Perhaps the regular writer had been reassigned to cover the fatal stabbing by Sid Vicious in a room littered with the detritus of drugs in New York’s Chelsea Hotel of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. But that was still a long way short of explaining why Melody Maker editor Richard Williams had thumbed more than halfway through his address book before he found a reviewer for the week’s singles.
I hadn’t been asked before, but then I’d only written once previously for the paper, a profile of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, whom I’d interviewed that summer while the Stones were on the road in the States. I’d tagged along on the Californian leg of the tour to see my pal Ian McLagan, who’d played on their current smash, ‘Miss You’, on stage with the band, sleeping on the sofa in his suite at the Westwood Marquis, then moving to a sofa in Chuch McGee’s apartment off Sunset Boulevard. The article had been my way of covering the cost of the trip, but waiting for Bill and Charlie to be ready was like Almost Famous.
I was nervous about accepting Richard’s invitation, because I knew there would be no prevaricating. I would be shut in a room in the paper’s temporary premises near Waterloo with a stack of new releases, a record player, and a typewriter. It would be like writing an paper exam. At a given moment my time would be up and what I’d written would be taken away from me and printed. To cover myself and to save time reading press releases, I devised a strategy, which I explained at the top of the page under a photograph, snapped outside the review room, that I had been unprepared for: even cropped to hide a dilapidated jean jacket and worn-out T-shirt, the photo showed a scruff with a busby of unkempt hair, several days’ stubble, and the hint of a jazz tuft tickling my lower lip. What I wrote was this:
When I started listening to singles, I wore short trousers and our old wireless had valves and dial marked with strange names like Droitwich and Hilversum that still glow as luminously in my memory as they did then in the dark.
I’d scout the airwaves for rock’n’roll, twitching the knob as sweetly as a safe-cracker, and pick up snatches here and there amongst the static. As often as not, I wouldn’t catch the title or the singer, no matter how tightly I jammed my ear against the grill. But somehow I discovered Little Richard that way, Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, and Ray Charles.
Later, rattling with doobs down the Flamingo and the Scene, I dug bluebeat and the beginnings of soul, hung on to half a name or a shred of a chorus and spent the next week searching shops and stalls for something that sounded halfway similar. Some I found are still hits on my jukebox.
The point is when I heard all those things I didn’t know what the hell they were. I had no prior knowledge, no preconceptions. They just jumped out at me, grabbed my ears and bored in to my brain.
I went on listening to records and the radio, but something changed. There were no surprises any more. That’s not nostalgic noodling, it’s the truth. Here’s why. Airwaves got busier, reception got cleaner; disc jockeys started talking too much; I strated looking at ads and reading reviews, buying the albums the singles came from. Or they were the same old singers pushing the same old songs, and I’d heard it all before, even when I hadn’t. It all became as predictable as a Monday morning hangover. And about as much fun.
Recently, though, some of the excitement has come back to singles. Even Top Of The Pops is watchable most weeks. And occasionally the buzz still bites. A few months ago I was out in the sticks in the car, one of those places where Radio 1 fades in and out – on my radio anyway. From the time of day I guessed Anne Nightingale was on, but I couldn’t make out a word she said.
Suddenly I had to stop the car, just pull over and listen. It didn’t help the sound much, but I could hear enough to tingle. A couple of days later I found out what it was and went straight out and bought it. It was the Police’s ‘Roxanne’, and it still makes me tingle. I had no idea who they were, and I still don’t really, but I don’t care. ‘Roxanne’ is simply a great single.
So I thought, right, that’s how I’ll review these singles: blind, as if they were coming at me out of the airwaves.
Not just a thesis, but almost 500 words written already, insurance against an uninspiring batch of records. Plus, I’d excused myself from reading any of the press releases stuffed inside the sleeves for lazy hacks to regurgitate. The weakness of my blindfold test was that I recognised most of the artists. What’s more I disliked most of what I heard: Slade, despite the syn-drums on ‘Rock’n’Roll Bolero’, sounded “old and irrelevant”, while the “piece of flotsam” that was the Moody Blues’ ‘Driftwood’ was “as tasteful as a Tretchikof”. I was unmoved by Black Sabbath, Boston, David Essex, Hall & Oates, Elton John, the Kinks, Leon Russell, Peter Skellern, Bruce Springsteen, Al Stewart, Uriah Heep. There only records I would willingly have put back on a turntable were PIL’s debut ‘Public Image’ and Sham 69’s ‘Hurry Up Harry’.
