March 26, 1982
By Greg Garrett
The Police - The Police, Joan Jett
The Exception Rather Than the Rule
“We have achieved the ultimate level of success just about everywhere else in the world —all
except in America. We are sitting right on top of the tree everywhere else in the world.”
-- Stewart Copeland, drummer and co-founder of The Police,
JAM Magazine, December 1980
It has been nearly a year and a half since Stewart Copeland and I sat down to talk about The Police. When we spoke, the group was watching with great curiosity the steady climb up the charts of their latest release, Zenyatta Mondatta. Copeland was anticipating the release of “De, Do, Do, Do, De, Da, Da, Da,” a single he predicted would break the band. Needless to say, his prognostication was on the mark.
Time and patience are the two things the Police have mastered since they began hitting the road in 1978. They embarked on a tour of America using the profits earned from two hot-selling British singles: “Fall Out” and “Roxanne.” They toured small clubs in America despite insistence from their U.S. l, A&M, that they would receive no financial assistance if they undertook the endeavor. Undeterred, The Police moved forward. Every stop along the way was a sell-out. A&M swallowed their pride and rush released the band’s debut, Outlandos d’Amour, to capitalize on the band’s growing popularity. The album peaked at number 30 on the charts, but The Police’s statement was loud and clear. The trio had made a stateside splash by touring without record company support, an album or a hit single. That spoke volumes about the band’s fearless nature.
The following article is based on two interviews JAM conducted with Stewart Copeland. The first occurred in November, 1979; the second took place in December, 1980. Two years ago, The Police were just starting to make noise in this country with “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle.” They started small, playing whatever venues that would have them. Building a name one fan at a time, The Police parlayed their superb musical ability and a groundswell of word-of-mouth support into a solid foundation. They never looked back.
What makes these past interviews interesting is Copeland’s uncompromising attitude regarding the band and what the future held for them. Later this month, The Police will perform in front of a sold-out crowd of 11,000 people. It is in support of the trio’s great new Ghost in the Machine. Yes, it is hard to believe that just 18 months ago this band was playing to crowds no larger than 2,500 and a few months earlier, audiences of no more than 500.
Associate Editor, John Liebrand first spoke to Copeland in Los Angeles after the release of The Police’s second album, Reggata De Blanc. At the time, Copeland referred to the hit single, “Message in a Bottle,” as the band’s most important recording. He said the three-minute song contained all the qualities that made The Police unique.
“When we originally set the group up,” recalled Copeland, “We didn't want to have to play the old wave game of having to get a record deal, or something on speculation. They [A&M] would give you a big advance, or send you in with a producer you didn’t know, demand a killer cut from you that contained plenty of killer hooks. We just didn't think this band could offer any of those things to the label. That's not what we were after. So, we informed our label of the direction we wanted to take and proceeded to do things our way. Fortunately, the punk movement in England had shaken things up, foreshadowing the new wave trend that was about to take hold. Those uncertain times made it possible for us to build our band the way we saw fit.”
During the fall of ‘79, the new wave movement hit American shores. The Police, however, we lumped in with the trend by lazy, uninformed critics and journalists unable to categorize the band’s refreshing, unique sound.
“We're not embarrassed at being tagged ‘New Wave’,” confessed Copeland. “That said, we don’t want to be limited by it either. To a lot of people. New wave means punk, and punk is a very restricted musical form. New wave is more of an attitude than it is a style. We don't want to be limited by any tags or categories.”
The song that first brought The Police attention in the United States: “Roxanne.” The song details one man’s struggle to get his prostitute-lover off of the streets. The song was inspired by bassist-singer Sting’s walk through a notorious European “red light” district.
“The radio stations started playing ‘Roxanne’ without any outside pressure,” explained Copeland. “College stations started playing it because they’re not interested in whether or not a cut from an album is going to be a worldwide smash. College stations are made up of kids playing tunes they like. The listener response on the college stations overlapped with commercial stations, so those stations started playing it.”
Copeland then spoke about the musical influences that would begin to dominant the group's next album: reggae.
“Here’s the great thing about reggae music,” continued Copeland. “When you’re looking for that one lick you previously heard, you can end up discovering ten other variations of that sound. You’re so surprised at what you uncovered; you don’t even bother to look for the original hook because all of these other [unoriginal] ideas have popped up.
“Some people have said we’re slick. I disagree with that. I challenge anyone who said our music follows safe guidelines. You can listen to any of our records and it will turn people on. And, that’s not because it sounds like Fleetwood Mac. It's certain because it is good. We don't play reggae, but the influence of reggae is so easily heard in our music that people pick up on it. A pinch of reggae is more noticeable than two tons of rock and roll. Everybody takes that music for granted.”
A year later, the Police released Zenyatta Mondatta. The band had gone from virtual obscurity to worldwide acclaim thanks in part to some clever marketing stunts and music that lives up to the hype. Although The Police was one of the biggest bands in most parts of the world, in the States they remained a cult fascination. Copeland discussed that disconnect during his band’s date at the Dallas McFarland Auditorium.
“For the first year and a half [after forming,] our career was based in Britain where we reached a low plateau before leveling out. The same thing then happened in America. We leveled out and just [plateaued]. When we returned to the United States with our second record, it reached the same level the previous album had attained.”
The Police's third album, Zenyatta Mondatta, stopped the band’s back and forth travails on both sides of the Atlantic. The album had scaled to number 11 on the Billboard charts, the highest spot a Police album had ever reached.
“It’s so complicated the way things have reversed themselves,” smiled Copeland. “It’s like the weather. You can see what the contributing factors are, but that doesn’t mean that you can see exactly what is going to happen. I can safely say that outside of the United States, we are the biggest group in the world. In America, that also will be the case; it just takes longer. Believe it or not, getting recognized in this country is not a burning issue with us. It’s not a main objective career-wise. Now don’t get me wrong, if we are in the major leagues, we might as well be on top of the win column, but that is not the most important thing we think about during the course of a day.
“For most groups, the U.S. is the major market. England is like the breeding ground and America is the market place. We don’t really think in terms like that. If we were concerned with our place in the standings, we would be over here a lot more working this country harder than we have been. America will come in its own time.”
The band’s current release, Ghost in the Machine, has performed exactly how The Police envisioned. It delivered America. Powered by hits like “Spirits in the Material World,” “Invisible Sun” and the monster single, “Everything She Does is Magic,” the U.S. has fallen in step with the rest of the world. Perhaps the best insight into The Police, however, comes from Copeland’s daydreams.
The drummer smiles. “I’ve had a lot of dreams, daydreams and the detail in which they came true amazed me. I suppose the original formation of the group, along the lines it was formed, was the result of daydreaming, thinking, ‘God, it would be great to be the group that had all those things.’
“I remember sitting in the car looking out the window and wondering what to do with my imagination for a two-hour drive. I would have the same daydreams, but each time I would fill in a few more gaps, and the more you fill in the gaps, instead of it becoming a daydream, it became a plan.
"As you daydream, you fill in all the missing pieces to turn the dream into reality. You start to fill in the little details that will make everything come true. Suddenly, you realize you’re not dreaming anymore and you say to yourself, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’ That’s when you start taking the first steps to turn an idea into something real. Some may call it luck. I prefer the word fate.”
The one thing Copeland doesn’t foresee is the beginning of the band’s end. Could there be the one fatal flaw that unravels everything The Police have achieved up until this point? Only time will.