The Police: Alone at the Top

The Police took a solitary road to success in 1983

The Police
David Bailey
The Police on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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This, one imagines, is gravy time for the members of the Police – time to loll about the mansion examining the newly acquired bric-a-brac, to drop by the occasional London soiree and be greeted like a foreign head of state, and yes, even to pick up the instrument now and then and mull over that solo project. Time indeed to enjoy their considerable accomplishments in 1983: millions in tour revenues and sales of their fifth LP, Synchronicity, and the almost unquestioned status as rock & roll's best-loved active band.

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And so, drummer Stewart Copeland drifts down to the Caribbean to hone his polo game – deucedly difficult to maintain one's handicap on tour, mate – and to complete a film he's directing on the sport. Andy Summers talks animatedly about a new guitar-synthesizer he's just been shown – "It's a mind-boggler! I'm very excited to have some time to catch up with my music" – and hits the studio with fellow axe-whiz Robert Fripp for their second instrumental-duet record. And Sting? "I'm not taking any time off," he reports cheerily. "I'm going to be working."

After the final tour dates are taken care of, there's a live album to be put together for a summer release, a thicket of film and theater offers to be sorted through, then another Police studio effort tentatively slated to begin at year's end.

Why shouldn't this man keep working? He's only still shaking off the effects of a two-month bout with mononucleosis (during which he skied the expert slopes on a brief Swiss vacation) and has just become a father for the third time, this time by his constant companion, Trudie Styler. (It's a daughter named Michaele Bridget Sumner.) Rest for the man who seduced America in 1983 with the sound of his voice? Bah! There are new worlds to be conquered, starting with the film world, where Sting will be seen this December in his biggest-budgeted outing to date: the sci-fi classic Dune.

The irony of his ambition is not lost on him.

"A lot of actors came to our shows in London recently, sort of well-respected names, and one of them said to me, 'Why do you want to be an actor? You're playing the greatest part I've ever seen. You have this enormous power, a huge set, wonderful words to sing and say, and it's a wonderful performance – why be an actor?'"

As he often does, Sting laughs easily. "For me, it's just a way of extending myself. I really do enjoy learning new things. I don't think I'll end up as an actor at all, but I would like to have a crack at it because I think I could do a fairly good job. It's fun, it's enjoyable." There's an almost imperceptible pause. "It takes me out of myself."

That might be the real vacation Sting's looking for: a break from the existential dilemmas that pervade Synchronicity, dilemmas that, even in the I'm-all-right-Jack Eighties, Americans bought by the truckload. Nearly 5 million copies were sold in the United States, with 36,000 still leaving the stores each week; singles sales were also well into the millions, with "Every Breath You Take" becoming one of the year's few platinum 45s.

"We were allowed to grow as a group and grow in stature in a very natural way," says Sting. "So by the time we released this album, we were ready to sell 5 million albums. I would imagine the next LP would be exponentially bigger than that. It's a case of statistical certainty. But I also think this is our best album, which I hope is the main reason."

"My only inspiration, really, is what's going on inside my head," says Sting. "I write songs about the subjects that interest me. I know that might sound self-centered, but that's the only reason I write them. I don't really care if we sell another record; what I'm more interested in doing is expressing myself."

But since 1978, when the Trio Grande first caught the ears of American audiences with "Roxanne," other people have been interested in what's on Sting's mind. Their first albums, Outlandos d'Amour and Reggatta de Blanc, offered Sting's patois-laden wails of demi-isolation set atop their own brand of New Wave reggae: dubby bass, phased guitar and explosive percussion. The group itself was an intriguing aberration: a trio constructed from an ultra-experienced session guitarist, Andy Summers, who'd worked with everyone from Robert Wyatt to Eric Burdon; an iconoclastic drummer, Stewart Copeland, who used to write fan letters to the New Musical Express about himself ("I think the drummer with Curved Air is amazing"); and an ex-school-teacher, Sting, who was playing jazz in small clubs.

Like their heart-of-platinum cohorts Blondie, the Police exploited the revolutionary stance of punk but provided more palatable music and a more commercial stance, demonstrated by dyeing their once-brown hair blond for a U.K. gum advertisement. Steady touring through the U.S. upgraded their sound – playing eight songs in a three-hour set will do that – and brought them bigger audiences. A daring worldwide tour took them into then-untouched areas of the third world and established the band as a global force to be reckoned with.

