Adam Ash

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Monday, February 19, 2007

The Police back together on tour - will the biggest rock band of their era reign supreme again, or implode under three huge egos?

They Can Play. Can They Play Nice? -- by JON PARELES/NY Times

IN a high-ceilinged studio at the Lions Gate film complex earlier this month, the Police were rehearsing for a very public first gig: opening the Grammy Awards broadcast last Sunday with their 1978 hit “Roxanne” before announcing a world tour the next day. Sting , 55, on bass; Andy Summers, 64, on guitar; and Stewart Copeland, 54, on drums, were working through a list of two dozen songs. For the first time in decades the Police would be back together for more than one night. “I’ve trapped myself back 30 years,” Sting said.

The old Police sound was a lean, nimble, pointillistic approach to syncopation and space that Mr. Summers called “the sound of tension,” and that tension sounded intact as the band kicked into “Message in a Bottle,” with its jumpy guitar riff and stamping beat. Half a minute later Sting waved the song to a stop. “Pick,” he said tersely, his voice slightly irritated. “It doesn’t work.”

Mr. Summers had been playing guitar with a pick, not his fingers as he used to. “You thought for a second that he wouldn’t notice?” Mr. Copeland cackled. Mr. Summers shrugged: “I played it with a pick all day yesterday, and he didn’t say a word.” He abandoned the pick, Mr. Copeland shouted “One! Two! Three! Four!” and in an instant the song was galloping forward again. It was just another moment of readjustment for three headstrong musicians rebuilding a tricky alliance.

Twenty-four years ago the Police ruled the rock world. Their seven-year career had been one unbroken ascent: each album outselling the last, each tour bigger. In 1983 they had claimed the mantle of the Beatles by playing Shea Stadium.

But as all three freely admit, their years as rock stars together were also years of bitter conflict, sometimes to the point of fistfights backstage. “We would be playing arenas and feeling the love pour onto us,” Mr. Copeland said. “And then you would come backstage, to the guys that mattered most, and feel the unlove.” From the beginning they had been three disparate personalities. Mr. Copeland is voluble and extroverted, Sting earnest and pensive, and Mr. Summers looks happiest talking about chord changes and guitar gizmos. What connected them was the music that they fought over most determinedly of all.

“We didn’t go to school together,” Sting said. “We didn’t grow up in the same neighborhood. We were never a tribe. There was friction for the right reasons. We care passionately about the music and we’re all strong characters, and nobody would be pushed around. So it was part of our dynamic. We fought cat and dog over everything.”

Although Mr. Copeland founded and named the Police, Sting quickly emerged both as the band’s voice and its hitmaking songwriter. But the band’s songs were simultaneously taut pop structures and improvisational melees, with Mr. Summers layering on complex chords and guitar effects, while Mr. Copeland’s drumming shattered and precisely reassembled the beat. As the Police worked up Sting’s songs, decisions were often made two against one. Sting grew to feel constrained.

“I wanted no rules, no limitations,” he said. “Bands that stay together have to toe the party line. And I wasn’t willing to do that.” And so, when the band wound up their 1983 stadium tour, Sting struck out on his own. “We were the biggest band in the world, by all intents and purposes,” he said. “And I just thought: ‘Well, this is it. After this everything else is just diminishing returns. I want another challenge. I want to start again.’ ”

In recent years each member has told his part of the Police story. Mr. Copeland made a documentary. Sting and Mr. Summers wrote memoirs. But the recollections are strikingly different.

Sting’s “Broken Music” dispatches the entirety of the Police’s glory years in just two pages. Mr. Summers’s “One Train Later,” by contrast, details an exhilarating whirlwind of tours and ends soon after the band’s breakup, which he calls an “open wound.”

“At the time there was a sort of numbness,” he said at rehearsal. “I don’t think I realized what was happening. I felt like I walked off a cliff and realized. ...” He looked downward, as if into a chasm. “It felt like a limb had been chopped off. It was like being deserted by a lover.”

