In spite of all of their successes (50 million albums sold world wide, groundbreaking tours, musicians who went on to bigger and better things) “The Police” have a lot to answer for in the music world.
On the one hand, there are those who praise their ability to balance experimentation with expert musicianship and well composed, catchy, short tunes. Some people believe they helped expand the range of punk music to include reggae, jazz, exceptional playing skills and synthetic textures.
On the other hand, Sting.
Of course, the band does have more negatives than just Sting (as hard as that is to believe). For example, they have accused of cultural appropriation (the use of ska and reggae rhythms) and for cynically exploiting a youth movement (punk).
After all, all three musicians were at least in their 30’s when they formed, with guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland having already achieved some degree of notoriety and success in the New Animals and prog band Curved Air. Their ridiculous bleach blonde haircuts have a lot to do with that, as do their absurd album titles.
And then there are those people who accuse them of SELLING OUT punk ideals (which they didn’t have anyways according to these critics, but I digress) by laming out, slowing down and turning into a joke of a dinosaur stadium band with the Adult Contemporary sounds and songs of the turgid “Synchronicity” a dry-run for a solo Sting career of cheese ball crap that sucked.
I can’t stress how big of an obstacle “Sting” is to enjoying this band. It’s kind of like passing a kidney stone the size of the Blarney Stone except kissing that stone will bring you no good luck of any kind.
Which of these sides do I fall on? Well, I actually really like “The Police” a lot in spite of the “Sting Factor.” In fact, the sad truth is that I like “The Police” not “in spite” of Sting but because of Sting! After all, how can you not like a band member that writes 98% of the songs for a band? Clearly, there is more to this story than a simple “Sting sucks” party line as much as I agree with the general idea.
The obvious conclusion to draw here is that Sting was, at one point, an incredible songwriter. Perhaps not in the lyrics department (Sting is pretty wonky when it comes to that, often stretching awkward for a rhyme or literary reference) but the melodies of the songs cannot be topped by any pop band of that period. Because, in spite of the band’s reggae and punk sounds, they are a pop band through and through.
Of course, I can’t way that the quality of the band rests entirely on Sting’s feet. He may have written the songs, but I have this sneaking suspicion that Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland helped arrange them into much more edgy musical compositions then they would have been otherwise. After all, Summers played in a rather…ahem…experimental edition of the New Animals while Curved Air was one of the wildest bands of the 70’s.
Sting was a classically trained jazz fan.
I have no evidence of this but I think Summers and Copeland were just fine letting Sting write the majority of the music (Copeland usually had a goofy song or two up his sleeve while Summers contributed a few instrumentals and some rather weird things) as long as they got to help arrange it.
This is probably why those first few albums are so great and alive with energy. Sting’s natural musical tendency (just look as his solo career) is for a sleepy, jazzy sound that is technically immaculate but boring as well. Summers and Stewart weren’t so into that: Stewart was a snappy rhythm guitarist and experimentalist that later stood toe-to-toe with Robert Fripp on a series of textural albums. He wasn’t much of a soloist or songwriter but his arrangement ideas and instrumental themes are solid.
Meanwhile, Stewart Copeland could probably get the award for “most underrated American drummer ever.” Copeland had excellent chops that he rarely if ever completely flashed (lots of restraint) but would often throw out if the song needed it. His tom rolls are creative as hell and the man is legendary for his work on the high-hat. Hell, on Peter Gabriel’s song “Red Rain” he is credited for just “high hat.”
So, “The Police” sound in the early days was basically a mix of pretty basic reggae ideas with punk speed and rock style. Later, they expanded into creating more textural songs (such as on “Regatta de Blanc” and “Zenyata Mondata”) before completely abandoning themselves to synthesizers with “Ghost in the Machine.”
However, the band’s continuing arrangement and playing skills (pushed by Sting’s once impeccable melody writing skills) made albums like “Ghost in the Machine” experimental tour-de-forces that actually charted. And while “Synchronicity” is their blandest album technically, it still has an experimental streak: listen to Summer’s guitar work to see what I mean.
While I fall more on the side of thinking the band was “great” I also have a few issues with them. Blanding out can be done well (as this band did) but blanding out is blanding out and those later albums are indeed a hard sell sometimes. There’s still enough edge to keep out of the dreams of blue turtles but not by much.
Plus, none of the band members really had a good sense for lyrics. Sting probably did best but he is the mind that thought “I came here seeking only knowledge/things they would not teach me of in college” was a good rhyme. Stewart Copeland is usually pretty goofy or satirical but without really any obvious thought of philosophy behind it.
The less said about Summers’ lyrics the better.
So, while I think the band was definitely worthwhile and genuinely deserves being as popular and legendary as they have become, I also cannot defend them as completely as I once did. Their faults are obvious faults (I didn’t even go into Sting’s overwhelming, unbearable pretensions as he is truly pretentious in that I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about half the time but he seems to think he does) but not unbearable and they released a high number of excellent tunes with only a few true stinkers. They also helped expand the textures of rock and roll in new and exciting ways. What’s not to like?
Well, STING for example. As I said, he’s really, REALLY hard to get around! Mostly his head of course…
I’ve read somewhere, that the collective egos of Bono and Sting would, if combined, create gravity of self esteem so intense an egotistical black hole would form that would suck the self respect of everybody in the known universe inside, never to return.