Outlaws d’Amour by John Pidgeon (Melody Maker, 2 December 1978)

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.

Readers of October 14’s singles column (when I was a late substitute for a sick celebrity) might recall how I raved about a six-month old stiff and set it up as a yardstick for the week’s boxful. A handful of those new releases subsequently made the charts – I napped a couple myself – but none measured up to this old flop, which was the Police’s ‘Roxanne’. One great record is more than most bands manage in a lifetime, which puts the Police ahead of the pack already. And they’ve hardly started.

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 its formation it metamorphosed into an approximation of Way’s former successful group, Curved Air, taking its name, partial personnel, and the remnants of a reputation from the early seventies. 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 they’d just spent in the studio. “It suddenly began to dawn on me that the whole thing was completely bogus,” he recalls. “The advances were so preposterously high that every album we made had to be a 100,000-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 raw noises in London. He tested the temperature of the new wave with a toe, 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 quit the north-east and his day job. The guitarist (Henri Padovani) he pretty much 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 £800 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 I still think it was a good record, so it sold 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 says. “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 in the beginning, but as time went on I found that I wanted to say more, I wanted to 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 – after teaming up with the drummer and Sting and another bassist, Mike Howlett, for a decidedly old wave Gong festival in Paris – 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 says, “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 the 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 look 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 when we’d got together with Mike Howlett, we jammed a lot, so I knew what else they could do. I found it really exciting and I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for.’ 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.” In August 1977 the group played a French punk festival as a four-piece. Then there were three.

The impact of Summers’ recruitment was immediate. “One by one, Sting’s songs had started coming in,” says 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 an apparently efficient 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 the little 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, ‘Fuck these guys!’ and we loaded our equipment into our cars and pissed off.”

At this low point, late in the year, Miles Copeland turned fairy godmother, having originally been put off the group by his punk arbiter Mark P’s thumbs-down, and offered to put up the money to make an album for Illegal Records, which he would market. They began recording in January at Surrey Sound Studios, essentially transposing their live 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. This was ‘Roxanne’.

When Miles Copeland popped in for a progress report, they thought twice about playing it to him. “We did it as a throwaway,” says 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 with Squeeze, and a French whore was persona non grata on the playlists. But 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 its theme of threatened suicide.

“The BBC at the moment seem to be the arbiters of poetic metaphor,” Sting protests, “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 fucking 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 fucking that hasn’t got the word ‘fucking’ in it, and you’ve got a hit. It gets a bit depressing.”

The predilection of the record company’s A&R department and a growing band of punters for these two songs consolidated the new Police style, and some of the early mile-a-minute material was relegated from probables for the album to possibles. 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’ had been tried out by the group, but Sting couldn’t identify with it, so Stewart 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’ Who Killed Bambi?. A&M found themselves with an album option on a group with a film star as front man and a cult figure behind the kit. Guess what? Outlandos d’Amour was released the other week.

This history I pieced together over a few days chasing the trio’s coat tails from Washington D.C., through Philadelphia, and on to New York, The last time I’d seen them was at the Nashville Room in West Kensington, but I hadn’t been taking notes that night: instead, I’d got more excited than I had at a gig in a long time, along with the rest of the crowd with their big smiles and sore hands. 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 an 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 John Fowles’ 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 even if it does work or half works, 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 from ‘Roxanne’. A single that only sells 11,000 copies is usually a loser, but the band came out with enough to fly Laker to New York with their 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 this year, he bought a van over there with two rows of seats and enough gear to play club gigs 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. 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 $25 and $35 a night, never fancy, sometimes crummy, and always two to a room. That’s $50-70 in the debit column. Then there’s petrol for the van and a $20 per diem each for food and drink. If they can leave a club with $200, they’re ahead. In Boston, Toronto and New York, they more than doubled that, which meant air fares home and extras were 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 won’t be out there until January) was bad business. So the band made their own noise, and got results. “Something we’ve discovered on this tour,” says 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.”

They’ll be back in the States in March 1979 with an album and A&M on their side, but they’ll still be doing it their way. Perhaps the biggest benefit of this tour is simply that the Police have played. In four weeks they’ve done more gigs than they have in the last twelve months. They’ve discovered what works on stage and what doesn’t, they’ve honed their set, dropped some numbers, remodelled others. And they’ve became a band.

“It’s made a lot of difference to us,” says 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!”

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