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The Police

Prefabricated punks who later became globe-conquering superstars, the Police played a pivotal part in bringing New Wave into the pop mainstream. Rooted in reggae and flirting with punk, the Police also dabbled in jazz, worldbeat, and atmospheric instrumentals that nodded toward new age music, a combination that made the trio one of the most distinctive bands of their era. They were also one of the most commercially successful groups of the late 1970s and early '80s, appealing to album rock, Top 40, and MTV audiences in equal measure, building a repertoire filled with pop/rock staples, including "Roxanne," "Message in a Bottle," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," and "Every Breath You Take," the blockbuster that spent eight weeks at number one in 1983. "Every Breath You Take" and its accompanying album Synchronicity served as a career-capping moment for the band. The volatile internal chemistry between vocalist/bassist Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland, and guitarist Andy Summers turned combustible in the wake of Synchronicity, leading the Police to disband at the peak of their popularity. They left behind an enduring body of work, one which they celebrated with a reunion tour in 2007. Sting, a teacher born Gordon Sumner who moonlighted playing jazz bass in Newcastle, first crossed paths with Stewart Copeland when the drummer was playing with the prog rock band Curved Air. At the time Curved Air passed through Newcastle, Sting was part of Last Exit, a jazz-fusion band who released the single "Whispering Voices" on the indie imprint Wudwink in 1975. The single caught the ear of Carol Wilson, who was working for the publishing division of Virgin Records ' Richard Branson. Buoyed by this attention, the group moved to London but they fell apart shortly after this relocation. While some of his bandmates headed back to Newcastle, Sting stayed in London, seeking out Copeland in hopes of a collaboration. As it happened, Curved Air had just split, so the pair joined forces with the intent of breaking into London's thriving punk scene. Adding guitarist Henri Padovani, Sting and Copeland formed a nascent version of the Police. By March 1, 1977, they played their first gig and by May, they released the "Fall Out"/"Nothing Achieving" single on Illegal Records, an imprint co-founded by Copeland's brother Miles; both sides of the 45 were written by Stewart. Around the time the "Fall Out" single hit the stores, Mike Howlett -- a bassist who had just left the prog rock outfit Gong -- invited Sting to join him and guitarist Andy Summers, a veteran of a latter-day incarnation of the Animals and an early version of Soft Machine, to play in a group called Strontium 90. Howlett planned to bring drummer Chris Cutler, a veteran of the challenging Henry Cow, into the fold but he had other commitments, so Sting drafted Copeland as the group's drummer. During the early summer of 1977, Strontium 90 recorded a demo and played a pair of concerts, including a debut at a Gong reunion show in Paris. Despite this activity, Strontium 90 dissolved quickly and Sting asked Summers to join the Police. The Police briefly existed as a quartet with both Summers and Padovani, but by August the new recruit insisted that he be the group's only guitarist. Shortly afterward, Padovani was dismissed and the Police became a trio. The Police began gigging in earnest late in 1977, but the group found it difficult to build an audience. Strapped for cash, they agreed to play in a commercial for Wrigley's gum, dying their hair blond as part of the agreement. Although the spot never aired, the commercial wound up giving the group their distinctive bleached-blond look. Not long afterward, Copeland's brother Miles underwrote the recording of the band's debut, Outlandos d'Amour. Seeing potential in "Roxanne," Miles became the Police's manager and secured the group a deal with A&M Records. Miles Copeland managed to stir up some controversy regarding the single release of "Roxanne" and its successor "Can't Stand Losing You." Upon its April 1978 release, "Roxanne" never made it onto the BBC's playlists, which Miles spun into the single being "Banned from the BBC" -- a label that stretched the truth but was slapped onto the initial singles of "Roxanne." Despite this commotion, it didn't chart. "Can't Stand Losing You" wound up getting banned from the BBC due to the single's cover art -- a tongue-in-cheek depiction of suicide by hanging -- and the Police parlayed that into a modest 42 placement on the U.K. charts in late summer 1978. "So Lonely," the group's third single, didn't chart at all. Britain may not have been paying attention to the band, but they were gaining traction in North America. "Roxanne" wound up cracking the Top 40 in both the U.S. and Canada in early 1979, which at that time was a rarity for punk bands. The stateside success was enough to get "Roxanne" re-released in the U.K., where it went to 12, followed by a number two placement for the re-release of "Can't Stand Losing You." With some chart momentum on their side -- they were popular enough to have a re-release of "Fall Out" scrape the U.K. singles chart -- the Police embarked on an extensive American tour, completing a new album in the meantime. Entitled Reggatta de Blanc, their second album went to number one upon its October 1979 release, partially on the strength of the number one singles "Message in a Bottle" and "Walking on the Moon." Neither single charted in the U.S. Top 40 -- the latter made it all the way to 74 -- but Regatta de Blanc still climbed to number 25 on the Billboard Top 200, while its title track snagged the group their first Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. The Police scored another U.K. hit in February 1980 when "So Lonely" reached