Interview: SOUNDS (1979)

June 14, 1979

The following article by Phil Sutcliffe appeared in a June 1979 issue of Sounds magazine...


Truth Hits Everybody... The Police bringing New Wave to the kids, with, they claim, no help from Elvis Costello and Blondie...

The Scene: The Star dressing room at the Edinburgh Odeon before the gig. The Police are wondering whether they might be about to get their first front cover in a British music paper. They discuss it earnestly for a couple of minutes until Sting suddenly bawls out, "Why should I care? I'm rich!' and with a delirious cackle begins to pluck from his guitar the happiest blues I've ever heard, while Stewart Copeland, who is lying flat on his back on the floor, supplies some rhyming vocals along the lines of 'And I ain't gonna bitch/Certainly won't throw myself in that ditch/'Cos I'm rich.'

A bit blatant? The cause of the celebration is the success of The Police's 'sleeper' single, 'Roxanne', and album 'Outlandos d'Amour', both worldwide hits. The LP has already sold nearly half a million copies in the US alone.

Of course, rock'n'roll does this to people - at least the ones it doesn't starve - but rarely so quickly and unpredictably. Two and a half years ago, Stewart Copeland, former Curved Air drummer, inspired by punk, formed The Police, borrowed £800 to start Illegal Records with his brother Miles, and put out a single. By Christmas '78, progress could be measured by this image Stewart recalled: "There was me and Sting on either end of an amp carrying it into the Nashville to do a support spot for Chelsea."

'Making it' is about the most lukewarm and inconsequential aspect of pop. What's interesting is the music and the people. But, in rock, the hard evidence that you are well liked is money. The Police are pleased and they're not bullshitting anyone about it.

Don't wanna hear about the drugs you're takin'/Don't wanna hear about the love you're makin'/Don't wanna hear about the lies you're fakin'/Don't wanna hear about the muck they're rakin'... Peanuuuts!!!" (from Peanuts)

The show tonight was a warm, happy concert. And with Bobby Henry and The Cramps, too, very good value. In the six weeks between the tour being booked and the starting date, The Police's drawing power multiplied so that this Edinburgh gig had to be moved from Tiffany's to the Odeon, and tomorrow night's from Liverpool Eric's club to the Empire.

Unabashed, the band prove that the music has been there all along even if the stats hadn't.

The Police are not extreme but they're distinctive. Great, driving, sing-able, physical choruses, with Beatles-ish melodies and Pistolis-ish energy, repeated so often they would be unbearable if they weren't perfect tough pop hooklines, erupting with the irregular certainty of hot springs from quiet, conversational verses. It's a balance of weight, sense and intensity. Explanation then exhortation. It moves, it changes, it takes you.

Guitarist Andy Summers has watched the effect: "You can see people breathing along with us, leaning against the rhythm. We hold a silence for four bars then start again and they fall over! The way we play is seductive, we don't rape them."

I think their songs are a great relief to people who grew up with punk because they are so personal about emotions rather than issues and society. And live, The Police have their own special way of saying, "This means you", by playing quiet, open passages in which their audiences shout or sing whatever they feel and the band responds. Every night is fresh and different.

"A hundred million bottles washed up on the shore/It seems I'm not alone in being alone" (Message In A Bottle)

After the Edinburgh concert, a girl from Jackie magazine tried to interview Sting in the dressing room. Had he been a prefect at school? What exams did he pass? She said something about him looking very fit (which he is with his Mr Universe biceps and legs that once dashed to third in the All-England junior 100 metres) and he tried a little levity: "Actually I'm a hypochondriac. When I want sympathy I get ill."

Cue Copeland: "The rest of us ride around in limos but he travels by ambulance. Then we check into the hotel but he stops off at the hospital. In fact he sleeps in a coffin just in case."

The girl giggled at him nervously.

Meanwhile, Andy had discovered that the tour programmes cost 80p. Far too much, everyone agreed. He wanted to know who had decided that without consulting the band: "We don't want to be associated with that. It's a souvenir. They've paid for their tickets. We don't want to profit out of the programme."

