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Walking On The Moon: The Story Of The Police - An Extract & Q&A
Wyndham Wallace , August 9th, 2010 09:20

An extract from Chris Campion's Walking On The Moon: The Untold Story Of The Police And The Rise Of New Wave Rock as well as an interview with the author. Photographs courtesy David Arnoff.

Given the nature of the majority of contemporary writing about music and musicians, Chris Campion’s Walking On The Moon: The Untold Story Of The Police And The Rise Of New Wave Rock is not only welcome but long overdue. While most music books are either little more than extensions of a publicity campaign designed to satisfy fans and extend a product’s brand, or kiss and tell exposés with an eye on tabloid coverage and exploitation, Campion’s attempt to unravel the truth about The Police in the wider cultural and political context of the times is exciting and enlightening. Despite their largely horrifying, bland pastiche of reggae, Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers became one of the most successful acts of the last decades, riding the crest of a capitalist wave as they ruthlessly sought global fame. Campion seeks to examine how they – and their astute manager Miles Copeland – succeeded where others failed, pulling no punches in a book that has angered fans of the band in the US. It’s a deeply satisfying read that sheds light on the emerging practises employed by record companies, managers and artists designed to keep acts visible and profitable, highlighting that The Police were groundbreaking in their manipulation of the media if not in their music.

In this exclusive extract, Campion tells the story of The Police’s first shows in India, Egypt and Japan. A Q&A with the author can be found beneath.

The Police seemed to be ubiquitous, in all places, at all times, and that was almost certainly the intention. Countries previously immune to the freedom march of rock ’n’ roll fell, one by one, to the wail of the Police. At least, that’s what they wanted you to believe. The band’s PR machine was so persuasive that in effect the Police became the biggest band in the world by default.

Just two albums into their career, they had already established a foothold in both the UK and the States. Now the Police prepared to embark on their most audacious endeavour yet, one by which, potentially, they would stand or fall: a world tour of countries that were largely virgin territories for Western rock acts. Initially, their itinerary would take them on their first trips to Japan and Australia, then they would detour through Thailand, China, India, and Egypt, before finishing the tour in Greece.

"The idea to play in these countries was originally mine," Andy Summers claimed in his memoir, although he failed to explain how or why he came up with it. And Miles Copeland would probably beg to differ; the scheme smacked of the lateral thinking through which he had accelerated the rise of the Police.

Up until that time, Western rock and pop acts rarely, if ever, ventured outside the prescribed and established routes for concert tours. Cliff Richard was one of the first Western stars to perform in the Soviet Union, playing twenty sold-out dates in Moscow and Leningrad in autumn 1976. He was followed three years later by Elton John. The Rolling Stones announced their 1975 "Tour of the Americas," which was to employ an elaborate theatrical stage show, with great fanfare by playing a gig on a flatbed truck down New York’s Fifth Avenue. The tour was meant to visit Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela, but those were quietly dropped from the schedule. Political and financial instability in the region was cited as the reason, along with concerns about the security of the band itself.

Rather than taking a huge production out on the road, the Police tour would adopt the same no-frills approach that had allowed them to tour America without the backing of record company support. Miles Copeland and Sting each had their own reasoning for why the Police’s brand of rock ’n’ roll deserved to be delivered to far-flung corners of the globe. Copeland saw Western music as a liberating force. "The thing you have to understand about Miles," explained Sting, "is that he has this very laissez-faire rightist attitude in which he sees rock ’n’ roll as bringing freedom to all these obscure places we’ve gone and played in."

Sting, on the other hand, just wanted market penetration for his songs. "As far as I’m concerned, though," he said, "the reason we’ve done them is because being a world-class group shouldn’t just be restricted to being big in the Western world—the popular conception of it. It should mean you’re a force everywhere."

Copeland denied that market forces were ever an impetus for their idiosyncratic take on a world tour: "The drive initially was ‘How do I make this group the most interesting group in the world?’ They gotta be doing the most interesting things in the world. They’ve got to be doing things like, ‘What the fuck? You played in Egypt! You were the first rock group ever to play India? What was that like?’ That’s a good hour on a radio show."

