Arrested Development – The Troubled Legacy of The Police

[The following piece was first published in 2009]

I had a very odd reading experience recently. As a fan of rock history, I try to keep up with any decent biographies that crop up, especially of favorite artists.  While at Borders a month or so ago, I came across Chris Campion’s Walking on the Moon: The Untold Story of the Police and the Rise of New Wave Rock. Being a huge Police fan, I eagerly grabbed the first serious bio written about the band (outside of the principal players) in ages, forked over the money, and headed home expecting a fun and insightful look at the blond trio’s compelling story.  At the book’s conclusion about 270 pages later, I found myself a bit depressed by Campion’s thoroughly clinical and joyless take on the subject matter.  While well-written and detailed in its research, the book is startlingly imbalanced.

While not an Albert Goldman-level hatchet job, Campion’s book is more a damnation than a celebration of the band. Not every rock bio has to be fawning in its approach or devoid of journalistic integrity, but with most of the best ones you at least get a sense that they were written by fans.  While detailed in recounting the group’s calculated and meteoric rise, Campion has virtually nothing positive to say about the band and offers no additional insights about the music itself. There is no real acknowledgment of their incredible talent as players and no appreciation for the songs or albums. The book is really about the group’s cunning management via the equally legendary Miles Copeland, with the implication being that it was clever strategy and not the songs themselves that drove the Police to world domination in the early ‘80s.

The book is symptomatic of a larger problem that faces the Police: history has not been kind to the band.  By 1983, there was no doubt that the trio had secured a place in rock history among the greats. The group released their fifth album Synchronicity, which catapulted straight to no# 1 along with what has since become their signature single “Every Breath You Take,” a deceptively seductive song about a stalker.  They were already being written about as heirs to the tradition of intelligent and crafty pop once staked out by the Beatles, and with their similar upward trajectory as well as their own Shea Stadium moment on record, there was no denying the similarities. They straddled that fine line of being a pop group (girls loved them), while having rock cred as players with chops (guys loved them too).  And by this point most critics, once resistant to the band’s lack of punk credibility, photogenic looks and unavoidable presence, had come around. Synchronicity and the world tour that followed, was largely greeted with enthusiastic praise. And the group topped Rolling Stone magazine’s annual reader’s poll that same year. From that point on, the group was minted and poised for greater and greater things.

Perhaps it was the decision, largely driven by chief songwriter/bassist Sting, to call it quits while at the very top, another Beatlesque move calculated to leave the audience wanting more. Or maybe it has to do with Sting’s largely MOR solo output since disbanding the group. One way or another, time has robbed the band of its once-omnipotent aura.  Their legacy has not grown in stature in the way that, for example, Led Zeppelin’s or Pink Floyd’s has.  They no longer crack the top 10 of any 100 best album, song, or band-of-all-time polls. Though songs such as “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” and the indomitable “Every Breath You Take” have withstood the test of time, the Police have not fully transcended their era like most of the elite, classic-rock greats have. They have not joined “The Canon” as once expected, which is a shame as, based on talent alone, they are certainly worthy.

While not doing himself any favors with the guardians of rock history as a solo artist, particularly with his lute and “winter” music (not to mention bragging about his tantric sex practices), Sting is a uniquely talented and complicated figure. Most songwriters are either gifted with a strong sense of melody or a unique way with words. Sting was one of the few in rock history gifted with both. His Police songs have pop hooks that would’ve made Lennon and McCartney envious and his best lyrics (when he stepped away from the rhyming dictionary) dealt with power, control, and twisted love in a way far removed from most pop song conventions. Long before Live Aid, Sting was writing about the plight of the Third World in “Driven to Tears” (from 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta).  And from his dark, but spiritual meditations on 1982’s Ghost in the Machine to the more personal and psychologically troubled songs on 1983’s Synchronicity such as “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” Sting rose to the level of first-rank songwriters (all this without mentioning his keening, signature tenor and melodic bass playing). Though rife with intellectual pretensions, his best Police songs (and loose album concepts) were all the better for the scope of his ambition. The ‘80s really needed him, but he certainly would not have made it to true superstar status alone.

The Police is drummer Stewart Copeland’s band and without his initial drive and vision, Sting most likely would’ve ended up an unknown jazz wannabe or fringe songwriter at best.  He dragged Sting along on the crest of 1976’s punk rock movement in England, added muscle and firepower to his singing/bass playing, had the concept and name for the band, and contributed a completely unique (to rock) polyrhythmic drumming style that would become a key signature of all great Police music. He was also the most interesting member of the band to watch in a live setting with his manic energy and long, flailing limbs seemingly all over the kit at once.  While by no means a songwriter’s drummer (he completely lacked the restraint and humility), he was the last of the truly great stickmen before the plague of the infamous gated drum sound of the mid-‘80s took over. He was also the perfect foil for Sting’s more introspective personality.

By his own admission, Sting would not have been able to fully flourish as a songwriter without Andy Summers’ equally unique guitar playing.  With his long history in the music business (he was a contemporary of Beck, Page, and Clapton), Summers was probably the furthest thing from punk possible. But his sophisticated extended chords and use of space, textures, and echo effects were also very far removed from the self-indulgent and pointless guitar solos coming from the lazy dinosaur acts at the time. In that sense, he was the perfect guitar hero for the New Wave era, as well as the ideal third element needed to fully alchemize the Police magic. For all of his subsequent success as a major solo star, Sting has never worked with better players; guys who were in a position to challenge his lesser ideas and toughen up his songs.

In 2007, 30 years after “Roxanne” first charted, the Police finally bowed to inevitable and gave fans the official swan song tour. One of the last major holdouts of the big bucks reunion lure, the band hit the road for a world tour that extended well into 2008, eventually becoming one of the most commercially successful of all time.  This spoke volumes about their enduring popularity, at least with first-generation fans of the band that had waited 23 years since the final Synchronicity show in Sydney, Australia to see them perform live once again. But did they deliver on the (too) high expectations? Reviews were largely positive across the board (if you discount Stewart Copeland’s infamous blog entry ripping on the tour’s debut in Vancouver). While the performances lacked the coked-up intensity of the early ‘80s, the reunion was a huge gamble that paid off more than it didn’t. No one was screaming “fiasco” and none of the band members embarrassed themselves. Sting still had the voice and ripped physique, Stewart still had the hyperkinetic chops and wowed audiences with his star turn on “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and Andy was the overall MVP of the tour, nailing impressive solos on “When the World is Running Down…” and “Driven to Tears.”  While the early performances never fully gelled, by the time they returned to the states in early 2008 they were as tight and muscular as they’d ever been (taking into account several key and tempo changes in the material). Once again, the future held promise. And once again, the band made the same decision: to walk away at the top. Or perhaps the decision was to walk away from potentially killing one another in the studio.

In some ways, the Police deserve credit for sidestepping the typical rock and roll pitfalls. There were no drug casualties. There was no poor reunion album to tarnish their recorded legacy (they are 5 for 5 there).  They never overstayed their welcome (something U2 missed the boat on ages ago). They’ve wrapped up the loose ends with one another and with their fans. And the songs have lasted. They still sound crisp, particularly on the first three albums, due to the tasteful three piece power-pop aesthetic.  As with the perfect instrumental combination of guitar, bass, and drums, the artful blend of existential lyrics and upbeat, catchy hooks will always work in rock and roll. The Police were masters of the form. They started as pseudo-punks, but eventually created their own unique sound, which is something very few acts in rock history have accomplished.  They are Hall of Famers, but deserve much more credit than they’ve been given and they certainly deserve a better book than Chris Campion’s disheartening work.

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