Article "The Group with a Sting"

[Updated: May 24,1999]

Author: Francie Illingworth
From: "Police & Sting - Star Portrait No.17"
Date: 1979

THE GROUP WITH A STING

A few abort months ago, empty seats at a Police gig were about as common as falling leaves in November. Ask your average fan in the street what he or she thought of the Police in those days and you'd probably have received a stream of abuse directed at the boys and girls in blue who defend our liberties, so they say, with all the subtlety, intelligence and sense of justice of a defective steam hammer. Not so today. Your average fan in the street would almost certainly reply to your query by saying 'I think the band' s great' before hurling forth that stream of abuse. Moreover, getting into a Police gig today is about as easy as joining up with those same boys and girls in blue if you happen to be a thoroughly honest midget. Difficult isn't the word!

Success was quite a long time coming for the three-piece Police, and the journey to the top has not been without its obstacles, but the peak, when it was reached, arrived with an unexpected suddenness. One week the band were playing to tiny audiences (including one that numbered a total of four people) on a back-breaking tour of America and almost the next found them selling-out three-thousand seat halls on their very first headlining tour of Britain. On stage, they combine a studied sense of cool with a complete commitment to their audience - no matter how small it is. Their music is hard-edged and rhythmic but full of unforgettable tunes and hooks. Old- fashioned pop with a punk consciousness. It's a winning combination. 'Roxanne', 'Can't Stand Losing' and 'Message in a Bottle' have introduced the world to a band who will very likely be one of the definitive groups of the eighties (and we're nearly there). The sound is almost mechanical and the group (especially in the person of bassist- songwriter and spokesman, Sting) stylishly arrogant, but audience sing along with the songs and chase the three Police into the streets. It's the kind of contradiction that makes stars. This is the band that everybody seemed to hate not long ago. Punks accused them of cashinq-in on the new music, of exploiting reggae and commercialising the new wave. Straight rock fans looked on them as punks, and looked away as quickly as possible. And while they shared a record company with Sham 69, Squeeze, the Cortinas, Chelsea and the legendary Mark P back in the heady summer of '77, everybody knew that the group's members had all been in older bands with all the musical qualities abhorred by the new wave. And, as the band members themselves recall, the music press ignored them when it wasn't slagging them off. Now, things could hardly be better. The Police are everybody's darlings. They have three hit singles and two chart albums behind them. They are front page material in all the music papers and the charismatic Sting has become a celebrity in his own riqht, with a key role in the film 'Quadrophenia' appearances on radio and TV and a part in the award-winning new film 'Radio On'.

This has all happened within the past year. The band, which came together in 1977 is still recovering from a near break-up when Sting WAS about to leave. 'There was . . . one real crisis,' drummer Stewart Copeland remembers. 'Sting was offered a job with Billy Ocean for 90 notes a week. We were starving at the time. We were playing with Cherry Vanilla for a fiver a gig end sometimes she couldn't even pay us that. But I really put her over a barrel, I forced the money out of her. Just to keep Sting. He could have gone, I know. 'Cause he's a real breadhead, and he goes for the money. If it had looked to him like The Police was about to fold, he would've taken the job.' That's really the story of the band's success - a combination of dedication and an acute ambition to make it. It somehow places them far outside the rough'n'ready punk philosophy, but like the music it seems to suit the times. And, just in case anybody has any doubts about where the Police stand and have always stood, Sting himself is quite willing to put the record straight. 'We never called ourselves punks,' he says. 'In fact I think 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. I think the swing is to that sort of group. Originally I could identify with a lot of what the punks were reacting against, 'cause I'd seen it first hand. But I wanted to channel the energy and excitement of the new wave into a more musical form . . . I thought it'd be a winner. Obviously we're older than most of the people who listen to us, and because of that I think we have a duty to them - to be a force for good things. The new wave was very ambiguous. On the one hand it was fresh and free and wanting revolution. On the other hand it was wallowing in the degeneracy that's always been part of rock'n'roll...'