The edition of Melody Maker with my singles column came out on Thursday 12th October 1978. Before the end of the day I’d had a phone call from the Police’s press officer at A&M Records to ask if I was free to fly to Washington the following month and spend a week on the road with the band. You bet I was. I checked with Richard Williams; he said he would be happy to publish my piece. (When it appeared, it was supposed to be the cover story, but Richard put The Cramps on the cover instead. He apologised to me for his erroneous judgement twenty-five years later.)
* * *
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 the best rock’n'roll band I’ve seen in years. I kid you not.
The group was formed by American drummer Stewart Copeland in January 1977 as much out of disenchantment with the old as infatuation with the new. Two years before, he had defected from college in California to join a British band managed by his brother Miles. The band was Darryl Way’s, and during the course of its formation it metamorphosed into a approximation of Way’s former successful group, Curved Air, taking its name, partial personnel and the remnants of a reputation from the early 70′s. For Copeland, the transition from college combo to limos and lights was initially exciting then one day he worked out how many albums they had to sell to recoup the 40,000 pounds they’d just spent in the studio. “It suddenly began to dawn on me that the whole thing was completely bogus,” he recalled. “The advances were so preposterously high that every album we made had to be a hundred thousand seller just to break even. Consequently, we couldn’t take any chances – everything had to be commercial.”
While Curved Air was dissolving in debt, Copeland was hearing rave noises in London. He tested the temperature of the new wave with a toe, and then dived in. He remembered Sting, a bass player with a rare voice from a jazzy outfit he’d seen on a night off from the biggish time in Newcastle, and found him ready to leave the north-east and his day job. The guitarist he picked with a pin.
A three-piece: the Police. High energy, low expenses. No roadies, no recording contract, no manager. Copeland took care of what business there was himself. He booked the gigs and when they wanted to make a record he formed a label, Illegal Records, with an £800 loan from a friend. They spent £150 in Pathway studio and the rest pressing 2,000 singles and printing a sleeve. ‘Fall Out’ eventually sold 10,000 copies, though, according to Copeland, “It sold purely on the strength of the cover, because of the fashion at the time. Punk was in and it was one of the first punk records – and there weren’t very many to choose from. The average punk had every punk record that was available and when the next one came out which was the Police record, he bought that, too. But still I think it was a good record, so it did more than the average punk single.”
Copeland’s commitment and enthusiasm were enough to keep the band going, but elsewhere within the triangle there were dangerous tensions. “It was a difficult period,” Sting said. “Stewart had wanted to form a new wave group, but I wasn’t sure. 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 which was something new, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m new to London and I’m totally unknown so I’ll give it a go.’ It was just another facet of experience as a musician, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t have much to offer apart from singing ability and being able to play bass and generally be the front man, and so I just went along with it. We did a 15-minute lightning set and I squealed and screamed. It was largely Stewart’s material n the beginning, but as time went on I found that I wanted to say more, I wanted o use my voice better, so I started writing material in that mould, but one problem I kept coming up against all the time in my writing was the limitations of our guitarist.”
Those limitations were equally apparent to Copeland, who had played the major guitar part on ‘Fall Out’, so when Andy Summers expressed an interest in joining, he didn’t have to ask twice. His c.v. includes stints with Zoot Money, the Animals, Soft Machine, Tim Rose, Kevin Coyne and Kevin Ayers, as well as three years studying classical guitar at college, a career long enough to raise whispers about his eligibility to stand alongside today’s young turks. “Personally, I don’t give a shit,” he said, “because I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I’m not ashamed of anything, because they’ve all been good bands.”
A week after playing with Sting and Copeland at a Gong festival, he watched the Police at the Marquee. “I thought there was fantastic potential in the band-in Sting and Stewart anyway. I could see they were really good musicians with something to offer, but they’d put themselves into something that didn’t really suit them, and I felt they weren’t bringing it off in a manner that was convincing to me. The real punk bands came off as being more authentic, but at the same time there was definitely great potential there. They were selling themselves short in a way and there was a lot of pressure – things changed overnight – and if you didn’t like that or play like that…They were playing faster and harder than anybody else and they were almost losing the audience because of it. But we’d jammed a lot so I knew what else they could do. I found it really exciting and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, this is what I’ve been looking for for ages.’ I’d always wanted to play in a three-piece band and throughout all my years of playing I never had, and at that point I’d just been playing behind people all the time and I was getting pretty frustrated with it. Then I saw these two and 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 in August last year as a four-piece, then there were three.
