05.01.1982 - Trouser Press
Hello, sports fans! We're in the 76ers' dressing room at the Spectrum in Philadelphia - but that tall, gangly fella slumped on the end of a bench isn't an exhausted ball player. It's Stewart Copeland of the Police, who's just spent 75 minutes artfully thrashing his drumkit in front of an avidly admiring throng of over 20,000.
A half hour earlier Copeland, 29, whipped through the Police's encore like a madman; then he literally bounced off the drum riser with all the energy of a guy who could easily sit down and do it all again. Now, though, he reclines drained and pallid while assorted "radio people" and others he doesn't know mill around waiting to congratulate a member of the band. Let's get a word from this athletic musician:
"Sure, it takes a lot out of you. It just takes a while to catch up with you, for you to wind down. Heck, after a good gig I've been known to jump straight onto the top of Sting's bass amp, the feeling of exhilaration's so strong. I can't do that after a sound check."
Sounds like a guy who loves his work, right? True enough, Copeland does enjoy being one-third of the Police, and for the past three years he's had plenty of work to relish. The rewards, for the ego as well as wallet, haven't hurt either. But the Police are not your typical rock stars, whose next move is just like the last one - whose variations amount to changing producers, managers, stage presentations, girlfriends.
The Police wouldn't have lasted as long as an ice cube in a microwave without a fierce belief in their own worth. Yet the members' perspectives are changing; they say they have to change. Sting (Gordon Sumner) admits before the Spectrum show that the group has achieved its aims "to a large extent and suggests a period of rethinking. No one in the band seems certain about the next move, but conversations en route from New York to Philadelphia, and at the gig, provided a few clues.
The lobby of the Berkshire Place hotel is a combination living room/atrium out of 'House and Garden'. The swank interior, peopled by well-heeled folk whispering in foreign languages, presents an extreme contrast with the seedy hotels by the Police before exploding into mass popularity.
The band - Sting, Copeland, and guitarist Andy Summers quickly emerges from this moneyed cocoon and piles into the tour bus to escape the bitter cold. We negotiate the Lincoln Tunnel bottleneck and cruise south through New Jersey while Copeland discusses the whereabouts of Klark Kent, the drummer's alter ego who released a mini-album in 1980. After some mumbo-jumbo about Kent presiding over his Army of the Church of Kinetic Ritual, supposedly mediating conflicts in Beirut, Copeland hits closer to home when he confesses he wasn't quite sure what Kent was up to when he went into a recording studio.
Stewart Copeland, smirks ironically, "You see, there is a fine line between true originality and creativity, and plain old self indulgence. The last one to be able to make that distinction clearly is the artist himself. It really is a power rush to play everything yourself in your own studio. I've got a 24-track studio at home and I can spend hours there, but that's really doodling, entertaining myself. I certainly feel stronger as a member of the Police than I do on my own, and the other members of the band pull talents out of me that I need to have pulled out. When you're involved with other people it becomes more serious, like a profession; there are responsibilities attached to the art form then. Like running a race, too, it's a challenge - you can run better when people are breathing down your neck."
Or sneering into your headphone? Copeland describes a typical Police recording session after basic tracks are done, as "one of us overdubbing in the studio, one of us off by the pool, and the third sitting by the mixing desk being abusive, insulting and inflammatory. Which, as it turns out, gets the job done."
The Police's system of checks and balances keeps egomania under control.
"One idea is yours and the other isn't," Copeland posits. "One of them is better than the other, probably. The day is won by whoever can win the support of the third. In the end, though, I usually have the last word on rhythm, Andy on guitar and Sting on vocals."
Summers, in the middle of his own interview, leans across to disagree: "That's not true!"
"Yes it is."
"It is not."
We joke our way back into our respective conversations. Summers later declares, "Each guy has to please the other two. We try to reach compromises that suit us all but aren't weak. Rarely does any one of us get his own way on anything."
Other tensions arise from outside the group. "There was a lot of depression in the studio when we made 'Zenyatta Mondatta'," Copeland says. We didn't have that much time; there were record executives hanging around the studio and stuff, all good vibes and all, but still making us very aware by their presence that we had to deliver an important piece of product. We could actually feel the pressure."
Copeland insists the band's label, A&M, wasn't trying to interfere; however, "in the, er, rarefied atmosphere of 'art', being reminded of the place of that 'art' in the commercial world can be distracting. That's one reason why we recorded 'Ghost In The Machine' down in Montserrat - it's a 12-hour flight to the nearest record company!"
Time and commerce weren't major factors in the making of 'Ghost'. The Police had six weeks to work and Copeland says with an authoritative air, "A certain sales pattern was guaranteed from the success of previous albums."
There were few distractions. By midday, Copeland says, they'd get bored with sun'n'surf, and retire to the studio "for a jam or something." Thus another track would get underway.
