By the end of 1978 the punk gold rush was coming to an end. A whole load of new bands had been formed and hastily named with The… followed by just about any noun that had not been taken. The smell of desperation hung heavy in the air not least around a bunch of muso’s who had been hastily formed around a Jazz Rock bass player and a Prog Rock drummer.
The Police were not policemen nor had ever been in the police or had any connection with the police or even been employed as security guards. It was a shoddy name which became even shoddier post internet when a google search would see them subsumed by proper emergency services.
And so, the credibility of The Police in mid-1978 was virtually zero. Formed when two ego’s collided namely Gordon Summer genuine working class dirt poor Geordie and spoilt American brat Stuart Copeland. They had some reason to be self-confident, they were both phenomenally gifted musicians. Sumner, who had been nicknamed Sting because of his stripy jumpers had been playing with Last Exit, a Newcastle based Jazz Rock band who were predictably going nowhere fast post punk. Copeland had been the last drummer in Curved air a kind of prog rock band who were as popular round the polytechnics for the charms of singer and Copeland’s girlfriend Sonja Kristina as their music. Sting had exchanged phone numbers with Copeland at a curved air gig as had Corsican guitarist Henry Padovani.
Realising the pointlessness of being in Newcastle’s answer to Weather Report Sting had located to London where he hooked up with Copeland and, by default, Henry Padovani. Copeland had realised that, for the moment at least, the smartest money would be in punk and persuaded the nakedly ambitious bass player to come along for the ride. Sting’s commitment to this was evidenced that he was also, at the same time, playing in Strontium 90 a band formed by ex-Gong Bassist Mike Howlett which one might imagine was firmly not punk.
And so, with a crap name, some crap songs and a crap guitarist The Police set out doing what every band used to do in the 70’s which was play any shitty venue that would have them. They were, of course, slightly ahead of the game by having a drummer who had been in a medium league band but also this drummer had a brother, Miles, who was making inroads into music management.
One of Mile’s first brainwaves was to get the band to back Cherry Vanilla an ex Warhol acolyte who despite being fairly talentless and now in her mid 30’s had enough rock chick history to stir up a frisson of interest in among the punk youth. For £15 a night and a support slot The Police were willing to offer backing band duties. The band also supported Wayne County and the Electric Chairs, a more credible if not musical experience. The pairing was fortunate for Padovani as he was about to be bounced from the band and would turn to the Electric Chairs for a gig more commensurate with his musical skills.
Growing frustrated with the limitations of punk, Sting was seeking to employ his Strontium 90 bandmate Andy Summers. Summers was a decade and musical generation older than the others having played with everyone from Zoot Moneys Big Roll Band to Neil Sedaka via Soft Machine and the Animals. If the Police had had any credibility Summers would have destroyed it but they didn’t, pretty much everyone saw them as desperate muso’s trying to hitch aboard the punk bandwagon. They had released one single with Henry Padovani which sounded like a punk band fronted by Jon Anderson of Yes. It wasn’t going to take off, but with Summers on board the balance of power tipped, Sting unveiled some new songs and Summers found some interesting things to play on them. Copeland found some hyperactive reggae beats and all of a sudden, the band weren’t so desperate at all.
I had been aware of ‘Roxanne’ their first proper single through a grudging play by John Peel but the first time a was struck by the band was on finding a copy of their ‘I can’t stand losing you’ single in Woolworths. I didn’t buy the record, after all it probably cost at least 50p, but I was impressed by the sleeve which featured Copeland with a noose round his neck standing on a block of ice which had a two-bar fire in front of it. It would provoke a twitter storm today and a moral outrage in 1978 if the right papers had been paying attention.*
This marked a turning point in the Band’s fortunes. ‘Roxanne’ had been a bit of a damp squib but now it was re-released and all of a sudden, The Police were the best new band on the block.
And so, onto Outlandos D’Amour, and what is noticeable about what a work in progress this album is. Miles Copeland still really wanted a credible punk band but he was very wrong. About half the album is still flirting with punk thrash, notably in the opener ‘Next To You’ which sound close to the Henry Padovani period band until Summer subverts it with a key change and a slide guitar solo. Elsewhere the likes of ‘Peanuts’ and ‘Born in the 50’s’ are solid shiny new wave offerings. 40 years on this has weathered well, far more so than the Dammed or Buzzcocks but also this is game changing material packaged for a mass market and ready to send to America.
This is a record that we will remember for a couple of great singles and the introduction of the Police Sound. It’s easy to forget that the album also featured ‘Be my Girl’ which features a spoken word piece (by Summers?) about an inflatable sex doll. Outlandos D’Amour is a typical debut album where a band hasn’t really decided who they are yet and as a consequence are producing some quite off the wall material. Even when the songs are a bit slight or just a bit irritating there’s still the pleasure of hearing three great musicians playing together. Copeland in particular can come up with more ideas in one song that most drummers come up with in a lifetime.
But, if there’s one song that encapsulates the whole Police masterplan it’s the hit that never was ‘So Lonely’. A bit of rock, a bit of reggae, a bit of jazz rock guitar solo and some great dynamics. We might regret it later but for a moment we were all in love with the band.
* Wikipedia claims the BBC banned it which clearly they didn’t as I remember hearing it…a lot !