The following article by Stephen Dalton appeared in the November 1997 issue of VOX magazine...
As rumours abound of the Police's reformation, we trace the band's history from the bleach-blond ambition of their new wave early days, to breaking America, to the internal rucks and, ultimately the split.
The Police were smart enough to recognise, like U2 after them, that rock fans would be looking for new heroes after the storm of punk had blown over. Self confessed opportunists, with a ruthless manager behind them from the start, they latched on to punk's ripped coat-tails during their early years until surprise success in America helped ignite late recognition at home. In this respect, they were the Bush or Cranberries of their day, earning grudging respect at home only after significant US sales.
NME and Melody Maker were initially suspicious of The Police for many reasons, both ignoring the band's debut album 'Outlandos d'Amour' in 1978. Sting's pin-up looks and shady past as a jazz musician, wannabe actor and PE teacher hardly squared with the ragged street cool of the day. The spiky peroxide image also seemed too much like a contrived high-street dilution of punk, especially when it emerged that the trio had dyed their hair to play a cartoon new wave group in a Wrigley's chewing gum commercial.
The Police always appeared more brazenly manufactured than their peers, formed as they were by drummer Stewart Copeland to cash in on the post-punk boom. Copeland had played with the last incarnation of prog-folkies Curved Air and lived with their singer Sonja Kristina. Copeland invited Sting down to London after seeing the singer fronting his Newcastle jazz outfit Last Exit. But it was Andy Summers who had the biggest image problem, being a veteran session guitarist in his mid-thirties whose colourful history included spells playing with Eric Burdon's New Animals, Robert Fripp, Gong spin-off Strontium 90 and a touring production of The Rocky Horror Show.
Even more troubling in the politically charged critical climate of the late'70s was the band's outspoken manager Miles Copeland, brother of Stewart and shameless salesman for free-market capitalism. The son of the chief of CIA bureaus in Cairo and Beirut, Copeland likened The Police's groundbreaking tours of Asia and the Middle East to Cold War crusades, bringing Western values to the Third World. He wrote an MA thesis on bringing underdeveloped nations into line with the West and attended George Bush's vice-presidential inauguration in 1980.
Amazingly, Sting always managed to dovetail his leftist liberal leanings with his manager's ultra-capitalist stance. The two obviously shared a burning ambition for pan-global success. The tantric-sex-loving singer, though, clearly saw the flow of values between East and West as two-way traffic.
Sting was never a punk, but he did play a gay rapist in 'The Great Rock'n Roll Swindle' - his scenes were edited out - and won over many with his role as the sharp-dressed supermod Ace in 'Quadrophenia'.
Although often scathingly portrayed as the Anti-Clash, with their squeaky clean Aryan reggae and soft-left political slant, The Police were actually one of the most controversial new wave bands in mainstream media terms. Many of their singles and videos were banned or doctored by the BBC due to spiky subject matter. All the same, their combination of ultra-catchy, reggae-tinged tunes and hard-nosed business sense was the ideal formula to make The Police the biggest rock band in the world. During their five-year heyday, from 1978 to 1983, they shifted over 40 million albums. Indeed, they built their career with huge global success in mind, initially recording and touring on miniscule budgets to maximise record royalties. Either through sheer shamelessness or naive honesty, interviews inevitably dwelled on the group's business acumen, but it is worth remembering that The Police were also a classic singles band.
That's why artists as diverse as Nirvana and Rush namechecked them as an influence. That's why Puff Daddy can have a Number One hit with a mildly revamped Sting composition 14 years after it first topped the charts, and why an album of reggae Police covers can be released in 1997.
The Police wilfully disintegrated at the height of their mid-'80s success, partly due to constant ego clashes between Sting and Copeland, but mostly because the singer was tired of superstardom and hankered after a more low-key career. Now there are strong rumours of an imminent reunion - which the band themselves refuse to deny. If this happens, critics will once more scoff. But stadiums, no doubt, will once more overflow. As will bank balances, of course.
NME, August 12, 1978 The first profile of the trio in the inkies occurs by default when Roy Carr exposes the true identity of punky one-hit wonder Klark Kent. He is Stewart Copeland, drummer with "informal New Wavers" The Police.
Melody Maker, December 2, 1978 In the band's first proper interview, John Pidgeon hails "the best rock and roll band I've seen in years" before praising their shrewd financial acumen. Simon Frith finds the band's Top 20 debut 'Roxanne' "pinched neurotic and difficult to dance to... but the critics like it and, as I've said the critics are always right." Frith, now Professor of English Studies at Strathclyde University, currently chairs the profoundly controversial Mercury Music Prize panel.
NME, April 28, 1979 Nick Kent witnesses the beginnings of Policemania in New York at a show attended by the city's hipster elite. He predicts the trio will be "the first of the new wave groups to crack the seemingly impenetrable American market."
