The Police’s Andy Summers on his songs, Sting, and being ripped off by Puff Daddy

The Police’s Andy Summers on his songs, Sting, and being ripped off by Puff Daddy

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.

The artist: As guitarist for The Police, Andy Summers bridged the gap between the immediacy of punk and the intricacy of prog, blurring the lines with his shimmering, echo-y, immediately recognizable sound. His memoir, One Train Later, is the rare rock autobiography worth reading for how it’s written and not just to see who dishes on whom. And that quality is retained in a new documentary, Can’t Stand Losing You, based on the book.

“Fall Out” (single, 1977)

Andy Summers: “Fall Out” was of the time, like a period piece. It was simple enough, aggressive enough. At that particular moment, it was a song that was really about survival, so we could be in the middle of that punk scene. It was a lot of fun to play. As we became more known and established a signature sound, which is a little different than “Fall Out,” we didn’t play it anymore.

The A.V. Club: You wrote the book before the reunion tour, so you hadn’t played the songs in years. Did you relate to them differently as you wrote?

AS: The Police section was difficult, and I didn’t want to write it, really, but I did. As I got into the interior life of the band and the emotional landscape of the band, of what it’s really like to be in something like that, I had to set up scaffolding. In other words, I had to go through all the tour dates, the recording dates and the various events over a period of seven or eight years to get this linear chronology. Once I got that set up, I was able to write into it more—you know, not just boring facts. Along with that, to be in the right place with the writing, I listened to the songs: I remember listening to tracks and maybe watching a couple of DVDs, just to see what it’d bring up, like an exercise for the writing. A track might not be like I remember it, the energy might be different, so it’s definitely a part of the writing of the book to slam myself somewhat with that atmosphere and time.

“Message In A Bottle” (from 1979’s Reggatta De Blanc)

AVC: Contrary to the punk stereotype, you were all accomplished musical veterans when the band started: You’d been playing professionally for more than a decade. You’ve said that Police songs are generally easy for you, but if you plug “Message In A Bottle,” for example, into Google, you get a lot of people talking about how hard it is to play. 

AS: Yeah, it is. You have some journalist-guitarists that talk about the interweaving of the guitar leads and drums and the vocals. Yeah, it’s rock music, it’s pop music, they are pop songs, but to me, it’s intricate and not that easy to copy. You take The Beatles or a metal band or something, you can solve it pretty easy. These take more time, with more internal complexities, and it wasn’t so easy to knock off. Which, of course, made it so absolutely unique, the three people that did it. You can’t just replicate that chemistry. It’s impossible. That’s why it’s a once-in-a-lifetime band. That’s just the way it is. “Message In A Bottle” is difficult for people to play, but there’s so much more. They can talk about style, and they simplify, but you know what? If you’re in that band and you’re playing that stuff night after night, the amount of nuance and moods that go into playing these songs… It’s very difficult to talk about. It’s very abstract, and it’s what makes it so great. People don’t understand all the nuance of it, all those little details that make it what it is.

“Roxanne” (from 1978’s Outlandos d’Amour)

AVC: You mention the experience of Sting writing “Roxanne” on acoustic guitar, and you hearing it drift down the hallway. Was that the first song where things fell into place? It seemed “Fall Out” wasn’t the direction you wanted to go in.

AS: I think it was just one of those moments. Sting was staying in my apartment in London. We both played nylon-string guitars. He probably picked up my guitar. We had just come back from Paris on an absolutely appalling little run. We didn’t get paid. I mean, it was just desperate, but he had been walking around, seeing what in those days were called streetwalkers, and come up with this idea for the song. He was playing to himself on this nylon-string guitar in a little bossa nova rhythm. And I remember the night very clearly. We were going to bed and he sat around and started playing this song, and I thought, “Hmm, that’s nice. Could be one of those.” No, actually, it’s going to become fucking immortal later. He had it like that, this little gentle nylon-string bossa-nova thing, and a few days later, we were rehearsing and a bit hard up for material, trying to come up with stuff. We said, “Well, what about that ‘Roxanne’ piece?” “We can’t do that, it’s bossa nova.” “Well, let’s see if we can fix it.” Of course, between the guitar rhythm, what Stewart [Copeland] did, and the bassline, it suddenly became this version that we all know. That’s what we recorded, and it really brought the band to notice. 

