The Police brought bristling energy and musical sophistication to the New Wave movement. They were among the first post-punk success stories, applying the succinct and speedy strictures of that genre to more challenging material that appealed to listeners of all ages and musical persuasions. Such singles as “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” and “Every Breath You Take” - key tracks from each of their five studio albums - made bonafide superstars of the Police by 1983. Rolling Stone magazine deemed them “today’s best-loved band.” Their final studio album, Synchronicity, topped the American charts for 17 weeks.
The trio’s origins in 1977 did not suggest so auspicious an ascent. Bassist Gordon Sumner - nicknamed “Sting” because of a black-and-yellow jersey he wore - worked as a schoolteacher and played with a jazzy outfit called Last Exit. Drummer Stewart Copeland grew up in the Middle East, where his father worked as a CIA field officer. He’d been slogging around with Curved Air, a progressive-rock group on its last legs, when he met Sting in the latter’s hometown of Newcastle, England, late in 1976. The two formed the Police - Copeland had already come up with the name - with Corsican guitarist Henri Padovani, who appeared on the group’s indie-label single debut (“Fallout”) but was replaced at mid-year by Andy Summers. The guitarist (born Andy Somers) was nearly ten years older than his bandmates, and he brought with him a wealth of experience from having played rhythm & blues (Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band), psychedelic rock (Eric Burdon and the Animals) and progressive rock (Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers).
On the punk-rock scene, too much musical acumen was almost a liability, but the Police compensated for their abundant chops by adopting a stripped-down sound. Their original songs were short and concise, and their lean, uncluttered approach disciplined them in beneficial ways. On the strength “Roxanne,” a Sting-penned paean to a prostitute - the Police got signed to A&M Records. Their manager, Stewart’s brother Miles Copeland, pursued a then-unusual strategy to build a fan base in America. In the fall of 1978, the Police toured key cities and college markets by van, a grassroots outing that paid dividends when their records began catching on. Miles also had the group tour parts of the world, including India and Argentina, that were unaccustomed to having rock bands pass through. Again, this groundwork eventually helped the Police become a global sensation. So did the fact that the band members dyed their hair blond (for a pre-fame appearance in a chewing-gum commercial), which gave them an aura of New Wave hipness that intimated they were younger than they really were.
The Police’s debut album, Outlandos D’Amour (“outlaws of love”), was filled with the economical, reggae-accented New Wave pop that became the group’s stock in trade. Sting’s keening voice toyed with Caribbean inflections on such tracks as “Roxanne,” with its intriguing start-stop rhythms, and “Can’t Stand Losing You.” The album also included the concert and FM-radio favorites “So Lonely,” “Next to You” and “Hole in My Life.” Though “Roxanne” did not initially chart, it reached #12 in the U.K. and #32 in the U.S. upon re-release in April 1979. A new single, “Message in a Bottle,” fared even better, topping the U.K. chart in September. It was the core track from the Police’s hotly anticipated second album, Regatta De Blanc. The title loosely translates “white reggae,” which described their musical approach. The album also included such Police staples as “Walking on the Moon” and “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.”
The hard-working band kicked off a yearlong tour in mid-1979, which propelled Regatta De Blanc to #1 in the U.K. and #25 in the U.S. By tour’s end, the Police were budding superstars, and their third album, Zenyatta Mondatta, was among the most eagerly awaited releases of 1980. Now on an extremely tight schedule, the in-demand band finished recording in the wee hours of August 9 and kicked off the first gig of a world tour in Belgium that evening. Having now seen the world, Sting turned his attention to subjects beyond the self, resulting in more philosophical songs like “Driven to Tears,” “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” and “Canary in a Coalmine.” The Police also enjoyed sizable hits with less weighty songs like “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” Constant playing further refined the trio’s less-is-more approach, and there were few wasted or extraneous notes even as they offered much to digest rhythmically, musically and philosophically.
The Police recorded Ghost in the Machine, their fourth album, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, expanding their sonic palette by judiciously incorporating keyboards and saxes into the matrix. Much of the material - notably “Spirits in the Material World,” “One World (Not Three)” and “Rehumanize Yourself” - found Sting tapping into a spiritual vein that preached and yearned for global unity. “Invisible Sun” lamented violence in Northern Ireland with an almost metaphysical grace. The album’s biggest hit, however, was the celebratory love song “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (#1 U.K., #3 U.S.).
Film roles in the Who’s Quadrophenia, Brimstone and Treacle, and Duneraised Sting’s profile, which further popularized the band in the celebrity-smitten 1980s. Synchronicity - again recorded on Montserrat, over a six-week period - carried the Police to a new pinnacle of fame. The album was exotic yet accessible, and its hauntingly soulful leadoff single, “Every Breath You Take,” topped the American charts for eight weeks. Synchronicity yielded three more sizable hits: “King of Pain” (#3), “Synchronicity II” (#16) and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” (#8). The album sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. The Police won three Grammies in 1984, including Song of the Year for “Every Breath You Take.” The trio played to 70,000 fans at Shea Stadium on August 18, 1983.
Privately, they shared the uneasy feeling that they had peaked, in terms of popularity, and their fragile group chemistry - which had always thrived on a certain amount of friction - was causing them to splinter. An abortive attempt to record a sixth studio album in 1986 yielded only a remake of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” and they threw in the towel. Yet the world wasn’t quite finished with the Police, whose members graduated to solo careers, new projects and film scoring. The 1986 compilation Every Breath You Take - The Singles topped the British album charts and reached #7 in the U.S., where it sold three million copies. A four-disc boxed set - Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings - appeared in 1993. The double-disc Live! - comprising 1979 and 1983 concerts in Boston and Atlanta, respectively - showed up in 1995. The appeal of the Police’s “reggatta de blanc” endures to this day.