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Stewart Copeland on ‘The Police: Around the World’ Reissue, Writing Operas and the Pull of Nostalgia
Back in the fall of 1978, a little-known trio called The Police landed on US shores, winning over exceedingly small audiences in clubs in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. From those very humble beginnings, the Police would explode, thanks to a smash debut album, Outlandos D ‘Amour, filled with spectacular songs (“Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” Next To You” among them) driven by the powerful musical combustion of bassist/ lead vocalist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland.
Their tsunami of global success built and built, and soon The Police was the biggest band in the world. Released recently, a newly expanded version of their documentary, The Police: Around the World deftly blends electrifying live footage alongside scenes of the band exploring exotic locales in India, Egypt, Japan, Hong Kong, France, South America, Australia and Greece. We spoke to founding member Stewart Copeland, who regaled with stories of their magical adventures.
Click here to pick up The Police: Around the World Restored and Expanded on CD/DVD from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pick up The Police: Around the World Restored and Expanded on CD/Blu-ray from our Rock Cellar Store
Rock Cellar: Watching the documentary, The Police: Around the World, what’s really interesting is when speaking to rock bands about their touring days, they normally respond with stories of hotel rooms, planes, arenas, another hotel room, and so on — but with The Police, both collectively and individually, you were able to get out and see the world during this period. How did you manage that?
Stewart Copeland: Well, Cairo has a lot more to draw you out of your hotel room than Detroit. To be in Bombay, you’re not going to be sitting in your hotel room at the Taj Mahal. You want to be out on those streets. Also, we had become avid photographers. We’d been through Tokyo’s camera stores with all the latest technology, and we all were festooned with cameras and we wanted to get out there and take pictures of cool stuff, namely each other in cool places.
Rock Cellar: On that ’79/’80 tour, what were the highlights of the historic locales that you visited?
Stewart Copeland: I think being able to go out to Giza, next to Cairo, and just hire three horses and take off across out the desert unsupervised, unmonitored, unfettered. And just we galloped around all three of the big pyramids out there, all the sub pyramids and all the different places where it’s too hot and dusty for tourists to walk to. We could just ride there, and it was all kind of unmonitored. I very much doubt you could do that today, and you certainly could not do that at Stonehenge, for instance.
To be able to have adventures like that stand out. Rock bands don’t go to Bombay. There’s never been a rock band there, and when we were doing it was an open-air venue and we were doing the soundcheck. The people out in the streets heard it and went, “Wow, what’s going on?” They climbed the walls and swarmed the place, and the place was already packed and no one could get them out by the time we finished the soundcheck.
All the fancy people who had bought a ticket, I’m not sure what happened to them, but when we played the show, those people from the streets of Bombay pretty much responded the way they do in Detroit, where Sting goes “E-o-oh” and they all go, “E-o-oh.” I guess it tells you something about the universal humanity of music.
Rock Cellar: There are bands that break out and maybe they’re big in England and the US, but there are other locales where they haven’t broken through. But when the Police broke big, it was everywhere. It wasn’t just America and England, as the band was pretty universally embraced. Looking back, can you explain that beautiful sense of fortune for everyone getting it?
Stewart Copeland: Well, because we went there, and that was largely due to the vision of our manager, my brother Miles, who had a vision of world conquest. A lot of these places that we went, particularly the places in this movie that are so exotic, they were not markets. We were not going there to break a new market. We were going there to have a wild adventure. But we did play Latin America and we did push the boundaries of where bands can play, and the reason we were popular everywhere was because we went there.
Rock Cellar: There’s a couple of shots in the documentary where you can see your drum heads and there’s some writing on it. What was written on them?
Stewart Copeland: It was a bit of self-provocation. And the words are, “fuck off you cunt!” A lot has been speculated on not only the meaning of those words, but to whom they were directed.
Rock Cellar: Was that a cathartic way for you to get out your aggression, hitting those drum heads?
Stewart Copeland: Yes, they were not actually projected at any individual, if anyone it was myself. By the way, that was written at a time when there was so much fun and joy in my life that this “fuck off you cunt!” was not a dark, hostile cry of rage. It was more a jocular challenge with a twinkle.
Rock Cellar: Watching the performances in the documentary, the band is super tight. Talk a bit about the chemistry of The Police. It seems there was that intangible magic, that zone that you fall into where the muscle memory follows it, but you transcend from that as well.
Stewart Copeland: There were three of us, which meant that the formula was very simple. Each of us had a larger role, because there were fewer of us. And we just found that sweet spot of how to take Sting songs, how to use Andy’s guitar playing and how Andy’s guitar playing inspired me. This three-way crosstalk landed on a magic place that seemed to work for people outside the band. We just got into that groove. We knew what it was that inspired us in each other and worked it and played show after show after show, working it. When you’re getting a positive response from an audience as you’re doing something like that, there’s a feedback, and it builds momentum and that sustained us through five albums.
