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'Surviving the Police' with Andy Summers

Guitarist Andy Summers’ explains how the documentary, “Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police” is a revealing look at his life — the good, the bad and the ugly.
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Andy Summers with camera in 1983. Photo by Robert Alford.

By Ken Sharp

By the early ‘80s, The Police had become one of the biggest and most popular bands in music, racking up a string of Multi-Platinum albums, a cache of sure-fire hits and succession of SRO tours around the globe. But life as a cop had its drawbacks. Balancing the spoils of fame and fortune, the band sunk under the weight of an exhaustive record-tour cycle and seething interband battles that tore at the heart of the peroxide pop stars.

More than two decades later, the band reunited in 2007 and embarked on a hugely successful world tour that capped off a magnificent career. Band guitarist Andy Summers’ documentary, “Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police,” based on his best-selling memoir, “One Train Later,” is a frank and revealing look at his life — the good, the bad and the ugly. The documentary charts Summers’ years of struggle chasing the elusive carrot of fame, which found him honing his prodigious six-string talents with the likes of Eric Burdon and The New Animals, Soft Machine, Kevin Coyne, Kevin Ayers and psych-rock outfit, Dantalian’s Chariot, before his fateful meeting with Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland. Life inside The Police, warts and all, is on vivid display in this riveting documentary, juxtaposing vintage footage of The Police with candid clips of the band on and off the stage on their reunion tour, all serving to effectively weave the tale of Summers’ extraordinary musical life.

Goldmine: What prompted you to do tackle this project, “Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police”?

Andy Summers: It’s interesting because the book came out in 2006 and by 2007, we already had The Police tour going. I wrote the book and wasn’t thinking of turning it into a film. I liked a film called “The Kid Stays In The Picture” done by a guy named Brett Morgen, which was basically made out of animated, still photographs with voice-over. I thought it was a great, off-the-wall film. Then I thought, “You know, I’ve got the same stuff.” Long story short, by sheer coincidence I met someone who was friends with him and they said, “I know Brett, why don’t you just get in touch with him?” I got his email and got in touch with him and he responded very enthusiastically to the idea.

Then there was another young producer named Norman Golightly who had worked with Nicolas Cage, and I got the two of them together and that was basically it. It came together almost instantly in one afternoon, which was really sort of unprecedented.

The August issue of Goldmine with Police cover story. Photo image by Robert Alford, circa 1983.

The August issue of Goldmine with The Police cover story. Photo image by Robert Alford, circa 1983.

GM: Prior to The Police, you worked with many formidable artists/groups, from Eric Burdon and the New Animals to Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers to Kevin Coyne. What was it about the chemistry of The Police that set itself apart for those other experiences? Was it apparent from day one?

AS: No, I think we had to work our way into it. In the beginning, I felt it but I found it sort of disturbing.

GM: In what way?

AS: It was in the middle of the punk scene and there was a sort of aggression to it that was a bit more than I normally would have put out, maybe. But it was sort of the zeitgeist of that period in London. What did it for me was we were together and we were practicing and then I went to see Sting and Stewart at the Marquee when they had the other guitar player (Henry Padovani). Certainly Sting and Stewart seemed larger than life to me, and I thought, “These guys have really got something.” It was apparent to me. It did take a little bit of time to really click. It’s a bit of an odd story because we were pulled together by another bass player in London called Mike Howlett, who was in a band called Gong. Gong had been very big in Europe and they’d broken up. Then one year later they were gonna do a reunion gig in Paris and each member of the band was gonna bring his own new band and they were gonna play together as Gong at the end. So this was the whole set up. Mike knew me because my star was sort of rising in London quite fast at that time as a guitarist. I hung out with Mike a bit and he said, “I’ve got this bass player called Sting and he’s got this other drummer that he plays with and I think you could put this band together to do this gig in Paris.”

So we actually ended up rehearsing with each other for two weeks, if not three weeks. So, of course, what happened is Sting, Stewart and I bonded and really got it together musically and it was a whole new game changer for them. It upped the ante on what they were doing with their other guitar player and the rest is history.

GM: What separated The Police from the other punk/new wave bands was the off-the-charts musical ability of each member.

AS:Yeah, we were pretty skillful musicians. With the punk thing, the point was anybody could be in a band; you didn’t have to be able to play that well, you just needed to have sort of an attitude and be against the establishment (laughs), get some guitars and you can be in a band.

GM: While each member of the band was a consummate musician, you didn’t fall into the trap of overplaying. Speak about how simplicity and space played a major role in the band’s music.

AS: In the very beginning we had six songs that were extremely fast and furious like “Dead End Job,” and we managed to get through our show in about 12 minutes. (laughs) But as we really started to rehearse and become The Police, we started finding this other way of playing. It all sort of came about organically; adapting the reggae bass lines. Sting was coming in with older songs that he had, Stewart was finding his way with this mid-tempo stuff and I started to play with the Echoplex, and the sound of the group gradually came about.

