07.01.1983 - Downbeat
His image is pure pop. Shaggy blond hair (dyed) in a modified Beatles cut. Mod clothes that might have come from England's trendy King's Road: pants with wide black and white stripes, punky ripped t-shirts, European sports coats with lapels out to here, pink tennis shoes. When in Hollywood, he stays at the Sunset Marquis, the infamous rock & roll hotel where, night or day, limos can be seen picking up the stars to chauffeur them about town. The records he plays on reach the Top 10, and when he straps on his guitar and hits the stage, 20,000 or more fans scream. His face has been in all the magazines, from Circus to Time, Rolling Stone to People. An '80s pop star and proud of it.
His name is Andy Summers, and he's the guitarist in the Police, one of the most popular new wave rock bands to emerge since they started applying the term "new wave" to rock bands. At age 40 he has finally made it to the top. After 26 years of playing the guitar, slogging it out in jazz bands and blues bands, behind both fading rock stars and the "next big thing," Summers finds himself at the place where his dreams and reality meet.
Yet the pure pop image is just that, an image. And if Summers and the Police have adopted that image with a vengeance, their music is something else again - a rich mix of rock, jazz, and reggae, with 20th century classical and Third World strains. It is a complex and resonant music, and it has found favour with more than just teenyboppers. Last year, the Police's fourth album, 'Ghost In The Machine', was voted Rock/Blues Album of the Year by down beat readers, while the band itself was #2 in the Rock/Blues Group category. That down beat readers think so highly of the Police is not surprising; the group's music is not typical rock/pop fare. It fits rather uncomfortably on Top 40 radio, due to unorthodox rhythms, original guitar tones, and unusual song structures. "I hope the success of the music we play has helped broaden the calibre of rock music," says Summers. "My guitar playing comes from very strange areas that have nothing to do with traditional rock & roll at all."
The music of the Police. There are those quirky semi-reggae bass lines from Sting and the minimal, sparse drumming of Stewart Copeland, a rhythm section that leaves plenty of room for Summers to add colour and atmosphere with vibrant chordings that float through the songs like clouds across a blue sky, and delicate melodies that glisten like sunlight reflected off a mountain stream. There is nothing ordinary about this music, and when you sit down and talk to Andy Summers about it, you find out why.
"Making music have its own voice," says Summers, when asked if there is a philosophy behind his playing. "It's like the desire not to sound like anybody else for the right reasons. I want my music to be a mirror of me, whatever I've lived through and what I've felt and what I find I can express as a person. I would like it to have the quality of poetry. I like ambiguity. I like mystery. I think one of the greatest things you can have in art is mystery. I don't like things to be obvious at all. I'm influenced by film, art, and writing as much as I am by listening to another guitar player. I'm currently rereading 'Flowers Of Evil' by Baudelaire. One responds to things like that. And if your main voice is the guitar, you find that you can express those feelings through your music."
Up close, Summers is a bit of a contradiction, a 40-year-old wearing the hair and clothes of a teenager. Still, when he talks about music, he doesn't talk Top 40. The music that stimulates Andy Summers is quite varied - the works of Steve Reich and Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach and Terry Riley, Bulgarian choral music and Bartok, Robert Johnson and John Coltrane, Takemitsu and Sch??nberg are only some of the music that has influenced Andy Summers, which perhaps hints at why he sounds like no other rock guitarist.
Surprisingly perhaps, when one listens to records that Summers played on prior to joining the Police, one hears a good, but unoriginal rock guitarist who sounds nothing like the guitarist in the Police. A live album by Kevin Coyne called 'In Living Black And White', for instance, features Summers playing fairly standard blues riffs. Yet from the first Police album, 'Outlandos d'Amour', Summers' sound was truly his own. What happened?