"We didn’t go to India to make money," he continued. "Or Egypt to make money. There’s no money to make there. Egypt’s not a market. Neither is India. They’re piracy markets. Why would we open up a market for pirates?"

In effect, the tour was routed and planned so that the grandstanding gigs in places like Bombay and Cairo—shows that would also be the hardest to pull off, logistically—could be played for free, with the band shouldering the cost from the proceeds of dates in Japan and Australia. Copeland also knew that any financial liability they incurred would be offset by the extraordinary amount of publicity the shows would garner.

"Here’s the other great reality of business," he offered. "The media needs something to write about. Every day, fucking Melody Maker or NME (or whatever the newspaper is) gets a photograph of a group. There they are in their spandex trousers, long hair with a guitar. Same fucking photograph I saw fifty times in the last three weeks. What makes them different?

"All of a sudden they get a picture of these three guys by the Taj Mahal in fucking India, all dressed up as Maharajahs, looking like they’re out of their fucking minds. What the fuck is that!? All of a sudden they listen to the music, they see these guys, it looks glamorous."

After servicing the press, they had so many photos left over that Copeland initiated a Police magazine in order to drip-feed new images to their fans every month. The Police File also served as the official organ for the band to relate their newfound adventures.

"What you’re dealing with here," asserted A&M artist relations man Bob Garcia, "is that taking the place of instant mass media exposure or satellite broadcast was the live appearance, or appearances."

In the absence of MTV, which would not begin broadcasting in the States for another eighteen months (in August 1981), or anything similar, they not only created their own media events but also created their own media. "Wisely or not," noted BBC Radio One DJ Annie Nightingale, "the Police film, photograph and record everything that happens to them."

Copeland had by this time begun to capture everything that happened to the Police on a portable tape recorder, preserving it for posterity. His brother Stewart had invested in a Super-8 camera that seemed to be permanently attached to his eye. But now Nightingale, an early supporter of the group, was surprised to find herself inadvertently foisted in front of a Police camera crew while attending an event as innocuous as an A&M presentation of discs commemorating gold record sales in December 1979. Two months later, she would travel with the band for several months—ostensibly to make a documentary for the BBC titled Police in the East—as they undertook their first world tour beyond the reaches of the traditional rock circuit.

In something of a coup, Miles Copeland managed to insert his own film crew into the project (namely, Derek and Kate Burbidge), rather than a BBC crew. The Burbidges worked in concert with Michael Appleton of the BBC (the producer of the Old Grey Whistle Test), who also joined the rest of the entourage in Japan for the first two-week stretch of the tour.

As well as the BBC show, the Burbidges were tasked with making a promotional film for "So Lonely," which A&M had hastily scheduled for a February 1980 re-release to cash in on the band’s popularity. Although not particularly happy at having singles from their debut album shilled out to the public—"It stinks," opined Stewart Copeland—the band had little choice in the matter and dutifully mimed along to the song, singing into walkie-talkies borrowed from their minders, while they paraded through trains and stations in the Tokyo subway.

Miles Copeland also commissioned the Burbidges to make another separate documentary film that covered the entirety of the world tour. The finished document, The Police: Around the World, was an efficient piece of propaganda, even if it played out more like a tourist video than a rock ’n’ roll tour film. Crafted to relay the message that the world was now at their feet, it opened with a crude graphic of a world map with Sting’s, Summers’s, and Copeland’s faces superimposed over each hemisphere.

The film was coolly edited to excise anything that might disrupt the image that the Police were anything but a harmonious, fun-loving bunch on a wild adventure around the world. In one brief sequence, though, there is a slight hint that this was not the case. Stewart Copeland is singing out of tune in a hotel room, in what (it becomes apparent) is meant to be an imitation of Summers’s guitar playing. "You’re panic-stricken every time you play it," Summers sneers in retaliation, tearing into Copeland for his inconsistent drumming. "You were fucking diabolical!"

