In late November 1976, while on tour in Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England with the British progressive rock band Curved Air, the band's American drummer Stewart Copeland met and exchanged phone numbers with an ambitious singer-bassist (and former schoolteacher) called Sting (so nicknamed due to his habit of wearing a black-and-yellow striped sweater mirroring a wasp), who at the time was playing in a jazz-rock fusion band called Last Exit. On 12 January 1977, Sting relocated to London and, on the day of his arrival, sought out Copeland for a jam session.
"I was inspired by the amazing energy of the whole thing, and I thought, 'Well, I'm new to London and I'm totally unknown, so I'll give it a go.' We did a 15-minute lightning set and I squealed and screamed."
—Sting on his first jam session since arriving in London.
Also in May 1977, former Gong musician Mike Howlett invited Sting to join him in the band project Strontium 90. The drummer Howlett had in mind, Chris Cutler, was unavailable, so Sting took Copeland. The band's fourth member was guitarist Andy Summers from Lancashire in northwest England. A decade older than Sting and Copeland, Summers was a music industry veteran who had played with Eric Burdon and the Animals and Kevin Ayers among others. Strontium 90 performed at a Gong reunion concert in Paris on 28 May 1977, and played at a London club (under the name of "the Elevators") in July. The band also recorded several demo tracks: these were released (along with live recordings and an early version of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic") 20 years later on the archive album Strontium 90: Police Academy.
"I thought there was fantastic potential in Sting and Stewart. I'd always wanted to play in a three-piece band. I felt that the three of us together would be very strong. They just needed another guitarist and I thought I was the one."
—Summers on Sting and Copeland after first hearing them at the Marquee Club in Oxford Street, London.
Summers' musicality impressed Sting, who was becoming frustrated with Padovani's rudimentary abilities and the limitations they imposed on the Police's potential. Shortly after the Strontium 90 gig, Sting approached Summers to join the band. He agreed, on the condition the band remain a trio, with him replacing Padovani. Restrained by loyalty, Copeland and Sting resisted the idea, and the Police carried on as a four-piece version but they only performed live twice: on 25 July 1977 at the Music Machine in London and on 5 August at the Mont de Marsan Punk Festival. Shortly after these two gigs (and an aborted recording session with ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale as producer on 10 August), Summers delivered an ultimatum to the band and Padovani was dismissed. The effect of Summers' arrival was instant with Copeland stating: "One by one, Sting's songs had started coming in, and when Andy joined, it opened up new numbers of Sting's we could do, so the material started to get a lot more interesting and Sting started to take a lot more interest in the group."
The Police's power trio line-up of Copeland, Sting, and Summers performed for the first time on 18 August 1977 at Rebecca's club in the English city of Birmingham in the West Midlands. A trio was unusual for the time, and this line-up endured for the rest of the band's history. Few punk bands were three-pieces, while contemporary bands pursuing progressive rock, symphonic rock and other sound trends usually expanded their line-ups with support players. The musical background of all three players may have made them suspect to punk purists, with music critic Christopher Gable stating,
"The truth is that the band merely utilized the trappings of 1970s British punk: the bleached blond short hair, Sting in his jumpsuits or army jackets, Copeland and his near maniacal drumming style. In fact, they were criticized by other punk bands for not being authentic and lacking 'street cred'. What the Police did perhaps take from punk was a brand of nervous, energetic disillusion with 1970s Britain."
The band were also able to draw on influences from reggae to jazz to progressive and pub rock. While still maintaining the main band and attempting to win over punk audiences, Police members continued to moonlight within the art rock scene. In late 1977 and early 1978, Sting and Summers recorded and performed as part of an ensemble led by German experimental composer Eberhard Schoener; Copeland also joined for a time. These performances resulted in three albums, each of them an eclectic mix of rock, electronica and jazz. Various appearances by the Schoener outfit on German television made the German public aware of Sting's unusual high-pitched voice, and helped pave the way for the Police's later popularity.
The bleached-blond hair that became a band trademark happened by accident. In February 1978, the band, desperate for money, was asked to do a commercial for Wrigley's Spearmintchewing gum (directed by Tony Scott) on the condition they dye their hair blond. The commercial was shot with the band, but was shelved and never aired.
1977–1978: Recording contract and Outlandos d'Amour
Copeland's older brother Miles was initially sceptical of the inclusion of Summers in the band, fearing it would undermine their punk credibility, and reluctantly agreed to provide £1,500 to finance the Police's first album. Recording Outlandos d'Amour was difficult, as the band was working on a small budget, with no manager or record deal. It was recorded during off-peak hours at the Surrey Sound Studios in Leatherhead, Surrey, a converted recording facility above a dairy which was run by brothers Chris and Nigel Gray.
