinks the band is breaking up. Sting did more movies when the Police were nothing (the eponymous roles in 'Quadrophenia' and 'Radio On'). Myself, I was running four labels, not just one, when the Police started. Now, when we're able to go out and do other things, we can bring those new ideas back into the Police."

But what do they keep for themselves? Copeland, 38 and possibly the most dynamic figure in the business, talks fast and to the point. Details blur, respect and fear tremble simultaneously before his barrage.

"Five years ago nobody gave a shit about their arguments. But now, somebody says something and everybody goes crazy because a million people depend on it. The band doesn't get along any better or any worse than they ever did. At their first date at CBGB five years ago Sting was at Stewart's throat. I thought I was going to have to tear them apart."

To follow Miles, there is little doubt their priorities have changed for better or worse, both as individuals, as musicians, and collectively. Yet the Police from Day One offered us an alternative set of formulas. Back in 1978 they moved in decidedly strange ways compared to the fat, dying dinosaurs of album-rock. They were a band built out of convenience, not out of necessity.

You know the genesis: Stewart Copeland, college dropout and drummer, moved to England in 1975 and joined the last gasp of Curved Air, then managed by Miles. Early in 1977 he heard the now-clichéd raw, seething sound of punk in London - that he heard something rather than felt it is crucial to the story. He liked the lean, low-rent ambience and formed a band with a guitarist named Henry Padovani and Sting, found playing in a Newcastle jazz outfit.

Dates followed while Miles divested himself of Palaeozoic tortoises like Curved Air and Wishbone Ash to get into "New Wave" and coined a few nickle and dime basement labels. He started making low-budget money instantly. The Police re- leased a cheapie punko imitator titled Fallout that sold a few copies on Miles' Illegal Records label, but that whole "aggro" thing had no long-range potential. Copeland, the well-travelled son of an original CIA operative, was far too middle-class to compete with the borstal boys. Padovani, the Pete Best of the Police, was soon turfed for the more capable Summers, who had met Sting and Copeland at a Gong festival jam in Paris, and had played in the Animals, Soft Machine and with Kevin Coyne.

And then, the future Fab Three came through with the two strokes that altered their course in an upward direction forevermore; specifically, the famous peroxide employed for a chewing gum commercial, and a song called 'Roxanne', to which radio finally gave in after much soul-searching. (To this day Sting still lives to play their signature reggae-rock ode to a Parisian hooker: "I love that song, I never tire of it. Of hearing it, either.")

Then, late in 1978, came that tour. Enter Ian Copeland, then working at the Paragon Agency in Macon, Georgia, booking southern boogie acts. "He was working with Jack Daniels, or was that Charlie Daniels," chuckles Stew. Get a picture of the times: Bob Seger was breaking big, people were still paying to see things called Boston and Starcastle, bellbottoms were wide, limos were long, Armageddon was on its way.

The Pistols had been out on their death march. Blondie was still playing clubs, mainly on the cast coast. The Police, therefore, had to build their own circuit with the now legendary station wagon and a few tickets on Laker Airways (before the airline went bust last year, the band offered to help financially).

According to Stewart, Miles booked the dates by calling record stores in cities avid finding out who owned the "most anti-social club in town." The aesthetic was sweat, the ethic was work. Incredible as it seems, this was all very new to a business that dictated one didn't tour without a hit record and/or vast sums in record company support advances.

New priorities again. Action over words. Do what you can whenever you can.

"When we first released our record it was necessary to he as visible as possible which meant doing as many interviews as we could and as many appearances as we could," says Sting. "Without visibility there could be no sales, no credibility."

Although credit should go to Squeeze, which was the real Lewis & Clark on the route charted by Ian, then just starting FBI, the Police carved a trail that would eventually be followed by XTC, Ultravox, Joan Jett and others. The newness of it all was part of the excitement for everybody involved. Thus, when measuring the impact of the Police on America, one must take into account the achievements of most of the bands on the FBI roster, all of which live by the same creed. At FBI, founded on $13,000 the Police earned for Ian on their second North American tour, bands some- times get off the plane at JFK, are handed a roadmap, a set of keys to a van - with or without license plates - and told to make a living.

Third, consider the strength of IRS (International Record Syndicate), a label headed by Miles Copeland. Thank their royalties for groups like the Go-Go's, Wall Of Voodoo and R.E.M.

"Once you had a success like the Police, you automatically opened ears to other projects," states Miles. "Success is contagious."

