"Don't Stand So Close to Me"
In 1983 The Police were the biggest band in the rock universe. This is how their world exploded.
By Vic Garbarini
Guitar World, April 2003.
"Alright, damn it, it's over!"
Miles Copeland, the manager for the Police, slams the flat of his palms squarely onto Sting's dining room table. He fixes the bassist with the rigid "insect death stare" that has rattled hundreds of promoters, journalists and other unfortunates. "I mean the Police," Miles blurts. "They're over and done with!"
Sting glances up, startled, and then quickly regains his composure. Christ, he thinks, this is serious. For three years now, ever since the group's 1983 Synchronicity would tour, Miles has been insisting that the image of the Police as a living, viable entity be preserved at all costs. He has argues that the mystique of the Police is an important mantle that can protect all their interests and maintain the band's sales potential, regardless of the group's internal squabbles.
Unfortunately, this mantle has become a shroud that's begun to smother them all. Sting wanted to dissolve the Police right after the world tour and quit while they were ahead. They'd reached the top--played to 70,000 people at New York's Shea Stadium and had the No. 1 single, "Every Breath You Take", in 1983, the year of Michael Jackson. Where else was there to go? Sting's bandmates--guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland--might beg to differ. Hadn't they just reconvened one month ago for a concert to benefit Amnesty International? Yes, they had performed again, but as far as Sting was concerned, the band had reached a creative dead end years before. Ever since, he's felt trapped, suffocating in another commitment he'd outgrown.
And now, at long last, Miles is finally willing to bury the Police. But as it happens, he wants something in return. Something big.
Edgy, but gaining confidence, Miles dives back in. "Look, I know the band is never going to play together again, and you certainly know it. But, for God's sake, let's not let it drift off. I want us to go out with a bang, not a whimper. The Police have been one of the greatest bands in rock history, right? Look what happened to the Beatles at the end--the band disintegrated. Why can't we wrap this thing up neatly, and then let everybody move on?"
It's a clever speech, calculated to appeal to Sting's sense of order and fairness, and one that holds out the prospect of relieving the emotional pressure of the Police that's hovering over his head. It sounds reasonable to Sting, and that's what trouble him. When, as the English say, would the penny drop? What's the catch?
Sting finally looks up. "I haven't wanted to hurt Andy or Stewart," he says in a hoarse whisper. "I know their careers are involved in this as well as mine, and I haven't wanted to be the one to break the bubble."
He is being sincere. The band's three-way democracy drove each of them crazy. Sting might never want to be stuck on the road or in the studio with bandmates ever again, but they were his friends and brothers in a very real sense; they had shared some extraordinary moments of communion and creativity.
Miles spots his opening, and he lunges for it. "You're right. So let's wrap it up in a way where no one gets hurt and everyone benefits. What we should really do is put out a greatest-hits album," he says, lowering his voice. "And let's get a couple of, um, original tracks on there to get some radio play."
Sting nods. Emboldened, Miles plunges ahead. "Then maybe we could do a farewell tour, just a couple of months..."
Sting stiffens visibly at this. Although he's not averse to making money, the idea of a massive, scoop-up-the-cash concert tour repulses him; might as well charge admission to a wake. Miles backs off, sensing he's overplayed his hand. "Okay, maybe just a few dates here and there so we can end on an up note and go out with dignity." He pauses, then fires his final salvo. "You want closure on this thing, and so do I. But if we wait much longer, a greatest-hits album will be almost moot. It's been three years since the last Police single, and pretty soon the band will have faded in people's memories. 'Whatever happened to those guys?' But with a couple of fresh songs and a few dates..."
Miles insists that a new song or two is crucial to stirring up interest on radio and motivating fans, who might already have most of the albums, to buy the package to make their collection complete. And as usual, there is a solid point beneath his hoopla. But what makes Sting uneasy is the sense--no--the certainty--that Miles has an unstated agenda he's tiptoeing around. Sure, it would be useful to have a marketable greatest-hits package as a grand finale, but Miles is probably hoping for more than that. Maybe if they came together to do one or two songs that old chemistry would be reborn in an ongoing concern. For Sting, that simply is not an option, and he does not want to raise false expectations in the others. Andy and Stewart would be disappointed and resentful--they already were--and all the old wounds and antagonisms would surface.
