In the early stages of The Police’s meteoric rise to superstardom, band frontman/sex-symbol Sting openly predicted that the group would say everything it had to say by its fifth album.
In 1983, after releasing the mega-platinum Synchronicity and promoting it with an epochal stadium tour, The Police disbanded. Sure enough, they had released five albums, expanding their audience and stretching the limits of their tight, disciplined sound with each release.
It may have been creative intuition or self-fulfilling prophecy at work, but Sting correctly surmised that this band was not meant for the long haul. But their abrupt termination helped create an enduring Police myth.
The Police are to pop music what Sandy Koufax is to baseball, Rocky Marciano is to boxing, and Jim Brown is to football. They got out at the peak of their powers, on their own terms, and left people wanting more. In a broad historical sense, The Police’s decision to reunite this year for an ultra-lucrative tour was predictable, given that every major band eventually succumbs to the monetary temptations of a reunion. At the same time, it was surprising, because Sting has resisted the pull of nostalgia for so long, and with such certitude, there was little reason for him to change his mind now.
The Police’s reunion tour has allowed a generation familiar with the myth to see the band in the flesh, but it’s also had the inevitable consequence of demystifying a legend. That demystification process began in 2003, when the group played a brief, aimless set during its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and fellow inductee Elvis Costello (who once threatened to clip Sting around the ears if he didn’t stop singing in a fake Jamaican accent) observed that their weaknesses were so blatantly exposed he couldn’t help but feel sorry for Sting.
The major sniping on the reunion tour came quickly, from within the band’s inner circle. After the band’s error-plagued opening show in Vancouver, drummer Stewart Copeland blogged that he and his mates sounded “unbelievably lame” and Sting looked “like a petulant pansy instead of the God of rock.”
Brutal self-criticism might be one way of lowering media expectations, but they didn’t spare The Police much, with many reviewers finding the shows — particularly the new, mellowed-out arrangements of classics such as “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” — oddly tepid.
In many respects, The Police were always a rock anomaly. Because they were older and more seasoned than much of their competition (Sting and Copeland were in their mid-20s and guitarist Andy Summers was a full decade older), they didn’t struggle to develop a sound. Within a few months of Summers joining the lineup, they recorded classics such as “Roxanne” and “Can’t Stand Losing You,” seemingly arriving at their odd reggae-derived beats and jazzy minor-11th chords with the on-the-spot fluidity of studio pros.
Their sound inspired many imitators (remember the high, pinched vocals of The Outfield?) but no credible duplicators. Sure, their attempt to ride the punk bandwagon was calculated and phony, but no more than The Who pretending to part of the mod movement or David Bowie glamming it up when his blues projects failed. Copeland’s rhythmic brilliance ensured that The Police’s best music would have a visceral kick, as well as a subtlety that few punk or new-wave bands could match.
Consider “Message in a Bottle,” the group’s most perfect studio creation. Copeland rides a fast reggae beat under Summers’ mathematical riff, breaking into a disco beat for the second half of the verse, a driving rock attack for the “I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world” chorus, and, against all rock orthodoxy, brings everything down for the title line, with a soft, dub-inspired, hi-hat workout. Four wildly different beats, all in the span of a minute. Through persistent drive for innovation, Copeland kept the band from slipping into tedium (at least until Sting’s more new-age tendencies surfaced on Synchronicity). Even minor confections such as “Masoko Tanga” and “Canary in a Coalmine” still leap out of the speakers a quarter century later.
Because this band made pan-cultural body music, it also transcended the racial polarities that dogged radio at the time. When Eddie Murphy famously belted out “Roxanne” during the opening moments of 48 Hours, it was a silly scene, to be sure, but it was also telling. Can you imagine an African-American character in a 1982 film giddily singing a song by another white rock band of the time? Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers? Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band? Journey? Neither can I.
Nonetheless, there is something that continues to niggle about The Police. While they never made a bad album, they never came close to making a classic, either. Every other great band you can name has at least one masterpiece in their catalog. But where is the Police’s London Calling, Beggars Banquet, Who’s Next, Nevermind, or Marquee Moon?
Every Police album was larded down with either half-assed filler (“Be My Girl - Sally”) or dour preachiness (“Walking in Your Footsteps”). Part of the problem was that, self-consciously literary renaissance man though he may be, Sting was (and remains) a chronically mediocre lyricist. His early efforts tended toward shallow silliness, often compensating with a charming who-cares quality (“Tomorrow’s another day/ Tuesday”). But as he puffed up with the weight of his role as a generational spokesman, he became insufferable (“Hey there mighty brontosaurus/ don’t you have a message for us?”).
A scathing 1979 Rolling Stone review of the band’s debut album, Outlandos d’Amour, noted that Sting gave off a smug vibe, as if he felt he was superior to his own material. That air of superiority has haunted him ever since. No matter how much energy and conviction he puts into a performance, there’s always a certain detachment. Fortunately for him, and the legion of Police fans who’ve shelled out big bucks for the band’s reunion tour, there is no detachment in Stewart Copeland’s kick drum. •
7:30 pm Tue, Nov 20
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