Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: The Police

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: The Police

Great artists have been making history using Fender instruments for decades. Many of these greats are featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; join us as we take a detailed look at some at some of the artists who’ve been inducted in previous years and who make the Hall of Fame one of the world’s greatest monuments to one of the world’s greatest musical forms.

1978 debut album Outlandos d’Amour.

Written by Jeff Owens 

In the first half of the 1980s, the Police were quite simply the biggest band in the world. Electrifying chemistry and the uncanny ability to produce musically innovative and brilliantly crafted hits seemingly at will made them planet-dominating superstars, bolstered by a non-stop work ethic, highly photogenic looks and famously violent internal feuding.

Over the course of five studio albums, a long list of hits came in a breathlessly creative torrent from 1978 to 1983, including “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” “De Doo Doo Doo, Da Da Da Da,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Spirits in the Material World,” “Every Breath You Take,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “Synchronicity II” among others. In the process, drummer Stewart Copeland, guitarist Andy Summers and bassist/vocalist/principal songwriter Gordon “Sting” Sumner used the old tools of rock ‘n’ roll to introduce new sounds and structures into mainstream pop music, influencing generations of musicians to come and wresting the title of World’s Biggest Band from the aging blues-based titans who lumbered across the Earth in the 1970s. They worked incredibly hard to do it, and they did everything their way.

And then, at the height of it all, they quit. The Police surprised everyone (as they often did and would continue to do) by relinquishing the throne at the very pinnacle of their success, at the end of the massive 1983-1984 world tour for massive fifth album Synchronicity; all but handing U2 the keys to subsequent world domination.

Then, after nearly a quarter century of emphatically quashing any talk of reconvening, the famously fractious Police surprised everyone yet again by announcing a massive 2007-2008 reunion tour that duly became one of the top-grossing concert ventures of all time.

Second and third albums Reggatta de Blanc (1979) and Zenyatta Mondatta (1980).

Perhaps the website of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to which the group was inducted in 2003, puts it best, noting that “The Police brought bristling energy and musical sophistication to the new wave movement. They were among the first post-punk success stories, applying the succinct and speedy strictures of that genre to more challenging material that appealed to listeners of all ages and musical persuasions.”

Very well said, yet there was very little in the group’s mid-’70s genesis that would suggest impending world domination. The band was formed by drummer Stewart Copeland, an American who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, as the son of a CIA field officer. Copeland roadied and played for prog outfit Curved Air from 1974 to 1976; when punk hit Britain he formed an energetic trio in London and called it the Police. He enlisted Corsican punk guitarist Henri Padovani and a charismatic jazz bassist/singer he’d met in Newcastle, England, in late 1976, Gordon “Sting” Sumner.

Sting—nicknamed for a black-and-yellow jersey he often wore—was a high school teacher who played bass and sang with a Newcastle ensemble called Last Exit that had much more in common with Steely Dan than the Sex Pistols. Copeland sensed great potential in Sting, who combined great bass chops and a highly distinctive vocal tenor with natural stage presence, brooding intensity and a literate lyrical sense.

By mid-1977 and after one indie single (“Fall Out”/“Nothing Achieving”), Padovani was replaced with Summers, a much more accomplished guitarist who’d met Copeland and Sting that spring, when all three were enlisted by Gong’s Mike Howlett for a short-lived band called Strontium 90. Summers, a decade older than Copeland and Sting, had an extensive resume that included stints with the Animals, Soft Machine and Neil Sedaka.

The Police weren’t really a punk band, but they deliberately flew that flag early on because they were of that time and those circumstances. Their fantastically energetic musical chemistry certainly looked and sounded punk, but they hid their abundant musical chops and lyrical intelligence in plain sight with songs that were short, simple, fast and noisy. Desperate for money and work in their pre-fame days, they all bleached their hair blonde in February 1978 for a Wrigley’s chewing gum TV commercial, creating a look that didn’t fool “real” punks but nonetheless became a Police trademark.

