Every great band has to start and end somewhere. It seems that the bigger the band gets, the more memorable their beginnings and ending, the Beatles being the easiest example. But some great bands have auspicious onsets. At the time, one’s debut could idle in obscurity, mostly overshadowed by later, more popular releases. Nirvana is a prominent example in that category with both Nevermind and In Utero far outselling the Sub Pop debut Bleach, even though the latter has critical acclaim. There is no denying that the Police were one of the biggest band of the ’80s, finding fans with hits like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” in 1980, and garnering more every day all the way to their grand exit with Synchronicity in 1983, and a greatest hits package in 1986, bilious infighting abounding up to the end. While the ’80s may have seemed like one big cakewalk for the trio of Andy Summers, Stewart Copeland and Sting, in regards to popularity, their start in the latter part of the ’70s was not as easy.
Each now famous member of the Police was previously in some kind of other band. Copeland was in the progressive Curved Air, Sting in Last Exit, and Andy Summers in a variety of low-pro gigs. The two Brits and one American joined together though a series of run-ins and formed the Police, the name being one of the best and simplest in rock. It was almost not to be as Mike Howlett with the band Strontium 90 invited Sting to be in his band while the Police seemed to be struggling. Of course, rather than join his band, he and Copeland lured their guitarist away, one Andy Summers. With the last piece of the puzzle in place, the band started to record. The Police debuted on A&M’s No Wave compilation with the two tracks “Next to You” and “Roxanne.” Although it would become a huge hit, the latter did not get much airplay at the time, mostly due to its controversial subject, about a man who falls in love with a prostitute.
That single was the result of Miles Copeland’s (Stewart’s entrepreneurial brother) genius ear, knowing that the band’s punk roots, combined with Stewart’s world traveling influence and Sting’s reggae bass would be the wave of the future. He was right. The Police would release “Roxanne” as a single two separate times in the first year, once in April of 1978, and once again exactly one year later. There would even be subsequent reissues of the song. Other singles from their debut album, Outlandos D’Amour, which loosely means “Bandits of Love,” came in between. “So Lonely,” another reggae tinged track with Sting’s trademark falsetto, and “Can’t Stand Losing You,” another hybird with funny yet poignant lyrics (I love when he sings about his ex sending back his “LP records and they all scratched“), were great tracks and also gained the band some attention, but had nowhere near the longevity of the “before its time” “Roxanne.” The opening slow staccato guitar riff, then the lingering end notes, finally the high voice of Sting singing earnestly about his forbidden love make this a classic song. Eddie Murphy would make the song even more popular four years later, as he sang it with headphones on in his first film, 48 Hours. Like any great song, it pops up again and again, most recently and notably as a tango number in the film Moulin Rouge.
But, as I alluded to earlier, Outlandos D’Amour is more than just a shell for one hit song. The aforementioned singles, plus the fantastic opener “Next to You,” the slightly more punk leaning “Truth Hits Everybody,” and the anthemic “Born in the 50’s,” a look back at what the group grew up with and how they got to punk/reggae, one of the best and most straightforward explanations for rebellion ever penned. Of course, as an ironic twist, Andy Summers was not born in the ’50s, instead in 1942, making him ten years older than the other two. Maybe that’s why he seemed to avoid the conflict between Sting and Copeland, keeping a workmanlike attitude through the whole thing. Of course, he throws in his cheeky humor in “Be My Girl-Sally,” a song he co-wrote with Sting (and I think that’s his voice in the narrative part) about love with a blow-up doll. Whores and sex toys, oh my!
As in the old standby Paul McCartney joke, (“he was in a band before Wings?,” which can now be changed into one referring to both bands) many youngsters might not be as aware of the Police as they are of charismatic frontman Sting. Before the Jaguar commercials, forays into jazz, country and world music, and soundtrack work of all three, came this exquisite band. Sure, some kids might mistakenly attribute “Every Breath You Take” to P.Diddy, but at least most of them recognize “Roxanne,” one of the purest debut singles to come from a band. Outlandos has its low points, but the good songs more than make up for the rest, making it an essential new wave album. I mean, come on, who doesn’t like early Police?
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
The Police – Regatta de Blanc
The Jam – In the City
Elvis Costello – My Aim is True