"Don’t attack me!" Copeland whines defensively. But Summers isn’t finished. "Because I think you’re a wanker!" he snaps. Then the film quickly cuts away from the remainder of the altercation, providing neither context nor resolution, to show a Benny Hill-style skit involving Sting hailing a rickshaw on a Hong Kong street, then removing his shirt and hauling the cart himself.

On their days off in between shows, they mooned around like star-struck tourists in whatever country they were visiting, stacking up footage that could be used as set pieces and cutaways in the various films the Burbidges were working on. Summers was filmed engaging in a wrestling match at a sumo training school outside Tokyo. Clad in a sumo nappy, his scrawny thirty-eight-year-old body looking like that of a sickly and malnourished child, Summers clearly has no chance against his meaty opponent, who is at least double his size in both girth and height.

In their eagerness to talk up the adventures of the all-conquering Übermensch pop trio in alien lands, even the English music press reported on the titanic bout between Summers and the sumo wrestler. But the jocular tone of the introduction to the article that ran in Record Mirror did little to disguise its apparent xenophobia:

Picture that lean streak of Police meat Andy Summers. He of the bleached barnet and jarring guitar figures. Consider his angular attractiveness, accentuated by him standing amidst a beach-load of indigenous Nips. For indeed, Mr Summers is currently basking in the Land Of The Rising Sun and I can’t imagine any sallow- skinned Jap kicking sand in his face. Can you?

This kind of talk wasn’t limited to the reporter, though. In a quote contained within the same interview, Stewart Copeland revealed his own attitude toward his hosts to be equally unenlightened. "I’ve bought a million things here," he enthused about the consumerist frenzy inspired by his trip to Tokyo, "tape machines, clocks, accessories for movies, the lot. Everything’s so small and efficient. Just like the people. I guess that’s why they call them Nips. They never stop nipping about all over the place."

Sting, who was less prone to these types of gaffes than his drummer, chose to express his enthusiasm for Japanese culture in visual terms that were certainly more rarefied, if no less clichéd. He was photographed wearing a lily-white ceremonial kimono with billowing shoulder pieces and glaring defiantly into the camera, while holding a tanto (seppuku dagger) firmly to his gut—a pose no doubt inspired by the ritual suicide of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. But pop idols are not meant to feign suicide. The photos only ever appeared in a special edition of a popular Japanese music magazine, Music Life. The shoot was also filmed (for possible inclusion in the BBC documentary or as a cutaway in the video clip for "So Lonely"), but the footage was never made public. This was perhaps wise. Sting was still scaling the heights of teenybopper adulation, and his teenage girl fans would probably have been extremely distressed to see photos of him in the act of suicide, no matter how valiant and sexy he looked.

In Japan, gaggles of giggling girls followed the Police everywhere they went, snapping pictures and crowding around them with autograph books, forming welcoming committees when they stepped off the bullet train, and stalking the corridors of the hotels they stayed in. The band members travelled in a pack but weren’t hard to spot. Miles Copeland had outfitted them all with black bomber jackets emblazoned with "Police" on the back and mock police badges on the front.

Their entourage had now swelled to include the BBC camera crew and several burly-looking minders (provided by Japanese promoter Mr. Udo), who were instructed to shadow the band’s every move. Summers admitted to being a little unnerved at the militaristic efficiency with which they operated—and described the ever-present and infallibly cheerful Udo as an "Al Capone character"—but was nevertheless impressed that all of this muscle had been deployed on their behalf.

From Japan, they moved to Hong Kong and played in a tiny club called Today’s World Disco to a crowd of largely Anglo ex-pats. Sting, afflicted with a throat infection, was ordered to rest, forcing the cancellation of planned dates in Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand, the latter to be played in a Bangkok bar-cum-whorehouse called the Kit Kat Club. Instead, the Police moved back onto more familiar territory for their first tour of Australia, where they were already huge stars, having notched up a number-one album.