April 1978 second single “Roxanne”—an angularly infectious ode to a Parisian prostitute—won the Police a contract with A&M Records despite the fact that the group’s manager, Copeland’s business-savvy elder brother Miles, was the founder and chief of pioneering alt-rock label I.R.S. Records. Miles Copeland III steered his younger brother’s band with a no-frills grassroots strategy that had them crisscrossing the U.S. college circuit by van and visiting areas of the world such as India and Argentina that were unaccustomed to hosting touring rock bands. This kind of hard-fought groundwork paid off immeasurably when the hits started coming.

And the hits did quickly start coming. “Roxanne” appeared on November 1978 debut album Outlandos D’Amour, a stripped-down affair that spilled over with a unique combination of stop-start reggae inflections (“Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You”) and high-speed punk ferocity (“Next To You,” “Truth Hits Everyone,” “Peanuts”). A tenacious single, “Roxanne” accomplished little at first, but took off on re-release in mid-1979, reaching No. 12 in the U.K. and No. 32 in the United States and bringing the album along with it.

This paved the way to the top of the U.K. charts, which is where the lead single from highly anticipated second album Regatta De Blanc promptly zoomed only months later. “Message In a Bottle,” hit number one in September 1979 and further established the Police as a force to be reckoned with. The group toured heavily behind the album, which reached No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 25 in the United States.

Fourth album Ghost in the Machine (1981).

The Police reached superstar status with October 1980 third album Zenyatta Mondatta. In a great example of the band’s relentless work ethic, the world tour for the album started on the day they finished recording it (Aug. 9, 1980). A huge worldwide success with half a dozen hit singles (“Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” Driven to Tears,” “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around,” “Canary in a Coalmine”), it was also the group’s last musically stripped-down bass/drums/guitar album. Nonetheless, Zenyatta Mondatta was a major musical achievement, with Sting’s ability to play minimal but sharply clever bass lines beneath irresistible vocal melodies at its height; Summers’ guitar textures at their most atmospheric and experimental, and Copeland’s propulsive polyrhythmic dexterity at its most engaging. Few vestiges of punk remained although the band was more ferocious live than ever (Summers commented much later that none of the band’s records really captured the true sound of the Police).

The Police now ruled the post-punk world, but it had taken four years of feverishly nonstop work. Cracks now widened as sheer exhaustion and the fierce alpha-male volatility that was always the other side of the coin of their brotherly love for each other seriously strained the bonds that held them together. A tense atmosphere pervaded sessions for 1981 fourth album Ghost in the Machine on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat.

Much of the album—including the title (the first English title for a Police album)—was inspired by Arthur Koestler’s brainy 1967 book of the same name, and it was at these sessions that the Police widened their sonic palette with much more extensive use of keyboards and horns (Sting himself played the album’s many saxophone parts). These developments, however, weren’t especially welcomed by Summers and Copeland, who felt increasingly that they were merely backing up Sting and abandoning what the guitarist called the band’s “fantastic raw trio feel.”

Despite being notably darker both musically and lyrically, Ghost was nonetheless an enormous worldwide hit, eventually going triple platinum in the United States. Amid all its thick moodiness and foreboding political inflections, it yielded yet another number-one hit with its one upbeat single, the lightheartedly infectious “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.” But the biggest was yet to come.

Fifth and final studio album Synchronicity (1983).

The Police returned to Montserrat in December 1982 to record their fifth album. Sting turned to Koestler’s work once again for inspiration, and the band proceeded to record an album with no hint of previous punk and reggae influences. The result, Synchronicity, was a distinctive batch of songs with a sound that was theirs and theirs alone. Released in June 1983, it was a mega-blockbuster hit that lofted the Police to a new pinnacle of worldwide fame.

