If Reggae-Rock Rolls You the Wrong Way, Don't Call the Police—They're the Perpetrators
01/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
With two singles temporarily banned by the BBC plus their bleached-blond punk hairdos and truculent title, the London-based rock trio the Police might seemingly have ended up playing behind bars rather than in them. Instead, those singles—Roxanne (about a hooker) and I Can't Stand Losing You (with references to suicide)—became hits in both Britain and the States, and the Police have become perpetrators of some of the finest and most popular New Wave music around. Their second LP, Reggatta de Blanc, entered British pop charts at No. 1 and made Top 30 here. The key is a sinewy rock'n'reggae fusion, copped from the Jamaican roots of London's black minority. The distinctive synthesis has won rare praise from Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and even Jamaican maestros Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
"The reggae world is unexplored," says the Police's lead singer and chief composer, who is known as Sting and whose personal credits include a critically acclaimed nonsinging role in The Who's movie Quadrophenia. Sting (ne Gordon Sumner), 28, is now weighing other film offers but will go on writing "accessible, fairly sophisticated pop," he says. "I don't intend to retire and stick it up my nose."
Joke aside, these Police are straight—and relatively low-rolling—shooters. "We're totally free of the obligations that sink other bands," boasts its Yank founder, Stewart Copeland, 27, the son of CIA agent-turned-author Miles Copeland. "We didn't get an advance to do our first album [Outlandos d'Amour], so the label can't tell us what to do. Our touring act consists of one car, one truck, two roadies and a T-shirt seller. We can play some small club in the middle of nowhere if we want."
That contingency now seems a long way off. The band spent only $6,000 to cut Outlandos, sold well over two million albums last year and had no trouble landing more than 250 bookings. Which may make their slight condescension toward "slick groups" such as Fleetwood Mac understandable. "Artistically, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk makes sense," says Copeland, in reference to the million-plus cost just to cut their latest album. But, he adds, "Financially, it's stupid. Some bands make records and concert tickets so expensive. I hope they all go out of business."
Just two years ago the Police were little more than Copeland's rock dream. His dad had been a jazz trumpeter before turning spook. Stewart, born in Alexandria, Va., was sent "to every drum teacher in the world" as the Copelands hopped to new assignments. Copeland assumed his father was just an international businessman and only found out he was CIA at 18 ("It was a bit of a shock"). After enrolling at Berkeley, Stewart quit 18 credits short of graduation in 1974. He then joined the U.K. band Curved Air, playing "sterilized music, made from the wallet, not the heart."
Forming a group of his own seemed possible to Copeland after "bands like the Sex Pistols changed all the rules. They were punks, their fans were punks. The clubs needed the groups, the groups didn't need the labels." His first recruit was Sting, a Newcastle milkman's son who recalls being a "show-off and egocentric" on guitar in his teens. Sting's first professional jobs were on double bass with Dixieland and modern jazz groups. "I wore outrageous striped yellow-and-black pullovers and one guy thought I looked like a bee," he recalls. The name Sting stuck. At 22, he earned a degree in education at Warwick College and taught at St. Mary's convent school in Newcastle. "The nuns wanted a man around. They let me do gigs at night and on weekends."
Shortly after Copeland discovered him at a show—"He stuck out like a sore thumb"—the two of them found guitarist Andy Summers, 28. Born in Bournemouth, Summers was weaned on Memphis blues and played with Soft Machine, the Animals and the Rocky Horror Picture Show band before seasoning himself in a London reggae club. As for the origin of "the Police," Copeland explains: "I wanted a name people wouldn't forget." Though they posed as a punk band in a Wrigley's gum commercial, the Police insist they were never pure punk. "We weren't 18 and we could actually play our instruments," cracks Sting. "But the energy was there. It was anti-Eagles, anti-Pink Floyd, anti-Rolling Stones. If you were an unknown group, it worked for you."
It's worked so well that Sting finds it hard to get used to life "away from the home, the center." Precious free time is spent with his wife, actress Frances Tomelty, and son, Joe, 3, in their Hyde Park flat. Sting's one star toy so far is a pair of rollerskates.
The trio rarely socialize back in London between tours. "We have enough of each other on the road," says Copeland, who after "nine addresses in three years" has bought a seven-bedroom house he shares with singer Sonja Kristina. He's filming a spy thriller, which will include Summers, and also plans to record on his own. Summers, who lives in a London home with Cincinnati-born wife Kate Unter and daughter Layla, 1, finds touring "emotionally wearing."
"It's shocking," says Sting. "The road is constant inertia. The loneliness is preoccupying. And then one hour of frenzy." But, he adds, "That one hour makes up for the other 23 hours of crap."