Watching The Police……

You know how it goes; you’re going through a pile of stuff looking for something and you happen across something completely different and then get distracted by it – a bit like Columbus discovering the Americas when he was looking for China.

So it was that I sat down this week and watched videos of two concerts given by The Police that are nearly 30 years old.  Where did all those years go?  I’d been looking for a CD of a Thievery Corporation album that I’d burned off for my mate Adrian and suddenly came across these 2 DVD’s that someone gave me around Easter 2011 .  Oops….hope they haven’t been waiting by the phone for a ‘thank you’ call.

Anyway, with the football season over and in a sort of inter-Box Set hiatus  and catching my breath after finally watching the original & stunning  Danish version of Season 1 of ‘The Killing’, I thought I would revisit some ancient history – literally in the case of the first DVD, which was of an open-air gig at Gateshead Athletics Stadium in July 1982 and I was there!

It was a typically canny midsummer day in the north-east……banks of lowering grey cloud sitting on the hills of northwest County Durham, intermittent waves of drizzle sweeping in over South Shields, so dark by mid-afternoon that the streetlights were probably coming on…..

I remember that we dressed as though we were doing a day’s hill-walking in the Cumbrian fells….cagouls, woolly hats, thick-soled boots, flasks of home-made soup and doorstep cheese sandwiches…..not too rock and roll, really.  Not being at one with the whole Brendan Foster/Steve Cram running thing, I’d never been to the Stadium before; as I recall, it was in the middle of a council estate on the eastern side of Gateshead.  It was a mid-afternoon start and my first surprise was seeing how small the crowd was.  I assumed that more people would show up later on and I was right, but even so, it never reached a point where you could say it was packed.

First up were The Lords of the New Church, who were a hybrid US/UK post-punk band who shared the same management company as The Police (hence their presence) and had produced a  pretty good single called ‘Dance with me’.    If people were dancing it was probably just to keep warm.  The Lords of the New Church played a mercifully brief set that indicated very clearly why they were unlikely to be the Next Big Thing and then we were on to the Gang of Four.

This was a band that everyone claimed to love but no-one could name any of their songs or anyone who was in the band.  I seem to remember that they played a kind of sub-Talking Heads angular funk with shouty agit-prop lyrics which appeared to go down well enough, but it would all probably have made a lot more sense in a sweaty nightclub.

Then came The Beat, who had a string of hit singles behind them and played a short set of user-friendly ska-punk that actually did get people on their feet and dancing.  They always seemed to be able to connect with the crowd at such events  – I saw them the following summer supporting David Bowie at another open-air gig and they were even better. 

Next came U2, who had been  big favourites since I first saw them at Manchester Polytechnic S.U. in 1980 when they were third on the bill to Wah! Heat and Pink Military Stand Alone; I’d been to loads more of their gigs, I’d interviewed them not long beforehand for a fanzine, we’d had dinner in a Greek restaurant in Liverpool, they’d been for tea at my place in Stockport and one of my cats had sat on Bono’s lap – as you can probably tell,  we were virtually related by this point.

What I’d never seen was them playing in this kind of environment.  Bono – never short of an opinion or ten even in these formative days – always said that the key to what U2 did (he always used ‘U2′ rather than ‘we’ as though the band were actually a different set of people, which in some senses I suppose they were) was to break down the barriers between the crowd and the band.  This was really down to him, although Edge skipped about prettily enough in the acres of space available to him at Gateshead.  Bono, however just treated the stage as an adventure playground, climbing the PA stacks and waving expansively to the crowd as he busked his way through an extended version of ‘Electric Co’ interspersed (as was usual at this stage)  with random chunks of ‘Send in the Clowns‘.  He also did the old ‘falling backward into the crowd’ trick  – a sort of early form of crowd-surfing, where he trusted to luck when it came to people ‘catching’ him and holding him up whilst he sang.  My mate Kevin Cummins was photographing the gig for one of the music papers and he later gave me a great   8 x 6 black and white glossy of Bono lying atop a bunch of Geordie lads who all looked a bit pissed off about it to be honest.

So much for U2, who were about par,but it wasn’t one of their better performances.  The stage was now set for the Return of the Prodigal; Gordon Sumner, once of this parish – well, across the river in Wallsend, anyway – returning in triumph, having conquered the UK and well on the way to world domination.  Hardly your quintessential Geordie, Wor Sting.  A bit too flash and he’d long since cured himself of the local accent, so for a lot of local people this wasn’t as big a deal as it probably was for him.  I actually lived in Wallsend when I first moved to Newcastle in 1981 – in fact my first flat was only about a block away from the Sumner household where young Sting had grown up.  Wallsend will, of course,  always be associated with the Swan Hunter shipyards and those black & white images of colossal superstructures towering over the back-to-backs running down to the river.   There’s a  really good song on his album ‘The Soul Cages’ called ‘Island of Souls’  that tells of the lives of  some of those shipyard workers, but if you harbour images of Wor Sting running around barefoot and snotty-nosed in the shadow of the shipyard cranes, think again    Where I was living and where Sting grew up was well away from there – we were up the hill near the Rising Sun Colliery (closed by 1981) on the other side of the Coast Road – it was proper posh, like; we were almost in Forest Hall!  Fruit on the table and naebody sick!  Net curtains!  Suburbia!

