By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
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.