During one of his periodic studio visits, Miles heard "Roxanne" for the first time at the end of a session. Where he had been less enthusiastic about the band's other songs, the elder Copeland was immediately struck by the track, and quickly got the Police a record deal with A&M Records on the strength of it. "Roxanne" was issued as a single in the spring of 1978, while other album tracks were still in the midst of being recorded, but it failed to chart. It also failed to make the BBC's playlist, which the band attributed to the song's depiction of prostitution. A&M consequently promoted the single with posters claiming "Banned by the BBC", though it was never really banned, just not play-listed. Copeland later admitted, "We got a lot of mileage out of it being supposedly banned by the BBC."
The Police made their first television appearance a few months later, in October 1978, on BBC2's The Old Grey Whistle Test to promote the release of Outlandos d'Amour. Though "Roxanne" was never banned, the BBC did ban the second single from Outlandos d'Amour, "Can't Stand Losing You". This was due to the single's cover, which featured Copeland hanging himself over an ice block being melted by a portable radiator. The single became a minor chart hit, the Police's first, peaking at No. 42 in the UK. The follow-up single "So Lonely", issued in November 1978, failed to chart. In February 1979 "Roxanne" was issued as a single in North America, where it was warmly received on radio despite the subject matter. The song peaked at No. 31 in Canada and No. 32 in the US, spurring a UK re-release of it in April. The band performed "Roxanne" on BBC1's Top of the Pops, and the re-issue of the song finally gained the band widespread recognition in the UK when it peaked at No. 12 on the UK Singles Chart.
The group's UK success led to gigs in the US at the famous New York City club CBGB and at The Chance in Poughkeepsie, New York, from which "Roxanne" finally debuted on US radio on WPDH, and a gruelling 1979 North American tour in which the band drove themselves and their equipment around the country in a Ford Econoline van. That summer, "Can't Stand Losing You" was also re-released in the UK, becoming a substantial hit, peaking at No. 2. The group's first single, "Fall Out", was re-issued in late 1979, and became a minor chart hit, peaking at No. 47 in the UK.
1979: Reggatta de Blanc
In October 1979, the group released their second album, Reggatta de Blanc, which topped the UK Albums Chart, and became the first of four consecutive UK No. 1 studio albums. The album spawned the hit singles "Message in a Bottle" (No. 1 UK, No. 2 Canada, No. 5 Australia) and "Walking on the Moon" (No. 1 UK). The album's singles failed to dent the US top 40, but Reggatta de Blanc still hit No. 25 on the US album charts.
The band's first live performance of "Message in a Bottle" was on the BBC's television show Rock Goes to College filmed at Hatfield Polytechnic College in Hertfordshire. The instrumental title track "Reggatta de Blanc" won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. In February 1980, the single "So Lonely" was re-issued in the UK. Originally a non-charting flop when first issued in late 1978, upon re-release the track became a UK top 10 hit, peaking at No. 6.
In March 1980, the Police began their first world tour, which included places that had seldom hosted foreign performers—including Mexico, India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Greece, and Egypt. The tour was subsequently documented in the film The Police Around the World (1982), directed by Kate and Derek Burbidge, which encompasses footage shot by Annie Nightingale originally intended for a BBC production The Police in the East.
In May 1980, A&M in the UK released Six Pack, a package containing the five previous A&M singles (not including "Fall Out") in their original sleeves plus a mono alternate take of the album track "The Bed's Too Big Without You" backed with a live version of "Truth Hits Everybody". It reached No. 17 in the UK Singles Chart (although chart regulations introduced later in the decade would have classed it as an album).
1980–1981: Zenyatta Mondatta
Sting with the Police in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1980
While the three band members and co-producer Nigel Gray all expressed immediate regret over the rushed recording for the album, which was finished at 4 a.m. on the day the band began their world tour, the album received high praise from critics. The instrumental "Behind My Camel", written by Andy Summers, won the band a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, while "Don't Stand So Close to Me" won the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance for Duo or Group.
1981–1982: Ghost in the Machine and Brimstone and Treacle
The Police's fourth album, Ghost in the Machine, co-produced by Hugh Padgham, was recorded at Air Studios on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, with the exception of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" which was recorded at Le Studio at Morin Heights, Quebec, Canada, and released in 1981. It featured thicker sounds, layered saxophones, and vocal textures. It spawned the hit singles "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" (featuring pianist Jean Roussel), their fourth UK No. 1 (No. 3 in the U.S.), "Invisible Sun", and "Spirits in the Material World". As the band was unable to agree on a cover picture, the album cover had three red pictographs, digital likenesses of the three band members in the style of segmented LED displays, set against a black background. In the 1980s, Sting and Summers became tax exiles and moved to Ireland (Sting to Roundstone in Galway, and Summers to Kinsale in County Cork) while Copeland, an American, remained in England. The group opened and closed the 1981 concert film, Urgh! A Music War. The film, which captured the music scene in the wake of punk, was masterminded by Stewart Copeland's brothers Ian and Miles. The film had a limited release but developed a mythic reputation over the years.