We left for the hotel, where I interviewed Stewart and Andy, who stay high after gigs, while Sting, who is wrecked, went to bed.

"In this desert that I call my soul/I always play the starring role..." (So Lonely)

"Yeah, it's looking pretty clean and green for us," said the drummer. "It feels good because we had to work so hard. We make no bones we were inspired by punk. We wanted to play music for wild kids. All my old musical friends dropped out on me as if I had deserted."

Andy: "I got the same as soon as I joined The Police."

Stewart: "Then we weren't well received by audiences... largely because we weren't that good."

Put The Police's survival down to their age (starting at Copeland's 25 and reaching up to Summers' 36), experience, leathery confidence, unbending egos, and over-weaning ambition. Whatever, it worked.

Since Christmas, in short order, the stragglers have become the market leaders. And for Copeland and Summers one of the sweetest results of their spiral of progress was that they have been able to pay back some of what they owe to punk and New Wave by campaigning in the States with all the vigour of teeth-and-smiles politicians popularising a radical ticket.

Stewart: "We are the first band to make the charts over there and own up that we owe it to punk. People have kept quiet about it previously because there's been such prejudice against it. Blondie and Elvis Costello wouldn't speak about it, which I thought was dishonest of them. Hopefully we can do for The Stranglers, The Damned and The Clash in America what they did for us here in England. We're waking them up again to the fact that the UK is the source of all that's best in rock'n'roll."

I wondered whether The Police's soft sell on behalf of punk, though undoubtedly well meant, presented its true unbridled spirit, and got two slightly different views.

Stewart: "Johnny Rotten's music was too abrasive for Americans, and the social conditions he was talking about didn't apply to such a degree, because of the affluence of kids over there. His message just wasn't so relevant."

Andy: "I did find it a bit of a disappointment to think that we have provided a soft way into New Wave and that they couldn't take the toughest stuff so they had to use 'Roxanne' as an access route."

"There's something missing in my life/Cuts me open like a knife" (Hole In My Life)

I caught up with Sting the next night in Liverpool after the sound check. He said we should go somewhere quiet and suggested the theatre coffee bar. On the way, he dropped off a few of the band's beers with the sentries guarding the backstage area.

We sat in shabby wicker chairs drinking coffee from plastic cups. "It feels peculiar being interviewed by you," said Sting. I said, No, it was alright, but I really meant yes. The thing is we've known each other for years, circumstances have changed, and neither of us was too sure what difference that made.

I knew Sting in Newcastle as front man of a local group called Last Exit, bassist in a jazz big band, and full-time schoolteacher. I wouldn't have predicted then that he would have hit records including one which caused him to play on Top of the Pops in a gorilla mask, take a leading role in the film Quadrophenia, become a famous face in TV ads and magazines as a male model, record classical rock in Germany with Eberhard Schoener, and be offered a part in an opera.

I wouldn't have predicted it, but in a sense I caused it by taking Stewart Copeland along to a Last Exit gig after Curved Air and finished their stint at Newcastle Poly. Stewart took a shine to Sting and shortly snatched him for his own project. At the time I felt enraged and guilty.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by Liverpudlians aged 12 to 15 proffering every kind of debris for signature. Sting was mock complaining: "You autograph beer bottles, cigarette packets, bags with old bits of bun in them and you see them in the gutter after the gig..."

You really love this don't you?

Sting: "Yes, I love it. (Happily laughing at himself caught in the act) I enjoy being an egotist. Having people watching, being in control. I liked being a bus conductor because people watched me doing my job."

The job being here and/or on stage?

Sting: "It's joining in the melee. I'm glad to be part of that celebration... of life. You're akin to a witchdoctor inciting trance-like barbarity. That's your job! It's clearly defined. It's traditional."

Fan: "Give us your sunglasses Sting."

Sting: "No, they cost too much."