"The Police was a catalyst to throw away all the influences," he says. "Instead of that kind of three-chord power blast, I went the other way with it. I found that what I could do with the guitar was kind of drift and float around Sting's vocals lines. Rather than a wall-of-sound, it was much more like a light, floating thing. And as we played more and more, it just became a real trademark and style for me, but one that I'm very happy with. I have been enthusiastic to keep following that line because I feel it's more me than a lot of things I might have played in the past where I might have been aping other people, playing more standard rock stuff. I never felt that, as a person, I fit in the rock world. It's always been a shoe that never fitted. I mean I'm not a heavy metal type. I don't like a lot of loud music and the rest of it. The lifestyle doesn't fit me.
"Our sound sort of emerged organically. You can sit here and verbalise and rationalise it, but in all honesty, you have all this stuff inside you and all these responses and get on-stage and off you go. And depending on what's up here (he taps his head), you can either make it sound different or just play all the clichés in the book. I think one decision we made was to try to sound different from any three-piece group. Not to sound like the Cream, not to sound like Jimi Hendrix. Really make it different. But then what was it going to sound like? Who knew?" he continues. "We started off being punky and loud, but I was uncomfortable with that. And gradually Sting started to get into his reggae bassline approach, and I got an echoplex, and these were the kinds of things that acted as a catalyst for a style to emerge. And so it came gradually. And there was a lot of improvisation. There just had to be, especially in the early days. Also, my education as a musician beams right across the board. I've been to a university and studied classical music and 20th century music. I'd always responded to all that, and all this stuff started to surface in this group. I found it the perfect vehicle to pull all these threads together of a very eclectic background. The diversity came together somehow to form a style that seemed to work.
"The sound really developed when we first toured the US. We'd go into things like 'Can't Stand Losing You', and Sting's playing away basically in D, and I would start going into things that were a little farther out than what had normally been heard. I didn't stand there playing three-note leads like a lot of rock guitarists. There was none of that at all. I started to play strange harmonies, and I started to play outside the song and go for all darker kinds of things, and it seemed to work. And Sting was sophisticated enough harmonically to really appreciate it. He really liked it because he'd been in a jazz-rock group and been into jazz all his life. So I started to do other kinds of things that weren't really rock things at all, and they combined with this sort of reggae bassline and open drumming, and suddenly we seemed to have something. And it dawned on us. We walked out of the dark and brought it back and turned on the light and there it was."
The creation of the Police sound has not been painless. The arguments between Sting, Copeland, and Summers are almost legendary at this point. According to Summers, every album is like a boxing match between three men. "I think we're all really different people, and we have a lot of different ideas about music, but it adds a kind of dynamic to the group. The lack of agreement sort of works out as a creative compromise. We're ruthless, really, with each other's feelings. It's shocking sometimes. It's hopeless to cherish anything, any musical idea. Your feelings get carved to pieces. It goes right across the board. But we're still together. This will be our sixth year this summer. Gradually we've learned how to ritualise all our feelings and ways of dealing with each other and knowing when to purposely upset one of the others to get the best out of him."
If it is Summers work with the Police that has brought him into the limelight, it is another musical collaboration, an experimental partnership with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, that has produced Summers most intriguing music to date. Last year Summers contacted Fripp, whose playing he felt "had a lot of heart," about making an instrumental album. The two recorded 'I Advance Masked', using Roland guitar synthesisers and a grab-bag of sound-altering devices, improvising songs for several weeks in the studio to come up with a fascinating record of guitar textures. "I wanted to do a guitar music album, but one that was an extension of the guitar duet tradition," explains Summers. "Rather 'than playing obvious guitar duets, I wanted to take existing technology and do something that was really 1980s.
Though Summers and Fripp both grew up in Bournemouth, England, they had never met until they got together to make their album. "I had a lot of ideas in mind, music I hoped we would get to, but I didn't really know if it would work or not. I just had this instinct that it would. I think in a sense the real material for the album was what we were as guitar players. What we'd been carrying around in our heads for a long time, rather than actual prepared pieces. Obviously everybody has a sort of library of licks and riffs and phrases that you sort of dip into. I have thousands of them. And they start to surface, and you make music from them. I mean they are the seed that you can introduce to another musician, and then it grows from there."