Little of the album was written in the studio, but most of it was arranged there. Copeland explains the usual procedure.
"Whoever wrote the song will show the others the chords. In my case, I don't know the names of 'em so I just play 'em. Andy looks at my fingers and says, 'You moron, that can't be done,' or why have you done that?' and everybody figures out whatever they can. In Montserrat, Andy was in the studio, Sting in the mixing room playing through the board and I was in the dining room in the next building. We all have our cans [headphones] on; while they get the chords I fiddle with the rhythms. Then we run through it once. Usually, somebody plays too many times around the chorus or something that's not right, and we do it once more. If we haven't got it then, it starts to get lost. Usually we have, though; 'One World (Not Three)' was right the very first time, for instance."
Ghost was the first Police album where enthusiasm and excitement grew with each successive track. "One of us, I think it was Sting," Copeland recalls, " had said something to the effect that no group these days can make more than three albums. Now that we've done four that quote keeps coming back at us, but we still got it up."
When things were bad, however, they were horrid. The spectre of commercial success crept in when it came to record 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic': "Sting had this demo tape which everyone said sounded like a number one hit single. That was the most castrating effect - every time we recorded a take somebody'd say, 'That doesn't sound like a number one hit song, but the demo does.'
"We went around and around trying everything. Sting had this keyboard player [Jean Roussel] on the demo, so we flew him in. That didn't work so we threw that out (LP credits notwithstanding). Then we had another go at doing it with the band. It took five days and 30 or 40 takes and still wasn't working. By the fifth day we'd given up on everything. I was feeling stiff and pissed off: 'Not another day on this - what the hell are we gonna do?' The first thing that morning I overdubbed drums on Sting's demo. We overdubbed everything on top of his demo, gradually replacing everything on his tape with us. That was what worked.
"Everything else was easy. We only took two or three days off during the six weeks we made the album, but those were the only days we felt anything near the pressure we felt making 'Zenyatta'. As it turned out, 'Zenyatta' was a hit album, and 'Magic' was a number one hit all over the world, except for here [where it stalled at number three]. So I suppose the pressure works out OK; it's just very uncomfortable at the time."
To this writer, 'Ghost In The Machine' sounds like the Police trying out various ideas to fill out and vary its sound: prominent vocal harmonies, Sting's overdubbed sax riffs, bits of keyboards.
"None of the stuff you mention, except for Sting's sax-playing is new," Copeland says. "It doesn't seem new to us, but I guess the uses were less prominent before." The more frequent keyboards were a result of new "toys" offered the band by manufacturers; Sting had also been working on his piano playing, and so wound up composing on piano.
Copeland attributes the moody tenor of much of the material to the band's shared experiences of stardom and touring, particularly after a jaunt to Asia.
"I grew up in Beirut" - Daddy Copeland was a CIA operative there - "so I knew the conditions that prevail in the rest of the world. We argue a lot about what goes in the world. Sting's lyrics are totally his - he doesn't consult with any of us - but they reflect the attitude of the group as a whole."
Copeland's own writing bears this out. He jokingly explains that his Darkness has two sets of lyrics: one (unrecorded) about Beirut's red-light district, the other "about how sometimes I'd rather be a slug, 'cause life would be easier that way, if not better. It's as good a song as I can write." He wishes he could write more that would be suitable for the Police's Midas touch.
"A group in our situation practically demands to get slated but we got 100% per good reviews," Copeland crows about recent media coverage. "People have to own up that we play with more intensity and power and creativity and originality than just about anybody else. Even people who don't like us have to admit that if you're into music, we do it better than anybody."
Whew! But after this barrage, Copeland admits there is such as thing as personal taste, and there's no reason to expect everyone to love the Police.
"That's what surprised me about the consistent reviews and sales all over the world for 'Ghost': I didn't think it was possible to please everybody. It was certainly not our intention to try, never has been. The idea's always been that whoever we do please we want to please a lot. We've followed that even in the way we toured: It didn't matter if there were 60 people in a club as long as they were there to see us, and were foaming at the mouth when they left."
"The fact that we did it our way and succeeded sometimes irritates people. On the one hand it's Machiavellian, on the other it's Daniel Boone trailblazing - it depends on whether or not you like the music. Either we're ripping off reggae and are the lowest common denominator, or we're totally original geniuses."
Andy Summers pivotal position has a lot to do with why the Police differs from the stereotypical power trio. Copeland says the band considered adding a keyboard player for the 'Ghost In The Machine' tour, but decided against upsetting their personal chemistry. Summers, 39, is more specific,
"A keyboard player and myself would be in the same harmonic area. Figuring out who'd do what would just not work. The joy for me has been that I've had no one to contend with. One of the things that has made the Police so good instrumentally is the clarity of sounds; that's something people do respond to." The album's horns were merely fillips, so there was no reason not to add trumpet and two saxes for the tour. "Chops," a New Jersey trio, contributed what Summers calls "punchiness on top of the classic Police sound."
