My first “What if” series focused on the great Led Zeppelin and examined the what-could-have-beens of their future had the band not broken up. Today’s study features both differences and similarities. What’s similar is they were both one of the biggest bands in Rock N’ Roll at the time of their breakup. A big difference was whereas Zeppelin was at their musical low-point when John Bonham’s death forced their disbandment, The Police were at the absolute top of their game when they called it quits.
The Police’s split was not a shocker the likes of David Lee Roth leaving Van Halen in 1985 (fodder for another “What if” post one day). By the time the band officially announced their breakup in 1986, Sting had already released his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, a year prior. The writing was clearly on the wall. The hope for many die-hard Police fans was that Sting got the solo thing out of his system with that album, and the band would get back to business. As we all know, that plan wasn’t in the cards whatsoever. In fact, those fans would have to wait all the way until late May of 2007 for Sting, Andy, and Stu to finally reunite. That year they kicked off a surprising and stunning 15-month world tour, thrilling their loyal fan base and proving once again the magical musical chemistry of this trio. The tour was captured on the fantastic CD/DVD release, The Police: Certifiable – Live from Buenos Aires
Sting made a point to unsolicitedly mention in any and every interview that the tour was a one-off occasion that was neither going to happen again or lead to any new music from the band. I didn’t mind. I figured as much anyway. I was just excited they were back playing together and thrilled how great they still sounded. Yet the thing is, I can’t help from thinking….’What if’ they hadn’t broken up in the first place? What could those 21 years apart have looked like if they stayed together? Could they have stayed together?
One thing we know for a fact is Sting’s immensely successful solo career never would have happened. Nothing Like the Sun (1987), The Soul Cages (1991), Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993), Mercury Falling (1996), Brand New Day (2000), 57th & 9th (2016). I own six of Sting’s solo albums. Not just because I’m a Police fan. I own them because I became a Sting fan too. Dating back to his debut in ’85, he had a 15-year run of productivity and success that arguably equaled that of his time in The Police. In fact, I’m not sure there’s ever been an artist to break from a hugely famous band and be as successful on their own as Sting was. I know some will argue McCartney, but if you can separate the distinction of him being a former Beatle and just compare the bodies of work, I’ll take Sting’s solo career over Sir Paul’s any day.
So what if Sting didn’t pursue a solo career? Another thing we almost know for certain is the band wouldn’t have survived anyway. This assertion begs several questions. Why wouldn’t they have survived, and why did they need to break up? To understand why these questions were relevant and why music fans, let alone their own loyal fans, were so confused at the time, you need look no further than their 5th and final studio album, Synchronicity.
Though released in June of 1983, I swear this album charted all the way through 1984. Every Breath You Take, King of Pain, Wrapped Around Your Finger, Synchronicity I and II, Walking in Your Footsteps, Tea in the Sahara, Murder By Numbers. The album was a masterpiece. How in the hell could a band just call it quits after an album like that?
There have been many theories as to why. One theory I can debunk is that they hated each other. People assumed this because they were often captured on film yelling at each other, physically scrapping with one and other, etc. This mostly occurred between Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland. Truth is their relationship was a bit like brothers similar in age. They’d fight the hell out of each other one minute, and then be buddies 10 minutes later. It’s just the film rarely captured the times when they were laughing, joking, and getting along.
I’ve heard Sting support this point in interviews years later where he stated the break-up wasn’t personal, but rather musical. He said as long as he remained in The Police he would always be anchored down by a three-piece band. He wanted to expand his written and musical sound. His solo work proved this. Released from that anchor, Sting’s albums included a vast array of varying musicians and instrumentation.
Band dynamics and control were major issues plaguing The Police. Andy Summers and Copeland were becoming more and more perturbed at Sting’s reticence to include their material on Police albums. This was documented in Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police. It’s a film based on Andy Summer’s memoirs and retrospection of his life in the band. If you’re a fan, or just enjoy rock history, do yourself a favor and watch it on Amazon Prime Video. Here’s a link to the trailer:
The documentary at times paints Sting as the bad guy. A dictator. The guy who wasn’t a good team player. Though he’s always seemed like a bit of an arrogant prick, I actually have to defend the Stinger on this one. You see, every hit or great song The Police ever had (and there are far too many to list here) was written by Sting. Every one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I think Stu Copeland is one of the greatest drummers of all time, and Andy Summers is an excellent guitar player in his own right, but good song writers they were not. If I’m being honest, I think the worst songs on The Police’s albums were typically the songs Copeland and/or Summers wrote. If the band’s song selections had been equal opportunity, with each member contributing their fair share, the simple indisputable fact is their albums would not have been as good. When it came to songwriting, Sting was the talent. He knew it. The record company knew it. Andy and Stu may not have liked it, but deep down they had to know it too.
So ‘what if’ The Police didn’t breakup after Synchronicity? For starters we’d have to assume Andy and Stu could have made peace with being in “Sting’s band.” Considering they were famous and making millions, I think they would have. Secondly, we’d have to assume Sting could have stayed satisfied working within the construct of a three-piece band. Thirdly, we’d have to assume Sting’s growing ego could have remained in check enough to continue functioning in a band period. Those are big if’s…….but if those things happened, I truly believe The Police would have churned out several more quality albums. As mentioned, Sting continued writing at a prolific rate for a good 15 years after The Police. Granted, most of those songs wouldn’t have worked within the band’s structure, but seeing that his creativity was there, I’m sure he could have continued writing quality material for The Police as well.
Copeland and Sting are 67 and 68 years old respectively. Andy Summers, though he doesn’t look it, is now a spry 77. They’re older, but they’re still in the here and now. Personally, I’d love to see them take just one more crack at a new album. I highly doubt that will ever happen, but “what if?”
Thanks for reading,