Police take notice - Papa don't allow no fluffy pickin' here...
By the third song of the Police's opening set last week, Boston - and what a great rock 'n' roll town it was - had been mentioned five times, and I was beginning to hope that someone would haul these guys off to the pokey. When a band continually falls back on so obvious a crowd-pleasing device, it usually means that the group is exhausted, nervous or full of itself. All of the above, in the Police's case. Not that they don't have every reason to feel grateful - Boston, after all, anticipated the rest of the country by almost six months by making 'Roxanne' a juke box and FM hit while it was still an import. But the Police couldn't leave it at that. By set's end, 'Sting' - the band's bass player, vocalist, and primary songwriter - couldn't replace a broken string without telling us that he had a 'brand new A-string for Boston.' As my daddy used to say, in every glad hand lies a billy club. He also used to warn me about rock 'n' roll bands that call themselves the Police.
Whatever you want to call the current wave of British bands - third wave, new new wave, wave-it-all-goodbye - the Police are among its most prominent members. Like Dire Straits, they have broken in this country with a far more resounding splash than any of their immediate predecessors (with the possible exception of Elvis Costello). The reasons are as obvious as they are disheartening: the Police are stylistically ambiguous enough to be all things to all people. When the Police played CBGB's and the Rat six months ago, I had friends who couldn't agree whether or not they were poseurs. After seeing the band at the Bottom Line and the Paradise, they couldn't agree whether the band had found its natural niche or had sold out. The music hadn't changed appreciably in six months, only the trappings. And as always in rock 'n' roll, trappings make all the difference. The Police recognize this as well as any band, having cashed in on their new wave affiliations as much as on their affinity for the well-rounded hook. Sting's penchant for reggae beats and pinched, nasal reggae singing, guitarist Andy Summer's ability to turn a power chord into art-rock droplets, and the whoosh of the band's high harmonies give the Police what Vogue might describe as the 'gypsy look.' In contrast, the band dresses, uh, down: a drummer in bright green running shorts; a guitarist in high-riding pink Levi's; and a leader who offsets his lithe beachboy good looks with a gray-green mechanic's jumpsuit. If anything, the Police cover their bets.
They've placed those bets a lot more cleverly in the studio than on the stage. The Police are masterful pop manipulators, and while 'Outlandos d'Amour' (A&M) is a slight work, it's not without its intricacies. The Police are especially adept at constructing refrains whose short, catchy phrases - ''So lonely,'' ''I can't stand losing you'' and, of course, ''Roxanne'' - so dominate the songs that they are not only the titles, but the hooks as well. Though their reliance on reggae beat gives the band new-wave legitimacy, musically its chief value is to give Sting's singing something steady to cut in and out of. His phrasing is not particularly flexible - too often he spews out words as if he were a pressed Western Union man - but he compensates with changes in tone, squeezing his voice down or beefing it up. This sense of dynamics is what's most impressive about the band - and serves as its veil of sophistication. Tacticians who keep you on your toes, the Police constantly shift volume, allow holes to develop in the sound, rush in a guitar solo, retreat to a simple meter, marshal more riffs. At the same time they offer the security of almost always returning to where they began - musical inevitability equals pop security. In other words, 'Outlandos d'Amour' is fluff - smart fluff.
At the Paradise, the Police committed the one sin pop fancy doesn't allow: they were dull. On the last leg of their first major American tour, with Sting's voice shot, there were reasons for their trying too hard. Still, the effect was that of a cocktail party suddenly turned into a hurricane watch; the disaster reports seemed inflated and the jokes leaden. On 'Outlandos d'Amour', the Police are at least capable of eliciting a giggle. While 'Be My Girl-Sally' is nothing more that an excuse for Summers to recite some bad vaudeville verse, 'Losing You,' for instance, shows a keen telling eye for comic detail: ''I see you sent my letters back / And my LP records and they are scratched.'' Keeping his face straight and his voice solemn, Sting transforms a lovers' quarrel into a school-yard fight; and he's the kid who natters that if he gets hurt, his attacker is going to have to pay all the doctor's bills. Live, though, the Police tried to toughen up their love songs with long instrumental breaks and reggae sobriety, hammering down what was meant to float away. All of which made the band's few serious songs - you know, the ones where they tackle important themes like coming of age in the '60s or prostitution - even more ponderous. 'Roxanne', stretched to twice its recorded length, was an interminable piece of self-righteousness, with Sting sounding more like a prurient parole officer than a sympathetic companion. The most telling moment, however, came during 'Born in the '50s', when Sting canvassed the audience members for their birth years. After seeing most of the hands raise when he reached '58 and '59, he commented that the song would probably sell better if its title were changed to 'Born in the '60s.' He was probably right. Nobody ever said the Police didn't have good pop instincts; but you should know by now that they're never around when you need them.
(c) The Boston Phoenix by Kit Rachlis