six upon its re-release, but the year is better remembered as the group's international breakthrough thanks to Zenyatta Mondatta. Delivered in October 1980, the record reached number one in the U.K. and number five in the U.S., with its first single, "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da Da," becoming the group's first American Top Ten hit; in the U.K., it was the record's second single, reaching number five. "Don't Stand So Close to Me," released as Zenyatta Mondatta's first single in the U.K. and as its second in the U.S., eclipsed its companion, reaching number one in the U.K. and a Duo or Group With Vocal. "Behind My Camel," an album track from Zenyatta Mondatta, also earned the trio the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance that year. High on their chart success, the Police headed to Montserrat to record their fourth album with producer Hugh Padgham. The resulting Ghost in the Machine appeared in the fall of 1981, topping the U.K. charts and scaling its way to number two in the U.S. The rise of Ghost in the Machine was fueled by "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," a Top Ten hit throughout the world which was also a staple on MTV. "Spirits in the Material World" was another international hit, reaching 11 in the U.S. and 12 in the U.K., while "Invisible Sun" reached number two in the U.K. Ghost in the Machine also increased the Police's presence on album rock radio, as evidenced by "Secret Journey" reaching 46 in the U.S. During the reign of Ghost in the Machine, the individual members of the Police seized the opportunities brought by success. Sting resumed the acting career he attempted to launch in 1979, when he appeared in Franc Roddam's silver screen adaptation of the Who's rock opera Quadrophenia. He appeared in the film Brimstone and Treacle -- its soundtrack featured three new Police songs, including the simmering "I Burn for You" -- and had a key role in David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune. Copeland was also drawn to Hollywood, composing the score for Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish. Meanwhile, Summers collaborated with Robert Fripp for the 1982 LP I Advance Masked. All this success was dwarfed by Synchronicity, the 1983 album that turned into a multi-million blockbuster. Much of that success was due to "Every Breath You Take," an ominous ballad that topped the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. "Every Breath You Take" became an instant standard, winning the Grammy for Song of the Year along with Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. BMI would later name "Every Breath You Take" its most performed song, as it racked up over 15 million radio plays. The ballad wasn't the only hit on Synchronicity. "Wrapped Around Your Finger" and "King of Pain" both reached the Top 10 in the U.S. -- the former only went to 17 in the U.K. -- and "Synchronicity II" turned into a hit on MTV and the radio, peaking at 16 on the Top 40; "Synchronicity II" also took home the Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group. Synchronicity dominated 1983, spending 17 weeks on the top of the U.S. charts, vying for the position with Michael Jackson's Thriller. The Police supported the album with a stadium tour that spilled into 1984, but Sting started to grow restless with the trio. Following the tour's completion in March 1984, the group went on hiatus. Sting turned his attention to recording his debut, The Dream of the Blue Turtles with a group of jazz musicians featuring Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, and Omar Hakim. In America, "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" and "Fortress Around Your Heart" gave Sting two Top Ten hits, while "Love Is the Seventh Wave" and "Russians" charted at 17 and 16 on Billboard's Top 40, respectively, helping make Sting was inescapable throughout 1985. He sang the "I want my MTV" refrain on Dire Straits' smash hit "Money for Nothing," he cameoed on records by Phil Collins, Miles Davis, and Arcadia alike, he appeared on Hal Willner's Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill tribute album and he took his Dream of the Blue Turtles out on the road on a tour that was captured on Michael Apted's documentary Bring on the Night, which was released toward the end of the year. The Police reconvened in June 1986 to play three concerts on the Amnesty International: A Conspiracy of Hope tour, which led to the group attempting to record a new album that July. Prior to heading into the studio, Copeland broke his collarbone in a horse-riding accident. The injury exacerbated simmering tensions within the group and the trio wound up completing just one track: a new version of "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Attached as a new track on the 1986 compilation Every Breath You Take: The Singles, and the song was a modest hit. Following its release, the band separated, this time for good. Over the next two decades, the paths of the Police would occasionally cross. Andy Summers would play with Sting both on record and on-stage, while the entire trio reunited for an impromptu performance at Sting's 1992 wedding to Trudie Styler. The group reunited in 2003, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, planting the seed for the Police's full-fledged reunion tour of 2007-2008. The reunion, which was the highest-grossing tour of 2008, featured an appearance by their original guitarist Henri Padovani and culminated in an August 2008 show at Madison Square Garden. Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires, a combination video and CD set documenting the group's reunion tour, appeared in November 2008, closing the book on the Police's reunion and career.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo


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