Summers' part in that sound has evolved from his original feeling that he was one of three soloists interacting at once. He still thinks of his playing as a continuous guitar solo, "only a little bit more orchestral - a harmonic support and shaping of the songs. We play a reggae-based music, but I write harmonically on top of that, as influenced by Messian, Bartok, Schoenberg and Takemitsu, as well as jazz. It's a more wide-ranging role than most lead guitarists have played in the past."
Summers has reportedly found it difficult to accept that most of his compositions are not suitable for the Police. He does sound defensive about his writing, admitting that, because he doesn't sing, his natural tendency is to write instrumental music, songs being "more of an effort".
Yet Summers has apparently come to terms with his limitations, and even found other outlets for his writing.
"I write anyway. You know, 'Here comes another Police album,' so we all off and try to write songs. When you sit down and open yourself up the stuff that emerges is amazing, and towards the end of one three-month period I just couldn't get it down fast enough. Some of it has been farmed out in French commercials and a movie; some of it's been sent off by the publisher to other artists, and so on."
His biggest source of pride is writing and performing an album with Robert Fripp. "I wanted to find another guitarist to have an ongoing situation where we could work on material together outside of the group. A group like the Police can get so intense that it generates claustrophobia and you lose sight of yourself as a player. It's necessary to go outside, have challenges aside from the players you're familiar with - in effect, get fresh input for the group itself."
Summers didn't search long for a partner; he and Fripp come from the same town (Bournemouth) and have known each other for years. "His frame of reference was broad enough," Summers says. "We have the same vocabulary, but our approaches and our experiences are pretty different. There are enough similarities and dissimilarities to make it an interesting combination."
Fripp met Summers in between recording the reformed King Crimson album and taking the band on tour. The pair had only two weeks to record, starting from scratch, but were so excited by the results that they want to tape another session, before committing the best ideas to vinyl.
"I've mixed down the 12 tracks we recorded and they sound great, but we both decided it was getting so good toward the end that we should do some more. In May we want to play together for about 10 days, play a few gigs in England and then go into the studio."
The tracks already completed were cut at "a funky little studio in Bournemouth - just the two of us and an engineer. Every track started the same way, just two guitars. On some of them I played a little bass or put on a bit of percussion or string synthesiser. There are no drums, but you don't miss 'em. Some of it is very accessible and some is very avant-garde."
Fripp's Frippertronics tape looping was confined to one track. "That's Robert's own thing. It's difficult to adapt and not as exciting as two guitars playing off each other and improvising."
The fun and enjoyment Summers says he's found in the duo project has bolstered his determination to breach the "hermetically sealed" confines of superstardom. At the same time, he's proud of what the Police have accomplished - the more so since he was the only one to give up a steady paying position (retainer from Kevin Ayer's band and a growing reputation as a session musician) to found the group.
"I saw the potential and that there would be no weak links; it was a question of sticking to our guns. The first time we played on a huge stage was hard because of the extra volume. I thought, 'Jesus, it's hard to get tight when your this loud.' In a way, though, it's not as intimidating as playing a small club with people right up front examining your every pore. In an arena you can't see the vastness, you can only sense it. It's not so claustrophobic, but it is more depersonalising; the trick is to make it seem like a small room. Sting is a master at that: getting the audience singing, creating a circle of energy pulling everybody in, making it more intimate.
"I've been pretty successful," Summers admits. "A lot of people have been influenced by the Police and my playing. I've received a number of accolades; I don't think the guitar in the Police sounds like it does any other group. But I don't want to be satisfied. I want to go on itching and trying to scratch that itch. If you become satisfied, you're at a stage of rest, really - it's death. As Picasso, I think, once said, beauty should be convulsive. I never want to be in a state of rest artistically."
Sting is tired and concerned about talking his voice out before the show; during the bus ride the 30-year-old singer bassist retires to a bunk. When the band prepares for a sound check after pulling into the Spectrum's loading area, Sting takes a fancy to a headless Steinberger bass Summers has on loan, and plays some furious riffs on it. (He decides to use it live along with his equally unusual electric stand-up, nicknamed "Brian.") Afterward, in the relatively low-key hubbub of the dressing room, he sits down for a brief talk.
Lately, news about Sting has centred around his non-Police thespian activities. In March of last year he made 'Artemis 81'", a three-hour drama shown on the BBC without interruption around Christmas. Sting describes playwright David Rudkin as "one of those very esoteric, very dense, difficult writers. I played an angel."