We’re excited to announce @ThePoliceBand's ‘Around The World Restored and Expanded’, which follows @OfficialSting, @copelandmusic and @asummersmusic on their first global tour in 1980 and 1981.
Out May 20th – pre-order now: https://t.co/ZReD07oRXa#ThePolice #AroundTheWorld pic.twitter.com/ZWePy4otxD
— The Police (@ThePoliceBand) March 15, 2022
Rock Cellar: Looking back at this specific period, ’79, ’80, do you consider that a performing peak for the band?
Stewart Copeland: Actually, no. We still had four more years where we made three more albums and we were young and hungry in this film and we were not at the top by any means. We were working it and we were working our way up. Years after this, we did get to the stadiums and we did two albums worth of stadiums. And by the way, I think that’s when we really were hitting our best.
When we played Shea Stadium, I think all three of us agreed Shea Stadium was our finest hour. When the stars were aligned, Joan Jett came out and killed it, woke the place up, then we came out. It was just one of those magic evenings where everything was right and Sting had a fractured rib.
Rock Cellar: So the transition from playing small clubs on that first tour to playing theaters and then arenas and then jumping to stadiums, how did that impact on the communication of the band and feeding off of the larger audience and how to deliver on a massive scale? Did that alter the sense of presentation and performance?
Stewart Copeland: The shows brought us back together again, starting with our third out of five albums, Zenyatta Mondatta, which we recorded in Holland. That’s when we started to have a lot of tension in the studio. “How should we make this record?” Because once you make it, you’re locked to it. By the time we’d get out of the studio, we were at each other’s throats. But as soon as we started playing shows, the affirmation of the audience, really, was what saved us, and we just had so much fun playing those shows and hitting the crowd where it hurts. That was very band-affirming and it retied our bonds and got us all worked up. “So, hey, let’s go back, let’s do another album” and then we’d get back into the studio and be at each other’s throats in no time.
But then we’d get out of the road again and go, “wow, hey, we are a cool group.”
Rock Cellar: You look at The Who and you look at the Kinks, and certainly the Stones have gone through and the Beatles and so many of the other great bands like the Police, have gone through major inner band conflict. When were you able to channel in a positive sense, and when did it get too much?
Stewart Copeland: When we played shows was when it cured all of our blues, that’s when it came together. When there’s no overdubs, there’s no cold clinical studio atmosphere. We have a visceral, heaving audience in front of us on a mission, and I’m on stage to complete that mission with the right two guys. We all felt that power of what we do together in front of an audience. The studio albums got more and more difficult, and we now understand that the reasons for the conflict were legitimate reasons.
It was not jealousy or egotism or anything like that. We had different ideas of what music is for in our lives, let alone what music we should be making and how we should be making it. Just fundamentally, we had different points of view about what music is for. And so on top of that, all three of us also had a very strong idea of wanting to participate in the creative process. Each of us thought the band was there for us to express ourselves artistically, and we felt that very strongly.
So with artistic truth and musical truth, there are three versions of it in the band, and that makes it very tough for some people to compromise under those circumstances. Since those days, each of us has gone off and not compromised and has led great, fulfilled musical lives. But we understand that forcing us to compromise produced a really great artistic result that didn’t make it any fun.
Looking back on it, I’m very grateful that we held on to Sting for three more albums than we deserved, because he knew how to make records, he knew how to write songs, he knew how to produce them, arrange them, and we didn’t. It just became more and more of a compromise for him to deal with other points of view in the making of that music. But he did. He hung in there, and he put up with Andy and I with our own opinions and having to make compromises for three more albums, until finally we all agreed that we had gotten to the good place and let’s all go have some fun on our own.
We have to melt down the golden cage, and that’s when I went off and had 20 years as a film composer, Andy went off on his various missions, and it was the right time.
Rock Cellar: I saw the reunion show at the Hollywood Bowl. Did that reunion tour deliver on the final chapter for you and end it in a positive way for you?
Stewart Copeland: Yeah, it was very positive, and that’s where we reached all of this understanding, in hindsight, about what the conflicts were all about. They were all for very honorable reasons. To play the reunion tour brought us together to remind us of that. When we were rehearsing for the reunion tour, that old tension arose, there we were rehearsing for this tour for stadiums around the world where tickets just got sucked up in 20 minutes.
We’d all forgotten about it, I was a film composer. I was wearing Gap clothes as a suburban dad. You don’t want to be a rock star in snakeskin pants when you’re a film composer. So I’d forgotten all about the rock and roll experience in general, and The Police in particular.