And yet, Miles does have a point; one or two songs and we put the whole thing out to pasture. Is he psychologically and emotionally ready to go through with this?
Sting looks up at Miles. "Okay, I'll think about all this and give you an answer soon."
* * * * *
After Miles leaves, Sting heads over to his Synclavier, the computerized sampling keyboard/digital recording device he's been using to write songs for his next album. He brings up a string quartet he's been carefully composing. Might be fun to hear the quartet played back on cowbells, Sting thinks. As he changes the sample patches from strings to percussion, he suddenly hits upon a compromise that might give everyone what they want.
On the road, the band always talked of doing something unique with the inevitable greatest-hits package. One idea was to take their hit material and rerecord each song with completely new arrangements, tempos and instrumentation. It would be the kind of risky, pioneering challenge the band thrived on in its best moments, and everyone had seems to love the idea. The Zenyatta Mondatta material would be perfect. The 1980 album had provided the Police with their first two Top 10 U.S. hits--"Don't Stand So Close To Me" and "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da"--but they had been dissatisfied with the album.
What if, Sting wonders, they remade those two songs with new guitar lines and heavier keyboard lines? It would be perfect. He wouldn't have to force himself to write any new material for the moribund group, and the challenge of coming up with fresh arrangements would give Andy and Stewart something to get their creative juices flowing. Plus, he'd be providing the "new" material for MTV and radio that Miles and their record company, A&M, were so hungry for. Maybe Andy and Stewart would be satisfied and drop the hope of reforming the Police? No, that wasn't likely. But this is as far as he is willing to go. He'll call Miles in the morning and have him feel out Andy and Stewart.
* * * * *
Stewart takes Miles' call in the studio where he's been finishing the soundtrack for the latest episode of The Equalizer, an American TV show about a rogue ex-CIA man who each week offers his services free to some powerless soul who's run out of options. Stewart assures Miles he'll pack up his Fairlight synthesizer/sampling computer and come to London in a few weeks. Why not? There's only been one guy acting like an asshole and preventing the band from carrying on--and it sure wasn't him.
For Andy Summers, Miles' call comes at a particularly inconvenient time. He's finally begun pouring his energies into producing his first solo album, at his private recording studio located in Los Angeles. And now along comes Miles, claiming a reunion of sorts is on, just when Andy is attempting to let go of the old hopes and hurts and get on with his own work. In his heart, Andy knows the expectations surrounding the sessions are the product of wishful thinking. More clearly than the Copelands, he realizes that Sting will never let this last brief recording date flower into a full Police reunion.
Andy still blames Miles for "mismanaging" many Police decisions, and he's been repressing a wellspring of bitter feelings about his bandmates, particularly Sting, for years. Among the three bandmembers, Andy was often the man caught in the middle, the tiebreaking vote in the Police democracy who was wooed by both sides. Emotionally, he feels torn--tempted to give it one more try, to savor the magic at least one more time, but certain that the sessions will be like attending a funeral rather than a christening.
When Andy arrives in London, his fears are quickly confirmed. During a phone call with Sting to discuss a strategy for the upcoming sessions, Andy feels what dim hopes he'd been harboring sink even further. Sting makes some derogatory comments about a few musical suggestions Stewart has made to him. The old dysfunctional patterns are already emerging and they haven't even entered the studio yet. Andy feels his own bile rising as Sting continues. As it happens, the singer has a really half-assed idea of his own, something about remaking "Don't Stand So Close To Me" at a really slow tempo, something that Andy is sure won't work. Even so, he momentarily swallows his apprehension and dismay.
Once off the phone, Andy resigns himself to letting Sting run the sessions. He knows that unless everything goes Sting's way, they won't make it through even the first day. Trying to rein in his growing sense of aggravation, he thinks about how they could probably compose five fresh new songs instead of rehashing old ideas, if the commitment is there. But he has to admit that the central linchpin, the spirit of real cooperation, has long been absent. So now he will be forced to go ahead with what he calls a "charade" in order to supply the star-making machinery with a half-baked remake so they can "package and push the product". While he doesn't object to the idea of a greatest-hits album in principle, the concept of the group and its potential future and legacy is paramount in his mind. Ironically, he now fears they've all been drawn into just the kind of off-center project that could send the Police out on the very kind of low note they had wanted to avoid.
