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The Police: Alone at the Top

The Police took a solitary road to success in 1983

March 1, 1984 12:00 AM ET
The Police
The Police on the cover of Rolling Stone.
David Bailey

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.

Check out the 10 messiest band breakups

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."

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