The effect of Summers’ recruitment was immediate. “One by one, Sting’s songs had started coming in,” said Copeland, “and because he’s a writer and they’re really good stuff, you can’t just turn them down, so when Andy joined the group it opened up new numbers of Sting’s we could now do, so the material started to get a lot more interesting and Sting started to take a lot more interest in the group.”
They spent most of September rehearsing, then left for an abortive string of European dates on a promise – from management partnership – of money, gigs, equipment, records, promotion, the works, on their return. All they got however, was another rehearsal room. According to Copeland, “They’d done nothing, they hadn’t accomplished a thing, and we rehearsed in their studio for a month, maybe two months, waiting for them to get something together. There were no gigs, the group just disappeared off the scene. People were saying, ‘What happened to the Police? Are you still together?’ We’d blown all the momentum that we had and all the credibility that we did have was all gone, though at least by this time Andy had been worked into the group, because we’d had all that rehearsal. We were in a pit and one day we just decided, ‘f*** these guys!’ and we loaded our equipment into our cars and just pissed off.”
At this low point, Miles Copeland turned fairy godmother and offered to put up the money to make an album for Illegal Records, which he would market. They began recording in January, 1978 at Surrey Sound Studios essentially transposing their set onto tape, until Sting turned up for a session with a love song, as slow as it was unfashionable, a serenade to a Parisian prostitute. Lately they’d been getting into reggae at rehearsal, so they tried that feel behind the verse between rock hard choruses: ‘Roxanne’.
When Miles Copeland popped in for a progress report, they thought twice about playing it to him. “We did it as a throwaway,” said Sting, “and played it to him with trepidation, feeling that he would hate it because it was totally the wrong thing. And he flipped out. He thought it was great, a classic song, and the next day he took it to A&M and came into the studio that night and told us they were going to release it as a single. I was just over the moon because I actually did like it and it was a total offshoot from what we’d been doing – and it was immediately recognised by a record company as being commercial. That was the turning point for the Police, that and Andy joining, which enabled us to do more sophisticated material.”
The deal with A&M was for that one single. But when it was released in late spring, the group was in Germany, Miles Copeland (by now their manager) was in the States, and a French whore was persona non grata on the playlist. Nonetheless, A&M weren’t put off by the sales sheets and took an option on a second single later in the summer, ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’, which bubbled under, but similarly disqualified itself from mass airplay with a theme of threatened suicide.
“The BBC at the moment seem to be the arbiters of poetic metaphor,” beefed Sting, “and the reason they didn’t play ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ was apparently because it had the word ‘kill’ in it. There are countless songs about suicide in the history of pop and anyway it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, it’s not a serious song. I felt very strongly about ‘Roxanne’, because that was a serious song about a real relationship. There was no talk about f****** in it, it wasn’t a smutty song in any sense of the word. It was a real song with a real, felt lyric and they wouldn’t play that either on the grounds that it was about a prostitute. But write a silly song about f***ing that hasn’t got the word ‘f******’ in it, and you’ve got a hit. It gets a bit depressing.”
The record company’s predilection for these two songs and a growing band of punters consolidated the new Police style, and some of the early mile-a-minute material was relegated from probables to possibles for the album; basically, Copeland’s compositions gave way to Sting’s.
Sting is a singer who chokes on other people’s songs, as Copeland was forced to concede. “A lot of my songs Sting won’t sing and the songs of mine he will sing, he changes the words. We’re very different people with different ways of projecting ourselves and when he expresses himself in a song, the way I write just doesn’t fit him at all.”
No hard feelings though, especially since Copeland found an alter ego to record the songs the Police wouldn’t. His ‘Don’t Care’ has been tried out by the group but Sting couldn’t identify with it, so Copeland took the song into a studio on his own played all the parts, and sang for the first time in his life, in or out of the tub. It came out on Kryptone, picked up airplay and wound up selling 35,000 copies on A&M. The name on the label was Klark Kent. Ask Copeland and he’ll say he doesn’t know him from Superman. Yeah, and my name’s Jimmy Olsen.
Sting, meanwhile, snatched the role of Ace in ‘Quadrophenia’ after appearing in television commercials and the Sex Pistols film. A&M found themselves with an album option on a group with a film star as front man and a cult hero behind the kit. Guess what? Outlandos d’Amour was released.
