In 1983, after releasing the mega-platinum Synchronicity and promoting it with an epochal stadium tour, the Police disbanded. Sure enough, they had released five albums, expanding their audience and stretching the limits of their tight, disciplined sound with each release.
It may have been creative intuition or self-fulfilling prophecy at work, but Sting correctly surmised that this band was not meant for the long haul. Their abrupt termination helped create an enduring Police myth.
The Police are to pop music what Sandy Koufax is to baseball, what Rocky Marciano is to boxing. They got out at the peak of their powers, on their own terms, and left people wanting more. In a broad historical sense, the Police's decision to reunite last year for an ultra-lucrative tour was predictable. At the same time, it was surprising, because Sting has resisted the pull of nostalgia for so long, and with such certitude.
The Police's two years of reunion tours have allowed a generation familiar with the myth to see the band in the flesh, but it's also speeded a demystification process that began in 2003, when the group played a brief, aimless set during its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fellow inductee Elvis Costello (who is opening for the Police at the Gorge on Saturday night) once threatened to box Sting's ears if he didn't stop singing in a fake Jamaican accent; now he has observed that the Police's weaknesses were so blatantly exposed that he couldn't help but feel sorry for Sting.
The major sniping on the reunion tour came quickly, from within the band's inner circle. After the band's error-plagued opening show in Vancouver last year, drummer Stewart Copeland blogged that he and his mates sounded "unbelievably lame" and Sting looked "like a petulant pansy instead of the God of rock."
Brutal self-criticism might be one way of lowering media expectations, but critics didn't spare the Police much, with many reviewers finding the shows -- particularly the new, mellowed-out arrangements of classics such as "Don't Stand So Close to Me" -- oddly tepid.
In many respects, the Police were always a rock anomaly. Because they were older and more seasoned than much of their competition -- Sting and Copeland were in their mid-20s and guitarist Andy Summers was a full decade older -- they didn't struggle to develop a sound. Within a few months of Summers joining the lineup, they recorded classics such as "Roxanne" and "Can't Stand Losing You," seemingly arriving at their odd reggae-derived beats and jazzy minor-11th chords with the on-the-spot fluidity of studio pros. Copeland's rhythmic brilliance ensured that the group's best music would have a visceral kick, as well as a subtlety that few punk or new-wave bands could match.
Consider "Message in a Bottle," the group's most perfect studio creation. Copeland rides a fast reggae beat under Summers' mathematical riff, breaking into a disco beat for the second half of the verse and a driving rock attack for the "I'll send an S.O.S. to the world" chorus. Then, against all rock orthodoxy, he brings everything down for the title line, with a soft, dub-inspired, hi-hat workout: four wildly different beats, all in the span of a minute. Through persistent drive for innovation, Copeland kept the band from slipping into tedium (at least until Sting's New Age tendencies surfaced on Synchronicity).
Because the Police made pan-cultural body music, the group also transcended the racial polarities that dogged radio at the time. When Eddie Murphy famously belted out "Roxanne" during the opening moments of 48 Hours, it was a silly scene, to be sure, but it was also telling. Can you imagine an African-American character in a 1982 film giddily singing a song by another white rock band of the time? Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers? Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band? Journey? Neither can I.
Nonetheless, there is something that continues to niggle about the Police. While they never made a bad album, they never came close to making a classic, either.
Every Police album was larded down with either half-assed filler ("Be My Girl - Sally") or dour preachiness ("Walking in Your Footsteps"). Part of the problem was that, self-consciously renaissance man though he may be, Sting was (and remains) a chronically mediocre lyricist. His early efforts tended toward silliness, often compensating with a charming who-cares quality ("Tomorrow's another day / Tuesday"). But as he puffed up with the weight of his role as a generational spokesman, he became insufferable ("Hey there, mighty brontosaurus, / don't you have a message for us?").
A scathing 1979 Rolling Stone review of the band's debut album, Outlandos d'Amour, asserted that Sting gave off a smug vibe, as if he felt he was superior to his own material. That hasn't changed. No matter how much energy and conviction he puts into a performance, there's always a certain detachment. Fortunately for him, and the legion of Police fans who've shelled out big bucks for this tour, there is no detachment in Stewart Copeland's kick drum.
The Police with Elvis Costello and the Imposters at the Gorge on Saturday, July 12, at 7:30. Tickets: $80-$237. Visit www.livenation.com.