It was an album of extremes—exotic and accessible; haunting and hummable; darkly chaotic and breezily melodic. Synchronicity contained four hit singles—“Every Breath You Take,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “King of Pain,” and “Synchronicity II,” the first of which topped the U.S. singles chart for two months. The album sold 10 million copies and won three Grammy awards. The gargantuan world tour for the album began in Chicago in July 1983 and ended in Melbourne, Australia, in March 1984. On Thursday Aug. 18, 1983, the trio played to 70,000 fans at sold-out Shea Stadium in New York, topping the attendance record set there in 1965 by the Beatles.

And then … nothing. Sting, Summers and Copeland didn’t officially disband, but each embarked on various solo efforts without saying anything about the future of the Police. The second half of 1984 and all of 1985 (during which Sting launched his solo career) came and went. The Police then reconvened for three star-studded Amnesty International benefit concerts in June 1986, and entered a recording studio that July for a tense and ultimately abortive attempt at a sixth studio album; the sessions resulted only in different treatments of 1980 hits “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” the latter of which was included on that year’s top-selling Every Breath You Take: The Singles compilation. And that was it. The Police were no more.

The first half of the 1990s saw sparse Police activity. Personally if not professionally, all three musicians remained on relatively friendly terms; they performed “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” together at Sting’s wedding in August 1992. Four-disc box set Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings, containing every single and album track, appeared in June 1993. A long-awaited Police live album was released in 1995; a double-disc set comprising a Boston club date recording from 1979 and a 1983 Synchronicity concert in Atlanta.

2008 reunion tour poster.

The Police briefly reunited once again—in public, this time—for their March 10, 2003, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performing “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Breath You Take.” Although they professed to generally enjoying the experience, each musician subsequently continued to express disdain for a more substantial Police reunion; Sting’s solo career was well established by then, and Summers and Copeland had long since moved on to solo careers of their own.

Four years later, the Police surprised everyone once again by announcing that the reunion that would supposedly never take place was in fact imminent. Their paths had crossed on highly friendly terms midway through the decade, with the 2006 release of Summers’ autobiography and Copeland’s documentary film about the band. Sting contacted his old band mates and insisted that the time was right.

The Police announced in January 2007 that they would open the 49th Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, which they did on Feb. 11, 2007, with a performance of “Roxanne” and an emphatic intro by Sting in which he declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are the Police and we’re back.” Speculation had abounded since the January announcement that planning for a massive world tour was underway, confirmed the day after the Grammy telecast at a press conference/rehearsal at the Whisky a Go Go.

The marathon tour celebrating the band’s 30th anniversary got under way in Vancouver, Canada, on March 20, 2007, and was an immediate sensation. Original guitarist Padovani joined them onstage in Paris on Sept. 29 for a rendition of “Next to You” during the encore. Speculation also abounded that a new album was in the works, but the Police announced in February 2008 that they would once again disband when the tour was completed. The final show took place Aug. 7, 2008, at Madison Square Garden in New York; the 18-month odyssey had sold 3.7 million tickets and took in $350 million, making it the third-highest grossing tour of all time. A live album and DVD documenting the reunion tour, Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires, was released in November 2008.