Fan: "Give us your coat."

In a way when you moved from teaching to this you were swapping one position of authority for another.

Sting: It's a development of the same thing. As a teacher I learned how to entertain delinquents for an hour. Same as now. Learning rapport, timing, how to talk to kids without making them think you're a jerk. The trouble with a lot of them was they'd never really been talked with. So they developed speech defects, the muscles of speech would actually waste away. Well... the job of a teacher is to be human."

I suggested it was difficult to keep an element of condescension out of this rock star/teacher parallel and he couldn't pronounce himself entirely untainted.

Sting: "But I do care about communicating. I like to see their blessed faces. Hoping something is going to come from you to them. I want to make a noise at them and have them make a noise back."

Fan: "Are you married Sting?"

Sting: "Yes."

Several male fans: "Oh no!"

There's much nudging, as they tell each other they'll never caught up like that.

Sting: "What's wrong with it? You meet a chick, you fall in love, it's great."

It happens that Sting, like Stewart Copeland who lives with Curved Air's singer Sonja Kristina, "met a chick" who is also a stage performer. You've probably seen Frances Tomelty on TV quite a lot recently. They've got a two year old son called Joe, born just before Sting gave up his cushy number teaching.

"That's a mark of my ambition. If I gave this up I'd be unbearable to live with, half a man. It's just the same with Frances. It would be easy for her to give up acting now because we have the money. But I don't want that and she doesn't. We've got a great relationship, lots of creative tension."

He had previously used almost the same phrase to describe his relationship with Copeland, who showed his largeness of character by letting Sting take over as songwriter after The Police's initial 'bastardised punk' phase, and then proved his spunk by getting a character called Klark Kent to make hit out of his song 'Don't Care' when Sting rejected it as a no-hoper.

Fan: "Why can't we get 'Fall Out' with a picture sleeve now?"

Sting: "You can't. (To me) You see how the music and the business entwine? Even the kids ask you questions about the biz and I can't answer this one."

Fan: "Give us your sunglasses, Sting."

We went backstage again. Sting worrying about when The Police would get a chance to rehearse new material and record their second album amid the pressure to push home the delayed success of 'Outlandos'. The immediate prospects are nil, and The Police's set remains excellent but thin - barely a dozen songs, but 'Message In A Bottle' points to an inspiring future for their music.

In fact, the band have delivered a completed tape of it to their record company, but the dressing room grumbling indicated they are distressed at reports of the company re-promoting 'Can't Stand Losing You' as the follow-up to 'Roxanne', making '79 even more like a rerun of '78 with the only the number of zeros on their contracts changed.

I'd put a small stake on The Police giving their fans what the band feel they want and deserve. The last I saw of them was Andy Summers tying up one loose end by firmly addressing the gent in charge of selling the tour programme, who agreed to cut the price to 50p barring objections from "above".

© Sounds by Phil Sutcliffe


May 10, 1979

Backstage after the first of four sold-out performances at the Paradise, Stewart Copeland is relaxing, intermittently sipping a beer, and mostly trying to explain the particulars behind the phenomenal rise of his band The Police from the midst of the British punk pack in 1977, to the position of a bona fide contender in a country which has treated most new wave exports with a mixture of indifference and loathing. This is not to infer that America has uniformly rejected the punk revolution which swept Britain two years ago, but acceptance in America as been largely critical and not commercial; in England the two went hand-in-hand uprooting the established system...

May 1, 1979

How does one describe the Police, a trio that concludes their debut album, 'Outlandos d'Amour', with a politico/punk anthem ('Born in the '50s'), a whimsical ditty about fondling inflatable dolls ('Be My Girl, Sally'), and, last but not least, 'Masoko Tanga', a chant from a past reincarnation of the lead singer, Sting, after he had been hypnotised by a noted British paraphysicist? Throw in the reggae influence pervasive in many Police tunes and the Mozart T-shirt Sting is wearing when we first meet and it is obvious that all available pigeonholes have been clogged with guano...