100 Greatest Artists

70

The Police

Illustration by Tim O'Brien

Oscar Wilde said that an artist has succeeded if people don't understand his work but they still like it. By that standard, the Police were a huge success. Their songs are universal — they're part of all of our lives. You hear them on both pop and classic-rock stations, and they'll be played on the radio in Germany 100 years from now. At the same time, everything they did was really smart and worked on a few levels; you could love a particular song, then realize a year later that you had totally missed the meaning.

Take "Every Breath You Take." It's a great trick — it's impossibly catchy, people play it at their weddings, but it's a stalker song. "Roxanne" is blatantly about a hooker — it's not about how Sting loves her and broke her heart, it's just about how she's a hooker. People don't realize how unique that is. All of us are lucky to have heard songs as good as "Message in a Bottle," "Walking on the Moon" and "King of Pain" on the radio. Sting already had a career and a degree when the Police made it; he wasn't afraid of sounding like a grown-up.

My favorite is "Don't Stand So Close to Me," the one about the teacher and the young girl. That kind of storytelling has fallen out of pop music, for the most part. "Don't Stand" would be great to listen to no matter what the lyrics were — it could have just been about some girl — but the story makes it spooky and powerful. My favorite line is "Wet bus stop/She's waiting/His car is warm and dry" — he communicates the entire song with those 11 words.

Of course, the Police were amazing musicians. They were professionals who came up during the punk era and found their messages later on. I'm a big fan of how they used reggae. Bands like the Clash had already mixed it with punk, but the Police did it flat-out — it was like reggae for music geeks. Sting played bass and sang, which you don't see very often. He commanded both the rhythm section and melodies in the band. Stewart Copeland is a great drummer — you have to be to give songs like "Roxanne" and "So Lonely" their drive and also throw that reggae in there. Andy Summers has both great technique and rhythmic sense. It's amazing how many rock bands with serious grooves are made up of skinny English dudes.

The Police matured really quickly. All bands should pay attention to that. You should always try to keep moving forward.

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