Sting's philosophy might be right and the band's success seems to prove that punk energy without punk outrage is exactly what's wanted today, but back in 1977 things were different and only the band members' determination, enthusiasm and ambition guaranteed their survival. At one early gig, Sting almost grounded the group before it had taken off. He announced to an eager audience that 'we're going to play some punk now, which means that the lyrics are banal and the music is terrible , It was hardly the right approach to a 1977 audience. 'I was reactionary,' Sting says now 'but that was just because l wasn't sure where we stood with all those punk bands. It took me a while. Stewart's enthusiasm carried me along for quite a while, until I actually started to contribute something to the group.' In the end, what he learnt to contribute was more than just songs, a voice and a few bass runs - it was the will to succeed. The Police was Stewart Copeland's idea. Stewart was the drummer in a band called Curved Air and his brother, Miles, ran an agency, public relations company and a string of record labels specialising in punk and new wave music (among the labels involved were Step Forward, Deptford Fun City and Illegal Records). The story goes that after one gig in Newcastle, Stewart was taken to see a local band by a journalist friend. The band was called Last Exit and Sting was the singer and bass player - although he was, at the time, going by his real name, Gordon Sumner. Stewart disliked Last Exit's jazz influenced music but was immediately taken by the singer's voice and command of his audience. For his part, Gordon Sumner was thinking of leaving Last Exit and moving to London with his wife Frances,. and their infant child. Stewart Copeland suggested that if ever he did make the break the two of them should get together in London. The idea for a new band was taking shape in Stewart's mind.

Once in London, Gordon changed his name to Sting, joining up with Stewart Copeland and a guitarist called Henri Padovani in the Police. Henri soon made way for Andy Summers, hot-foot from the Kevin Coyne band, and Miles Copeland became their manager. They put out a single, 'Fallout', on Miles' Illegal Records and prepared to become the latest new wave sensation. When that plan seemed slow in coming to fruition, Sting, still infected by Stewart Copeland's enthusiasm for the Police, looked for ways of making the proverbial fast buck. His wife was/is an actress and, through her agency, he won some small parts in TV ads. He helped sell Brutus jeans and Triumph bras and, when called to play one of three smiling blonds for Wrigley chewing-guns, he persuaded the people making the ad to use the other two Police as well. The dyed blond hair they all sported for this occasion has stayed with them ever since.

Meanwhile, a follow -up single (the classic 'Roxanne') had been released to a somewhat less than ecstatic welcome- Unable or unwilling to contemplate the failure of the Police, the three musicians and their manager agreed on a fresh (and riskier) approach to fame and fortune. With as little fuss and expense as possible, they flew to America and for seven months did little else but play gig after gig sleeping in a van between times. In Syracuse, they played to an audience of four when more other bands would have given up and gone home. But one one the four was a deejay and, if to say 'thank you' to a band that had cared sufficiently to put on a show in those circumstances, he began to play 'Roxanne' on his radio programme. In Austin, a record shop owner heard the band play 'Roxanne' loved it and persuaded the local radio station to play it. The song took-off in the States, followed by the first Police album, 'Outlandos d'Amour'. Back in Britain, the group's major-league record company, A&M, decided to re-release 'Roxanne' and this time it fairly shot up the charts. Months of hard touring had cracked it for the Police. Suddenly they were stars. And Sting, growing more confident of his own abilities and increasingly in demand as an actor (this time in films not ads), began to look back on the past through ever-so- slightly rose tinted glasses. He always knew the Police would succeed, he says now, although in reality had the group not succeeded Sting would have been the first to leave. Success, for him, is not a group effort. 'I only want to be the best,' he says. 'I enjoy being the best. I am an egoist. I wouldn't go on stage to do what I do if I wasn't. I'm supremely self-confident about everything I do.'

Some people say it's arrogance (including Sting: 'it' s professional arrogance, a useful tool for me'), others say it's merely posing (Stewart Copeland has remarked that when Sting appears in public, whatever the occasion, 'he's on stage and when he' s not on stage he doesn't show up'), but whatever the motivation it's the attitude that has taken the Police to the top. A band who may not have known where they were going when they started out, but composed of three individuals who knew they were each going somewhere.


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