Sting always said that Andy was the most resilient of the three, but the seams in his affable good nature are beginning to split. He can probably hold it together through these last sessions, but what about the others? It's Sting's oversensitivity to Stew's boyish disregard of Sting's ego that worries him.
He thinks about how, in the studio, they were often like a group of unruly children locked in a small house with big shiny machines and a handful of explosives. Like Sting, Andy has always convinced himself that these tensions contributed to the "dynamics of the playing situation". Now, he isn't so sure. The idea that all this crap is somehow useful to the creative process seems perverse--a justification for emotional immaturity rather than an aesthetic truism. Would this be the time the dynamite finally goes off in their faces?
* * * * *
As if to exacerbate Andy's concerns, Stewart shows up for the first day of recording with his arm in a sling. He'd been out riding his polo ponies the day before, taken a severe tumble and fractured his collarbone, making it impossible for him to play drums. But not to worry, he assures Andy and Sting: he'll simply program his drums on his Fairlight as he's done with his TV scores.
Stunned, Andy sinks onto the studio couch and broods. He knew that their last real hope had been the remarkable chemistry that came when the three of them played live. Now, the musical alchemy that might have suppressed their egos and lifted them out of their petty squabbles had been effectively snuffed out. Suddenly, Summers feels furious with Copeland for being careless enough to take a risk like that the day before one of their most crucial sessions. If they were on their instruments, there was at least a fighting chance. It could've been fun, and by implication it might've led somewhere.
Andy watches as Sting sets up his Synclavier at one end of the studio while Stewart and a roadie struggle with his Fairlight at the other. By the end of the first day, they'll have worked out a rudimentary drum pattern, slowing down the song's tempo considerably. But Andy is numb. Instead of summoning their creative energies on their instruments, the Police have been reduced to punching out rhythms on a keyboard.
* * * * *
Sting wrote and arranged "Don't Stand So Close To Me" on acoustic guitar. On the original recording, Andy fleshed out Sting's arrangement with different voicings and effects. As with almost all of the group's material recorded prior to its 1981 album, Ghost in the Machine, Andy's guitar was the orchestral web that not only supported and complemented the vocals but also locked in with Stewart's imaginative drumming. On the remake of "Don't Stand So Close To Me", however, the vocals, synthesizers and electronic drums will form that framework. Rather than outlining the song's curves, Andy's rippling, highly distorted guitar part will be a condensed ball of energy at the tune's center. It take him just two hours to finish his part, after which he shrugs and asks, "Okay, what next?"
While Andy's guitar part is being blended into a rough mix, Stewart continues to work at his Fairlight, finessing the rough drum pattern from the first day of recording. He winces with pain. Despite his bravado, he knows his accident has made things more difficult for everybody. His mind foggy from medications, he can barely focus on the flashing lights just inches from his face.
Laurie Latham, the sessions engineer, is also having a difficult time handling the situation, and who can blame him? Andy is silently smoldering, Stewart is staggering and Sting is coolly distancing himself from the proceedings. This isn't an interactive group, thinks Lantham, it's a goddamned Chekhov play.
It is inevitable that something will give. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Stewart's arm. As the drummer reaches for a piece of equipment, he suddenly doubles over in agony. To everyone's horror, bone splinters begin poking up through his skin. An ambulance is called, and Stewart is rushed to the hospital, where he's told that he must undergo surgery within three hours.
As the pain medication takes hold, Stewart feels himself drifting pleasantly through space, back to the studio. There is something he has to do: it's time to have an honest talk with Sting--get it all out on the table. Nothing confrontational, mind you. No, he is feeling very positive. He should have seen that Synchronicity was really Sting's first solo album and that the dynamics of the group had shifted ages ago. Now he's willing to swallow his pride and go along with whatever Sting wants.