Their intelligence and an unwillingness to stroke radio did lead them to be perceived as arrogant by much of the music community. But unlike Blondie, their intelligence did not betray a genuine love for the music they were making, a sincere commitment to the value of their chosen art form that contrasted with Blondie's everything-is-product attitude.

Today, Sting says he goes "hot and cold with rock & roll. Sometimes I think it's dying and it should be buried, and then suddenly I'll have an experience that is awesome, and I'll think, 'God, this is what it is, this is the art form at its best.' In America or Europe, one is always suspicious that kids are just going through the ritual, whereas if you take rock & roll to South America or Asia and the same thing happens, it reconfirms that sense of rightness. When we went to India, it had the same effect as everywhere else: it drove people crazy."

That sort of international input inspired much of Zenyatta Mondatta (1981), the Police's first platinum album in the U.S. and the record that truly established the band as a major act. The LP spawned two hit singles, "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" and "Don't Stand So Close to Me," but that doesn't impress the man who wrote them. He says of the album, "I really like about a third of it – 'Don't Stand So Close to Me,' 'When the World Is Running Down,' 'Driven to Tears' – but the rest of it I would happily throw in the dustbin."

Later in 1981, Sting checked into the work of writer Arthur Koestler, whose book Ghost in the Machine had provoked his curiosity. The subsequent Police album of the same name was as eclectic as Zenyatta Mondatta – a song in French, a song about Northern Ireland – and did even better than its predecessor.

Their sound became denser as the reggae edges began to be phased out. "On the last two albums, I got very heavily into overdubs," Sting says. "It's tempting to stick more and more voices on top of more and more horn parts or whatever."

"On Ghost in the Machine, I think we'd sort of gone as far as we could in terms of getting away from the trio scene," says guitarist Andy Summers.

"But on Synchronicity," Sting notes, "I think we'd become so refined as a group of musicians that we realized that the three instruments just playing solo and ensemble was perhaps the best way of doing it – and it just seemed to happen. The songs worked with three instruments. There were lots of overdubs, but the overall feel was Spartan."

"We took off the rough edges," says Copeland a tad cynically. "Got rid of all the reggae stuff that Middle America couldn't handle."

Sting looks at it a bit differently. "I'm surprised this album has been so commercial," he says, "because I feel it's probably our most esoteric record by far, certainly lyrically."

In preparation for doing the album in early 1983, Summers recalls, "Basically, Sting and I met pretty casually in London one night, played each other our tapes, and that was it. The next thing we knew, we were at AIR Studios in Montserrat trying everything out."

"Before we go into the studio," adds Sting, "we have at least twenty songs already written, demoed and arranged in some fashion. We tend to plan everything, which is why our albums are produced so cheaply." It took six weeks to record and two to mix.

"We've gradually put on the right suits of clothes over the years," adds Summers. "Sting usually dominates the albums, in terms of songs written, which is fair enough: he writes the best pop songs. On this album, we were very democratic: everybody's material was played and tried to see whether it worked or whether it sounded enough like the Police. There are hardly any broken hearts over this."

"In Stewart and Andy, I believe I have the best musicians possible to interpret my work," says Sting. "I trust them implicitly. I have a fairly good idea of what I want on the guitar, yet I know that Andy will embellish that idea, polish it up. And Stewart is far better than the drum machine that I use. I'm proud to say that most of my arrangements survive. If they don't, it's because the band has come up with something better."

This time around, better usually meant simpler. Among the album's most difficult songs to record, according to Summers, was "Every Breath You Take." "It had a very tricky synthesizer part when it came in," he recalls. "We tried a number of approaches, and the synthesizer thing just didn't seem to work. So it ended up going out the window. It was really quite difficult to do, to get it to the point where it was simple yet had that power going through it. Because, basically, if the melody's great and the words are great, you just need a blind backing."

That single, in the view of many industry observers, is what truly catapulted Synchronicity to its success. "They were already the hippest act around," avers Bill Hard of the Friday Morning Quarterback Album Report. "Then 'Every Breath You Take' became a gigantic, hall-of-fame song. When a song released that early in the year immediately starts being talked about as the song of the year, then you know."