Although the publicity for the tour appeared to be slick and run with corporate efficiency, the logistics on the ground were a nightmare. As the booking agent, Ian Copeland had the unenviable job of organizing events in far-off countries that had neither the infrastructure nor the equipment to put on a show by a rock group, let alone one with the stature of the Police. But these obstacles did not always make themselves apparent until the group had already arrived in the country with one or two days at most before they played the show.

The Police found this out the hard way when they got to Egypt and all of their equipment was put into storage until after the weekend they were due to play. Summers claimed in his account that this was because the gear arrived after the office had closed for midday Friday prayer (which he describes as the "Arab Sabbath," exhibiting his irreverent grasp of Middle East affairs). Not to be outwitted by jobsworth officials (or even God), Miles Copeland called on one of his father’s old friends to help pull some strings—a man named Hassan Touhami, whom Ian Copeland described as the former bodyguard to President Nasser. Touhami was much more than that, though. He was an English-speaking member of the Mukhabarat (Egypt’s secret service) and the key contact between the Nasser regime and the CIA. Miles Copeland II, the Police manager’s father and a founding member of the CIA, described Touhami as "fanatically patriotic, intensely religious, impeccably honest." In 1952, Copeland II had arranged for Touhami to visit Washington to be schooled in CIA techniques. At a topless bar in Maryland, Touhami poured Coca-Cola over a "hostess" who tried to sit in his lap. And when one of his new CIA pals offered him money and suggested he have some fun, Copeland reported that Touhami put his gun to the case officer’s head and said, "With my diplomatic immunity I could plaster your brains against that far wall and wouldn’t get so much as a parking ticket."

Miles Copeland II brought his young family to Egypt in September 1952 (when Stewart was barely a couple of months old), just two months after the July 23 coup headed by Nasser. At that time, he was ostensibly working for Booz Allen Hamilton, a private management consulting firm with long-standing ties to the CIA that has been called the "shadow intelligence community." He was really there to advise the Nasser regime, having initiated the CIA project two years earlier that would parachute Nasser into power. Police manager Miles even remembered going over to Hassan Touhami’s house (which neighboured the Copeland residence) as a child and playing with Touhami’s guns while the adults talked.

When the Police came to play Egypt in March 1980, Touhami was deputy prime minister. He took a call from Miles Axe Copeland III, thinking that his old CIA buddy was on the line. (It’s quite possible the Police manager was even counting on this case of mistaken identity.) Copeland explained what had happened to their equipment, and Touhami kindly agreed to grease the wheels, even though smoothing the path for a pop group was probably the least of his problems at that precise moment. The Shah of Iran had been spirited into Egypt just three days earlier. Protests against his presence in the country had erupted outside Cairo University, where the exiled leader was about to undergo an operation to remove his spleen by Michael E. DeBakey, a top American cardiovascular surgeon, who had been flown in especially for that purpose.

In the middle of this political unrest, the (musical) Police arrived. They were playing at a university, too, but at the American University in Cairo, safely across the Nile from all of the turmoil. Caught up in their own little bubble and indifferent to the political chaos, the band members were filmed racing horses across the desert dressed like Lawrence of Arabia and larking about on camels in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza for the Burbidges’ camera.

"This is my brother Ian, who is our agent in New York," Stewart Copeland announced for the camera, pointing up at his older brother, who sat atop a camel swathed in a kaffiyeh (Arab headdress). "He’s our tame Arab. In fact, he’s more Arab than human."

"It’s all very well playing around on the camel," Ian Copeland responded, playing along with the gag, "but we’ve got lots of problems with this gig. The roadies are all refusing to carry the equipment."

Word of Touhami’s intervention had evidently not reached the roadies. There were other problems, too. The P.A. system that had been flown in from Greece for the show wasn’t powerful enough to push the sound out much farther than the first few rows of the auditorium. And of the six spotlights trained on the stage, only one had a working bulb. To top it all, the audience had already been let into the auditorium before the P.A. had even been set up. A sound check seemed out of the question. Sting’s guitar tech, Danny Quatrochi, was losing his mind. "I hope abortion is legal," he muttered to the camera, "because we’re about to witness one tonight."

