Interview: Andy Summers’ Police Investigation

The guitarist confronts the rise and demise of one of rock’s biggest and most cantankerous bands

By Alan Light

“It would be nice if it was just that one moment where everyone plays on the stage and everything is lovely, but it never is like that,” says Andy Summers. “There’s always a story.”

With his new documentary, Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, Summers is telling — and showing — his own story, which is one of rock & roll’s great emotional rollercoasters. As the guitarist in the Police, he experienced skyrocketing success when the band’s first single, “Roxanne,” exploded in 1977. Over the next six years, each one of the group’s five albums was bigger than its predecessor, selling over 80 million records in total. And then, at the peak of their game, the Police walked away, breaking up after 1983’s Synchronicity album had made them the most popular band in the world.

The film, which is based on Summers’s 2006 memoir One Train Later, illustrates the personal struggles underlying the band’s triumphs. Summers, Sting, and Stewart Copeland — three formidable musicians with large, opinionated personalities — almost immediately locked into battles over ego and control, which only escalated as their popularity grew. Summers became more and more distant from his wife and family, eventually divorcing, only to reconcile and remarry after the band collapsed.

Other than a loose jam at Sting’s 1992 wedding to Trudie Styler and a messy appearance when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003, the members of the Police had not played together in more than twenty years when they set out on a massive reunion tour in 2007. Can’t Stand Losing You is framed by footage from the tour. Sitting in his publicist’s midtown Manhattan offices, Summers expresses pride in their performances (“To me, it was absolutely not an exercise in nostalgia,” he says, “I thought we played better than ever”), though the clips from rehearsals and soundchecks reveal a band still pushing and prodding each other, hardly a warm and fuzzy victory lap.

“We just caught on,” says Summers, 72, trying to explain the mammoth sensation of the Police. “Obviously, the music and the songs were there, but they liked the three of us together — the look, Sting’s voice, all the rest of it, it was sort of ideal in a way. We weren’t put together like a boy band. We were a real band, with three guys who wanted to play their asses off every night.”

Alan Light: Most of the movie focuses on the nightmare side of the rock & roll dream — that with success comes alienation from your band, your family, the music. Is that how it actually felt at the time, or is that something you realized in retrospect?

Andy Summers: There’s definitely a shadow side to it, as there is to everything. In my case, I lost my wife and it was terrible, I never got over it. We did get back together — so that was great! But everything was going by in this completely surrealistic blur. The band was just fucking gigantic. It was insane, and it was a very hard test on a marriage. And in fact, we all got divorced.

A lot of people got very hurt, people who tried to get into the camp were sort of spun off the carousel, there were mental breakdowns, there was quite a lot of damage done by it. It’s like a giant hurricane, and we were the eye right in the middle, and everyone else is spinning around, getting hurt, arguing, fighting, so there was quite a lot of collateral damage.

You say that there were thoughts about Sting going solo and the band breaking up as soon as the second album.

I think so. I clearly remember by the second album thinking, “How long is this going to last?” Because it was already really happening and we had this hot singer — well, the whole band was hot! — and it’s the classic move, the singer goes solo, and eventually it came to be. A shame, but in a way, great move as well. Sort of a two-sided coin, that one.

But once we got going, it was like a rocket. By the second album [1979’s Reggatta de Blanc], we were just about the hottest band in the world, and we still had a long way to go. It was early, but I saw the writing on the wall. I didn’t go to Sting and say, “Well, are you going to leave the band?” We don’t have confrontations like that, we’re English, we just sort of zip it. But I felt it.

Andy Summers in 1979

Did the reunion tour achieve what you wanted? Did it provide any closure?

No, not really, and I don’t know if I want to feel closure, because why? Do I feel like, “Oh, I really need to shut the door on all that?” Look, I’m out with this [film] — this is like going on tour again. Closure would be like killing it off, and it’s never going to close as long as we’re all still alive. I’m not sitting around by the phone dreaming about it, because I’ve got plenty to do without worrying about whether we’re ever going to tour again. But I don’t need closure.

But, look, it was incredible. I think we went through a bit of tension wondering, are we completely kidding ourselves that there’s going to be any interest in this? It wasn’t really until the tickets went on sale and sold out in about two hours that we went, “Oh, my God.” It was a relief when it more than fulfilled expectations. It was a phenomenon. They said it was the third-biggest tour of all time, and if we’d gone on, it would have been the biggest, because we outsold everyone by a longshot. We didn’t beat the Stones because they went on tour for four-and-a-half years, but we beat them everywhere, they didn’t come close to what we did.