Since that time Sting has remained a rock star, with multimillion-selling albums and well-publicized causes like rain forests and human rights. Mr. Summers has been leading groups on the jazz circuit, from clubs to festivals. Mr. Copeland established himself as a film composer (for directors including Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone ), and was coaxed back to performing by the jam band Oysterhead. No one had any reason to expect a reunion. “For years it was just, forget it,” Mr. Summers said. “Five years passed, 10 years passed.” Sting, in a radio interview, once called the prospect of reviving the Police insane.

And yet here they are: booked for arena concerts worldwide into next year, with some stadium dates on hold, just in case. The tour begins on May 28 in Vancouver and comes to Madison Square Garden on Aug. 1 and 3.

Band members had stayed in touch since 1983, but they only played together on a few brief and uncomfortable occasions. Then last year they all found themselves at the Sundance Film Festival , and later Mr. Copeland and Mr. Summers both attended the Los Angeles stop of Sting’s current tour. He is playing the lute songs of the Renaissance composer John Dowland. Mr. Summers and Mr. Copeland said they had both sensed a change. It was more than they had seen of each other in a long time.

“I was thinking, ’Well, now what do I do?’ ” Sting said in an interview in his hotel room. His lute was leaning against a wall. “Do another lute record? I don’t want to paint myself into that corner. Do I do another Sting record? What’s going to surprise people? What’s going to surprise me? Wow, can I really be thinking that?”

A Police reunion “just seemed right,” he said. “It felt right in the heart. I woke up, and I just had this instinct, just had this desire to call the guys up and say, ‘Let’s give this a go.’ ”

Actually his manager, Kathryn Schenker, made the calls. She sprang the idea on Mr. Summers and Mr. Copeland at a meeting where they expected to discuss plans for reissues of the five Police albums, which will mark the 30th anniversary of the band’s formation in 1977. “They were so shocked it wasn’t funny,” Ms. Schenker recalled. “They were so happy and excited but very, very, very, very surprised.”

The Vancouver rehearsal studio where they eventually reunited was a long way from the Police’s do-it-yourself beginnings in punk-era London. A film crew was on hand to make the inevitable documentary, with bright lights, makeup for the band members and a camera on semicircular tracks rolling around their setup. A caterer served lobster for dinner.

For pre- and post-rehearsal workouts there was a Pilates trainer who brought along with her a machine called, coincidentally, a Group Reformer. A beat-up guitar that Mr. Summers is playing isn’t the one that toured the world with him in the early 1980s; it’s an exact replica made by Fender, copying every nick, chip and scrape as well as the pickups (made by Fender’s rival, Gibson) and custom electronics inside. It’s part of a limited edition of 250 that sold out at $15,000 each — a measure of Mr. Summers’s lasting reputation among musicians and guitar geeks.

For all three band members, reuniting the Police wasn’t just a matter of relearning parts. They were also rebuilding a collaboration that had been as volatile as their music. “After 20 years we’ve all changed shape, and the pieces don’t quite fit together in the same way they used to,” Mr. Copeland said. “With the best of intentions, with the best of attitude, we were wanting to kill each other.”

Since they last worked together, all three had gotten used to being bandleaders and composers. “It would be much easier just to go in the studio and make a record with my band,” Sting said. “And it’s not just the musical stuff. It’s the social stuff, it’s the personal psychology stuff of going back to a marriage, returning to a dysfunctional marriage and making it better, making it work. I really want it to work.”

The Police had already had a few days of rehearsal before allowing a visit from an outside observer, and they had built a wary, joshing camaraderie. Sting, who at first had tried to lead the reunited Police by telling the others what to play, was still taking charge and picking songs to work on. But he was now prefacing his ideas with “I think” and “Perhaps” and “Do you think we might.” He and Mr. Summers hazed Mr. Copeland about wearing a sweatband; in turn Mr. Copeland would punctuate their discussions over abstruse chord substitutions with mock exasperation.

“Somewhere in the beginning of 2008,” Mr. Copeland said, “we’ll be playing the last show of this tour. And I’ve got $10 here that says Sting will suggest another chord for Andy to play.”