AVC: A lot of punk was wall-to-wall guitar, but “Roxanne” has a lot of empty space in it.

AS: It was almost like a conscious decision not to do that. That came about quite literally from interacting with each other, making a conscious decision to not sound like everybody else. Also the use of the Echoplex in my case, which really opens up the sound, that spacey kind of sound, and then employing an element of reggae, in particular the bassline, which gave Sting more ability to sing. Rather than hammering out the standard 16th or 8th notes fast, it immediately made us sound really different than anybody else. It became a signature.

“Behind My Camel” (from 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta)

AVC: You won a Best Rock Instrumental Grammy for “Behind My Camel,” which prefigures the Middle Eastern influence on later Police albums.

AS: There’s a little bit of that lurking around here and there. I think a lot of musicians get attracted to the scale and that exotic sound that comes from it. It sounds Arabic, also a bit flamenco, when you start playing those kind of scales. It’s nothing I want to do all the time. Stewart grew up in the Middle East, until he was 8 or 9 years old, in Beirut. So he’s always gone on about it, and his brothers, Miles and Ian, they’d always shout at each other in Arabic. [Laughs.] Certainly in the early years of The Police, there was a lot of that going on. So it’s not surprising that it would surface somewhere in the music. I loved it when people like Coltrane did it, or Hamza El Din. I listened to all that kind of music, and was certainly influence by it. 

AVC: Was it hard to squeeze that stuff onto a pop album?

AS: Yeah, it was difficult. You can’t do a whole album of it unless you’re really going to go to another place with what you want to do with your record, but in the context of a pop-rock album, you could go to a bridge or a guitar solo, or you could do something weird just because. Let’s just say a band does an old-style 12-track album, it would be a little bit of spice that you’d throw in the cake that would get people’s attention. Maybe it makes it more interesting, I don’t know. Back in those days, it was really reaching for different things. It’s great. I think if you’re a musician, by definition you ought to be searching a bit and trying to find out about other colors.

“Mother” (from 1983’s Synchronicity)

AS: We were at that point with the band. Clearly, Sting was the principal songwriter. The arrangements were something else. What defined The Police were the arrangements, the sounds of the three of us all playing together. We were at the point where Sting was pursuing his songwriting, so most of the songs were going to be his songs, but Stewart and I got one each. I came up with “Mother,” but I’m not really sure where it came from, Captain Beefheart or something. It was a real gonzo moment. It was so different and so nonthreatening to Sting’s material, but in fact, it became a standout track because it’s so bizarre and a lot of people really liked it. I can understand that it was ahead of its time. 

AVC: There’s a moment in the film where the three of you are being interviewed, and Sting bristles at a question about him writing most of the songs. He clearly felt the press was trying to drive a wedge between him and the rest of the band.

AS: I think it’s a lovely moment. Sting is very sweet in that. It’s one of my favorite moments of the film. It’s a great question for a band, because all bands go through this stuff. It’s very difficult. There are only so many power plays, rivalries. Seeing that moment in the film, I think it’s very sweet, because I don’t think he would have said anything like that after that, or has ever since. It was early days. I have affection for all of that. There were a lot of nice feelings. People like to always think about The Police like we were three guys who wanted to kill each other. It’s not really true. It was like three brothers, we were so bonded. We’re never going to get away from that, ultimately. You enter an incredible life experience together. You go through things like we went through as a band, and people started to split apart, become more like oil and water. But early on, you see the sweetness that was there. It was the three of us against the world, trying to establish ourselves, and that’s the experiment of a band. 

AVC: Good things came out of the three of you arguing with each other, at least sometimes.

AS: Oh, of course! My answer’s always that all of the best rock bands, or probably all bands, go through a certain amount of conflict. All bands. That’s the spark. You reach these tight places of compromise that ignite to the public. If you’re watching mellow guys on the stage, it doesn’t get anybody excited. If you’ve got three live wires fighting for that space, it gets across to the audience.

AVC: One thing that’s surprising about the film is that you definitely get the sense that the hatchets have been buried at this point. There are a lot of stories about the acrimony between you.

