In the annals of history, people are often quick to lump The Police in with other New Wave (and by extension, pop) acts that capitalised on a particularly tragic decade in culture to spruik their strange rock and saccharine ballads. What they (and I) fail to realise is that Sting, Stewart and Andy were completely batshit crazy. It would be a much closer approximation to label them a punk band with stadium delusions than a pop group with punk trimmings. Incorporating elements of reggae, jazz, punk and minimalist pop, The Police managed to meld a whole lot of very strange sonic sources – few of which were actually considered cool at the time – and make something inherently likeable out of it. They were, in essence, The Old Spice Guy of Chart Music.
Somewhere in the fading afterglow of 1977, these three British lads rocked up to a casting for a chewing gum commercial. Gordon Sumner, Andy Summers and Stuart Copeland were told that if they wanted the gig they’d have to dye their hair bleach-blonde. The ad in question never went beyond the cutting room floor, but these guys did it because they desperately needed the money to finance a debut album that nobody really wanted to hear. The third track was a song about a prostitute with a heart of gold that didn’t even chart the first time it was released. Five years later they were No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic and eight million people were clamouring to find out what came next. For reasons nobody can fathom, they still all had blonde hair. Forget everything you thought you knew about The Police.
My attraction to The Police began in high school when I studied them in depth for my final music exams and even wrote a composition which aped their unique writing style. It was about the same time that I realised how difficult this was to do, partly because they always managed to get away with writing about really controversial topic matter, like killing, suicide, selling sex or hunting ex-lovers. I attribute this to the simple fact that Sting had the voice of an angel and conveniently also used to be a schoolteacher. In addition to the aforementioned lady of the night anthem, ‘Roxanne’, there’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’, which details a student-teacher relationship getting way too close for comfort and ‘Every Breath You Take’ which is almost certainly the stalker anthem of the ‘80s (unless those honours are shared with Lionel Ritchie.) And that’s even before you get to their second single ever, whose cover art featured a naked Copeland waiting for a block of ice to melt with a noose around his neck. It was called ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’, and featured the memorable line “You’ll be sorry when I’m dead/And all this guilt will be on your head.” The BBC banned this one but other than that, it was open season. Make no mistake; The Police were badass.
Perhaps what makes The Police so enduring unlike so many other hot trios from the same time period and into punk proper is that their talent extended far beyond what we heard on tape. This is most obvious in Copeland, who incorporated Arabic polyrhythms into his drumming after adolescence kicking around the Middle East with his CIA agent father, blazing the trail for the use of electronics in live performance. The sample pads, triggers and delay loops used by everyone from Cut Copy to The Prodigy are indebted to him, and the phasing hi-hats alone on ‘Walking On The Moon’ are all the evidence you’ll need.
Each member has enjoyed a prolific solo career in the years since Sting and Stewart had that infamous onstage meltdown; the former writes albums like they’re going out of fashion and tours relentlessly, the latter composes for ballet and orchestra, scores film and plays guys half his age. Summers hangs out at Carnegie Hall and writes books. When the three blondies reunited for a one-off tour five years ago, they managed to become the richest musicians on the planet. Between 2007 and 2008, these three made around $24 million each just for playing the same songs they wrote when they were smart-asses trying to get laid.
But the reason they could do that was because those songs just happened to be lasting, trans-generational ones. There is no mainstream band around today who could pull off something as melancholy, memorable and deliciously dark as ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’, with its drop-time rhythmic variations and wild, pre-Girl Talk genre mashing. And yet that’s exactly what they did. A trio who headed straight for the prize while taking every possible unorthodox musical road to get there, The Police will always endure.
You don’t even have to put on the red light.
The Police – ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’