In his euphoria, he can see the bassist standing before him, waiting expectantly. He props himself up in bed and addresses the vision of his bandmate swimming before his eyes. "Look, I'm having great fun expressing myself with my film and TV scoring, but I really miss playing in the Police, which is the only real outlet I have for my drumming. Here's the deal, Sting: You can have the group--it's all yours, and whatever you want to do on this album is fine with me. You won't hear a single argument from me about anything. Your solo album proved to me that you know what works; my solo stuff has proved to me that I know what I want to do. If that's the only way you'll do the Police, then that's fine."
Stewart's head flops back wearily onto the pillow. Sting floats before him saying nothing. As the drugs fully kick in, Stewart drifts off into a deep, dreamless sleep.
* * * * *
Discouraged and bored, Andy drags himself back into the studio the next morning. Sting is working on his vocals, a major undertaking at the best of times. He always insisted on doing all the backup harmonies on Police tracks, and he is damn good at it. But watching someone lay down vocal overdubs is as exciting as watching paint dry.
Sting tells Andy they have a problem: he's unable to sing over the rhythms Stewart has laid down. His solution? Change Stewart's drum parts. Andy groans to himself. That's the one thing that could really set Stewart off. Did Sting have to start fooling with the drums now, while Stewart was in the hospital? Copeland is due back in a day or two and Andy doesn't even want to think about how he'll react.
* * * * *
The next afternoon, Stewart, firm in his resolve to let Sting have his way, shows up at the studio. Immediately, Sting confesses that he's shifted the drummer's rhythms a bit to accommodate his singing. So be it, thinks Stewart. But as he listens to the playback, the shock is bigger than he expected. Sting hasn't just altered the tempo; he's rerecorded all the drum parts and even changed the sound of the drums. It was a line Stewart didn't consider would ever be crossed. It was the only area in which he still felt he could make a major contribution to the group.
Still, the drummer grits his teeth. Fine, he thinks, whatever it takes to turn Sting on. Then he notices the snare drum. Gone is Copeland's trademark snare sound, replaced with a larger, more dramatic sound that, privately, Stewart considers "ugly, flatulent and sludgy."
"I'll play whatever rhythm you want," he tells Sting, "as long as the sound itself isn't insulting to me." With a major effort, Stewart manages to hold his emotions in check. No point in a big confrontation now; there are better ways to handle this.
That night, after Sting leaves, Stewart systematically erases the new drum parts, replacing them with his own material.
* * * * *
Andy had seen that a potentially explosive situation was building. But he never dreamed that, however inadvertently, he would supply the match that would set off the fireworks. Ironically, the incident occurs on the day the band attempt to relieve the mounting tensions by undertaking a new recording of "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da", the second Zenyatta Mondatta hit that Sting has opted to remake. It's a curious choice; the song was their first Top 10 hit and had been praised as one of the band's most fully realized works. Why fix what isn't broken?
As Andy anticipated, the song quickly becomes bogged down. To help stave off the boredom and bad vibes, the guitarist heads out to a newstand and returns with an armful of newspapers and magazines. One of them, the Tattler contains a review of Sting's recent film, The Bride. Snatching the paper from Andy, Stewart leans over the console where he and Sting are working and begins reading the piece out loud to everyone in the studio.
To Stewart's dismay, the review is dark and nasty. Realizing he may have gone too far, Stewart tosses the paper aside and changes the subject until everyone is laughing about something else. But as soon as Stew had begun to read the review aloud, Andy knew any hope of a reunion was over. Jesus, Stewart, he thought to himself, you are making such a horrible mistake reading this out loud. This is so dumb. Why are you doing this?
The answer was obvious to Andy even before he finished the thought. The entire affair had become entangled in symbolic events that didn't take a doctorate in psychology to figure out. The hidden anger, resentment and hurt had been swirling around in everybody's psyches ever since the project was announced, straining to break through at every turn. First, the drummer happens to break his arm the day before recording, physically manifesting the crippled feelings he'd been harboring about his role in the group. Then Sting's controlling tendencies took over as he changed the absent drummer's one remaining contribution to the song. And now, extroverted and off-the-cuff at the best of times, a doped-up Copeland unconsciously vents his repressed feelings via this damned movie review.