Working with Fripp was quite a different experience for Summers than recording with the Police. "This was much more open," he says. "In the Police, obviously what we're working with is the song. And really, you're doing everything you can to enhance the vocal line, and to give it its best backing, I suppose. This was different. The idea was to be able to play music that was more abstract and less pop-oriented than the music I do with the Police."
'I Advance Masked' is certainly an artistic success, an album of hypnotic, spiritual music akin to the work of Brian Eno and Steve Reich, but focusing on guitar sounds. Fluid and pastoral, great waves of sound wash over the listener. It is music that seems to escape time and place. Summers hopes to record a second album with Fripp next year. "I definitely see it as an ongoing musical relationship. That's one of the reasons, really, why I wanted to do it. I guess I was going through a period in the Police where I felt claustrophobic, personally and musically. There is definitely a need to go and play with other people. And that's no criticism of your musical partners. But as an artist, you have to go out and do that. You've got to ! I was keen to work up something that could possibly go on for years with another guitar player if I could find the right person to play with and develop another thing I could go back to and play with."
Andy Summers was born in Blackpool, England and grew up in Bournemouth, a seaside resort about 100 miles south of London. His parents cared little for music, but his older brother was a fanatic for American jazz, and so young Andy was exposed to, among others, Stan Kenton, Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman. If his brother's records introduced him to the world of jazz, it was the skiffle craze that swept through England during the late '50s that turned Summers into a musician. "Someone gave me a guitar at age 14," he recalls, "and I never put it down. Learning how to strum G and D seventh and sing 'Worried Man' - this was my earliest beginnings. And then I just went on from there. I remember learning 'St.James Infirmary', and that was like a major step forward - E minor, A minor, B seventh." He chuckles. "Tricky stuff. Then I got chord books and would sit in my bedroom for 16 hours at a stretch. I was fanatical about it, ignoring school work and everything." He spent his formative years playing and listening to jazz, not rock. "I listened to Django Reinhardt. I was really into American jazz guitarists when I was 16, 17, 18." Summers first gigs were at a small club in Bournemouth called the Blue Note Modern Jazz Club. "I went down there, and these guys who were really very good musicians would play charts by Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane. I kept going, and eventually they would let me play between their sets. I would get whomever I could to play with me, often it would just be bass and drums. I was 17 years old and totally gaga about music. They were nice to me, but they also treated me as a joke in a way. They'd take the piss out of me every week. Eventually they would let me sit in with the main band itself. I started off being completely crazed about jazz."
Later he moved to London and got caught up in the rock explosion of the '60s. Zoot Money's Big Roll Band was the first group he joined in London, and he soon learned the R&B catalogue of the time, playing tunes by Ray Charles, James Brown, and Rufus Thomas, with some Jimmy Smith thrown in. A succession of different bands followed. He was in a version of the Soft Machine (a late '60s experimental rock band) and then a version of the Animals. But as time went on, life as a rock & roll guitarist playing in the shadow of singers like Eric Burdon grew tiresome and frustrating. "I'd been playing for six years on the road, and I suddenly thought I didn't want to be a musician anymore. I wanted to try other things."
He moved to L.A. in 1968 and enrolled at U.C.L.A. and "got involved in acting." But he soon came back to music. Still in L.A., Summers "decided that what I really needed to do was to start all over again playing the guitar, learn from scratch. I had never learned to read. So that's when I really started to study music. I studied classical guitar. I read a huge amount of classical guitar literature and practised 10 hours a day for three years. Insane stuff. And went through about four years of training at U.C.L.A. Studied a lot of 20th century music, and it opened me up to a lot that I didn't know about. It was a complete re-education as far as music went."