This history was pieced together after chasing the trio’s coattails from Washington, D.C. through Philadelphia and on to New York, The last time I’d seen them was at the Nashville, in London, but I hadn’t been taking notes on that night; instead, I’d gotten more excited than I had at a gig in a long time. Because on stage, the Police are so good it’s criminal.
In all great bands, the whole is a deal more than the sum of the parts, and to describe the controlled athletic aggression of Copeland’s drumming, the spark and subtlety of Summers’ licks, Sting’s spare, strong bass lines, the hair-raising intensity of his vocals and his undeniably charismatic presence – Sting (you’d better believe it) is a star – is to draw less than a complete picture of the Police for those parts are powerfully combined. What’s more, it’s like describing a joke instead of telling it. If you’ve seen the band, you’ll know; if you haven’t, then do. Soon. They’ve got energy, they’ve got style, they’ve got songs, real songs. And they don’t overplay their hand. Unlike much of the competition, they know how to leave holes: less means more is their motto, and they stick to it.
But another American tour already? So much so soon? Street credibility blown worse than when they got caught browsing the jazz racks or arguing the toss between the original and revised versions of The Magus? Hardly.
The conventional way of breaking a British band in America is to wangle a support gig on a major tour, rope in the record company, cross fingers touch wood and never walk under ladders. It’s worked dozens of times. Guess how many times it hasn’t? And ever if it does work or half worked, the band ends up with a debt to the record company that takes more than a gold album to wipe clean.
The Police actually pocketed royalties on ‘Roxanne’. A single that only sells 11,000 copies is a loser but the Police came out with enough to fly Laker to New York last year with the instruments as baggage. Here, the manager helped. He’s been taking bands to the States for years, making money, losing money but working out why and why not. Early last year, he bought a van with two rows of seats and just enough gear to play clubs and still stow in the back.
A handful of dates were lined up in the East: New York, Boston, Toronto and back into the States; all clubs, some smaller than others, none more than a day’s drive from the next stop. And in the van, just the trio and Kim Turner – tour manager, mixer, roadie, driver, pal.
Work it out on your fingers – I did. Hotel rooms are between twenty-five and thirty-five dollars a, night, never fancy, sometimes crummy, and always two to a room. That’s fifty to seventy dollars in the debit column. Then there s petrol for the van and a twenty dollar per diem each for food and drink. If they could leave a club with two hundred, they’re ahead. In Boston, Toronto and New York they more than doubled that – air fares home and extras taken care of.
Initially, at least, A&M in America didn’t want to know. To support a group that was touring with no album to promote (Outlandos d’Amour wasn’t released until January 1979) was bad business. So the band made their own noise, and got results. “Something we’ve discovered on this tour,” said Stewart, “is we get much better exposure and make much more of an impression on a city doing it this way. If we’d played Boston, say, as a support act at a bigger theatre to several thousand people, with the record company hustling people in, giving free tickets away people would probably have got there just in time to catch one number of our set and maybe given us a line in their review. But this way, going out and doing it ourselves, we get journalists and radio people who really do care, who really are turned on to ‘Roxanne’, and we dominate the gig. It’s our gig and I’m sure we get much better exposure because of that.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit of the tour was simply that they’d played. In four weeks they’d done more gigs than they had in the last year. They discovered what works and what doesn’t on stage, they honed their set, dropped some numbers, remodelled others. And they became a band. “It’s made a lot of difference to us,” said Andy, “and the more we do, the better it’ll get all the time. I really love it because it’s a very fresh situation, it’s still full of challenges. We’re definitely on the up at the moment. We’re very new. It’s great!”
And now they’re back again. Go and see them.
* * *
Sting and I didn’t become best friends. I don’t spend summers with him in Tuscany. I dropped in at the studio in Leatherhead where they were recording their second album, went to a couple of gigs, though nowhere larger than a college, and only saw him once after they made it big, when he wagged a finger at me as he walked past and said, ‘It’s your fault, you know, all this fame and fortune.’ I even lost touch with Andy Summers, with whom I had most in common: Zoot Money, Kevin Coyne, age. Then, in 2005, when I was moonlighting from my day job running BBC Radio Entertainment to produce a series for Radio 4 about the use of music in modern crime fiction, I remembered a reference in Robert Crais’s first Elvis Cole novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, to the detective hero looking like the Police’s guitarist. I contacted him, he agreed to an interview, and I recorded him reading the relevant sentence. When I heard the Police were going to reform for a 30th anniversary reunion tour, I put a proposal to him.
But I was never asked to review the singles again for Melody Maker.