A story that best symbolises the hunger of the Copelands and the period goes back to the winter of 1979 when Miles found himself on the road with the underclass punk band Chelsea. Pulling into Toronto in the wee hours of the morning prior to a gig at The Edge, Copeland got out the van and immediately headed for the club's bathroom to thaw with hot water a frozen bucket of paste so he could plaster the city with posters. The Clash were playing in town the same night and Copeland wanted to steal some of their thunder.

If Copeland would slug it out for Chelsea, imagine the lengths he went to for the Police. To this day Copeland is all-work, little play and anti-drug - a lifestyle that, if not completely willed on his charges, has at least trickled down. Sting's regimen, by his own estimation, is a "fairly frugal one."

With that kind of no-nonsense discipline, it's no wonder the Police rose to the top like a heat-seeking missile. Albums were cut in weeks; videos, prior to the relatively lavish production for 'Every Breath You Take', were shot in mere minutes. Though they're resigned to certain inevitable compromises attendant to stardom, a reasonably healthy attitude remains and pretension is kept pretty much in cheek. The band's continual disregard for flashy staging and lighting as befits their lofty position has become a trademark as charming as the fraying elbows on your dad's favourite tweed jacket.

And they remain accessible, although sometimes their patience unravels. I remember a day in Winnipeg watching Andy Summers hold a phone receiver at arm's length because some farmer/rock critic was boring him to tears.

"I don't really like doing interviews, but I think they're a necessary evil," offers Sting. "There are a lot of things over which I have no control. But I'm not ashamed of selling my time or body for something I believe in."

In that instance, Sting was referring to the film "Brimstone & Treacle", or, as he puts it, "my first film role." But later, from the 'Dune' set, Sting seems tired of the whole mess, and more concerned with reasserting an element of privacy in a life that had come under too much public scrutiny and for all the wrong reasons. "The Face," his face, was getting in the way.

"I enjoy playing bad guys much more he says of his various roles. "I find it much more challenging and more interesting. It's a good foil for that boyishness and innocence with which I somehow have been associated... but I don't want to be an actor. It's like being a coat hanger. What I'm trying to do is learn a craft so maybe I can use it in another field."

"The Face" has things to answer for too, like that much ballyhooed party earlier this year thrown by Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi. Sting was flown there on Kashoggi's jet. That's uncharacteristically decadent turf for a guy who writes such impassioned pleas like 'Driven To Tears' and 'Invisible Sun'.

"I didn't know who the man was," pleads the ersatz Aryan pop god. "It was an awful party. I'm rich, but never have I seen a scene like that. But I have no regrets about going. I enjoy being what I am. People can think what they like. It has nothing to do with my life. It was really an education and I'd go again."

The realisation quickly dawns that this kind of shit is not high on Sting's priorities and to pursue this line of questioning would ensure that Sting will vanish, which is something of an ambition for him.

We get back into the Police. The point about the stadiums is made - that when the Police first hit North America, the "attitude" eschewed that kind of overtly obvious "payday." But that was then and this is now. Today, compromises are made because, Sting points out, "the more popular you get the more people want to see you. Of course it's better to play Massey Hall (the 2700 seater in Toronto where the Police will tape their TV special) than CNE Stadium (a ballpark). But how many nights do you have to play Massey Hall to reach the same number of people? And when people are outside scalping tickets for $300 that kind of abuse is the direct result of playing places that are too small.

"Anyways, I think part of my job is creating the illusion of intimacy of a club atmosphere in some place that's massive. Working against the atmosphere is a challenge. Sometimes it can't work. Our secret is that we can entertain a lot of people without being condescending, without lowering ourselves to a common denominator that everybody can understand. I think we can be informative and fun at the same time."

For years, however, the Police show has been automatic, too often a given. However great they may he as a trio, the hits sometimes rolled down in jukebox fashion. This time out they've added 'Synchronicity' as a whole section of their show and Sting has programmed some synthetic backing.

"Yeah, it was automatic," Sting retorts, "but if I have 24 hours in my day it's the only joy in my life, the 90 minutes I'm on stage. Automatic or not, it's my only release, my only happiness. The rest of it is awful, pure loathing."

Eventually, you'd like to get down to the music and the various heaviosities and profundities that the critical press have attached to Sting's ditties. Just what was gnawing at the band when they put together 'Synchronicity'? Jung? Existential philosophy? Atavistic art direction? Broach Miles with the subject and you get berated. Again: "Uh, the album is uh... Look, we don't really analyse these things. The process is a lot more natural than you guys (the press) think it is."

Stewart says the motive for the change away from the overt reggae and funk influences was that a whole generation of bands had decided to do what we were doing. We had to move just to stay ahead. It's not important to make hit records anymore."