To support himself while at U.C.L.A., Summers taught guitar lessons. He has some advice for young guitarists. Though he taught himself how to play and played professionally for many years before seriously studying music, he doesn't recommend that others follow his example. "I think you can save an awful lot of time with a really good teacher," says Summers. "But a really good teacher should also teach you to develop your own thing and keep it open and not copy other people. I mean it's so important to try to find your own voice. So many musicians just copy other people. Of course, you do have to acquire a certain amount of proficiency. And I think that's where a teacher can really help in the initial stages, but really the more important role of a teacher is to teach you about attitudes. And the main thing is to open the doors to music. I mean a guitar, although it's a wonderful thing in itself, is a tool for expressing something. What you've really got to get to is music. There are all these guitarists who all sound alike. It's the curse of the modern musical world - you can hear it just by turning on the radio. And if you spend all your time listening to other people's records - I'm talking about rock guitar - you just get your head stuffed with all that crap. There's so much of it and it's so mindless and vacant. It's really a dead end, not a route to follow. So you learn to play fast and learn all these rock licks. Where does it get you? What are you contributing to the world?"
It was his four years of study at U.C.L.A. that led to Summers' unique style of playing in the Police and with Fripp. "You assimilate what you've listened to. Over a period of years, it sinks in and becomes a part of your fabric. I don't think I play anything that is a direct reference, but it's coloured by these things. What you've listened to does influence your musical thought and what you want to hear in your head and what you want to play. The 20th century music I've listened to definitely has affected my sensibility. Takemitsu has always been a great favourite of mine. Just the feeling of his music is something I've responded to and find incredibly romantic. And Schönberg - these kinds of feelings I'm interested in expressing."
Summers left U.C.L.A. in 1973 and returned to England. During the following four years he played sessions and played in other people's bands, including David Essex, Neil Sedaka, Kevin Coyne, and Kevin Ayers. Then he decided it was time for another change. "I was certainly tired of being what I suppose would be termed a sideman," he says. "I was excelling at that role. And I felt I was too big to be in that role anymore. I was definitely looking for a situation where I would be more upfront, have a much larger part in shaping the music, rather than be paid to enhance somebody else's thing. I wanted a different slice of the action."
The year was 1977 and the British punk movement, which would completely revolutionise the rock scene in England, was in full swing. "It was like a catharsis," recalls Summers. "It really was. Incredible energy. It was like a real organic shout in London. It was gritty and edgy and very exciting. Everybody looked different, and the music was different. It was a great thing to be involved in."
It was shortly after Summers saw a new punk band perform at the Marquee, a London club, that he did become involved in the punk scene. The band was the Police. They were unhappy with their original guitarist, Henri Padovani, and after Sting and Copeland jammed with Summers, they asked him to join the band. Summers' friends laughed when they heard what he had done. "People snickered at me in London when I dyed my hair and was pretending to be a punk. 'Oh yes, he's joined a group called the Police, dyed his hair. Ha, ha, ha. Stewart and I were out there with our buckets of paste and our posters, slapping up Police posters all over London, trying to make it happen. It was fun."
But though they tried to fit into the punk scene, the Police realised that their musical expertise made it ridiculous. They were too good. Soon they were stretching out, finding their own style. "We were trying to get that punky edge to what we were doing, but making it our own. Putting our own stamp on it. You start off being like that and gradually transform it."
A key element in the Police's sound is, of course, technology. Summers, in particular, uses all the modern equipment available to shape the notes that come from his guitar. Thus he has little patience for "purists" who decry synthesisers and other sound manipulation devices. "I can't understand it," he says. "They're here, and you can go for a whole other range of things with them. I can do all these cloudy and strange things. You can't do them if you're playing a guitar through an amp. I have no shame about using them, but you must use them in a musical way. You can't cheat with them. If you use effects the wrong way, it just sounds wanky, like too much use of the wah-wah pedal. That just sounds awful. You have to use them with as much musicality and poetry as you can muster. But some of the songs in the Police's repertoire would not sound the same without the effects. The technology has not dictated our sound, but it has become a very integral part of what we're doing. I don't see anything wrong with that. They're a very natural extension of the instrument now, and I see no turning back."