Involuntarily, Andy finds himself holding his breath, waiting for Sting to react. To his surprise and relief, Sting does nothing. But the ominous silence that follows Stew's outburst, combined with Sting's preternatural calm, only intensifies Andy's apprehension. Is Sting shrugging it all off? If everyone just keeps his cool for another day, maybe they can squeak by after all. Just maybe.
* * * * *
That night, prompted by some perverse logic, Stewart rents a copy of The Bride and watches it with his wife at their country home. It would be brilliant as a comedy, he drolly concludes. The next morning, Sting arrives in the studio as Stewart is putting the last touches on his revised drum tracks.
"Oh, Sting, by the way, I saw The Bride last night," the drummer says.
"You got anymore of that stuff you were on, man?" Sting quickly snaps. "Why don't you try some drugs?"
To which Stewart responds, "I'm up to my eyeballs in drugs already, man!"
When Copeland is finished with the drum track he looks up. "Okay, I'm done, Sting. What do you think?" But Sting has left. No, he hadn't said when he'd be back. He hadn't said anything at all. Stewart tries again to convince himself that Sting hadn't taken his reading of the review to heart. Hadn't they all just laughed it off?
For the next two days, as Stewart continues to tinker with his tracks, there is no sign of Sting. He gets a phone call from Miles in America: "What the fuck did you say to Sting?" roars Miles. "I don't know," replies Stewart, caught off balance. "What did I say to Sting?"
"You read a review or something. It really pissed him off, and you'd better call him and apologize. Now!" The gravity of the situation comes crashing full force onto a chastened Stewart, who mumbles to his brother that he'll call Sting right away, which he does. Sting's girlfriend, Trudie Styler, answers the phone at their Hampstead home. Yes, she says, Sting is very mad at the moment and refuses to come to the phone. Stewart explains that he's very sorry and hopes to see Sting later.
The next day at the studio there's still no sign of Sting. But Miles is on the phone again.
"What the fuck is the matter with you, Stewart?" he sputters. "Why can't you...why did you have to fuck it up just when we had things going smoothly? Why did you have to insult him?"
"Look, I'm here and I'm working and ready to go," Stewart shouts back. "Will somebody kindly explain to me what the fuck is going on?" As Stewart paces the control room, a black-helmeted messenger, dressed completely in leather, like some post-modern Mercury, walks in and silently hands Stewart a letter. It's from Sting, of course.
"Stewart, you have always been jealous of me," the letter reads in part. "I've had to put up with your petty cutting me off at the knees, your total disregard for my feelings and lack of respect." Sting then puts forth a cutting analysis of the drummer, which to Stewart sounds more like Sting subconsciously talking about himself. He accuses Copeland of being a robot. "I'm this big bag of neuroses and insecurity," the drummer says to himself. "But he thinks I'm some kind of machine."
What neither Sting nor Stewart can see is that the letter mirrors their darkest fears about themselves and each other. Over the years, music writers have criticized the Police for sounding at times like cold, ruthless machines. And now the band's two principle antagonists are using the same accusations to project their mutual doubts and fears onto one another in a final, self-destructive fantasy.
Still, Stewart knows he has to try to make amends. He forces himself to write a long reply, saying, in effect, that he is indeed sorry but has no idea what Sting is talking about. No, that isn't quite true. Sting's letter had referred to Stewart's "unrelenting barrage of little innuendos and digs," and Stewart concedes that he can appreciate what Sting is talking about. "It's true," he admits. "If I was uptight or angry with him, whatever veneer I put over that might have still let a few barbs slip through. I can accept that. Besides, with the trauma of the fractured arm and the accompanying medication, I think I can claim, justifiably, that I was not myself during the whole period."
But one moment later, Stewart is again straining to rebuild his defenses. "I really had been happy when he walked into the studio," he says. "I was in an upbeat, cheerful mood. We were getting along so well and I honestly thought it was going to work out."
* * * * *
Back in Hampstead, Sting is doing some soul-searching of his own. It's obvious to him that he and Stewart are falling back into their old patterns of stress and conflict. And, Sting has to admit he's laid more than his share of the same bloody-minded foundation. All along, he had been perfectly willing to admit that he could be "an absolute bastard to get along with in the Police if I was crossed."