NME, June 9, 1979 At a Glasgow show, Glenn Gibson astutely claims that "The Police look like being the major surprise success of 1979... Sting will be famous and successful for years and years, though not in any flamboyant way; steady and dependable like his music."
Melody Maker, June 9, 1979 In an interview with Sting, Mark Williams raises the 'punk fakers' question. "We never called ourselves punks," argues the singer. "We're a traditional group in many ways. We can all actually play and sing, and we're not totally dependent on image or hysterical behaviour."
NME, September 1, 1979 Nick Kent pinpoints The Police as "a force to be reckoned with, deserving neither the contempt of new wave elitism nor the sycophantic blessings of many of the old guard." In the same issue Ian Stewart finds "a clean, commercial machine" headlining the Reading festival. "Somehow they've contrived an immaculate blend of orthodox rock with reggae and boast one of the best new white voices I've heard in years."
Melody Maker, September 22, 1979 Allan Jones meets Sting at home in Battersea, "a home-loving, average house-husband" with his actress wife Frances Tomelty and three-year-old son Joe in tow. Jones also relates the Police story in great detail pinpointing the love-hate tug of war between Sting and Copeland. "Musically, I thought Stewart's ideas were shit " Sting recalls, "but the energy, the dynamism of the guy really affected me." For his part, Copeland mocks his fellow Policeman's anti-materialist pose: "He's a real breadhead. If it had looked to him like The Police were about to fold, he'd have taken the job with Billy Ocean..." Andy Summers is the most circumspect of the trio, wryly relating how his session-muso friends reacted to him joining a new wave band. "A lot of people thought I'd lost my marbles. There was definitely a certain amount of sniggering behind my back. Especially when the dyed blond hair appeared." Jones also traces a link between the band's punk outcast status in the UK and their pursuit of US superstardom: "We were forced to turn to America, because here virtually every door was locked to us " explains Sting. "I really think bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols had it too easy. It was a walkover for them." Miles Copeland meanwhile, admits his band are "opportunists" and "prepared to do anything for success." Sting is equally upfront about The Police being "a nice little business... most bands just don't make money. They just squander it on producers and cocaine and lots of other bullshit." In the same issue, John Pidgeon reviews the band's second album 'Reggatta De Blanc' as "enough to convince even cloth-eared sceptics that The Police are about to become the biggest trio since Cream." The band's second album yields more classic Police singles - 'Message In A Bottle' and 'Walking On The Moon' - and defines their sparse, bouncy, pop-era sound.
NME, September 29, 1979 Tony Stewart is less overwhelmed by 'Reggatta De Blanc'. "Their brilliance is erratic over the length of an album their 'uniqueness' "superficial." In the same issue, Pete Archer finds The Police blazingly confident but depressingly clinical at Hammersmith Odeon. "Their music doesn't bow at any altars and merely winks at heritage. They alienated nobody as their appeal is diverted dead centre... but they are regulation rebels that your mother might love."
NME, April 12, 1980 For a hefty interview with Paul Morley in India, Sting poses with a sword and princely garb on the NME cover. By now, the Police frontman is shameless in his plans for world domination. Predating Oasis and U2, he claims: "The Beatles are definitely the blueprint for almost any group... why not sell great music to the masses? I think it's a great objective to have. The easiest thing in the world is to appeal to a minority." However he does betray a pang of conscience: "We shouldn't be able to make this amount of money and still be loved by this many people... next year I'll be rich and that's when the rot could set in." Explaining the trio's internal politics, Sting admits: "There's a healthy antagonism in the group because we're all strong egotists. Stewart and I have an intense rivalry, but we don't hate each other." He also confesses his missionary-style intention to "get rid of the negative stereotypes, the ones that almost destroyed rock music." The singer also hints at future post-Police plans: "I'd like my career to be a long one and I don't really want to stay just a rock'n'roll singer. I think there are more graceful ways of growing old."
Melody Maker, July 26, 1980 More money talk as Allan Jones meets Sting and Andy Summers, both now tax exiles in Ireland. "From the very beginning we've said that money equals power and power's what we want," argues Sting. "I'm not happier because I'm rich, but it certainly dulls the pain." He does, however, astutely note that "basically we're already dinosaurs, but we're trying not to be."
NME, September 20, 1980 The tide of goodwill which greeted the band's phenomenal rise begins to turn. Max Bell is unmoved by the chart-topping single 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. "Underneath it they're lovable, dependable, safe. Sting is the best-looking man in the world and The Police are better than The Beatles. I just wish he'd try a different voice for a change."
