'Whatever we do, this will always be the seminal band...' In 1978 John Pidgeon covered the Police's first US tour. Nearly 30 years later he joined the reunited band as they took to the road once more...
Interview Date: August 2007
In 1978 John Pidgeon covered the Police's first US tour. Nearly 30 years later he joined the reunited band as they took to the road once more.
On page 253 of his compellingly readable memoir, One Train Later, Andy Summers logs the April 1978 release of the Police's 'Roxanne', adding tersely, "It gets reviewed by John Pidgeon in Melody Maker." That short statement telescopes into a more convoluted reality. True, for one issue only, I was MM's singles reviewer, though not until mid-October, by which time 'Roxanne' was a six-month-old stiff. But that record was still a hit on my turntable, so I made it the yardstick by which I would judge the new releases.
Roxanne had come at me out of nowhere on a wavering car radio signal, as so much rock'n'roll of my short-trousered youth had, title or artist's name or both obscured by static, leaving only a half-heard lyric and melodic hook lodged in my brain along with a memory of the palpable thrill they had provoked. It took a trawl of record shops to track it down. "It was the Police's 'Roxanne', and it still makes me tingle," I preambled. "I had no idea who they were, and I still don't really, but I don't care. 'Roxanne' is simply a great single." And if that reads like an all-too-obvious endorsement of an acknowledged pop classic, remember: 'Roxanne' was a flop, a sleeper that wouldn't chart until May 1979.
My singles column appeared on Thursday October 12. No one had matched 'Roxanne' - not Elton John, not PiL, not Bruce Springsteen. That afternoon A&M Records' press office rang, asking if I would be free to spend some time on the road with the Police in November. Let me check my diary. In the States? I'm free.
I had already seen the Police play live, at one of the scant 10 gigs they had played since April. The venue was the Nashville Room in West Kensington, and I was accompanied by two pals, former Faces keyboard player Ian McLagan, who'd been every bit as excited as I had on hearing Roxanne, and lugubrious, lovable Kevin Coyne, in whose band Andy Summers had played and who was intrigued by his erstwhile guitarist's punk makeover. While Kevin chuckled over Summers' bottle-blond hair, Mac and I scoured the sparse crowd for someone who might be Sting, our only sight of the singer having been an arty Xeroxed image on the single's sleeve. It was the parachute suit and peroxide crop that persuaded us we'd found him, but, to be certain, Mac asked, "You're Sting, aren't you?" to which Sting responded, "Yes, but you're Ian McLagan."
Half a lifetime later, on July 28 2007, after the first of two formidable performances at Boston's Fenway Park on the US leg of their reunion tour, the Police are convoyed back to their hotel with a full lights-and-sirens police escort, each intersection cleared of cross traffic, every red light run as green. Having sprinted from stage to car, Stewart Copeland heads for his room to shower. A couple in the lift have seen the cavalcade arrive going the wrong way up a one-way street. The woman will rail against this extravagant abuse of her top-rate tax dollars, but, before she does, her husband asks the still-sweating drummer what he has done to merit such treatment. Copeland grins and says, "Easy, why d'you think I named my band the Police?"
My band. Which it had been, originally. Having tired of the unwinnable race to recoup record company advances, been invigorated by the punk scene, and spotted a singing bass player in Newcastle ready to try his luck in London, Copeland had not only come up with a name for the group, but composed its entire repertoire of mile-a-minute thrash and found a three-chord Corsican guitarist, Henry Padovani, to help play it.
"It was a difficult period," confided Sting, that singing bass player, in 1978. "Stewart had wanted to form a new wave group, but I'd just come down from playing in a jazz group and I wasn't exactly keen, but I was inspired by the amazing energy of the whole thing, and I thought, 'Well, I'm new to London and I'm totally unknown, so I'll give it a go.' We did a 15-minute lightning set and I squealed and screamed."
Then Summers, already an experienced player, saw them at the Marquee. "I thought there was fantastic potential in Sting and Stewart," he explained. "I'd always wanted to play in a three-piece band and throughout all my years of playing I never had. I felt that the three of us together would be very strong. They just needed another guitarist and I thought I was the one." The group played a French punk festival as a four-piece; then there were three.
The effect of Summers' arrival was instant. "One by one, Sting's songs had started coming in," Copeland explained, "and when Andy joined, it opened up new numbers of Sting's we could do, so the material started to get a lot more interesting and Sting started to take a lot more interest in the group." Despite the lack of progress represented by those 10 UK gigs in seven months, Copeland insists today that he never doubted - "never for a second" - that the trio would make it, the core of his unshakable confidence being his belief in Sting.
"The minute I saw Sting," he recalls, "playing in the refectory [of St Mary's College, Newcastle], I thought, 'There is a unique talent that is going all the way to the top.' Once we were in a band together, I would go on stage knowing that whatever was going to go wrong, Sting was going to kick ass, and he wasn't going to quit until he'd got the place going."
