In nineteen eighty-three there were some kids I knew at school who were just starting to play what could loosely be called ‘rock’ music. It was the New Romantic era, a time when synthesizers, sequencers and one particular hairstyle were all the rage. These kids needed some pop stars to admire and be inspired by.
Britain had lost, grieved over and moved on from The B**tles. The schoolkids I’m referring to were not yet intellectual enough for Pink Floyd. Queen were too theatrical and a bit poncy for us provincial types. U2 were not yet a global force and their lead singer would become no stranger to the word ‘poncy’ himself. But there was one band in nineteen eighty-three who were every bit as big as The B**tles had been, had intelligent lyrics like Pink Floyd and could rock like Queen. (It was the eighties, not the sixties.) That band was The Police.
As their guitarist Andy Summers relates in his book ‘One Train Later’, The Police attained a massive level of fame and popularity. But he already had an impressive and eventful career behind him before that group had even met, which the first half of the book is concerned with. On reading it I found the Americanizations of British terms (in the version held in the Toronto Library) irritating. Likewise, after a while, the British regional stereotypes.
But it was illuminating to learn how one of the advantages The Police had over their contemporaries, i.e. Andy Summers’ musicianship, was honed first of all in a jazz club in Bournemouth, then through musical spells with Zoot Money, The Animals, The Soft Machine, Kevin Coyne, Kevin Ayers and Neil Sedaka. Perhaps the most significant part of the story was Summers’ lack of interest, unlike the rest of the electric guitar playing fraternity of nineteen-sixties London, in emulating first Eric Clapton and then Jimi Hendrix.
Summers does not portray either himself or British culture in a very flattering light. When the big time finally arrives, he seems to be totally taken in by its illusory promise, despite being no longer a child.
The ‘black-and-white tabloid reality’, which he re-encounters in the UK in the mid-seventies, after five years in Los Angeles, is familiar. So is the inverted snobbery practised by the music press as it slaps the ‘Sell Out’ label on its previous doyens. Part of this has to do with becoming hugely successful, another with the perceived betrayal of the ideals of punk by having spent decades (in Summers’ case) getting good at music.
The chorus-and-delay-laden sound of Summers’ Telecaster, the non-punk, yet also non-blues, style of playing, the harmonic dissonance and the sparse-yet-edgy song arrangements all contributed in a big way to the sound of early eighties pop music.
The Police’s albums, two recorded in Surrey, one in Holland and two in Montserrat, have a symmetrical chronology. Zenyatta Mondatta, with songs like Driven to Tears, Shadows in the Rain and Voices Inside My Head, now seems to be a coming-of-age, melacholic and hypnotic album. Ghost In the Machine seems to consist of predominantly weak material disguised by the addition of horns and keyboards and the positioning of the best three songs up top.
The book’s narrative style alternates between an account of Summers’ life and a description of his present surroundings, with the ‘present’ being Summers’ bedroom on the morning of The Police’s biggest ever gig. This format is perhaps not original but it is certainly effective.
Man, the progressive rock band from South Wales, split up in nineteen seventy-seven, before The Police were famous. When they reformed, in spring nineteen eighty-three, they were playing faster material à la early Police, using more down strokes with the guitar pick and emphasizing a singer with a strong upper range.
So The Police were influential at the time but are they still, in terms of mainstream music? Are we hearing many song-based, sensitive drummers? What about non-obvious guitar voicings? Incisive lyrics? One generation later, the strides made by the musical New Wave seem to have been all but forgotten.