Melody Maker, October 4, 1980 The third Police album 'Zenyatta Mondatta', leaves Lynden Barber disappointed by "soup-kitchen banalities, riffs that plod without conviction, less than ingenious playing from hearts of coal, kindergarten lyrics to make us squirm with embarrassment." Although it contains smash hits 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' and 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da', the familiar formula sounds watery and tired.
NME, October 4, 1980 Julie Burchill is similarly dismissive about 'Zenyatta Mondatta'. "This is really light entertainment, the sound of thick skin." Sting, she complains, "suffers from the '60s insistence that rock is the art form which does best by the ambitious beauty; you only have to see Sting smile as he takes off his shirt to see that he is an actor."
NME, December 6, 1980 Reviewing the single 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da', Paul Morley grumbles: "Is it all over so soon? If they've got nothing left they should just stay right out of this race...'
Melody Maker, January 3, 1981 Ian Pye fingers further Police banality in a tent on Tooting Common: "Polished pop, steeped in ersatz Jamaican culture and Sting's safely packaged sex appeal... like new Aryans, perfect solution: uniform, assured."
NME, February 7, 1981 Chris Salewicz meets the band for a business-like cover interview in New York. "We got in through the back door in 1977," admits Sting. "We weren't the real thing. But the revolution was upon us, and you had to pick sides. I thought: 'I'm certainly not going to go with the Genesis mob.'" The singer is equally pragmatic about US success: "There's no turnover whatsoever in America. That's why I'm so pleased about making it here. We're here for the next ten years now." The singer also complains that 'De Do Do Do...' was "grossly misunderstood... the lyrics are about banality, about the abuse of words." Sting then explains away any potential ideological conflict with manager Miles Copeland with some interesting logic. "Miles has this very Iaissez faire rightist attitude in which he sees rock'n'roll as bringing freedom to all these obscure places we've played. As far as I'm concerned, though, the reason we've done them is because a world-class group shouldn't just be restricted to being big in the Western world." The former teacher also wryly observes that: "There isn't much difference between rock'n'roll and teaching. It's the same job. You're entertaining delinquents for an hour."
NME, August 2, 1981 At Milton Keynes, Paul Du Noyer damns the band's Rockatta De Bowl stadium show with faint praise. "They still leave me utterly cold - and yet I'm not unhappy to see The Police where they are - they're unique and sharp and original and their frontman projects a humane. responsible kind of stardom." The first sighting of Sting's stand-up double bass hints at future solo leanings.
NME, September 26, 1981 Lynn Hanna finds Sting tiring of the stardom treadmill: "I'm a target and I get really paranoid about it. I just long for anonymity again." The increasingly serious singer talks about Northern Ireland, nuclear war and the new Police album, 'Ghost In The Machine', inspired by Arthur Koestler's book of the same name. Koestler was a psychologist who fervently opposed the behaviourist model of human conditioning, arguing for a more transcendent and spiritual model of the self. Sting also claims: "My songs are apolitical. I hate politics. I hate politicians, I hate the mess they've made of the world." The singer concludes, without irony, that "there's nothing worse than appearing on 'TOTP' if you're over 35. I find that shocking, really sad. It's not dignified and I want to retain dignity." Sting was last spotted on the programme at the spritely age of 44.
Melody Maker, October 3, 1981 The news pages report that the BBC have banned the video for 'Invisible Sun', the new Police single, because its images of Northern Ireland "could be misinterpreted as a political statement." This is the latest and most serious in a series of BBC objections to the subject matter of Police singles, including 'Roxanne' (prostitution), 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' (a teacher engaging in sex with a pupil) and 'Can't Stand Losing You' (suicide - the sleeve actually depicted a hanging man). Meanwhile, Paul Colbert finds the trio tough, ambitious and refreshed by their six-month break from the music business on 'Ghost In The Machine'. "The best record they've made and a better advert for a holiday than a topless beach at Nice." Despite the inclusion of chart-topping hits like 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magi', Colbert also notes an increasingly sombre sound and political edge to the band's songwriting. "Sting today has greater confidence as a political and social commentator: he's no more certain that conditions will or can change, but is intent on arguing them."
NME, October 3, 1981 Charles Shaar Murray is less impressed with 'Ghost In the Machine'. "O Sting, where is thy depth?" he protests, trashing an album which "combines a woolly sound with woolly thinking to minimum effect... dull music with worthy sentiments attached." Of the dense, smoothed-out new Police sound, Murray sarcastically observes: "They now sound like a cross between the Bee Gees and a reggaefied Yes, which I'm sure everyone will agree is one hell of an advance."
Melody Maker, October 17, 1981 Paul Colbert finds Sting in a political rage over the 'Invisible Sun' ban. "I don't want riots, but I can see why they happen. It couldn't be worse for the kids, society's done f***-all for them." He also finds the band wearying of their "three laughing blond heads" image and closing a career chapter. "Basically I don't need another Number One," sighs Sting. "I don't care whether we go on, or are successful as a group."
