07.01.1982 - Guitar World
The Police have their own look, the blond aryans in motorcycle leathers, now as characteristic as the sixties' mop-top haircuts and stovepipe trousers. The Police also have their own sound firmly rooted in the present yet characteristically unlike anything else. A great part of their uniqueness is in their songs. A major aspect of this sound is the hidden composer alias frontman, Sting. His contribution is the most instantly recognisable because his is the distinctive voice, soaring over the polyrhythmic cushion of harmony to which he supplies the bottom notes. To many fans, Sting is the Police. Very few know that beneath the teen appeal lies a profoundly musical vision.
Sting is aware that when the Police perform many eyes are looking his way. Along with his fellow Policemen, Andy Summers, the guitarist, and Stewart Copeland, Sting creates their unique sound and in doing so he becomes an involuntary frontman: "Well, I'm in a very advantageous position in this group because of where I stand in the frequency range: I play the bass, covering the bottom end; I also sing the top line; and basically, I write the songs. I have the chord structures laid out but during the parameters of the group sound within my control and Stewart and Andy are in the middle. I have that freedom but - no doubt about it - the top and bottom is me.
Sting, as main songwriter, has a heavy responsibility: he has to contribute material, both recognisable enough to be instantly associated with the band, yet new enough not to sound like safe rehashes of old hits. Their latest album, 'Ghost in the Machine', is a case in point. It is definitely their sound, but the sound has changed, intriguingly. The best way to describe it was the way Sting himself put it: "The standard answer to the question 'How is this album different from the last three'?' is usually 'different words, different melodies' but that's a joke. I think largely it's a matter of texture. If you use the analogy of painting, there are more colours on this album than there were on the first three. On the first album we were three and we started with sparse bass, drums, guitar and a single voice and that sparse use of those four colours gave us an identity, a very clear one. And it just stood out ! You know, like a sore thumb. That must have been the main thing about our success, I think. The second album had a little more richness, and the third had a few more things. The fourth is perhaps our most textured album and it has the added thing of horns."
Indeed, the use of horns marks a break with the first three albums, and it has led to a change in their stage line-up, the first in years. It happened by chance, yet the addition of horns did become integrated into the Police's sound. The horns were another colour. "They happened by accident. I brought a saxophone in and during the vocal tracks I first started to play sax lines and I thought they were fun so it ended up that I took a tenor and an alto and ended up overdubbing them four times like a brass section. It shouldn't have been done because I'd only been playing saxophone six months, but it did. And that additional colour - affected the whole atmosphere of the album, the whole thing, it just changed it into what it became."
The use of keyboards also increased on this album and that has changed the basic guitar-bass-drum instrumentation that was a Police trademark. All of a sudden the sound has expanded but that was evident even as far back as the third album: "Well, I'd written four or five of the songs on the new album on keyboards so in a sense that was an extra colour as well. Having written them on keyboards, I recorded them with keyboards. I'm talking about Invisible Sun, among others. So in a sense we've broken away from the thing which first made us. Well, 'power trio' was a misnomer in the sense that it made us sound like Cream or Jimi Hendrix. I think we're much lighter than that, so I don't usually take that blanket title with much seriousness. We're just getting away from the sparse sound of three instruments and a voice - we're more interested now in just selling our songs in a bigger way. Maybe we've gone through the cycle now. Perhaps we'll go back to a sparser sound."
Part of that famous sparse sound was his prominent bass line, and in the early days he was often photographed with a fretless bass. He was one of the few people in rock using one. His sound is not tied into one axe, nevertheless: "I move around - about every day I use a different bass. Last night I used a Steinberger fretted guitar and the night before that I used a Hamex fretted and I also play a double bass, a doctored double bass, on stage. So I tend to move around instruments during each show. A different personality, a different thing they're good at doing. There weren't many rock & roll people using a fretless. I suppose it was an interesting visual thing because you haven't got any frets. It's like saying the frets have dropped off and I couldn't afford any. There are things you can do on a fretted bass that you can't do on a fretless, and vice-versa. I don't have any political stance about it." Sting also uses a Roland Electronic bass synthesiser for special effects.
Interestingly enough, the Steinberger bass has it's own visual appeal. ("The bass for the eighties," said Andy Summers backstage one night) since it has a very small body, no headpiece and snaps onto a harness strapped to the player's body. The light weight of the resulting combination has a fortuitous side effect: "Because I am the main singer in the band, the fact that the Steinberger - is light is important. I can strap it on and not have to worry about keeping it in one place or being out of balance - good. It takes some of the weight off my spine and that makes it easier for me to sing than with a bigger body bass. Also, since it is light and steady, it lets me move around more easily on stage, which I like to do."
