Police raid Wrigley

July 1, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

No doubt about it: The much-anticipated reunion by New Wave hit-makers the Police is the tour of this year's summer concert season.

The band's shows -- almost all at massive stadiums -- sold out instantly from coast to coast, and tickets for the performances Thursday and Friday at Wrigley Field are fetching as much as $3,000 from scalpers online. The jaunt has generated reams of publicity, and fans who've missed the trio since it split in 1984 as well as those who never had the chance to see them live are literally buzzing with excitement.

But take a deep breath, everybody -- or maybe make that every breath you take between now and show time. I'm as eager as you are to hear one of the most inventive but melodic catalogs in rock history performed again onstage. But there have been plenty of warning signs that this tour may not be everything we hope, and hitting the Friendly Confines with a realistic perspective will only save you from being disappointed.

Here are some key facts to keep in mind:

The Police hate each other -- always have, always will
I first saw bassist-vocalist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland perform at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1980. I was 15, an aspiring drummer and such a geek that I intentionally bought tickets behind the stage so I could try to figure out what Copeland was doing; his uniquely syncopated, reggae-inflected hi-hat patterns, complicated fills and polyrhythmic beats remain some of the most innovative in rock history, as any of my fellow drum geeks will tell you.

The thing that struck me most wasn't Copeland's musicianship, though; it was the fact that he'd taken a marker and scrawled the vilest string of curse words imaginable in big black letters on each of the many drum heads atop his vast array of tom-toms. It was a vivid illustration that this was a group that ran on anger. But unlike their punk peers, it wasn't the world at large that ticked the musicians off. They were mad at one another.

In its day, the group was as notorious for the clashes between its enormous egos as it was celebrated for its musical accomplishments. Don't make the mistake of thinking that time has healed those wounds, or that fresh ones aren't being opened. In the pages of his wonderfully entertaining autobiography, One Train Later, and on the book tour supporting its publication last fall, Summers was frank about the squabbles that existed in the band from the beginning, and which only grew worse until its break.

"There is a humiliating episode in the studio one day," Summers wrote of recording "Ghost in the Machine" in 1981, "when as a result of all this tension and loss of perspective, Sting goes berserk on me, calling me every name under the sun with considerable vehemence, leaving everyone in the room white-faced and in shock."

Mind you, that's only one of several dozen similar tales, and Summers was gleefully recounting all of them at the same time planning was under way for this tour. The only conclusion one can reach is that it wasn't a sudden burst of warm, fuzzy feelings that reconciled these guys, but $ome other $ignificant con$ideration. Let us not forget that only recently, Sting shilled for luxury sports cars and Copeland replaced John Densmore in the Doors of the 21st Century, then sued that group when it had the audacity to replace him. Which reminds me ...

The band was always a mercenary endeavor
When it first burst onto the scene in 1978, critics greeted the band with a cynical eye: Punk had exploded in New York and London in 1976, and two years later, many musicians who weren't finding success in other genres suddenly cut their hair short -- and doused it with peroxide, in the case of the Police -- and embraced the New Wave. Copeland and Summers had been stalwarts on the progressive-rock scene, playing with third-tier groups such as Curved Air and the later-day Soft Machine, and Sting (a k a Gordon Sumner) was a jazzbo. They decided to play punk rock because that's where the gigs and recording contracts were, and they added a reggae lilt to their music because that promised to be the new frontier, with the Clash leading the way.

In addition, they had the advantage of being managed by a shrewd and skillful insider, Stewart's brother Miles, the founder of IRS Records. (The group still believes in nepotism: The opening act on this tour is Fiction Plane, a band fronted by Sting's son, Joe Sumner.) So there were plenty of reasons to see the Police as a corporate calculation -- the end product of a sort of "Making the Band" experiment of its day.

The boys are getting old, and they may have lost a step or two
At their appearance during the 2006 Grammy Awards and the Hollywood gig accompanying the press conference announcing the reunion the following day, the trademark harmonies played on computerized backing tracks. It seems as if Sting and Copeland, both 55, just can't hit the high notes anymore, while Summers, never the most energetic performer, has become downright statuesque at age 64. Then there's this critique of the first show of the tour, in Vancouver on May 28.