Sting disagrees: "Hit records are everything. I love making bit records. They're what drive the band. But making this album was a pretty painful process because we knew we had a real challenge on our hands, to change the way we play and our attitude. For in order for a band to stay vital you have to change, which is very hard."

For Sting, this meant spending the past year deliberately avoiding radio, records and MTV in order to cut out outside influence and refocus his art. Back to himself.. "All my songs are about me. You are all you can write about really. It's all you can know."

Knowing this, one can only shrug at Stewart's suggestion that the Police are still his band or even the qualifying remark that "if you ask Andy, he'd say it was his band too." And that feeds speculation on changing priorities because Sting's control over the band - Summers' contribution to 'Synchronicity', 'Mother', is unlistenable, and Copeland's 'Miss Gradenko' is almost as silly - is such that the guitarist and drummer are not maturing within the boundaries of the Police precinct.

"Ideas do come out in the sessions, but ultimately there isn't enough space in the sessions to use them," says Copeland. "There were few things I started to work with during the 'Synchronicity' sessions that I developed more fully for the 'Rumblefish' soundtrack."

The enthusiasm in Stewart's voice jumps noticeably when 'Rumblefish' is mentioned. Perhaps this film, this project over which he has control is that "whole new reason for struggling" he said he was looking for a couple of years ago. Not that there's anything wrong with any of this. Stewart Copeland, like everybody else in the band, would like the world to know that looking at his work in the Police represents only a fraction of the source of his pride.

So it's ironic that when you talk about the Police, and what keeps the band going, you're talking about Sting, who, of the three, seems to be divesting himself of responsibility. "The mechanics of how the group works are really our business and what's important is that the mystery remains, not for my ego but for the sake of the mystery itself," he says, defensively. "It's a struggle for me, but I love the struggle."

The album prepares you for the death of the band, for death itself, for possible extinction of the entire race with 'Walking In Your Footsteps' and 'Synchronicity II'.

"I take it absolutely seriously," asserts Sting. "Extinction is around the corner. Dinosaurs thought they were immortal too, probably. The songs are primal as hell, but it's a realisation that we all have to come to. It's a very real threat. No sense in beating around the bush.

"But it shouldn't stop you. I'm not cowed by the idea. I think people should be aware of it although they tend to put it in the back of their minds. All generations have been threatened by it. Through tax we are paying for our own destruction. The human condition, therefore, is one of paradox."

Though he agrees that this album is perhaps more political than 'Ghost In The Machine', but in broader, more ecological strokes, Sting professes to be apolitical on the whole.

"I have no faith whatever in politics, revolutionary or reactionary. I loathe people who get up on boxes and say 'Vote for me.' Political parties are solely for the marshalling of stupidity and fear. I will vote for no one.

"Call it existential alienation but I can't understand bands like the Clash with their constant posing with the red flag and glorifying historical revolutionary figures like the Red Brigades. Why do they associate themselves with this crap? It's basically little boys playing with guns¬Ö looks childish to me... the whole business."

A lesson in common sense from a former schoolteacher, Sting also agrees with the opinion that 'Every Breath You Take' is the antithesis of 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' from 'Ghost in The Machine'.

"It's about transference, about projecting your ideas onto another person," he states. "That's what love is all about. Nine times out of ten you're disappointed because you can't transfer your ideals about life onto another person. That's why we have love and that's why we have breakups. It's both natural and vital."

Lord, Sting can be so worldly, his thoughts so quotable, so linear. There's never the obligation in an interview to keep the focus on the Police. If I had been up on my Gurdjieff we could have engaged in some witty geophilosophical repartee. As a matter of fact Sting, somewhat tired of being under the microscope, would probably have preferred it to another vivisection of the De-Do-Do-Da. Prognosticating about what lies ahead for the Police is simply not in the cards anymore.

"Really, it's not up to us to decide whether rock has a future," Sting says in his best verbal shrug. "Fourteen-year-olds have to decide that. For them, I'm sure I have a future."

But as a rock star? Who knows? You can pick out his conflicts just by mixing and matching his contributions to this story. There's a giant tug of war within him, a push that will not be denied, stemming from the beckoning, easy narcissism of stardom: "When someone waves a million dollars in front of your face to do something you consider fun what do you say? You say 'Yeah.'"

"The pull is the attraction of the unknown, that nagging ambition for some kind of pure productive peace away from Sunset Boulevard and the running lackeys of the publicity mills. I don't want to be an idol. I don't want to he famous. It's a means to an end, I hope."

What end?

"I change my mind about it every day."

© Record 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.