Wander into any reasonably hip rock club today and you're liable to hear echoes of Joy Division, Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., the Clash, XTC and even Duran Duran. But what about the band that sold the most records, fusing punkish aggression with the danceable rhythms and fractured arrangements of dub and disco? Where's the respect for the Police?
Alone among new-wavers, the Police enjoy more credibility among the mainstream Rolling Stone/Rock & Roll Hall of Fame establishment than in any particular underground. You might hear the very occasional Clash or Elvis Costello song on commercial radio, but a stack of Police cuts — "Roxanne," "Every Breath You Take," "Message in a Bottle," etc. — are permanent playlist fixtures in various rock radio formats. The economics of the trio's sold-out reunion jaunt more closely resemble those of a Rolling Stones campaign than any tour by their reunited post-punk peers, with fans paying anywhere from $50 to $500 a ticket for the privilege of seeing them. And this after drummer Stewart Copeland cheekily derided the group's rusty first show in Vancouver as "unbelievably lame" on his personal Web site. If there was any doubt before, the tour's wild success confirms the Police's star in the rock firmament.
But to Steve Scariano of Euclid Records, when the Police came along, it was just one good band among many. Scariano, who plays in Prisonshake and the Love Experts, still recalls the first time he heard the Police.
"I was playing in a band called the Nancy Boys," he says. "One of my bandmates, who worked for a local music distributor, asked me one day, 'Hey, have you heard this new band the Police? They sound like a cross between the Raspberries and Bob Marley.' As funny as that comparison may sound 30 years later, in the context of the times it was actually kinda right on the money. I immediately liked [the first Police album, Outlandos d'Amour], just as everyone else digging the onslaught of all that original new-wave and punk-rock stuff at the time did."
Scariano saw the Police "play to literally 50 people, tops" at Mississippi Nights on its first visit to St. Louis in 1978 — and didn't "see any future signs of world domination" from that show.
"They were great live, but so were all of the other English bands coming through town at the time, like the Jam, the Boomtown Rats, Magazine," he says. "But dang if 'Roxanne' didn't start to pick up momentum — and the next thing you knew, it was a left-field radio hit. Shit, even KSHE played it, which back then was the equivalent of some sort of hell freezing over!"
As the Police won over the KSHE horde, that indifference spread among the local rockerati. "I didn't hate them, exactly, but I was never a fan," says precocious new-wave scenester and former RFT music editor Rene Saller. "My dad bought me one of their early albums — Reggatta de Blanc, is that the name? — around the time it came out. I guess he figured I'd be into it because I liked other new-wave and punk bands, but it didn't do much for me."
Even Police fans too young to have dismissed the Police the first time around recognize that the band suffers from the dreaded taint of commercial success. "Everyone knows who the Police are," says guitarist/vocalist Andrew Elstner of loud indie-roarers Riddle of Steel. "Your mom and dad probably know some of the lyrics to 'Roxanne,' but I seriously doubt they can sing a verse from a Joy Division or Gang of Four tune. I think you could ask the question, 'How is it that the Police are so massive, while retaining a legitimate level of hipness?'"
While time has not been entirely kind to the Police oeuvre, it hasn't been entirely unkind, either. Some of their albums (particularly Reggatta de Blanc and Ghost in the Machine) are bloated by filler, often in the form of interminable quasi-ethnic instrumentals or dreary atmospheric pieces. The trio's ultra-precise musicianship can make it seem like it's approaching music more as a technical exercise than as a means of intense, unfiltered expression. (And yes, Sting's literary, political and musical pretensions usually exceeded his grasp.)
But a fresh listen to the Police catalog reveals at least a couple albums' worth of inventive, top-flight pop songs. Even the most die-hard Sting hater has to admit that he had a gift for infectious melodies. Andy Summers' command of mood and texture is absolute. When the Police chose to rock out, they delivered the hyper-compressed, spring-loaded goods, from the debut non-LP single "Fall Out" all the way to "Rehumanize Yourself," from Ghost in the Machine.
But of course, the incorporation of reggae elements really marks the Police sound. While old-wavers Paul Simon and Eric Clapton approximated reggae by simply imitating Bob Marley, the Police deftly overlaid rock sonics atop reggae-derived rhythms and vice versa. "The Bed's Too Big Without You" takes a completely different approach to reggae than "Man in a Suitcase" — and both songs are equally successful.
To Donald Williams, that rhythmic facility is what makes the Police endure. In the early '90s, Williams played bass in Sinister Dane, which injected some Police-y wave-skank into its thrashy funk.
"If you listen to most styles of music," Williams says, "especially black music, what defines it is the rhythm section. The Police were good at that: Andy Summers could do what-the-fuck-ever over it, but it always sounded like reggae because of the rhythm section."
Williams thinks that few bands sound like the Police these days because few bands can sound like the Police — or they're afraid that excessive technical skill could hurt their careers. "It's very tricky to have that kind of musicianship and style, and still write pop songs," he says. "No matter how catchy the Police were, they were gonna play. You don't hear drummers play like that anymore. It reminds me of this Stevie Wonder record I was listening to the other day — there were just runs and riffs all over the place."
Riddle of Steel's Elstner agrees that the Police were too singular and too skilled to be easily imitated. "It's testament to the uniqueness of the Police," he says. "What they did was pretty specific: white reggae meets intelligent power pop, on the 'prog' tip. If you're a band that has any class, you know you can't rip them off totally, because it would be incredibly obvious. But I do think you can get away with nicking a bit here and there."
Even during their heyday, Scariano says, only a few bands dared try to ride the Police's coattails. "After Men at Work and the Outfield had their little success, people drew a line in the sand at what they would accept in regard to that sound. A lot of musicians tried to play like them, but figured it was futile to try to write music exactly like them — does that make sense?"
It makes perfect sense to Mike Cracchiolo. He sings and plays bass for the Bureau, bringing some of his personal Police influence to their moody dance-rock, but rarely writing songs like theirs. Like many pro-Police musicians, Cracchiolo's prone to breaking down exactly what he likes about each member of the trio. But to him, the band was far more than the sum of its parts.
"They could be every bit as dark and angry as Joy Division," he says. "'Invisible Sun' is so stripped-down: just two chords, a synth bassline and the simplest drumbeat Stewart Copeland ever played." Cracchiolo also cites "Synchronicity II" (which the Bureau has covered live) as "an almost transcendent experience for me. Just such a powerful song: dark, melodic, driving. The synchronicity between the Loch Ness monster attacking and this guy's horrible suburban existence — what an esoteric concept for a pop song, but what an amazing success. That was one of my first favorite songs, the song that made me want to play bass. When it would come on the radio, I'd put my head right by the speaker and listen to the bassline.
"All those songs are incredibly catchy, but they were never just some pop band. They were really ballsy players, and there were really driving rhythms behind those melodies, which to me epitomizes what being a great band is all about."