05.01.1979 - Good Times
How does one describe the Police, a trio that concludes their debut album, 'Outlandos d'Amour', with a politico/punk anthem ('Born in the '50s'), a whimsical ditty about fondling inflatable dolls ('Be My Girl, Sally'), and, last but not least, 'Masoko Tanga', a chant from a past reincarnation of the lead singer, Sting, after he had been hypnotised by a noted British paraphysicist? Throw in the reggae influence pervasive in many Police tunes and the Mozart T-shirt Sting is wearing when we first meet and it is obvious that all available pigeonholes have been clogged with guano.
"From the start we have maintained an autonomy from the (music) business," Sting asserted, by way of an explanation for the Police's eclectic approach. "We don't want the producers and the arrangers; we want control over our own music." As singer, songwriter and bassist for the band, this sovereign musical vision Sting jealously guards is primarily his own, a fact made more apparent watching the band on-stage. There, backed by drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers, the tall blonde bassist with matinee idol features is the focus of activity - his deft, pogo-like leaps punctuating the groups chord-driven hooks and reggae/rock minimalism. And yet, as the lyrics and tempos warrant, Sting can smoothly shift gears, moving from chaos conductor to cutesy crooner without sacrificing any of his punkish innocence.
It is that innocence that forms the impetus behind the charm of 'Roxanne', the Police's first American single. Braced by ska syncopation and strong harmonising in the chorus, 'Roxanne' nevertheless is yet another misty ode for a shady lady of the night. It is Sting's unabashedly fervent vocal that elevates this tune from its shop-worn theme; earnest and reedy in his urgency, he carries out the melodrama without once letting his cheek get in the way of his tongue. Backstage after a recent performance, Sting aired out his sweat-soaked duds over a portable space heater and recounted the iconoclastic success of 'Roxanne' and the Police.
"Stewart and I formed the Police about two years ago with a Corsican guitarist by the name of Henri," he began. "But, with a three-piece group the chemistry has to be exactly right and it just wasn't there for us. Well, one night Andy caught us performing at a gig and told us on the spot that we needed a new guitarist; he demanded to be in the group!
"From there we went into the studio and recorded an album for ourselves and took 'Roxanne' from it for a single. A&M Records picked up 'Roxanne', which was a critical success in England but a commercial flop because the BBC wouldn't play it due to the subject matter. But A&M was keen enough to give us a second chance at a single, 'Can't Stand Losing You', which was actually a hit; it made the Top 40. So A&M released our album and it also started to move up the charts."
With England under its belt, the Police set their sights on stateside success. In a bold but of entrepreneurial ingenuity, they embarked on a guerrilla tour designed to educate A&M in America about their music.
"Last November, we came over on Freddie Laker's budget airways. Paid for it ourselves, no record company backing. We got our own gigs, hired a van and our own equipment, and on a very low level, conducted a tour," Sting proudly recalled. "A&M said, "You're crazy! Don't come! You'll lose a fortune, please, it's embarrassing!," he continued with anarchic glee. "From the reps up to the president they went crazy and rushed out the album. In the meantime, after we were back in England, station KSAN started playing 'Roxanne' and it began to break out in San Francisco, then it began breaking in Houston, then Dallas..." he trailed off, as if he himself hadn't absorbed the phenomenon of a self-produced, self-arranged, self-promoted record being successful on both shores.
Despite the claim on their liner notes of 'Outlandos d'Amour' that the album was entirely produced and arranged by the band, there was also a note of thanks to veteran reggae producer Joe Sinclair. Surely Sinclair added his expertise at some point and possibly influenced the resultant reggae ambience on the record.
"No, Joe Sinclair's contribution was much different than that," Sting claimed. "What he did was, while we were playing 'Hole in My Life', he came into the studio and danced. I thought that was a large enough contribution to say thanks. As for the reggae, it is a West Indian subculture in England, so it is a more natural part of our music that it would be here. For me, Bob Marley was the link. 'Roxanne' has a real Bob Marley feel. He's half-white, so he's sort of a cultural go-between, a cornerstone. Once you get past Marley, you can listen to the rest of reggae and understand it more clearly. We're (the band) all into reggae. Stewart, our drummer, was once the tour manager for Joan Armatrading, who is West Indian. I'm hoping that we can help in bringing reggae or Jamaican music to the States."
In addition to the reggae leanings, there are some distinctly political tunes on 'Outlandos d'Amour', songs like 'Hole in My Life', 'Truth Hits Everybody', and, most overtly, 'Born In The '50's', which, among other things, contains the lyric, "My mother cried / When President Kennedy died / She said it was the Communists / but I knew better."
"I hope people don't think of us as a pious band who capitalise on a political situation," Sting replied when the subject came up. "I don't think a pop song is a good medium for a deep political message. Actually, politics is a source of conflict in the band; we argue a lot (about its role). I'm all in favour of politics in a song, but my main area of work is still pop tunes about loneliness, isolation, frustrated love - teenage days. Like the Beatles wrote. The Beatles are the prime inspiration for any group. They inspire step one; they make you grab a tennis racquet and stand in front of a mirror. Songs are a good medium for any message that is simple and sometimes that message can be political, like 'Born In The '50s' or 'Landlord', a song we did tonight that didn't make the album."
Reference to the live show made me realise that the band had not performed 'Masoko Tanga', a compelling, syllabic chant backed by percussive rhythms and one of the strongest cuts on 'Outlandos d'Amour'.
"Funny you should mention 'Masoko Tanga'," Sting grinned at my remark. "That is the result of an experiment by a noted English paraphysicist by the name of Professor Blockson. Professor Blockson is a guy who puts people under hypnosis and under hypnosis they relive past lives and talk about things that have occurred in history," he said, as he eyed me intently for any signs of scepticism. "First we laid down a backing track for the song and then I was put under hypnosis by Professor Blockson and sang this song. The result is 'Masoko Tanga'. It is sung in a weird language and I swear to God I don't know what it is about or if I could ever duplicate it. I got the name for it by looking in an atlas and finding a place in Africa named Masoko and another one called Tanga. But the actual words in it are... well, your guess is as good as mine, mate."
It will probably be some time before there is another Police album, as Sting revealed that less than half a record worth of material has been completed. "We're in no real hurry. Right now we're just trying to capitalise on the success of this record," he stated honestly. He left little doubt, however, that when the band does return to the studio they would once again be controlling their own destiny. With that blend of arrogance and innocence found in much of the Police's music, Sting concluded with a statement of infallible logic.
"After the last record, why shouldn't we produce the next one as well? Why waste your money having all of your good ideas put on the shelf?" You can tell he was born in the '50s.