"I regard myself as a kind of spokesman for alienation and loneliness," Sting once said, and it's a jarring statement from the mouth of a man who, despite his many protestations, is essentially working in a rock & roll context. Though rock music has often concerned itself with alienation, its focus has usually been on an age group – i.e., young people – rather than on the individual. Such introspective concerns have traditionally been the province of the contemporary singer/songwriter. So it comes as no great surprise, then, that Sting has cited the heretofore uncool James Taylor as a major influence. Part of the Police's appeal lies in Sting's ability to channel those sorts of concerns into vigorous, arena-sized rock & roll.

A paradox? Terrific. Sting loves paradox. After all, this is the man who capped many of the last tour's concerts – including an uncannily stirring show in front of 70,000 cheering fans at a soggy Shea Stadium – with "So Lonely." "That song does point to the paradox of being alone while surrounded by all of these people. And yet one is alone," he says with a laugh before growing more intense. "One is never not alone, if you know what I mean, alone all the time. I think one of the ways of relieving that awful sense of isolation is by realizing that everyone is in the same boat and by proclaiming one's isolation in unison with 70,000 other people. It's a kind of joyful catharsis. I really get off on that paradox. I find it very warming."

Throughout Synchronicity, Sting erects strikingly antinomian forces opposite each other, forging connections between them while noting their fundamental differences. Thus, "Every Breath You Take" stunningly displays the obsessiveness of ex-lovers, their maniacal possessiveness, while offering a melody that might lead you to believe he is singing about his son. "It did surprise me that a lot of people responded to it on a different level than the way I wrote it," Sting notes. "I consider it a fairly nasty song; it's a song about surveillance and ownership and jealousy. A lot of people thought it was a very sweet love song. But what I'm saying is that songs can work on as many levels as possible – and should. That's the magic of music."

What Sting possesses is something of what John Keats referred to as negative capability: the capacity to see things in two different ways without feeling compelled to resolve them. He understands the strength in that stance. "I think that's what life's about, learning to handle paradox. Constantly. More and more as you become more experienced. It's part of growing up, I think."

The Police represent nearly all of the contradictions that rock & roll of all stripes has called forth: egotism and selflessness; arena impact and intimacy; complexity and simplicity; outreach and introspection. Such is their power that they – along with Bruce Springsteen – stand at the center of what could be called postalienationist rock & roll. From its beginning, rock & roll has sought to address its audience's essential difference and separation from the rest of the culture, and to issue a call to like-minded youth: we gotta all get together against them. That sort of defiant, nervy alienation, from the Who to the Sex Pistols, has characterized much of rock & roll as long as it has existed.

Postalienationist rock & roll takes as a given the alienation that young people feel – from their jobs, their families, their lovers. Rather than accentuating that difference or acclaiming it proudly, it instead tries to forge connections back to a larger community without ever losing sight of the differences that created the split in the first place. It fosters the sort of sentiment that inspired Springsteen's "Independence Day" or "Racing in the Streets" yet also fueled songs like the Police's "Tea in the Sahara" and "Wrapped around Your Finger."

Indeed, it is a crystallized expression of synchronicity itself: the idea that things that are linked need not have direct, causal relationships; that we need not resolve the distinctions that separate us to be related in an important way. "A connecting principle/ Linked to the invisible/ Almost imperceptible/ Something inexpressible," Sting sings in "Synchronicity I," and what that connecting principle amounts to is human will and intelligence: the ability to tolerate--even celebrate--differences, while striving toward unity and understanding.

"It is quite incredible, the power of pop music," says Summers, noting the impact of Synchronicity's concepts. "It's certainly more beneficial to the world than 'Get another woman to lay down' or something. People singing the words of 'King of Pain' ... it almost brings you to tears, actually."

"I get a lot of feedback from all kinds of people: Jungian analysts, religious people, anarchists, whomever," says Sting. "Enough who are informed and cognizant of what I'm trying to do to make me feel confident that at least someone is getting it. I'm sure that a lot of people will enjoy it on one level, and others maybe on a higher level, but it's just as valid. I think that at its best, art – if I may use that word – can communicate without necessarily being understood.

"If you are blessed or cursed with intelligence, then you have to think about more. And there are a great deal of paradoxes in the world of success that intelligence doesn't make any easier. If anything, it makes them more acute.

"The problem I think about a lot is: I'm a rich, successful songwriter – what do I write about now?"

This story is from the March 1st, 1984 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 416: March 1, 1984