When the tickets went out and just disappeared, vaporized, the three of us realized, “Wow, this is way bigger than any of us imagined.” But still, we’re in a rehearsal room figuring out how are we going to do this? And the old tensions began to assert themselves until we hit the stage again. And just like before, when we got in front of an audience and the audience went bananas, it affected us. We could look into those first rows and see the emotional impact of those old songs.
But those old songs that people grew up with, whether they’re even a Police fan or not, they were on the radio. They were part of the zeitgeist of their formative adult years, and they have emotional impact, and that had an impact on the three of us on stage. We were very emotionally overwhelmed by the audience, and we’re prepared to look at each other. “Okay, we’re ready to give it up. We rule.”
Rock Cellar: It didn’t feel nostalgic to me, it felt alive.
Stewart Copeland: Well, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia at all. It’s very important. The relationship between memory and music is very profound and very emotional. And the word nostalgia might have a connotation of looking backwards, but there’s no problem with that when there’s an emotional impact. That’s what music is for. It’s a very human, binding thing which involves memory and the future and the here and now and the Homo sapiens to our left and to our right. We are bonded by music. It’s a two-way emotional charge.
Rock Cellar: Before we wrap up, let’s go back to the band’s beginnings. Recount the band’s first U.S. tour, where you were playing to less than ten people in a club in Boston or a small crowd at Grendel’s Lair in Philadelphia.
Stewart Copeland: The first show in America was at CBGB’s in New York City. I got there as an American citizen and came a couple of days earlier, but Sting and Andy were held up with their visas and they got their visas just in time. So they arrived at Kennedy Airport and went straight from the airport to CBGB’s with their suitcases, plugged into amps they had never seen before, turned around and went “Hello America” and it all began. And then the following night, we were in Grendel’s Lair in Philly. And then the night after that up at the Rat Club in Boston, I think. The important thing about that period where we were playing two shows a night, night after night, we had to pad our skinny repertoire by stretching songs out and improvising and jamming. And that’s where we discovered our band sound was in Grendel’s Lair, Philadelphia, among other sweaty joints.
Rock Cellar: After the Police, you went on to work as an orchestral composer.
Stewart Copeland: My 20 years as a film composer gave me an involuntary education on how to use an orchestra. I actually took courses as well, the actual spelling of how you put it on the page. But score after score, I started out with people arranging them for me and we’re at the orchestra date, and I’ve got the score in front of me, and I’m thinking it should really just swell here.
Well, you put a hair pin. Okay, cool. So I put hair pins all over, and I’m doodling on these scores more and more to the point where I start to orchestrate myself and get a much better result. So that’s where the orchestra chops came in.
The Police Deranged work I do, when I made my Super8 film using the film that I shot back in the day and made it to a film called Everyone Stares. With the score for that I had to chop up Police music, and once I got out the scalpel and I got out the multi-tracks and I got out all these live recordings where I found these extrapolations, lost guitar melodies, lost vocal approaches, and I started to incorporate all those, that’s where The Police Deranged for Orchestra comes in.
On the mic, I’ve got three soul singers, three soul sisters on the mic singing these arrangements. My last show was three nights with the Nashville Symphony and the show is very successful because of that emotional nostalgic impact. Nostalgia has a pejorative to it, but it’s emotionally very powerful. As long as people know that they have emotional baggage, that’s when you get a great result at a concert. And this show is really lighting up houses.
I’ve played with the Cleveland Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, Portland, all these different orchestras. We played six shows last year. We’ve done four shows this year. It’s billed as “Stewart Copeland’s Police Deranged for Orchestra.” Also, in a couple of weeks, I’m doing Oysterhead in Atlanta at the 420 Festival, and that’s always a trip. The Oysterhead comes down from the mountain very rarely and every time we do, our audience has increased tenfold. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Oyster Head. We go out there for two hours to make shit up, which is the opposite of “Police Deranged for Orchestra,” which is all for an orchestra on the page, everybody’s reading except me. I’m just making shit up. And then later on in the summer, my 7th opera, The Witch’s Seed, goes up in Italy.
So that’s my day job, writing opera. Last year in Germany, I had a premiere in Germany for The Electric Saint, which is about Nikola Tesla. That went up at the German National Theater, which is their Premier National opera company in Weimar, and that’s pretty darn fancy for a rock drummer. And this is all in the glow of my new Grammy that I won this year.
“Rock Drummer Dreams of Being an Actual Musician.”
Well, there I am on the cobblestone streets of Weimar where Schiller walked in, Gerta and Wagner with the Premier opera company singing my songs and playing my music and all rigged up this huge edifice working my shit. That’s living the dream.
May 20, 2022