“And why not?” Sting said.

During a break Mr. Summers said: “I feel it all coming back, the whole thing. Some of it’s moronic, like wandering around being a rock star, and everybody going, ‘What do you need, what do you need?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember this.’ But it’s like getting into an old familiar suit. I feel all the old reflexes coming back.”

They were the reflexes of virtuosos determined not to become their own tribute band. “At the moment it’s an exercise in nostalgia, certainly,” Sting said, “but also trying to get something modern and something new out of this situation. That may result in another song. I can’t predict. I’d like that to happen. But we’re just trying to remember the chords at the moment.”

The sound the Police created in their seven years together — light-fingered but assertive, musicianly but unmistakably pop — hasn’t aged as fast as much 1980’s music, and it has been emulated by musicians from Fugazi to Tool to Incubus to John Mayer. “We were the greatest rock band in the world, and that’s the way we want to be,” Mr. Summers said. “And we still have enough ego to think that we can come back, probably just like all bands, and blow every other band out of the water.”

But not yet. “Right now we’re not incredible,” Mr. Copeland said. “We started out like a high school band last week. We got to be like a college band. Yesterday we started to sound like a bar band. Today we sound like, ’O.K., we could earn a living like this.’ But we are not yet playing like we deserve to play in a stadium. We’ll get there, now that we’re on the right track.”

Sting kept working to add subtleties to songs that he has been performing continually through the years. He described “Every Breath You Take” to the band, explaining why he wanted nothing flashy, just a subdued, metronomic beat. “To me it’s like a Bergman movie,” he said. “Nothing happens until two very violent acts. One is the bridge, two is the coda. But not a mouse stirs. It’s like a still life.”

Mr. Copeland interjected, “But there might be a lion, sir.”

“Yeah,” Sting said. “That’s me.”

For the Grammys the Police’s allotted television time would hold a tightly abridged “Roxanne.” A crew member was timing the song. “We’re going for a clean 3 minutes 30,” Sting said.

This “Roxanne” would mix the familiar and the exploratory, announcing both the return of the Police and their determination to be more than an oldies act. “ ’Roxanne’ needs a slightly new dress every night, a slightly different pair of heels to get me excited,” Sting had said earlier.

The first verse and chorus had the old Police attack. Then the middle floated into new, echoey improvisations before the end charged back into the chorus that used to have whole arenas shouting along. Here the big finale was followed by a brief silence and a call from the crew: “3:37.”

“What happens if we go over by seven seconds?” Mr. Summer asked. “Emasculation?”

“They’ll take a Grammy away,” Sting said.

“For each second over, you lose one,” Mr. Summers agreed.

“But that does leave us with another 16 or something,” Sting replied. (He has won 16 Grammys, including five as a member of the Police and one as the songwriter of “Every Breath You Take.”) A second runthrough ran 3:32.

“We only lose half a Grammy,” Sting said.

“We only lose Andy’s Grammy,” Mr. Copeland said. (The Police’s “Behind My Camel,” written by Mr. Summers, was named best rock instrumental in 1981.) Then he changed his mind, looking toward Sting: “Now wait a minute. You’ve got the most Grammys. So we start with Sting’s Grammys.”

“Easy, big guy,” Mr. Summers said.

Battles had been reduced to banter. The Police knew they would have to get along for a year to come. “I used to think that strife and struggle and tension were important in a band,” Mr. Copeland said. “I no longer believe that. And in fact this band has been rescued by our refusal to fall into strife and confrontation.

“When we arrived here in Vancouver, we had big musical problems. And we didn’t resolve them by shouting at each other, by getting angry at each other, by power plays, by any of that stuff. We resolved our musical issues by comity. The music was sick, and we had to use our social bond to get through and try different solutions to the musical problems.

“It sounds cool that angst, sturm and drang, produces music with fire. No. We’re going to get to fire by love. Because we love each other.”

Sting said: “There’s more compromise now. There’s more sense of, just relax and this will be O.K.” He paused. “So far.”


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