"[The musicians are] half a bar out of sync with each other. Andy is in Idaho. ... The mighty Sting momentarily looks like a petulant pansy instead of the god of rock. ... This is unbelievably lame. The mighty Police are totally at sea. And so it goes, for song after song. ... Lost, lost, lost."

No, that wasn't some snarky rock critic -- that was Copeland himself, writing about the gig on his blog the next day. His self-criticism has only been echoed by the pros:

        "Sting seemed to be distracted; he played as if he had somewhere else he wanted to be and as if he were a little bit bored by the whole thing," Fil Manley wrote in the Chattanoogan.com of the band's show at Tennessee's Bonnaroo Festival on June 16.

        "The chemistry is obviously still unstable. ... Summers brought as much joy and charisma to the task as a cashier giving change," the usually forgiving Joel Selvin added in the San Francisco Chronicle, on the June 13 Oakland gig.

        Jim Harrington went even further when writing about the same show for the Contra Costa Times. "The year's biggest concert turned out to also be its greatest disappointment. The much-heralded Police reunion gig ... was arguably the most shockingly mediocre stadium show in Bay Area history."

This tour is about the past -- not the present or the future
Like the Rolling Stones of the last two decades, the Police have made the decision to play as many hits as possible to sell the most tickets to the broadest array of people. Their sets have drawn entirely from the new tour-tie-in double-disc best-of, "The Police," ignoring deeper album tracks or any new material.

"One thing I'm not going to do is say to Sting, 'Hey Sting, got a new song?' " Copeland recently told the San Jose Mercury News. Added Summers in the Vancouver Sun: "A band like ours, with so many hits, that's what people want to hear and that's what they're paying rather high ticket prices for."

Given the aforementioned animosities, we must conclude that one of the reasons the Police were so good the first time around was their constant desire to one-up one another. Now, we're left with three guys who don't like each other playing songs that are at least a quarter-century old for the primary motivation of a very lucrative payday. (The face price of the best seats at Wrigley: $254 plus a $21 service charge.)

As these fellas sang, truth hits everybody. Let's just hope it doesn't hit us too hard when they get to Wrigley.

 

THE POLICE

WITH FICTION PLANE
When: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Where: Wrigley Field
Tickets: Sold out

DISCOGRAPHY

Regardless of what the Police do onstage in Chicago this week, their position in the rock pantheon is assured by the five albums they gave us during their initial run.

"Outlandos d'Amour" (1978) 4 stars
The ingredients are all here right from the start: the reggae rhythms paired with old-school pop melodies and played with punk intensity; the smart, literary lyrics (the singles "Can't Stand Losing You" and "Roxanne" are novelistic portraits of a suicide and a prostitute, respectively); the massive sound made by the Spartan ingredients of bass, drums, vocals and guitar, and the stylistic experimentation that would flourish on discs to come. After the wonderfully off-kilter "Born in the '50s," my favorite track is "Be My Girl -- Sally."

 

"Reggatta de Blanc" (1979) 4 stars
More mannered and less frenetic than the debut, the group's second offering revolves around its finest song ever, "Walking on the Moon," with "Message in a Bottle," "The Bed's Too Big Without You" and "Bring on the Night" following close on that tune's heels.

 

"Zenyatta Mondatta" (1980) 3 and a half stars
While it still produced the now-expected hits, there's a noticeable drop in quality on album No. 3, the result of a rush to record in between sold-out tours. My picks here are tracks many people now consider filler: the exquisite pop ditty "Canary in a Coalmine" and Summers' spotlight offering, "Behind My Camel."

 

"Ghost in the Machine" (1981) 3 and a half stars
The musicians' prog-rock past catches up with them: This is a concept album based on Arthur Koestler's philosophical book of the same name and rife with synthesizers and horns, which both drag things down at times. But it does find the band pushing the envelope, and I do love "Demolition Man" and "Rehumanize Yourself."

 

"Synchronicity" (1983) 3 stars
The group went out on a career high, after releasing its fifth and most successful album, selling 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. Still, this is my least favorite Police recording. Much of the music is pointlessly complex or overblown. The best moments are the biggest hits: "King of Pain," "Wrapped Around Your Finger" and "Synchronicity II."

 

 

 

 

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