Sting really did not dwell on the physics of how and what he plays. His own emphasis was beyond the tool he used, avoiding the kind of instrument fetish that can cause musicians to rhapsodise endlessly about vintages and string gauges. What Sting made clear was I the importance that the song had in their music above all else - above musicianly technique, above image and above rhetoric: "If you come to see us you'll realise that we do it extremely well live for three musicians. We've hired a brass section, which enhances the rich, textured sound."
What you get is a great singer who can reduce a stadium full of teenaged girls into so much quivering jello; a guitar player who can fill that hall with sound by just flicking his wrist; a drummer who wears a jogging outfit just to keep up with himself, that's how fast he is; and a bass player who's turning heads in the Bass World (and is the same Sting as the singer) - and they're all jumping around like Mexican beans on stage. But callisthenics is not what his band is all about even though all three are highly accomplished players. There is a reason for that: "It doesn't interest me that much. I see my main function not as a musician but as a songwriter. I'm a musician by accident. They're two different processes. You can be a brilliant musician and never be able to write a song. There are two different parts of the brain: there's a computer element in the brain and you learn how to function and co-ordinate your fingers and the mind; the creative aspect has much more to do with your unconscious."
The creative aspect - the ability to state a theme, then work it out musically - is foremost in the Police state of mind: "The band's raison d'??tre is to sell songs, as opposed to individual technical ability. I think that's a cul-de-sac. A very technical musician will develop his work so that he can play as many demi-hemi-semiquavers in a given time as is humanly possible - that I consider unmusical - I consider that to be mechanical. A real musician who can do that, and has probably practised and trained to do that, will refine his art to the extent that he eventually plays nothing. I think the greatest musicians in the modern idiom, during the last fifty years, have been those who've done that - Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Ray Brown. Ray Brown's playing is essentially melodic, not mechanical. He's incredible - I learned to play double bass from Brown's books and I've got love for his playing, his harmonic sense. It's more than just thumping out the rhythm and more than just being flash and playing a lot of notes on a difficult instrument - it's about melody. Miles Davis is the same way. And The Police, I think, is about melody. We play melodies. And technoflash tends to clutter that direction, that aim. Therefore, although it is possible for us to play fusion, that's not what gets people off. What gets people off is a very clear harmonic structure."
One of the trademarks of the sound is the lush, dense harmony. While most rock remains triadic most of the time, with a seventh or a ninth thrown in occasionally, the harmonic complex of the songs that Sumner & Co. write is different. "I write with chords, and my favourite chords I suppose are minor ninths. I used to love a minor ninth! Andy's voicing knowledge is quite, quite very sophisticated so he can embellish on my basic ideas. Generally, the harmonic thing comes from the melody. It's the melody which is the main thing. I just try to make that. There are probably three pop melodies and you just have to go beyond the three. You have to be original - a lot of people don't realise that since most pop records have the same melody!
His background differs from most pop stars in that he is firmly rooted in jazz, not rock. This was a profound influence, as we can see: "I spent a lot of time playing in dance bands backing Cabaret, playing in big bands and mainstream jazz groups. I started in a trad dixieland jazz group playing double bass. So, in a sense, I'm very lucky: I haven't got the normal rock and roll pedigree which is: 'I left art school at sixteen and started to play Led Zeppelin riffs and then we moved on to Uriah Heep and...' Whereas there's a whole world of experience as tacky and which looks like no fun at all, but there's knowledge there in playing in a dance band, learning the changes of 'Tuxedo Junction.' You're three light years ahead of most rock musicians. It made all the difference having had that experience. If I had to give advice to an aspiring young musician I would play as many different kinds of gigs that you can manage. Even if you have to wear a penguin suit, do it!
"I'm not a plagiarist, but I'm open to influence. There aren't that many bass lines. In heavy rock there are perhaps four or five. In jazz there are a lot more and I think 'Walking On The Moon' is a very jazzy tune. In fact, I've heard a jazz group play it much to my delight and that's satisfying. If you ever meet Gil Evans or Quincy Jones I'd like them to hear my music. I think it's been borrowed from those sources and it's gone into pop and now I think it deserves to go back."