NME, December 5, 1981 'Spirits In The Material World' finds The Police broody and bookish, and is the first of their singles to fall outside the hallowed Top Ten for over two years. Barney Hoskyns is unconvinced by the trio's new mature direction: "spiritually immaterial, worldly as ever - as in 'bent on gain'..."
NME, January 2, 1982 Richard Cook enthuses about The Police's Wembley Arena show while ruefully noting that their huge size has blunted their message. "The dark spirits are gone. Good Bloke politics: perhaps it's all that can be asked of a very big pop group." Sting, of course, will eventually become Pop's Good Blokes' Ambassador to the World.
NME, May 8, 1982 During a sabbatical year of emotional turbulence and non-band projects, notably Sting's acting role as an angelic incubus in Dennis Potter's 'Brimstone And Treacle', The Police still find time to consolidate their stadium rock status in the US. In New Jersey, Richard Cook reckons these mammoth venues are killing the band. "Captured by this treadmill of touring, beat by the almost insurmountable odds against bringing real imagination and life to these identical concrete expanses, they have surrendered themselves to a catalogue of gestures."
Melody Maker, September 4, 1982 Paolo Hewitt meets Sting on the roof of his new Hampstead home. In the midst of acrimonious separation from his first wife, the singer rants bitterly about tabloid intrusion. He seems less enamoured of rock'n'roll than ever. "Rock music has become part of the establishment... how can you be a rebel when rebellion is the norm? Therefore rock'n'roll has lost its power as a revolutionary force."
NME, June 18, 1983 Back after their lengthy fallow period, the muscular, dynamic new album 'Synchronicity' finds the trio now dealing in percussive, stadium-sized modernism. It contains just one chart-topping hit, the requiem-like 'Every Breath You Take', plus the band's least successful singles for five years, 'Synchronicity II' and 'King Of Pain', both of which will only manage Number 17. All the same, Richard Cook is impressed. "A performer of greatness taking veiled risks. A record of real passion that is impossible to truly decipher." As it turns out, this will be the trio's last album.
Melody Maker, June 18, 1983 Adam Sweeting is more ambivalent towards 'Synchronicity', finding "a patina of books having been read... like Marks & Spencer, The Police guarantee quality. The comparisons don't end there. The retail business isn't renowned for its daredevil sense of adventure, nor its profound emotional content." Anticipating Sting's solo career, Sweeting concludes: "It doesn't take much of a leap of the imagination to foresee The Police as a fusion group. Ugh."
Melody Maker, August 27, 1983 Paul Colbert witnesses a career-capping Police show at Shea Stadium, the iconic venue christened by The Beatles nearly two decades earlier, where 70,000 tickets sold out in five hours.
NME, September 10, 1983 Richard Grabel is similarly enthused by the Shea Stadium show: "The Police take this mythological perch and treat it honourably."
NME, October 29, 1983 Sensing a creative decline beneath the heroic bluster, Julie Burchill greets the latest Police single 'Synchronicity II' with disdain. "The Police still sell, but there is a sour smell about their aura these days."
NME, December 3, 1983 For what will prove to be the last Police cover story, Richard Cook finds Sting hinting darkly at "terrible fights" and "mental breakdown" during the making of 'Synchronicity'. Predicting his later "alienated Englishman abroad" image, Sting admits he is now a "citizen of the world... my heart doesn't fill with pride at seeing a Union Jack." Talk of the band's future is ominous: "I am tired of the pressure of fame... when this tour is finished I could never play again, I could actually walk out of this group. That's the kind of freedom that interests me."
NME, January 7, 1984 In Nottingham, Barney Hoskyns notes the lack of teenage girls and a mechanical coldness to the band's playing. "It could just be the Mad Max-goes-New Romantic togs that fail to convince, but the routine of performance has caught up with him. A forced affability masks the gulf between the man and his audience."
Melody Maker, January 14, 1984 Adam Sweeting surveys what will become the last official Police single, 'King Of Pain'. "The chorus is quite pleasant, but I shall never be able to take Sting's metaphysical tendencies very seriously. How about a spot of death and transfiguration?"
Melody Maker, May 25, 1985 Promoting his solo album 'The Rhythmatist', Stewart Copeland explains: "I haven't been a member of The Police for a year now... we haven't broken up. We'll be working together at some point." Copeland clearly hasn't consulted Sting, however. Two months later, the born-again jazzer releases his 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles' album, effectively ending The Police with a whimper rather than a bang. The trio reform for a handful of Amnesty International dates the following year, but their future as a touring or recording band is over forever. Or, if current reunion rumours can be believed, for at least 11 years...
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