With Sting’s simple “Ladies and gentlemen, we are the Police,” one of the most iconic bands of the last 30 years ended a long absence from live performing to launch the 49th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night.
Blasting off with the unmistakable, reggae-fied “Roxanne” riff from guitarist Andy Summers and the hard jazz drumming of Stewart Copeland, the Police lived up to their top billing on the show, providing a spirited kickoff to one of the most anticipated reunions in a year full of get-backs.
With a buff-if-balding Sting in fine form and voice, the trio’s homage to a woman of the night sounded as hypnotic as it did all those years ago, but in keeping with the bandmembers’ jazzbo backgrounds, it also felt fresh . The group lived up to its reputation for experimentation, dropping into a dubby, echo-laden live remix of the song during the second verse; Sting did a bit of scatting and mashed up the song’s loping tempo, as if to suggest that this reunion won’t be a rote sleepwalk through a 90-minute greatest-hits set.
In fact, it sounded like the group has hardly missed a beat during its two-decade timeout, and the performance was as good a start as any to the world tour the Police are expected to announce on Monday (February 12) in Los Angeles .
They may have started out tagged as punks, but there was never much particularly punky about the Police. The trio always sounded more pop than punk, and like the Clash, they injected a large dose of reggae into their sound. In fact, a major part of their legacy – in addition to five great albums and several classic singles – was their ability to bring reggae and other world-music strains into a rock/pop format, and thus introduce then-exotic sounds to mainstream audiences.
And although their career only spanned about eight years, the Police’s looming reputation as one of rock’s major acts remains, even if they’ve been gone almost three times as long as they were together. Thanks to their videos, a staple of the early days of MTV, and such signature hits as “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take” (the latter of which was co-opted, of course, by Diddy in 1997 for “I’ll Be Missing You”), the group’s reputation has continued to this day.
The Police were an unlikely marriage from the start. Copeland, the Lebanon-raised son of a CIA agent, joined after a stint in the progressive-rock band Curved Air. Sting (a.k.a. Gordon Sumner, who reportedly got his nickname because of a bee-like sweater he once wore to a gig by his jazz band the Phoenix Jazzmen) was a schoolteacher for a brief period in the mid-1970s before joining a series of jazzy rock groups with names like Last Exit.
Copeland and Sting met at a London jazz club and formed the Police with guitarist Henry Padovani – although he left soon after the release of the band’s first single, the spiky “Fall Out.” He was replaced by Summers, who had played with everyone from Eric Burdon’s Animals to crooner Neil Sedaka over the preceding decade. Together the trio fashioned one of the most unique groups in rock history, propelled by the combination of Sting’s literary lyrics and keening vocals; Copeland’s crackling, snare-smacking rhythms; and Summers’ snaky, tastefully restrained licks.
The group’s 1978 debut, Outlandos d’Amour, was an explosive set of fairly straight-ahead rock tunes like “Truth Hits Everybody,” although the reggae influence prominent in songs like the slow-rolling “Hole in My Life” and the indelible “Roxanne.” The next year’s Reggatta de Blanc (which translates into “White Reggae”) was the Police’s big break, betraying more of their jazz roots while cranking up the pop hooks on such hits as “Message in a Bottle” and “Bring on the Night.”
Oddly, although their next album, 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta, is arguably their weakest, it made them worldwide superstars. With new-wave anthems like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” rocking alongside songs like “Driven to Tears,” which hinted at the political activism in Sting’s future, the album reveals a band that was much deeper musically than its pop-leaning hits and pinup singer might have suggested.
The group’s 1981 LP, Ghost in the Machine, found the intellect ramped up both musically and lyrically, with prominent keyboards and songs that address topics ranging from philosophy to the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland. Singles such as “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and “Spirits in the Material World” set the stage for the band’s commercial apex with 1983’s Synchronicity, its final studio effort. The record – which spent 17 weeks at #1 in the U.S. – contained such hits as “Every Breath You Take” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”
The long accompanying tour, which finally wrapped early in 1984, further cemented the band’s popularity and was a box-office smash, but it also was the last straw for the bandmembers’ interpersonal relations. They got together again briefly in 1986 for a tour in support of Amnesty International and tried to record a few new songs for a greatest-hits collection, but only managed a remake of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” They reunited to perform at Sting’s 1992 wedding to Trudie Styler and again for their 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, but many figured that the momentum of Sting’s solo career and the lingering animosities were too much to bear.
And apparently they were, until now. Representatives for the group have said that the financial windfall the anticipated summer tour is likely to reap is just part of the reason for the reunion. Sting, of course, has enjoyed a two-decade solo career that has spawned seven multiplatinum albums, sold-out world tours and world celebrity status (although his most recent solo album, Songs From the Labyrinth, is a collection of 16th-century lute tunes).
While the others have kept a lower profile, they have remained active with low-key solo projects and film scores. Copeland also directed a well-received rockumentary about the Police titled “Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out.” It included home-movie footage the band shot while on tour in the early ’80s that revealed some of the tensions that eventually drove the trio apart.
Quite how the anticipated reunion tour, technically in observation of the 30th anniversary of the release of the Police’s first single, will play out is anyone’s guess – and that’s just one reason why it’s interesting. When the group reunited to perform at Sting’s wedding, the singer reported becoming vein-poppingly infuriated with Copeland within the first five seconds of the first song, because the latter was playing too fast. How long before those veins bulge again?
But to their credit, for a group that split up at its chart-dominating peak – before releasing any embarrassing late-period albums that might have marred its legacy – the Police are that rare rock animal: a band that went out on top and kept it that way.
And, judging from its tight sound at the Grammys, that’s as sure a method as any of making sure you can pick up where you left off.