Anyway, who knows what he felt as he, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland came striding up the ramp that led to the stage?  One thing is for sure; he crossed himself as he reached the top of that ramp.  Then it was showtime and as Sting looked out on to a sodden landscape of scudding apocalyptic clouds and shivering punters, you had to feel that when he’d envisaged this day, he’d probably had something else in mind.  To be fair to The Police, they did their best; plenty of energy and all of their best songs in a lengthy set – no-one could say they weren’t getting value for money.

The Police on stage at Gateshead, 31st July 1982

Some things had changed, though.  They had a three-piece horn section with them, Stewart Copeland’s drumkit seemed to have acquired even more cymbals and shakers and twiddly things that he would thump enthusiastically from time to time but there was also a droning backing track of synthesiser going during many of the songs, filling out the usual white boy skanking and fleshing out the band’s sound.  Sting actually played the keyboard during ‘Invisible Sun’, but the rest of the time, I think Andy Summers was controlling these pre-recorded ‘backing tracks via his  pedals board. 

I have to say that I didn’t notice these  keyboard drones during the gig, but watching what seems to be a Korean video of the concert, it does become readily apparent, particularly during the newer songs.  Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’ showed a good chunk of the day’s events in a one-off ‘special’ but this recording was of The Police’s set alone.  Not exactly a triumphant homecoming and some comedy episodes with the dry ice, which blew off the (open) back of the stage and probably caused localised fog patches down the road in Felling, but was hardly seen at all by the fans at the gig.  Oh well……

The second DVD was recorded just over a year later in the radically different setting of Atlanta’s Omni Amphitheatre on the U.S. leg of the band’s ‘Synchronicity’ tour.  By this juncture, all of the band’s members had become embroiled in extra-mural projects and there was an indefinable feeling that they weren’t going to be together for too much longer.  For all that, the ‘Synchronicity‘ album had some of The Police’s best songs and been a huge success, especially in the USA and despite having to compete with Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller‘, released the same year.  The Omni was a vast barn of a venue, used for basketball or ice hockey and accommodating around 15,000 customers.  It is no more, having been demolished in 1997.  Playing an indoor gig in front of an enthusiastic crowd offered The Police an opportunity to produce a concert video under much more controlled circumstances than had been the case at Gateshead.  Ex- 10cc members Kevin Godley & Lol Creme were the hottest ticket when it came to shooting promo videos in the early 1980’s and  as they had already directed videos for many of  the singles lifted from ‘Synchronicity’,  they were an obvious choice to direct the concert video.

And what’s more, they did a pretty good job of it, too from the opening adrenaline rush of ‘Synchronicity I’ right through to the final encores.  Even all these years later, it remains a superior example of the genre and captures the band – with more, and more elaborate backing tapes,  more percussion possibilities for Stewart Copeland, more garish Sting costumes (think Rod Hull & Emu meet ‘Mad Max II’)  and more FX pedals for Andy Summers – plus three girl singers – on a really good night.  I saw the show about a month later at (of all places) Blackpool’s Winter Gardens and although there was a sense that we were witnessing the closing stages of their career, they still turned in a tremendous show, every bit as powerful as the Omni performances. 

Sting on stage in Atlanta, November 1983

So that was The Police, mid-80’s style, and seeing those shows and hearing those songs  again for the first time in donkey’s years, it has to be acknowledged that whilst punk gave them the initial platform they needed to get a foothold, they pretty soon left all that behind.  After all, Sting had been playing in a jazz-rock band called Last Exit before he left Tyneside and Andy Summers – who was too old to be a punk, anyway –  had a background in prog rock, having played with both Soft Machine and Mike Oldfield, to name but two.  By the time of the ‘Synchronicity‘ tour, they had become a well-oiled pop-rock machine,  incorporating elements of jazz, reggae and rock, fuelled by backing singers, an expanding use of on-stage technology and Sting’s gift for knocking out a succession of superior pop tunes – with increasingly obtuse lyrics. 

After the ‘Synchronicity‘ tour, the band went ‘on hiatus’ for a couple of years and an attempted full-on regrouping in 1986 was scuppered when Copeland (allegedly) fell off a horse and broke his collarbone the night before sessions were due to start.  In truth, there was so much tension between Sting and Copeland by this point that it’s unlikely that the sessions would have lasted too long anyway. 

I didn’t see the band on their 2007 reunion tour, nor indeed have I heard any live recordings from it, nor do I feel moved to do so.  Most bands have a functional lifetime and The Police’s was – compared to U2 – pretty short, but during that lifetime, their star shone very brightly.  The Atlanta gig is a valuable document, I think, if only because it catches them at the absolute peak of their powers as a live act.

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