AS: Is the hatchet buried? Do we ever really want to poke it? I’m extending the metaphor, but you want to keep the edge out of it. When we did the ’07-’08 tour, we all had to come back together, but more grown-up, and say “We can do a great bit of business here.” We also really played our asses off. So it was amazing when we got back together. There are moments in the film where you can see that there’s definite tension, and it’s uncomfortable for me to watch. But it’s fun being in a band. We all survived it. Everyone’s speaking.

AVC: There’s a moment where you’re rehearsing in the studio, and Sting’s reminding you how to play your part. 

AS: Yeah, right. It’s like, “Hey, who wrote the fucking song? Me. Not you. Me. I wrote the song. Piss off.” [Laughs.] It’s typical band stuff. We chose to show that moment. It’s revealing, in a way. I mean, I can sit there and cringe, but obviously other people enjoy it and find it interesting.

AVC: There’s a scene from back in the day where you’re in the studio discussing how to record a song, and you’re all very articulate about what you want to do. A lot of times, musicians will just play things because they can’t talk about them in abstract terms. Obviously, the three of you can. 

AS: Every guy’s articulate and is going to clearly outline his position, although he’s still probably going to get shot down by the others. Somehow, forever toughing it out, great music was made. In actual fact, we were, “Let’s do this, let’s do that,” and then you go onstage and it all goes out the window anyway, and you play something else, because it’s much more in the moment. That’s the way it is. We go onstage and we’re going to play these 15 songs, but within those structures of the song, I change the way I play my part almost every night. I never play it the same way twice. It’s so much nuance and detail that really only comes out of years of playing. You do a formal arrangement and then it goes out the window. You go on the stage and we’re in the moment and it becomes something else.

“Omegaman” (from 1981’s Ghost In The Machine)

AVC: The hatchets may be buried, but one thing that’s not in the film is the story of “Omegaman,” which was your song. The label wanted that to be the first single, but Sting did not.

AS: “Omegaman” was a really strong piece. A&M wanted to put it out as the first single. But Sting, who was feeling his power at the time, was freaked out. He didn’t want it out. He refused. He got very upset, but A&M didn’t want to upset him for all the typical reasons, so it didn’t get put out. But that was A&M’s choice. Miles took it to an A&M convention and he played it, and they went, “This is totally the first single.” Which would have been great for me, but it didn’t happen. That’s the actual truth of it. At this point, who cares? [Laughs.]

AVC: It must have been hard to swallow at the time. 

AS: Well, I didn’t know that until much later. I wasn’t told that at the time. They probably didn’t want to upset me either. [Laughs.] I’m gonna get upset about it now.

AVC: Although they aren’t easy to play, Police songs have been covered hundreds of times. 

AS: Yeah. Hundreds of thousands. One thing that just occurred to me the other day is that Police music seems to still be played everywhere. I didn’t know I’d be walking in a clothing store or a restaurant in Sao Paolo… You don’t hear that with Led Zeppelin or, you know, name any band you like. But The Police seem to stay on the airwaves. Forever. It’s amazing. I mean, you don’t hear Deep Purple, you don’t hear Def Leppard. You hear The Police. Always. It goes on and on and on. Unbelievable. 

AVC: Are there other people’s versions of your songs that you particularly like?

AS: I heard something in Brazil, a really fucked-up Brazilian version of… I don’t remember which one it was. But we all went, “Ooh, look at this and that. Oh, that’s weird the way they did that.” I’ve heard a smooth-jazz version of… Fuck, which one was it? I hated it. Anyway. It goes on.

“I’ll Be Missing You,” Puff Daddy

AS: Yeah, that’s a big one. That was the major rip-off of all time. Stewart and I were not privy to that. I found out about it after it was on the radio. It was actually my kid, who was 10 at the time, said, “Hey dad, there’s some girl on the radio who’s playing you guys!” I went into his room and listened to his radio, and I was like, “This is me, what the fuck is this?” Anyway, it turned out to be Puff Daddy, a single that sold 30 million copies and all the rest of it. Major. The Police is being used a lot in rap. Loads of it. And I mean, it’s very flattering. I guess everybody likes it. You can work yourself up into a fury about “Why am I not getting paid for it?” The Puff Daddy one was weird for me, because, I mean, what do you use with the guitar riff? He actually sampled my guitar, and that’s what he based his whole track on. Stewart’s not on it. Sting’s not on it. I’d be walking round Tower Records, and the fucking thing would be playing over and over. It was very bizarre while it lasted.

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