Back in the late ’70s, when "disco sucked" (even when sometimes it didn't) and punk emerged, yowling from fanciful regions of Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren's mind, you knew there had to be a "dressed-up" version of the new tunesmithing. Along came the Police, packing cold, steely hits with flashes of heat. Our introduction to them, Outlandos d'Amour, featured a Warholian cover portrait. High-contrast shadowing of their haughty expressions belied radio-friendly soulfulness. For the record, the first time I heard "Roxanne," it came newly minted on the overnight show on WBCN.1 I was a year away from deciding it might be fun to be a rock critic, but I remember my fingers freezing over the keyboard on that second mournful "RawcksssssssssAnne."
Here was that rare creation: a new version of the "almighty yawp." Stewart's sly drum roll and the skippity-beat of Andy's strum actually echoed the mournful refrain. At that point, we'd all heard "I Yam the Anteee-KRISTA," from Johnny Rotten, and in my dorm, certain kids from Nooyawk had records by the Ramones, but the Police were mystifying. Adults with teenage yearning who looked like teenagers who looked like trouble.
How could one resist? The sound, anyway. Though I never went to see them or even reviewed their records, I also never turned off the radio when one of their gleaming numbers came on. Their songs were instantly recognizable: a little ska, a nod to reggae, always catchy, and expressing slightly sinister emotions.2
The Police were about skinny ties and a sneer. Not particularly sexual, mostly because Sting's exuberant egotism negates any mystery.3 Maybe they were electrifying live in a small club (and they did play the Rat in Kenmore Square waybackwhen). But there were much more addictive bands on the local scene. Boston had an amazing trio with a unique sound. Mission of Burma took risks and had a skittering ear-splitting edge to everything they did. Bands in Boston would be hurt if you praised their commercial potential — and other bands would resent them for it. What was this wondrous place in LondonEnglandEurope where being successful and creating a catchy non-peppy sound was okay? 4
My husband, Chuck, who knows about this kind of thing (messthetics.com) suggests that part of the prize-winning Police recipe involved spending weeks at a time at Surrey Sound studios, south of London, where both Outlandos and Reggatta de Blanc were recorded. They "had the first computerized mixing-deck in the UK (meaning, you could simultaneously mix all your tracks — and deep-six technical errors with pinpoint accuracy: you could play around with widely different mixes and recover them as needed). Owner/engineer Nigel Gray had a huge investment in making the lads sound great — without distraction (apart from Nigel's kid brother Chris sliding in for overnight 'dead time' sessions with the infamous Homosexuals, who at one point amused themselves with a 'real dub' mix of "Roxanne" from a two-inch master that had been left out. Lost, of course!)"