The Police's songs are unmistakable. Both canny and cosmopolitan, the British trio's sound blended pop hooks and tricky rhythms. Reggae beats here, African funk there, and on top of all the pulsing grooves, the keening wail of Sting's voice. The band, driven by Stewart Copeland's drums, Andy Summers' guitar, and Sting's bass, leapt from the punk underground to conquer the radio airwaves with 1978's "Roxanne." For the next several years they went on to create a wildly successful body of work that was both experimental and highly pop-wise. Maybe that's why they titled their most popular album Synchronicity, and maybe that's why — 30 years after they arrived on the scene — their reunion tour was one of the most celebrated rock events of 2008.
Gordon Sumner, who got his nom de fame "Sting" because of a bee-like yellow and black jersey he wore as a young musician, had been a teacher, ditch digger, and civil servant while working with several jazz combos in Newcastle, England. It was in a British jazz club that he met American drummer Stewart Copeland. The son of a swing-loving CIA agent and an archaeologist with an appreciation for classical music, Copeland had grown up in the Middle East, attended college in California, moved to England in 1975, and joined the English progressive-rock group Curved Air. When that band broke up, Copeland formed the Police with Sting and guitarist Henri Padovani in 1977. After a few months of club dates, they replaced Padovani with Andy Summers, whose list of previous employers stretched Eric Burdon and the Animals to Neil Sedaka; a bit older than his new mates, he had also studied classical guitar in California.
From the start, the band distinguished itself with maverick business practices. Before recording anything, the trio portrayed a bleached-blond punk rock band in a chewing gum commercial — a move that drew the scorn of Britain's punks. But in punk style, the group's first single, "Fall Out" (cut with Padovani) was homemade and frenzied. Released in 1978 by Illegal Records Syndicate (I.R.S.) — an independent label founded by Copeland and his brother Miles (also the group's manager) — "Fall Out" sold 70,000 copies in the U.K.
The following year the Police signed with A&M, negotiating a unique contract that awarded them a higher-than-standard royalty rate instead of a large advance. Their next unorthodox move was to tour America before releasing any records there. Through Frontier Booking International (FBI) — third brother Ian Copeland's agency — the band borrowed equipment, rented a van, and traveled cross-country to play club dates, sowing the seeds of a following that would make its first U.S. release, "Roxanne," a moderate hit (Number 32, 1979; it was already a British hit).
Both Outlandos d'Amour (1978) and Reggatta de Blanc (1979) entered the U.S. Top 30, while in the U.K. "Message in a Bottle" and "Walking on the Moon" went to the top of the singles chart. A 1980 world tour took the Police to Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Egypt, Greece, and Mexico - countries that rarely received foreign rockers. Zenyatta Mondatta (Number Five, 1980), which contained "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" (Number 10, 1980) and "Don't Stand So Close to Me" (Number 10, 1981), was the group's first U.S. platinum album. It was followed by a second million-seller, Ghost in the Machine (Number Two, 1981), which secured the band's position among the decade's biggest hit-makers with "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" (Number Three, 1981).
Meanwhile, the three musicians worked on various outside projects. Sting embarked on a film career, acting in Quadrophenia (1979), Radio On (1979), and Brimstone and Treacle (1982), which he also scored. Sting also performed solo in The Secret Policeman's Other Ball (1982). Summers collaborated with Robert Fripp on two albums. Copeland recorded with Peter Gabriel, released a solo EP as Klark Kent, and composed the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's movie Rumble Fish (1983).
The three regrouped for 1983's chart-topping Synchronicity, which spawned the monster hit "Every Breath You Take" (Number One, 1983), as well as "Synchronicity II" (Number 16, 1983), "King of Pain," (Number Three, 1983), and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" (Number Eight, 1984). After a triumphant world tour, it was announced that the Police would take a "sabbatical" to devote time to individual pursuits; but in 1985, as Sting released a successful solo album and started touring with a new band, it became clear that the singer had no plans to reunite with Copeland and Summers. In later years, interviews revealed a playful but real tension between Sting and Copeland, causing speculation that their relationship played a part in the group's demise.
Still, fans were hopeful when the group played together at several shows on Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope Tour in 1986. That year also brought a Police greatest hits compilation that was supposed to include new tracks but didn't, largely because Sting wouldn't write any. Instead the trio included "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86," a subpar new version of the original hit, which peaked at Number 46. (Several remixes were intended, but a freak polo accident prevented Copeland from drumming.) It was the Police's last recording to date. The trio re-formed in front of an exclusive audience to play at Sting's wedding to Trudie Styler in 1992 and sat for its first joint interview in 15 years in 1999. The group was the subject of a few tribute albums — two reggae and one rock en Español — in the late Nineties. Meanwhile, Sting lent his most famous Police compositions, "Every Breath You Take" and "Roxanne," to rap producer/mogul Sean Combs for sampling and a remix, respectively, in 1997. In 2003 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they took the stage for a spin through "Message In a Bottle."
The commercial victories enjoyed by Copeland and Summers have been much more modest than those of Sting, whose released a string of highly successful albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In 1985 Copeland released The Rhythmatist, an album documenting his experiments collaborating with African folk percussionists. More film scores followed, as well: Oliver Stone's Wall Street and Talk Radio and numerous others. The drummer also composed themes for television series, including The Equalizer (an instrumental album called The Equalizer and Other Cliff Hangers was released in 1988; it is now out of print), and released two albums with another rock band, Animal Logic, formed with jazz bassist Stanley Clarke and singer Deborah Holland. Then, after composing King Lear for the San Francisco Ballet, he presented his first opera, Holy Blood and Crescent Moon, in 1989; a second, Horse Opera, followed in 1993, with a mini-opera based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story "The Cask of Amontillado" presented in 1994. Also that year, Copeland coordinated a tour of international percussion groups. Copeland is responsible for the eclectic, atmospheric music featured in the best-selling Spyro the Dragon videogame series.
Summers' post-Police career, while less varied, has been distinguished by adventurous rock, jazz, and fusion albums, both alone and in collaboration with such respected musicians as Fripp and British jazz guitarist John Etheridge. His 1999 solo release Green Chimneys: The Music of Thelonious Monk featured Sting on vocals of the track "Round Midnight." Also in 1999, Summers participated in a cross-cultural songwriting exchange workshop in Cuba.
Twenty years after their 1986 split the band reunited for a world tour which had symbolic kick-off at the 2007 Grammys ceremonies. Henry Padovani even joined them during a Paris date later in the year. But longevity wasn't part of the plan. Sting told fans that once the tour was completed the band would never record or tour again, and on August 7, 2008 at Madison Square Garden, the trio gave its final performance, donating the proceeds to local NPR television stations. The trek was the third highest-grossing rock tour ever, taking in over $350 million dollars.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.