GM: Take us back to the band’s first tour of the States, is it true you only played to a few people at places in upstate New York?


AS: Yeah. We played to four people at a club in Poughkeepsie. Legendary. (laughs) That tour was incredibly important to us. We were hanging by a thread in England. We were all starving and the last-ditch attempt to save the band was to come to the U.S. on Laker Airways for $60 each and do this little, very low paid, three-week tour of the East Coast where we played between New York and Boston. We started at CBGBs. But we had very little material, so we had to really stretch and improvise and jam to get through the show every night, which we did. But that really made us jell as a band, so that tour was really good for us and very important.

GM: Speaking of making it, having had setbacks in your past bands, were there moments you doubted the band would succeed?

AS: Well, it was a bit touch-and-go during the first year because we were struggling to make it in London. There was a very hardcore punk scene and I think people were very suspicious of us, that we weren’t really a punk band and that we were jumping on the bandwagon. They thought we weren’t the real thing, which we weren’t, but that didn’t mean to say we didn’t have the music. Obviously, our actual music transcended all that. You know when it was really brought home to us? We came home from this East Coast tour and we felt, “That’s it, now we really are finished.” We got this gig as a support act on this 21 college date tour with a band called Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias, who were sort of a comedy rock band. We turned up in the West Country of England at Bath University for the first night just to be this little support act. We went on and it looked like the place held about a thousand people. We dutifully went onstage at 7:30 p.m. and the place was just packed to the rafters with punks; it was all leather jackets, safety pins, ripped clothing, spiked hair ... the whole bit. We were onstage and the place erupted into complete and utter chaos. Girls were throwing themselves onstage and all the rest of it. The poor Albertos were standing at the side of the stage with white faces. (laughs) It was amazing. Every gig of that tour was the same; it was a riot. And from there we just shot into another universe.

GM: In the documentary, you say, unlike other bands “we weren’t chasing the moment, we were making it.”

AS: There’s a truth to that. The other groups I’d been in I was caught up with whatever was going on at the time. Certainly with The Police we became iconic and fashion setters and trendsetters; it seemed whatever we were doing was the hippest and coolest thing to do. When you look back at the media at the time, there were comics and cartoons written about us; all kinds of stuff where we were kind of setting the pace.

GM: After the first album took off, going into the studio for the second album, “Reggatta de Blanc,” was there more pressure on the band because you wanted to continue that success or was it a case of being jazzed you had an audience for this new slate of songs?

AS: It was very stimulating to have success and get tracks played on the radio. It was almost miraculous for us. We came out of nowhere as nothing and we had a little bit of success and we had the wherewithal to build on it. So, yes, it was very stimulating. I think by the third album was when we started feeling the pressure; where the completely organic and spontaneous approach worked (before), now you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, we have a framework work now; there’s a lot of expectation. The whole industry is looking at us on many levels.” Everyone was looking at us. The industry loved us. We got everybody back in the record stores. It was very exciting if there was a new Police record. We were like The Beatles; we were very popular. But there was definitely some pressure that came with all of that, too.

GM: Looking at The Police’s career, the band released five strong albums in a very brief period of time. Did it feel like you were on a ride and it was taking you with it?

AS: Yeah. I think you’re right. I think it was almost like a miraculous ride. We’d discovered this style and sound that could only exist with the three of us doing it; if there was one different member it would not have been the same. It was an amazing chemistry that just the three of us made. I think probably by about the third album, “Zenyatta Mondatta,” we were starting to kind of get it ourselves and realize we could keep going with it. We didn’t really need to step into “Let’s make the fourth album acoustic” or anything like that. We were on a roll and through that whole period we kept it going.

GM: “Zenyatta Mondatta” was remixed at the last minute in one night?

AS: For the third album we had the luxury of spending the whole month recording it. The first two albums were made in about 10 days each. The thing is, we were always playing so we were always sort of on fire as a band. We were just very used to playing together; that’s what we did. When we went into the studio it was almost in a way like another gig. They gave us a whole month, which was recorded in Holland. Well, that’s not completely true; it was supposed to be a whole month but then they suddenly said, “You’ve got to break and do these huge gigs in England.” So we had to take a week out of recording, dismantle everything, go back to England, do these gigs and come back. It was really weird because it completely broke the flow, and when you think of how absolutely important that third album was for us, it’s incredible that our management did that to us. But they did. We got back to Holland and the engineer, Nigel Gray, said, “I hate the mixes; I don’t like anything” and we all agreed. We remixed the whole album in one night. So instead of taking a couple of weeks and spending the time to remix it like you do these days to get it right, we just whipped through it and we left at six o’clock the next morning (laughs) to go on tour.

Andy Summers and Sting performing in 2007 on The Police reunion tour. Photo by Norman Golightly

Andy Summers and Sting performing in 2007 on The Police reunion tour. Photo by Norman Golightly

GM: You experienced years and years of struggling in your quest for major success. When you finally achieved it with The Police, what was that like for you?