In 1983, Stewart Copeland composed the musical score for Francis Ford Coppola's film Rumble Fish. The single "Don't Box Me In (theme From Rumble Fish)", a collaboration between Copeland and singer-songwriter Stan Ridgway (of the band Wall of Voodoo) received significant airplay upon release of the film that year. Also in 1983, Sting filmed his first big-budget movie role playing Feyd-Rautha in David Lynch's Dune. As Sting's fame rose, his relationship with Stewart Copeland deteriorated. Their increasingly strained partnership was further stretched by the pressures of worldwide publicity and fame, conflicting egos, and their financial success. Meanwhile, both Sting's and Summers' marriages failed.
1983: Synchronicity and "The Biggest Band in the World"
"MTV has paved the way for a host of invaders from abroad. In return, grateful Brits, even superstars like Pete Townshend and the Police, have mugged for MTV promo spots and made the phrase ”I want my MTV” a household commonplace."
The Synchronicity Tour began in Chicago, Illinois in July 1983 at the original Comiskey Park, and on 18 August the band played in front of 70,000 in Shea Stadium, New York. Near the end of the concert, Sting announced: "We'd like to thank the Beatles for lending us their stadium." They played throughout the UK in December 1983, including four sold out nights at London's Wembley Arena, and the tour ended in Melbourne, Australia in March 1984 at the Melbourne Showgrounds (the final concert featured Sunnyboys, Australian Crawl and Bryan Adams, with the Police topping the bill). Sting's look, dominated by his orange-coloured hair (a result from his role in Dune) and tattered clothing, both of which were emphasised in the music videos from the album, carried over into the set for the concert. Except for "King of Pain", the singles were accompanied by music videos directed by Godley & Creme.
During the group's 1983 Shea Stadium concert, Sting felt performing at the venue was "Everest" and decided to pursue a solo career, according to the documentary The Last Play at Shea. After the Synchronicity tour ended in March 1984, the band went on hiatus while Sting recorded and toured in support of his successful solo debut LP, the jazz-influenced The Dream of the Blue Turtles, released in June 1985; Copeland recorded and filmed The Rhythmatist (1985); and Summers recorded another album with Robert Fripp (Bewitched, 1984) and the theme song for the film 2010—which was not used in the film, but included on the soundtrack album. At the 1985 Brit Awards held at London's Grosvenor Hotel on 11 February, the band received the award for Outstanding Contribution to Music. In July the same year, Sting and Copeland participated in Live Aid at Wembley Stadium, London.
"Even though logic would say, 'Are you out of your mind? You're in the biggest band in the world—-just bite the bullet and make some money.' But there continued to be some instinct, against logic, against good advice, [that] told me I should quit."
Following the failed effort to record a new studio album, the Police effectively disbanded. In the liner notes to the Police's box set Message in a Box, Summers explains: "The attempt to record a new album was doomed from the outset. The night before we went into the studio Stewart broke his collarbone falling off a horse and that meant we lost our last chance of recovering some rapport just by jamming together. Anyway, it was clear Sting had no real intention of writing any new songs for the Police. It was an empty exercise."
Sting performing as a solo artist in May 1986
Each band member continued with his solo career over the next 20 years. Sting continued recording and touring as a solo performer to great success. Summers recorded a number of albums, both as a solo artist and in collaboration with other musicians. Copeland became a prolific producer of movie and television soundtracks, and he recorded and toured with two new bands, Animal Logic and Oysterhead. However, a few events did bring the Police back together, albeit briefly. Summers played guitar on Sting's album ...Nothing Like the Sun (1987), a favour the singer returned by playing bass on Summers' album Charming Snakes (1989) and later singing lead vocals on "'Round Midnight" for Summers' tribute to Thelonious MonkGreen Chimneys (1999). On 2 October 1991 (Sting's 40th birthday), Summers joined Sting on stage at the Hollywood Bowl during The Soul Cages Tour to perform "Walking on the Moon", "Every Breath You Take", and "Message in a Bottle". The performance was broadcast as a pay-per-view event.