While the Police are a globally successful group, Sting's appraisal of the music business' effect on musical evolution echoes that of fellow Police-man, Andy Summers whose observations graced these pages a few months ago. The common thread in their discussion was the stifling effect that American music marketing has on creativity: "England's a very lively cauldron musically. I think much more so than America. America should be but isn't, largely because of it's sectarian nature. If you look at Billboard or Cashbox you have 'Latin Music,' 'Black Music,' 'Country Music,' 'Rock and Roll Music', and there's no link between any two. There's a different chart, a different bracket through which they can't cross-pollinate. There are no groups anymore which use elements of all those things. America's given us great literature in the Twentieth Century. It's also given us great music. It's now dead musically, as far as I'm concerned, because of this. Because of this kind of thing that business has found it easier to market music by bracketing it. The kid who listens to one radio station all day, if he listens to, uh, I better not mention any names, one station, he hears nothing but white rock and roll. He won't hear any disco, he won't hear any soul music. The black kid that lives in Harlem won't hear rock and roll. The great thing about the sixties was there was a great meeting, confluence of musical forms.
The Police have by their commercial success pushed the idea of a pop song forward. They've had that success despite the sophisticated harmony, cross-rhythm and quasi-tribalism in their music. When confronted with the question of how much dissonance an audience would accept, Sting revealed a Police secret: "I don't see any point in going on and playing dissonant music straight away because it will just turn people off. You can seduce an audience slowly and you can sort of put their defences down 'til they're willing to accept. You just have to chip away at what their conception of music is, I suppose. There are points in our set where we actually play things that are not what you'd expect a pop group to do. We're allowed to do that only because it's framed very carefully in melodies they are accustomed to. They probably don't notice it and I think that's the way to do it. That's the way to change, you have to chip away at people rather than sort of bludgeon them with a cluster of semitones. Immediately, they just turn off they don't know or it's too loud! You can do it subtly and you can slowly change people's idea of music. You can't do it immediately. I remember leaving a Stockhausen concert - it's just not subtle enough, not seductive enough to reach a mass. It might just reach a sort of highbrow minority who see dissonance's as being the only truth. I think harmony and clarity should prevail."
The theme of musical subversion creeps into Sting's explanations of some of the occurrences on their albums. Although the Police are very, very successful as "product," they themselves are beyond that. Music can be sold as a commodity, but at its core remains a powerful experience. "I feel music is a terribly cohesive force in society and it can also be very destructive. But I see it as being essentially happy. I see it as being the most potent and simple way of tapping that collective subconscious of an audience. Like tonight we're playing to an audience of twenty thousand people. Using a very simple tonal code you can tap something that is unconscious and something that is common with everybody. Without compromising, without playing the lowest common denominator, without playing sludge!
"I don't have to produce amazing virtuoso performances on the bass. In fact the opposite is true: what I have to do is refine it, make it almost so you don't notice it. I think I'm very successful at being a non-bass-player. I'm not going to win any polls for my bass playing - by choice. I don't expect to because of what I do, I do very little of it. What I started doing - which I really got into - was almost refining my playing out of existence. I was leaving a lot of space in my bass playing so that I could sing in the spaces. Which was very lucky because I've come to realise that the music isn't just sound, it's also silence and often the profoundest music is silence. I like space, I like silence."
There is a trick that disc jockeys play where they'll drop the volume down or stop a record for dead silence a few beats. The effect that silence has on an audience is astounding! The Police use that effect during their set quite neatly. says Sting. "Dropout during dubs is an old thing reggae artists did and it's cool. And people like it. People's minds fill the space and we do that in our act a lot - we just STOP! And the audience suddenly lifts up and is musically drawn in like to a vacuum, I suppose. "There's a book by Arthur Koestler called 'The Act Of Creation' which is a very scientific appraisal of how you actually create art or invent scientific ideas. And there's a chapter called 'Implication', if I remember. The word 'implication' comes from the Latin verb 'placare' which means 'to fold over'. In a sense it's an artistic process where, first of all, you come out with your cards on the table and you state a very simple idea. And then to draw an audience in, to make them work harder, you hide what you have, so in a sense, you implicate them. The hiding process is what's going on in The Ghost In The Machine, if you like. It's a denser album, you can't hear the lyrics as well - the lyrics are deliberately hidden. They're mixed back.
"As musicians we don't go to create anything, we transmit something that's going on all the time, which is music. I think of myself as a transmission station of the harmony of the spheres. He laughed at the notion.