Summers joined the Police in August 1977 - lending this current tour, which comes to the UK on September 4, the air of a 30th anniversary - and owns up to moments of doubt during those first 12 months. "We'd been at it for a year, and just basically hanging by a thread," he recalls. "There wasn't anything happening. There was no point in doing gigs, because we'd end up with about two quid each a night. Then we lined up that first little tour of the East Coast of the US, and that's where it started."
I met them in Washington, DC, on November 10 1978, and took advantage of my tab at the Watergate Hotel, several stars swankier than the band's budget accommodation, to treat them to dinner. After two shows at the Atlantic Club, I joined them in their van for the drive to Philadelphia, where they played the half-empty Grendel's Lair, then we drove to New York for two final gigs at CBGB.
The tour had been made possible by three things: Freddie Laker's pioneering Skytrain, which delivered the trio and their tour manager to New York for £100 each; an Econoline van with two rows of seats and space behind for equipment, which their manager, Miles Copeland (Stewart's brother) had bought earlier in the year for a Squeeze tour; and the support of a third Copeland, Ian, an agent who would not have picked up the phone to book $200 club gigs for anyone other than his kid brother. That fee covered two modest hotel rooms, fuel for the van, and a $20 per diem each for food and drink. Some nights they made more, which took care of extras and their flights back to the UK.
On my own (non-Laker) flight home, I composed the opening paragraph of my piece: "The Police are not punk. The Police are not disco. The Police are not heavy metal. The Police are not power pop. The Police are just the best rock and roll band I've seen in years." I assured MM's editor they would be the next big thing and, as such, deserved the cover, but when the issue appeared they had been demoted to an inside spread, with rockabilly voodoo weirdos the Cramps on the front instead.
By then the Police were back in the UK, supporting student favourites Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias on a short tour, during which it became clear to Summers that "there was something serious happening. The period of self-doubt probably disappeared with the Alberto gig in Bath [on December 1], where there was just this mob scene and hysterical girls, and that was the moment when we went, 'Wait a minute.' That was a turning point, and we started to go like a rocket after that."
Six years earlier, my first major assignment as a music journalist had been to tour, riotously, with the Faces, and as recently as July 1978 I'd caught the end of the Stones' US tour in California, more fun and games. But in Washington, with the Police, I visited the National Air and Space Museum; on a night off in Philadelphia we went to the cinema; and in the van we talked about books. Photographed in New York, Sting hid neither his glasses nor the copy of Daniel Martin he was reading. I remember thinking, sure, the other way is fun, but there's no denying theirs is a practical, economic approach to touring. Those thoughts stayed with me, until, reading One Train Later, I came across Summers' sardonic description of his on-the-road self in 1982: "I am a rock-and-roll asshole, an emaciated millionaire prick." How did he get to that from where I'd left them? Could the clue be in the penultimate word? "It got much more dissolute as time went on," he confirms. "It did turn into the usual clichéd stuff, where everywhere we turned up there was a party. The rot set in. You know, the water keeps hitting the rock and it finally starts to crumble." Sting's assessment of their excess is more moderate. "We never really qualified as rock and roll animals ever," he says. "It never crossed my mind to trash a hotel room or get completely fucked up. We dabbled."
By the early 80s, of course, the Police had become the biggest band in the world, in August 1983 playing Shea Stadium in New York, a marker for mega-popdom set in 1966 by the Beatles. By then the three were reputed to be permanently at each other's throats. Yet, in 2005, when Stewart Copeland got round to editing the 50 hours of Super-8 he had shot on the road and in the studio for his film, Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, and he reached the moment where the band broke up, the only footage he could find was of them goofing around. While pointing out that he would not have been filming when they weren't getting on, he admits that Sting's anguished look, inserted into the film to signify strife, was in reality a frown of concentration as the singer worked on a vocal harmony.
"People have asked what went wrong back in the day," Copeland expands, "and the answer is it didn't go wrong, it went rather well actually. We broke up at exactly the right time. What would have gone wrong is if we had stuck together to the point where we hated each other and started to hurt each other and self-destruct. That would have been wrong."
After the final gig in Melbourne in 1984, all three, he says, "hit the ground running." Each made signally non-Police music. Sting's first solo album, 'The Dream of Blue Turtles', was "a real patchwork of all kinds of styles. I was just having fun as a songwriter, and I carried that on in the interim." Summers formed new musical alliances, played jazz, pursued his interest in photography. Most strikingly, for a decade Copeland didn't pick up a drum stick. "I was a film composer, and not only that, but I was desperate to escape type-casting as the drum-score film composer, and so for many years I was writing scores with no discernible rhythm at all. I went a little too far, as you do when you've got something to prove."
In his memoir Summers writes of "the ache of something unresolved... The problem with the demise of our group is that we didn't play out all our potential," though he now admits: "We had it all there in a way. But I definitely felt wounded afterwards. It felt like something was stolen and I had to deal with it. Then I occasionally thought, 'Maybe it was the best thing to do.' I didn't just want to be in a pop band."
Distilled into a two-hour live show, the Police's musical history feels fulfillingly complete. Every stage of their musical journey, from the proto-punk of Next To You to the enigmatic universality of 'Every Breath You Take', is revisited. And, surprisingly perhaps, although the songs are all familiar, they still sound vital, visceral, with emotion or meaning still to impart.