Police Timeline

Dec. 31, 1942 Andrew Somers (later Summers) born in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, England.
Oct. 2, 1951 Gordon “Sting” Sumner born in Wallsend, England.
July 16, 1952 Stewart Copeland born in Alexandria, Va.
Oct. 1976 Summers plays a performance of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells with the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra; intermission group is local jazz outfit Last Exit, with Sting bass. Summers watches Last Exit for a few minutes, but the two do not meet.
Dec. 1976 Curved Air drummer Stewart Copeland sees Sting fronting Last Exit in Newcastle.
Jan. 12, 1977 The Police—Copeland, Sting and guitarist Henri Padovani—rehearse for the first time in Copeland’s London flat.
Feb. 12, 1977 First Police single “Fall Out”/“Nothing Achieving” recorded.
March 1977 The Police play their first gig, at the Stowaway in Newport, Wales, opening for singer Cherry Vanilla (whose backing band includes Sting and Copeland) on the first show of a U.K. tour.
May 28, 1977 Sting and Copeland play with Summers for the first time when all are enlisted by Mike Howlett for a reunion of Howlett’s band, Gong, at the Circus Hippodrome in Paris.
July 25, 1977 Summers joins the Police, which exists as a quartet for two gigs.
Aug. 10, 1977 Padovani leaves the Police. The band is now a trio again.
Aug. 18, 1977 The classic Police lineup makes its onstage debut at Rebecca’s in Birmingham.
Jan. 13, 1978 The Police start recording debut album Outlandos D’Amour.
Feb. 10, 1978  U.K. television debut: the Police perform “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Next to You” on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Feb. 22, 1978 Eager for paying work, the Police film a TV commercial for Wrigley’s chewing gum for which they must dye their hair blonde.
April 1978 Single “Roxanne” is released in the U.K. and fails to chart.
Sept. 1978 Single “Can’t Stand Losing You” is banned by the BBC but reaches No. 42 in the U.K. within weeks anyway.
Oct. 20, 1978 U.S. live debut in New York with a gig at CBGB.
Nov. 1978 Debut album Outlandos D’Amour released; contains hits “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely.”
Oct. 1979 Second album Reggata De Blanc released; contains hits “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon.”
Jan. 20, 1980  Massive 19-nation world tour begins in Buffalo, N.Y.; eventually includes Honk Kong, New Zealand, India and Egypt.
Aug. 9, 1980 Third album Zenyatta Mondatta finished at 4 a.m.; world tour starts at 9:00 that night at the Werchter Festival in Belgium.
Oct. 1980 Zenyatta Mondatta released; contains hits “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and others.
Feb. 25, 1981 Song “Regatta De Blanc” wins a Grammy for Best Instrumental Rock Performance.
April 1981 “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” reaches the U.S. top ten.
Oct. 1981 Fourth album Ghost in the Machine released; contains hits “Invisible Sun,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and “Spirits in the Material World.”
Feb. 24, 1982 Two more Grammy awards: Best Instrumental Rock Performance (“Behind My Camel”) and Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (“Don’t Stand So Close to Me”).
May 1983 “Every Breath You Take” tops U.S. and U.K. charts.
June 1983 Fifth album Synchronicity released. A massive worldwide success, it yields a wealth of hit singles—“Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain,” “Synchronicity II” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”
Aug. 18, 1983 The Police perform to 70,000 at Shea Stadium in New York.
Feb. 28, 1984 Multiple Grammy awards—Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Every Breath You Take”), and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (“Synchronicity II”).
March 1984 Nine-month Synchronicity tour ends. Although the band is at the height of its fame, each member embarks on solo projects with no announcement that the Police have disbanded.
June-July 1986 The Police briefly reconvene for three Amnesty International benefit concerts.
Oct. 1986 “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86,” a remake of the 1980 hit, becomes the final Police single.
August 1992 At Sting and Trudie Styler’s wedding, Sting, Summers and Copeland perform “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle.”
June 1993 Four-disc set Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings released, containing every single and album track.
June 1995 Double-disc album The Police Live! released.
March 10, 2003 The Police briefly reunite for a three-song set at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Jan. 2007 Speculation abounds that the Police will reunite for a massive tour after an announcement that the group will open the Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.
Feb. 11, 2007 The Police open the 49th Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles with “Roxanne.”
Feb. 12, 2007 At an afternoon press conference/rehearsal at Los Angeles’ famous Whisky a Go Go nightclub, the Police announce their worldwide 2007 reunion tour.
May 28, 2007 The Police reunion tour starts in Vancouver, Canada.
Sept. 29, 2007 Padovani joins the Police onstage in Paris, playing “Next to You” during the encore.
Feb. 2008 The Police announce that they will disband again once the reunion tour is completed.
Aug. 7, 2008 Last show of the reunion tour, at Madison Square Garden in New York. At $350 million and 3.7 million tickets, it is the third-highest grossing tour of all time.
Nov. 11, 2008 Live album/DVD Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires, a document of the reunion tour, is released.


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