That's quite a contrast to 'Brimstone' a feature film Sting's just completed: "the biggest thrill I've ever had." He plays (opposite Lady Olivier - "that's class") a character who is "very bad - and very nice. A very ambitious character - he could actually be the devil! I seem to be typecast as some sort of deity; both ends of the moral spectrum seem to meet." The script - "very black, very funny and beautifully British" - was written by Dennis Potter, who wrote the remake of 'Pennies from Heaven'.
"The alternatives were blockbuster musicals, a la 'Grease'; I turned down about 50 of those. I've just been asked to play Ariel in 'The Tempest' by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I'll have to think very carefully about that, since that would be for an entire season. It's a lot of time, but it's also the best school for acting there is."
Acting is a whole new world for Sting. "It's exciting, because I don't know how to do it yet" - unlike music, in which he feels he is reaching his limits.
"I started out as a guitarist but found more power on the bass, especially since I sing too. Having the top and the bottom end, I can set the parameters of the harmonic structure - contrapuntal and melodic roles together. But now I've reached as far as I'll go on bass; I'm no Jaco Pastorius. I'm refining my playing almost out of existence."
For Sting, songs, not instrumental technique, are the thing. To that end, he's been working on his piano playing as well as learning sax and even oboe. As for the Police's increasingly political song lyrics (of which Sting supplies the bulk), he says, "We haven't got time to be the Barry Manilows of rock any more - the three jolly minstrels with blond heads. I'm worried what's going to happen to the world. We've reached a state of crisis, and my worries are the band's now too. Besides, the songs don't make you unhappy; you can still dance to 'em." Moses - or Dylan - on the mountain?
"Tonight they'll get entertainment with a capital 'E', but when I'm asked about the derivation of the songs I'll say what they're really about. I am concerned about the problems of the world without trying to be pompous. Even the group onstage tonight has a strong political gestalt about it: three Aryans and three black musicians performing together."
Sting downplays reports of conflicts with his two partners. "Journalists are always trying to get into the politics of the group, trying to get dirt on how I supposedly ride roughshod over the others, because it makes good copy. If I could get away with it, I wouldn't do any more interviews. Some are enjoyable, but the music says it all."
Not really, though; it doesn't say where the group is headed. Sting says he's expanded his thinking from day-to-day to year-to-year economically, but he's not sure about the Police's next move at all.
"This is the first time I've done (an arena tour of the US) but I don't want to do this again next year. I want to extend it, make it bigger somehow, different; if not, something else will have to satisfy my pilgrim soul. But the next move is certainly not a matter of shifting more units. I've changed my way of thinking quite radically in the last six months. Now I'm waiting."
For what? What about acting? Won't that career conflict with obligations to the group?
"It's not as if we're bound together in financial brotherhood. We're all very free; the group could end tomorrow without damaging any of us. Acting certainly puts a new angle on the whole thing, more interesting than 'rock star tour-album-tour-album.' Since it makes me more interesting - it did, in fact, help on the last album q.e.d. it makes the music more interesting. It's a way to recharge the batteries without wasting any time.
"I'm not irresponsible; I'm not just gonna walk out. But if something really interests me, and I see the group standing in my way... I know it sounds really callous, but..." He trails off and shrugs.
"I just don't want to keep regurgitating the same rituals. I suppose it's all part of refining myself out of existence: the songs can be there, the voice can be there, but me, I'd rather not be talking to any interviewers. I'd rather be at home with my feet up."
As opposed to the past, Sting now keeps his stage persona isolated from his "own" personality.
"I'm thirty year's old. I'm an adult. I'm not the person you see screaming on stage. When I see people screaming at me, they're screaming at an imposed image they think they see, not the real me. When someone attacks me (in print) they don't know me, never will. All that's out there is a pretend person, a shadow. Offstage I'm quiet, introverted; in a crowded room I'll go into a corner. It's a sort of controlled schizophrenia."
That evening's show is quite good, although a far cry from some heady, intense Police acts of the past. Summers and Copeland had mentioned that live the band was still open to jamming and improvising, but any such loose moments arc now filled with Sting's audience singalongs. (In fairness, he did manage to turn the Spectrum crowd into a surprisingly effective chorale.)
But after the conversations and show I find a distinct imbalance of power in the Police; Copeland, the group's founder and prime mover, has the most team spirit. Summers, the band's most seasoned musician, recognises the difficulty of maintaining a "Police style" without repeating himself.
Sting, however, seems less committed. Will his urge to write messages (in vinyl, if not in bottles) suffice his "pilgrim soul"?
"Most groups don't even make one decent album, let's face it," Sting says, revising his three-album estimate. "If they're lucky they make two. The groups that'll be remembered in history make a lot of them." Then he smiles.
"Maybe we'll make five."