Confounding red-top gossip, the three are emphatic that some form of alliance survived the intervening years. Copeland says, "We have a basic underlying respect and, I would say, love for each other, the three of us. There's a bond there that none of us can shake off." Sting agrees: "Relations with Andy and Stewart have always been cordial. We didn't see much of each other, but it's bullshit that we've been at loggerheads for years and years."
"Over the last twenty years," Copeland adds, "people in my company have assumed that what I like to hear is Sting-bashing, so I hear a lot of it, and I'm sure I don't need to tell you what the opinions are. I tell these friends of mine, 'If Sting was here now with a guitar in his hands, you would within moments realise he's the most talented, gifted musician you've ever met - ever.' Because he is."
"Despite all the crap written about us, how we all hate each other, we're not like that, it's such bullshit," Summers confirms. "If that was the truth, we wouldn't have been able to come back together and do this. Whatever we do, this is always going to be the seminal band we were all in."
While Copeland was assembling his film, Summers was writing his book, a project with the potential, he became increasingly aware, to put paid for good to any chance of a reunion. But he stuck to his aim "to be completely honest, not to do some varnished story. What I was interested in was the fragility of it, how it's always about to collapse at any point, and how difficult it is to bring three egos together and sustain it for a long period of time. It was necessary to talk about the arguments, the difficulties, the tension, as well as paying tribute to the talents of the other two. When I got the book out, I thought they may never speak to me again, but in fact the reverse happened. Sting was very complimentary."
Recalling his suggestion for the running order of the Police's final album, 'Synchronicity', Summers wrote spikily: "Sting likes this idea, and thus it is ordained." If a reunion was ever going to take place, Sting would need to like that idea too - as eventually he did, surprising even himself.
"I woke up one morning in November last year, and the John Dowland record ['Songs From the Labyrinth', Sting's lute recordings] had just gone in the charts, so I was very happy about that, and I thought, 'What do I do now? Should I do that again? No, that'll paint me into a corner. Do I do another Sting album? No, I'm not really ready for it. What do I do to surprise people? Or surprise myself even?' And this little voice said, 'You reform the Police.' And another little voice said, 'Don't be ridiculous, you don't want to do that,' but this persistent voice said, 'No, that'll really surprise everyone.' And surprise, as you know, is everything in this business. So I had a meeting with my manager, floated the idea, and she fell off her chair. We phoned Andy and Stewart, and they didn't believe it either, because I'd been so adamant. If you'd asked me the day before, I would've said, 'You're out of your fucking mind. I don't want to do that.' But suddenly everybody clicked with it, it just triggered something, and the timing was perfect."
With Sting long accustomed to tailoring the musical setting for his solo shows - "having my own way or 'You're fired!'" - what form would the line-up take? Backing singers? A keyboard player? Horns? Summers, for one, was initially apprehensive. "In the early days we did one tour with backing singers and one with saxophones, which I personally hated. I thought, it's got to be the band, the three of us, or not at all, and there was absolutely no contest about that. Because Sting is a natural musician, he's a player. He's not some singer who's got old and fat, he's the real thing."
"My instinct was it should be us raw, warts and all," Sting says, "and I was pleasantly surprised at the first rehearsal. Although it certainly wasn't polished, there were still moments of, 'Oh, that's why we were good, that's why we were successful.' So rehearsal was just about joining those moments together and expanding them, and I think we're still on the way."
Their once-teenage fans are now in their 40s, and from his drum stool Copeland has observed other changes: "At the front we used to have a lot of teenage females fainting. Now we have grown men weeping." Weeping for what? Their lost youth? "I guess that's what it is. There are certain songs, and I look out there and they're weeping inconsolably. It makes me feel good. It hits me with, 'I guess it must be important what we're doing.' I mean, it isn't, it's just music, but it does affect people - and that affects me."
The reunion is scheduled to end in February 2008, when Copeland is looking forward to getting back to being a composer and suburban dad, and Summers will be braced for a post-tour crash before immersing himself in diverse projects. Sting, as always, is eager to embrace the future. "Nothing goes on forever, and once you accept that, that's a great relief," he says. "If I thought I was agreeing to be manacled for ever to this thing, like Sisyphus, I wouldn't have come into it. I think freedom, even to go back, is what I want - to contradict myself, to go back on what I thought was dogma, to be open."
So what is this bond, the shared chemistry that took these three from half-empty clubs to the biggest stages in the world, and still has people filling stadiums to see them? Does the man who formed the Police have the answer? "There are times when Sting and I shake our heads at the disparity in our music values," Copeland offers, "and yet there are 60,000 people out there that want to hear us play together. How's that possible? We disagree so deeply and profoundly about fundamental pillars of our artistic philosophy that sometimes we look at each other and it's not just like we come from different planets, but that different rules of physics apply, and, like I say, we shake our heads and wonder at the strangeness of life that you put these two value systems together and something happens that makes people cry."
© The Guardian by Jon Pidgeon