AS: It was incredible. It went far beyond anything any of us had dreamed. We wanted to be a good band and get some work. People would tell us, “You guys are gonna be bigger than The Beatles” and we were like, “What?!” We were busy trying to get gigs in clubs and dealing with nobody wanting to hire us. We went from absolutely ground zero to the pinnacle very quickly. It was shocking. There were adjustments to make along the way. I guess this much happens to a lot of celebrities – suddenly you’re there in the spotlight and it’s more than you ever dreamed but then you’re all over the media and then you’ve got to get used to it and handle it and see if you’re any good at it. Egotistically speaking, and this is for all three of us, (laughs) I think we felt we all arrived at the place that we were natural for.

GM: Tension can work to a band’s benefit, look at The Who or The Kinks or later a band like Oasis. How did that friction work to the band’s advantage?

AS: Well, of course, there was a creative friction in The Police and that’s the hallmark of all the really best rock bands. We had a very volatile, sparky chemistry with each guy really fighting for his place and having a strong opinion. I was more experienced than the other two, and I sort of felt in the beginning that I taught them how to be a band and teaching them how to play. It sounds very arrogant but I certainly felt that way. In the first days of rehearsals I’d go home pissed off because I didn’t think they could play well enough. But clearly, ultimately, the talent was there, as we just got better and better. I mean, the creative friction never left; I think the more famous we got, the more difficult it got to keep that early camaraderie going. We had to sort of work it out in the studio to make it happen. By the fourth or fifth album it had been more difficult.

GM: “Synchronicity” was the last Police album, and by that point, everyone was their own separate island. Can you hear that separation on the album?

AS: Yeah, it’s a very odd thing. Traditionally, and certainly when I started out, you go into a recording studio with your band and you’ll stand around in the room with a little bit of baffling and you all play together and you try and get a good take. That’s how records were made forever, and fast forward to that period in the ‘80s and these engineers were looking for this absolutely discrete sound.

But we were each playing in different rooms on “Synchronicity.” That’s difficult to do when you’re just listening to someone in the cans. I like to be right next to the drummer, right next to the hi-hat and hearing it pumping; that’s the way you groove. So that kind of thing is difficult to do. We achieved it and I think we achieved it very well, but to me, recording that way is much harder than playing in the room with the other guys. But we got a very discrete recording on the album, which was the engineer’s preference. He could manipulate and do things to the track in a much better way because there’s no extraneous noise. In other words, if he’s recording the guitar amps with a mic six feet away, what he’d be worried about was the sound of the drums as well. So you’d have very clean recordings of each instrument. So you win some and you lose some.

Andy Summers in 2015. Photo by Mo Summers.

Andy Summers in 2015. Photo by Mo Summers.

GM: George Harrison said he felt The Beatles were never better than in their formative years in Hamburg. When were The Police at the top of their game?

AS: That’s an interesting question. You tend to cherish the early years because it was the three of us against the whole world. We were trying to prove ourselves and playing sets at big clubs like My Father’s Place in Long Island, New York, where we were so fierce. We were doing a lot of jamming because we hadn’t had that many hits yet. We’d had hits but we weren’t at that mega stage we’d reach later in our career where we were the biggest band in the world. At that stage there was less room to be improvising and wild as we had been in the earlier days because we had to play a lot of hits. We had so many hits and people were paying big money to see this band, and we were duty bound to play all of the hits. Whereas come back three years before that and we were playing these crazy sets in these clubs and really jamming more. Once we had the hits, we didn’t have the time to do that anymore.

GM: For years fans yearned for a Police reunion and it finally happened in 2007. Did you get the closure you were seeking?

AS: I don’t know if we got closure, and I used that word in the movie and I don’t know if I want it because closure is such a deadening word like, it’s all over. It’s not like we had a terrible time of it; we had an incredible life from it all. (laughs) Why would I want closure on it? Going out to promote this film is sort of like going on tour, and it proves that there is no closure. People are very positive about this film and praising it. So let’s forget the word closure; I don’t think we necessarily need it. If you want to dig into this, you could say there’s a certain healing aspect to the film because there we all are with all the people cheering us on, which was a good thing. Getting all rehearsed up, the whole show together with all the lights and having all these people around us supporting us was great. On our very first show we played to 19,000 people in Vancouver and the reception was so overwhelming. You could feel a lot of love in the room and that’s the way the whole tour was. We made a lot of people very happy by doing that tour.

GM: It must have been rewarding to have your three children get to see their dad play in The Police.

AS: Oh yeah. It was great for me because my daughter was born as The Police started and my other two kids came afterward. I was blathering on about the band to them for years (laughs) and then finally we did the reunion tour and it was mighty with 20,000 to 80,000 people a night. My kids came to several shows and it was very exciting for them and great for me. That was a real bonus for me, and one of the most meaningful things about doing that tour was that my kids could come and see it. GM