The movie doesn’t include the first Police reunion at your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

The Police reunited for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2003

That was sort of a weird moment. I don’t really like the whole Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing. To me, it’s a very corporate event. I have a sort of philosophical difference with it. Not the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum — I went there when I did a book tour, and I really liked the place, it’s very sweet. But the TV show, the production, I didn’t find that terribly satisfying. It’s this big event, and we got in, and we sort of had to do it, but it was difficult to get it set up the way we wanted it. I think we played OK, but it felt so pressured and intense, and I don’t think Sting was into it at all.

Did that give you any reservations about undertaking a full-scale reunion tour?

Well, the much better moment came a few years later. This was a card that Sting could play, and it was obviously going to be hugely popular — at least in our imagination. But it sort of came in bits and pieces. In 2006, Stewart had his film out, and I went up to Sundance to support him. As it turned out, Sting’s wife had a film she’d produced at Sundance, so he was there. Sundance is a tiny little place, so we all knew each other was there.

Stewart and I were in this bar, and Sting came down and joined us, and we all sat down together in this banquette, and of course the paparazzi were there immediately, took this fantastic shot, and it went around the world in about thirty minutes flat — “They’re back!” and this whole fucking thing. We weren’t, but I think it’s what sowed the seed.

Soon after, we all formally fired our manager, Miles Copeland, who had been with us for years, so we were in this thing together. Then I had dinner a couple of times with Sting in L.A., and then I had my book out and came to New York — I did a talk at Barnes and Noble downtown, and Sting was at Barnes and Noble uptown promoting his lute album. We got on the phone and were laughing, “This is what we’ve come to!” So it was all sort of warming up, this camaraderie was coming back. Then I met Sting in London, we went out a couple of times, and he just said, “Let’s do it,” and off we went.

Given your painful memories about the Police era, was it hard to commit to spending years to thinking about it, for the book and then the movie?

Absolutely. I was writing the book thinking, “Well, I’ve got a pretty interesting story, but I’m not going to write about the Police.” Typical egotistical sort of thing — “Fuck that Police shit.” So I started writing the book, this big 800-page thing, and I showed it to a few people, and they said, “You kind of need to write about the Police.” It was difficult emotionally, and also to remember it all. It was painful.

I would put on the records, and get very disturbed — especially the live record, hearing these people cheering — and, like an actor, try to put myself in the moment emotionally and write it while it was surging around inside me. I had to do that stuff to write this section. I didn’t want to do it, but of course it’s what everyone wants to read.

Andy Summers and Sting at an in-store appearance in Berkeley, California March, 1979

As far as I know, you’re the only band where all of the members have written books. Does that indicate why it might have been hard to keep these personalities together for the long haul?

It’s probably why the band was as forceful as it was — there’s no dumb guys in the band. And it’s a problem in a way, there’s nobody who hangs back and take instruction. We’re all fighting for the space upfront. But it was always like that, which made the band very powerful, very sparky, and I think all the really good rock bands have to have that. You don’t want mellow; it doesn’t work in a rock band.

But it’s a hard dynamic, and it’s why so many bands break up. Somebody’s got to take the lead, or leave the band. In our case, Sting left the band. Talking Heads, David Byrne left the band. The only one that didn’t do it was U2, oddly. Isn’t it time you guys broke up, or Bono went solo or something? They’re almost like a classical string quartet: they stay together forty or fifty years with the same guys playing, but for a rock band, playing at that volume all your life with the same guys… I can’t believe it.

At the time, I remember the sense that each Police album was such an advance, that each one got better and more sophisticated. But going back to the records now, the early ones actually seem to hold up better.

Honestly, for me the first two are the best. I agree. There’s nothing like that first record from a band that’s just got that raw thing — all the desire is in it, the innocence, you haven’t used it up there. Usually with the first record, it’s just there, for so many bands, and true in the case of the Police actually.

It becomes sort of a conundrum, because you want to get better and better, but already by the third album, we had to sound like the Police. We couldn’t suddenly start sounding like Dave Brubeck or something. It had to sound like great Police, you had to know immediately that it was those three guys playing, that was an important element to keep. And I actually think we got better at it, we really got to know our style, I don’t think we even realized it at first, that we had this thing. But we did have a thing. We could sort of recreate it on almost any piece of material ultimately, and we grew into it. You build your cage, and hopefully it’s a success.

So do you stay in communication with the other guys? Did you see Sting’s Broadway show?

I heard from Sting this morning. I didn’t see the show. I was always in L.A. I wish I’d seen him in it, because I bet he was great. But he’s very encouraging about this, and so is Stewart. Despite the general press thing about “God, they hate each other,” it’s actually not true, we’re very supportive of one another. We had something together that we’ll never have with anyone else. And you have to cherish that — so no closure!

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