On 22 August 1992, Sting married Trudie Styler in an 11th-century chapel in Wiltshire, southwest England. Summers and Copeland were invited to the ceremony and reception. Aware that all band members were present, the wedding guests pressured the trio into playing, and they performed "Roxanne" and "Message in a Bottle". Copeland said later that "after about three minutes, it became 'the thing' again". In 1995 A&M released Live!, a double live album produced by Summers featuring two complete concerts—one recorded on 27 November 1979 at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston during the Reggatta de Blanc tour, and one recorded on 2 November 1983 at the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Synchronicity Tour (the latter was also documented in the VHS tape Synchronicity Concert in 1984).
In 2004, Copeland and Summers joined Incubus onstage at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas concert in Los Angeles performing "Roxanne" and "Message in a Bottle". In 2004, Henry Padovani released an album with the participation of Copeland and Sting on one track, reuniting the original Police line-up for the first time since 1977. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the Police No. 70 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
In 2006, Stewart Copeland released a rockumentary about the band called Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, based on Super-8 filming he did when the band was touring and recording in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In October 2006, Andy Summers released One Train Later, an autobiographical memoir detailing his early career and time with the band.
Sting with the group at Madison Square Garden, August 2007
In early 2007, reports surfaced the trio would reunite for a tour to mark the Police's 30th anniversary, more than 20 years since their split in 1986. The tour coincided with Universal Music (current owners of the A&M label) re-releasing some material from the band's back catalogue. On 22 January 2007, the punk wave magazine Side-Line broke the story the Police would reunite for the Grammys, and would perform "Roxanne". Side-Line also stated the Police were to embark on a massive world tour. Billboard magazine later confirmed the news, quoting Summers' 2006 statement as to how the band could have continued post-Synchronicity: "The more rational approach would have been, 'OK, Sting, go make a solo record, and let's get back together in two or three years.' I'm certain we could have done that. Of course we could have. We were definitely not in a creative dry space. We could have easily carried on, and we could probably still be there. That wasn't to be our fate. It went in another way. I regret we never paid it off with a last tour." The band opened the 49th Annual Grammy Awards on 11 February 2007 in Los Angeles, announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are the Police, and we're back!" before launching into "Roxanne".
After the dissolution of the Police, Sting had adamantly refused to reunite with Copeland or Summers for any prolonged period, commenting "If I ever reform the Police I should be certified insane." Asked what prompted the reunion, he said "I'd just done the lute album—Songs from the Labyrinth. I was thinking: 'Well, what do I do? What's going to surprise people?' I just had this instinct, this desire to call the guys up and say: 'Let's give this a go.'" Sting added he saw the reunion as "a kind of healing. I think solving problems is an exercise worth doing".
Guitarist Andy Summers performing in Marseille with the group, June 2008
A&M, the band's record company, promoted the 2007–08 reunion tour as the 30th anniversary of the band's formation and of the release of their first single for A&M, "Roxanne".The Police Reunion Tour began in late May 2007 with two shows in Vancouver. Stewart Copeland gave a scathing review of the show on his own website, which the press interpreted as a feud occurring two gigs into the tour. Copeland later apologised for besmirching "my buddy Sting," and chalked up the comments to "hyper self-criticism".
Tickets for the British leg of the tour sold out within 30 minutes, and the band played two nights at Twickenham Stadium on 8 and 9 September. On 29 and 30 September 2007, Henry Padovani joined the group on stage for the final encore of their two shows in Paris, playing the song "Next to You" as a four-piece band. In October 2007, the group played the largest gig of the reunion tour in Dublin in front of 82,000 fans. The group headlined the TW Classic festival in Werchter, Belgium on 7 June 2008. They also headlined the last night of the 2008 Isle of Wight Festival on 15 June 2008, the Heineken Jammin' Festival in Venice on 23 June and the Sunday night at Hard Rock Calling (previously called Hyde Park Calling) in London on 29 June.
Drummer Stewart Copeland performing in Marseille with the group
In February 2008, the band announced that, when the tour finished, they would break up again. "There will be no new album, no big new tour," said Sting. "Once we're done with our reunion tour, that's it for the Police." The final show of the tour was on 7 August 2008 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The band performed the opening song, "Message in a Bottle", with the brass band of the New York Metropolitan Police Corp. Later, they performed "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Purple Haze" as a tribute to the rock trios that preceded them: (Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience). While announcing the show, the group also announced their donation of $1 million to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's initiative to plant one million trees in the city by 2017.
The tour sold 3.7 million tickets and grossed $358 million, making it the third-highest-grossing tour of all time at its conclusion. On 11 November 2008, the Police released Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires, a Blu-ray, DVD and CD set of the band's two performances in Buenos Aires, Argentina on the tour (1 and 2 December 2007). Those sets with two DVDs also included a documentary shot by Copeland's son Jordan entitled Better Than Therapy as well as some photographs of Buenos Aires taken by Andy Summers.