So he understands that Stewart was just "taking the piss out of him," reading those reviews. Stewart couldn't help it, Sting admits to himself. There was a lot of anger built up over the last three years, but it never was given a voice. Now, it was erupting uncontrollably and neither of them had the detachment or clarity of heart and mind to untangle their mutually woven web.
But he'd had enough. He no longer wanted to drive himself or others through the ruthless compulsive behavior that had fueled his escape from his lower-class upbringing and relative obscurity. God knows how long the whole process of shedding those old ways would take, but he had to start somewhere. And the Police were an obvious place to make a stand. "I had to walk out," he tells himself. "It was the only way I could think of breaking the cycle. All of this conflict--it's just unnecessary, and I don't want to deal with that in my life anymore, on the giving or receiving end."
But the question remains: should he just run down to the studio, finish his commitment and get it over with? He doesn't owe anyone anything at this point. But the conflicts and confusions that spawned the band's toxic atmosphere are still locked inside him to some extent. That's why the issue of the Police getting back together again--which is what's really behind all of their bad behavior--would literally be a step into immaturity and regression. There is no possibility of that happening, he concludes. But what about a less ambitious goal...like finishing one more track?
* * * * *
Stewart snarls as he stalks the studio alone the next morning, preparing to reprogram the cymbals on his Fairlight. He pounds the console. "I really did write a nice letter back, didn't I?" he asks rhetorically. In the letter, Stewart apologized for hurting Sting's feelings and explained that he was only joking, that he had always respected Sting. "Let's finish the album, and you'll never hear from me again."
But the minute the letter was out of his hands, the drummer recanted every word of it; every apologetic phrase turned into "fuck you". If Sting didn't want to be in the studio, then he didn't have to me. The instrumental parts and the vocals were almost done. "Come on, Sting," Stewart chided in the letter, "you have two choices: are you going to show up or are you going to let me mix it?"
The phone rings. It's Miles again. Could Stewart come over for a short talk? Now? When Stewart arrives Miles greets him with a steely calm. "Look, you have to call Sting," he snaps.
"I have called him, and he won't take my calls," Stewart shoots back.
"Stewart," continues Miles more evenly, "you have to back down on this one."
Stewart leaps to his feet and slams the table. "I have backed down and there's no place to go!" Stewart gets up and starts putting on his coat.
"So what the hell are we going to do?" demands Miles.
"We?" echoes Stewart. "I'm going back to the studio to get ready for mixing." The next morning, Miles searches desperately for a compromise. He can understand how Stewart's frustration led to what now seemed an inevitable conflict of wills. He also knows that Sting was probably looking for an excuse to cancel the whole project, and Stewart had handed it to him. As their manager, it's his job to pick up the pieces. He begins by calling Stewart, who's in the studio.
"How about if we set a deadline, a boundary of sorts?" asks Miles. "We'll mix the song next Friday at 10pm, whether Sting shows up or not."
That's fine with Stewart. "If Sting wants to participate in the mixing of the record, he knows where we are. He's got the address, all he has to do is show up."
Five o'clock Friday night, there's still no sign of Sting. By 8:30 Miles starts to panic. He personally made certain Sting knew the mixing would happen tonight, no later than 10pm. He also knows that if Sting refuses to show up and Stewart and Andy mix the track, Sting will merely veto the results and all this drama will be for nothing. The greatest-hits package itself might go down the tubes. Miles promised the label at least one new track, maybe two. How would he explain this? Exasperated, he leaves the studio and heads to Sting's home. It's worth one last try, he figures.
Shortly after nine o'clock, Miles returns to the studio. Sting walks in immediately behind him, carrying a yellow flower. Stewart wonders, Is that a Japanese death symbol or something? Sting walks up to him and hands him the flower. "Well," he says, "here you go." Stewart--everyone in the studio, for that matter--is silent.
"Now," the singer continues, "about that snare drum sound." With those words Sting pulls out a 12-inch switchblade and flicks it under Stewart's chin. Everyone freezes. Simultaneously Stewart and Sting break into convulsive laughter. It's as if the unbearable tension of the last seven days--and the last seven years--has been lanced. In truth, nothing has been resolved. But Sting, Stewart and Andy realize their business has been concluded. The Police, and the animosity that marred much of their existence, are finished.
Have we got contact, you and me?