The Police, though hardly abstract, weren’t afraid to experiment with some outrageous musical forms. Starting with Outlandos d’Amour, the trio created an idiom enjoyed by millions, both for its polish and musical proficiency. I went back to my collection and listened again for some of the band’s more explosive material.
The Police’s first single, and it’s a piece unlike any other in their superlative canon. For one, there’s no Andy Summers inflecting the music with shrill, soulful serves; instead, we’re treated to Stewart Copeland’s more aggressive approach to rhythm guitar. Secondly, the song lacks Sting’s romantic flourishes; instead, the singer growls through Copeland’s biting, burly exhibition. And yet the song captures an exhilarating spark of pure emotion that emanates all through this rollicking track. Guitarist Henry Padovani swoops in for the punchy guitar break, and very nicely too.
“Be My Girl – Sally”
Although The Police briefly toured as a quartet, Copeland and Sting ultimately agreed that Andy Summers had the greater prowess of the two guitar players, and Padovani was asked to leave the band. The classic lineup then set out to record their debut album, a work brimming with hooks and dazzling imagination. What begins as a conventional pop tune soon changes into something more interesting, as Summers narrates his listeners through a magical tale of indolence and intrigue. Between takes, Sting screams out the chorus title with raucous aplomb, backed by the sound of Copeland’s drums exploding all around him.
Given how well he sings and writes, people have tended to overlook Sting’s wizardry as a bassist. Through the nonsensical lyrics, Sting delivers sounds once thought inconceivable of a four-string instrument, racing his fingers all over the fretboard. Behind him, Copeland focuses on his cymbal work, while Summers’ guitar playing is the epitome of brutal economy.
Regatta De Blanc cemented The Police as torchbearers for reggae, their stylings and soundscapes a perfect choice for punk rockers searching for intellectual escapades. Beneath these trappings, stood three musicians whose musical knowledge proved far more advanced than many of their comrades in the field of rock. They spoke the language of punk, but played the music of jazz pioneers. “Deathwish,” one of two compositions credited to every band-member, channels this electric synergy, with an aesthete that belonged to The Police, and The Police alone.
“Does Everyone Stare”
The band’s second album (Regatta de Blanc), the least dependent on Sting’s leadership, remains the trio’s most assured effort in scope and design. This jaunty piece is one of Copeland’s offerings, demonstrating some welcome humor to the ponderous, probing album. Copeland sings the first verse himself before the bassist joins him to sing the chorus with romping harmony.
“Behind My Camel”
Copeland had written the band’s first single, Sting their second, and both had contributed some of their best material to 1978’s sprawling Regatta De Blanc. Summers, who’d occasionally added to Sting’s acidic work, had largely held out from the writing, but even he felt confident enough to contribute one of his own vignettes to the tidy Zenyatta Mondatta. The haunting guitar figure did little to impress his bandmates, though Summers could still rely on Copeland’s reliable, rock-solid backbeat after Sting declined to contribute anything to the track. However horrified Summers felt at the bassist’s inaction, it didn’t stop him from completing the piece in time for the 1982 Grammys. The Police won Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the tune, and Sting –seemingly unaware of the irony–happily joined his bandmates in accepting the award.
“Shadows in the Rain”
As early as their third album, Sting –now firmly positioned as the band’s chief songwriter –had started writing songs of a more autobiographical nature. Although he was still a long way from opening himself up to the failings that made “Every Breath You Take” such an excitingly voyeuristic listen, Sting was now confident enough to portray himself as a weak-willed wannabe. “I woke up in my clothes again this morning,” he sings. “I don’t know exactly where I am.” Acknowledging his imminent need for medical attention, the vocalist concedes that the doctor:”…does the best with me he can.”
“Hungry for You”
By the time the band had ventured forth with Ghost In the Machine, the Police had largely discarded any semblance they had for a fading England, for a universal landscape that belonged as much to their listener as it did to the band. The band had welcomed the European influences the continent provided them. Sting completed the biting “Demolition Man” while vacationing at Peter O’Toole’s Irish home; “Spirits In The Material World” exemplified the singer’s interest in Russian esoteric literature while “Low Life” was written from the back of a German tour bus. Sting bravely attempts this particular piece en francais.
Barely two minutes in length, this batty pop piece captures Copeland’s penchant for weirdness. It proved Copeland’s last contribution to a Police record, coloring the band’s final album (Synchronicity) with a panache more in keeping with the band’s earlier output than with Sting’s confessional offerings.
“Tea In The Sahara”
Copeland had grown resentful playing to Stings’ whims. Sting had grown tired of compromising his material for Copeland’s thunder. Summers was sick of mediating between bassist and drummer. Synchronicity raced to the top of the Billboard 200 in 1983, offering the band the graceful exit few of their successors have matched. “Tea In The Sahara” closed the album with images of faraway towns and mystical dreams, many of which Sting would embrace as a solo artist, that Copeland flirted with as a soundtrack composer and that Summers captured with his camera.
Photo: The Police (Getty Images)