By Mark Guarino
The natural cycle for a band on retreat is the reunion tour. The Police, the British power trio that achieved international mania by the time it expired, is one of the notorious holdouts. When the band broke up in 1983, they were at their creative and commercial peak. The band’s fifth album “Synchronicity” (A&M) topped the charts for close to two years, it yielded four major singles and the band’s world tour created the type of international mania previously reserved only for The Beatles.
Then it ended. For fans and the band alike, The Police’s disappearance was worthy of respect — they left at the top of their game — but it couldn’t help mask there was unfinished business.
“We simply never really announced the world, ‘that’s it, we’re never playing together anymore, the band’s over’. We were told for political reasons to keep quiet and to not lose the power basis and all this (expletive). But after a couple of years I couldn’t stand not telling the truth anymore,” said Police guitarist Andy Summers.
In “One Train Later” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), a recent memoir of his life before and during The Police, Summers, 65, reveals each member of the band — including bassist and singer Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland — suffered a personal loss at the expense of being in the most famous band in the world. Divorces, lawsuits, drugs and egos are the clichéd residue of fame, but Summers said what really made the experience difficult was how the attention ultimately became a distraction to making music.
“Things got distorted,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “You look back and the best part were the first couple of years. Because we were unknown and we were all very locked into it together as a unit trying to make it. By the time you get to the fifth album and you’re just like mega, you’re traveling in separate limos.”
Two-thirds of “One Train Later” is an account of Summers’ life before The Police. Styles changed and he did his best to keep in fashion so he could work. In the late 1960’s when psychedelic rock blurred into the British blues revival, Summers writes of his time in a psychedelic band (aptly titled Dantalion’s Chariot) and later as a member of The Animals with Eric Burdon. Even though he played in the same circles as Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Albert Lee and Eric Clapton (to whom he sold a ’59 Les Paul Sunburst guitar, which became Clapton’s signature model and made the guitar a collectible), Summers had dodged the large-scale success he was after. After five years in Los Angeles where he studied classical guitar, theory and composition, he returned to London and became a husband and father. He was broke and took any gig he could find, including a tour playing with pop hitmaker Neil Sedaka. Through a mutual friend he met Sting and Copeland, both about ten years his junior, and felt an instant connection.
“The central thread is I never let go. I was a musician and I was a really good one and (I thought) I should get there if there’s any justice in the world,” he said.
The Police released their first album, “Outlandos d’Amour” (A&M), in 1978, a year after punk broke in England. The Sex Pistols endorsed the idea that all you needed was the right sneer and leather jacket since musicianship — the actual playing of an instrument — was overrated. In a scramble to follow the trend, record companies looked for young, energetic groups and found The Police, a trio that played with bottled-up energy, lightening fast songs and a lead singer who didn’t shout, he sang. The problem was, The Police knew how to play their instruments and almost too well. Summers and Sting both shared an affinity for reggae, classical guitar and jazz and soon incorporated tricky time signatures and ambiance into their albums while Copeland’s playing riffed on Middle Eastern syncopations. It helped that Sting head an ear for catchy pop melodies and all three were blondes (hair dye helped, Summers revealed).
At first, England turned its head. It took extensive touring of the U.S. for The Police to get the attention it deserved. “I took a huge chance joining The Police because there was nothing there. It was more of a sort of gut instinct,” Summers said. “When we turned up in CBGB’s in New York, immediately we were accepted for the music we were playing. We got away from the false values that were raging in London. The minute we arrived in America it felt like we were a very hip, New Wave band, not a punk band, and we were accepted.”
The Police achieved massive popularity with each successive album. Sting, the primary songwriter and singer, became a media star in the process. From the start, he eyed a solo career. When that happened, The Police’s legacy shuffled to the background, an unfortunate circumstance since nothing Sting recorded as a solo artist matches the insistency and hyper pop grooves of his original band days, something he seemed just recently to acknowledge — the band on his last tour was slimmed to a trio, the setlist primarily consisting of rare Police songs he hadn’t played in over 20 years. Copeland and Summers proved to be worthy foils for Sting’s magnetic gifts, bringing an aggressive energy to his pop songs and creating parts that expanded the music’s vocabulary, creating the band’s signature style.
Although the grind of touring cost Summers his marriage, he rekindled his relationship with his wife once the band was dismissed. The couple moved to Los Angeles, raised twins, and he embarked on a solo career that incorporated jazz and world beats. Although he watched friends, from John Belushi to Keith Moon, self-destruct, Summers said he was conscious of not being another casualty.
“I have no interest in destroying every brain cell. I like to have fun and we did with all the stuff you might imagine. But Sting, Stewart and I, all three us are still around being very creative. I think it takes a certain amount of toughness to withstand it,” he said. He said he was able to fill the hole the band created the only way he knew how: “the music itself.” “No matter what amount of (expletive) that goes on around you, once you’re on that stage with a guitar, bass and drums, you’ve got to do it. You have to start a musical dialogue to let go of other things. You have to get back to who you really are,” he said.
As for a Police reunion, Summers reports he receives offers “everyday.” “It’s pretty incredible, actually. Every year, the price keeps going up. It’s sort of sick. I think we could make more in four months than we did in seven years,” he said.
He and Copeland are willing participants, but he said the choice is Sting’s. “I can’t call him up and say ‘oh come on, let’s do it.’ It’s in his head. If he wants to do it, then great. We remain good friends. It’s when and if,” he said.