As Punk was winding down in the UK, a clutch of new, smart pop acts appeared who used punk’s energy and attitude as a key plank of their own music and performances. Amongst these and one of the first to put out a record and achieve substantial success were the Police. They were informed by punk but had careers before and outside of punk and thus had a lot of influences to throw into their musical cook pot. Sting had been playing in a jazz-rock fusion band, Stewart Copeland had played for prog rockers Curved Air, and Andy Summers, older than the other two, was already something of a veteran with a CV that included spells with Eric Burdon, the Soft Machine and the distinctly non-punk Neil Sedaka.
These days when we see Sting swanning around with his band of heavyweight players, his lute and his air of intellectualism, and his seeming disconnection with the realities of the average person’s life it’s easy to overlook that he had to start somewhere, and initially the band, like so many before them, struggled.
This, their first album, was recorded on a very small budget (loaned to them by their manager, Copeland’s brother Miles) using otherwise unbooked studio time to save money. Despite it’s relative simplicity it took them the best part of six months as their deal with the studio meant they couldn’t get long runs of studio time. Indeed when their first single was released they hadn’t finished the album.
That single was “Roxanne”, and initially it sunk like a stone as radio stations declined to show much interest. But it was promising enough for Miles Copeland to be able to get the band a contract with A&M. That deal seems to have not included financing the first album, indeed they didn’t pay the studio on time because they had cash flow problems. The flip side of this is that the band owed that recording lock, stock and barrel which reduced A&M’s take from the royalties. Over the years that must have been a nice little earner for them.
The album catches the Police as a cusp. They are exploring reggae – and there’s an argument to be had that they were the first band to use reggae in an interesting way, to develop it and explore it rather than just produce a sweetened, slightly watered down version for the pop charts – but there’s still a lot of punkish rockers on the disc as well.
The album kicks off with the very non-reggae “Next To You”, written by Sting like nearly everything else here, before breaking into what we would now regard as typical Police territory with the reggae-informed “So Lonely”. That song has a reggae verse and a straight forward rock chorus – a nice nutshell of where the Police where at the time.
The third track is the famous one, “Roxanne”. The Police were already under fire for being pretend punks, for aping the style but not having the substance, but few Punk acts (even the ones that could play but were keeping quiet about it) could have conceived and executed a track like “Roxanne” with it’s marriage of reggae and tango.
There was more. The first side (this was in the days when music came on black, plastic things a foot across that had to be turned over half way) continued with the jazzy chords and sophisticated structure of “Hole In My Life” and then concluded with the rapid fire “Peanuts” with a deliciously rowdy, breakneck solo from Summers. The second side kicked off with another punk/reggae hybrid “Can’t Stand Losing You” which is followed by a terrific high energy rocker “Truth Hits Everybody”. What would have been the “other” side all those years ago concludes with “Masoko Tango” which hints at spacious more pieces that would appear on subsequent albums. The other tracks are enjoyable though not as notable as the others, but the performances remain sharp.
Their timing is immaculate throughout and their tightness gives them great attack on the up tempo numbers.
It had been a long time since I’d listened to this album, and what struck me this time was what struck me then, and after the same number of tracks. There’s Sting’s great pop vocals, the novelty and freshness of the compositions, the great ideas in the guitar solos and Copeland’s drumming – he was flat out the finest drummer of what came to be called the New Wave and his inventiveness, skill and attack make him a compelling and exciting listen, even now when I have a pretty good idea of what’s coming.
OK… the novelty aspect is dimmed now because after all this time we sort of know what to expect from the Police, though the punk beginnings may have been lost in the mists of time. Truth was I was struck in all sorts of ways when I first heard this album. I’d been helping out at the wonderful Boogie Barn club in Hillbrow whilst trying to make a career (and, I thought, money) as a music journalist. The Boogie Barn was a beacon of a light in a Johannesburg that was loud and full of action but where nearly all the playing venues had cover bands playing disco hits. Musicians playing their own music didn’t have a lot of options, and the Barn, in the late 70s and under the management of Bob Anderson (who started operating there so that the band he managed would have a place to play) was a valuable outlet for those who wanted to play original and inventive music and for those who wanted to listen to it.
There was a weekly jam night at the Barn, run by the DJ/sound man Des Wooldridge who had a small studio in the basement of his house in Bez Valley. Different players would get up and jam, and if Des picked up something interesting he’d let that particular combination run longer and then invite them back to his home studio to record.
There were some reggae-influenced musicians with ideas but no band attending these jams, and I’d got an idea into my head about a reggae/new wave hybrid with, I kid you not, vocals in a high register. That hadn’t quite happened at the Boogie Barn, but you could connect the dots of what was going on there and cut to the chase. When I heard Outlandos d’Amour it was all over. Somebody else had not only had the same idea but had made it happen and got a record deal.
But despite them having somehow pinched my idea I liked the record a lot. It was the same basic recipe that I’d imagined but very well executed and with lots of interesting detail even though the recordings are the bare bones trio with not a lot of overdubs.
The rest is history. “Roxanne” (which was not so much banned as ignored by the BBC) was picked up by radio stations in the USA in early 1979 and the Police toured there (driving themselves in a rented van) and returned home to find their single finally climbing the charts there. Before the year was out their second album was out. It was paid for by the profits from Outlandos and thus still beyond record company control and ownership, it further developed their exploration of reggae and it was a smash hit and a nice little earner.