As it happened, it was Sting who almost aborted the remainder of the tour by inadvertently telling the chief of police in Cairo to "fuck off " during the show. Seeing a man attempt to forcibly pull down an American kid who had climbed up onto his friend’s shoulders, while the band was playing, Sting verbally lashed out at the policeman (who was dressed in plain clothes) from the stage, then instructed the kids in the audience: "See him. Fill him in."

"Sting almost got arrested and put in jail in Egypt because he insulted the chief of police," admitted Miles Copeland. "A lot of fast talking on my part kept him out of jail." The fast talking he employed was as much to convince the front man not to inflame the situation further while Copeland mollified the top cop. Sting refused to apologize and instead stared the police chief down in the dressing room, then petulantly stormed out. "I had to eat the shit for him," Copeland recalled.

This is an extract from Walking on the Moon: the Untold Story of the Police and the Rise of New Wave Rock (Aurum) by Chris Campion. You can buy it here.

Wyndham Wallace talks to Chris Campion

Walking On The Moon is quite unorthodox for a music biography in that it takes a fairly harsh view of its subject at times. How did you come to write it?

Chris Campion: The Police had just announced their reunion tour and the opportunity arose to write a book about them. It wasn’t a subject I would have chosen myself. I didn’t really have much cause to think about the Police and when I did they just seemed to represent the antithesis of everything that interests and inspires me. But, once I’d committed myself, that also became the very reason to work on it. I set myself a challenge to see if I could write a book about a subject I had absolutely no interest in and find a path through it. I could have hacked out a bland biography that would have been a nice little earner. I chose to turn it into an opportunity to say something new about the band and the period.

So was the aim to write a book that wasn’t in thrall to its subject?

CC: Exactly, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many music books that aren’t. One advantage to that approach was that it helped give the writing some bite. Burchill and Parsons’ The Boy Looked At Johnny was an inspiration in that regard because it’s so smartly-written but also terrifically bitchy and always on point. But mainly I looked to Albert Goldman, who wrote two blockbuster biographies of Elvis and John Lennon in the ‘80s, and a less well-known one of Lenny Bruce. He’s sort of been overlooked, but those books were huge publishing events. Whatever you think of the books themselves—and, while criticised for their factual accuracy, they are incredibly entertaining —Goldman refused to make himself beholden in any way to either his subject or the music industry. He took a contrary position that allowed him to impart some uncomfortable truths. For that reason, the books (and Goldman himself) were mercilessly trashed by fellow biographers, rock critics and fans alike. But what Goldman did was explode the myth of John Lennon and made him human. I took the same approach with Walking On The Moon. The idea was to strip away the popular myth of how the Police became the biggest band in the world and expose the personalities behind it.

You’re also fairly dismissive about the impact of their music, but the Police have sold millions of records and their songs still get played on the radio 30 years on. They must have been doing something right.

CC: Yes and no. Commercial success has absolutely nothing to do with art and its relative merit and value. That’s the myth perpetuated by the music industry as it shifted into the business of selling personalities rather than music. And the media willingly play along. That obsession with image-making and celebrity is a horrible blight on creativity. A lot of the book is concerned with pulling away the curtain to see how that came to be.

The Police, who were extremely image conscious, seemed to be an ideal case study for that. They are generally accepted to be part of the canon of classic rock acts, and were, at the tail end of their career, among an echelon of artists that included Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. Yet, other than their own autobiographies, there has been almost nothing written about them that puts their success or their music in any sort of context. I thought that was a pretty odd state of affairs.

I was at school when the Police were at the height of their success. I’m part of the generation that missed out on punk and was too young to take in or appreciate post-punk, so the Police impacted on my consciousness far more than, say, Sex Pistols. My overriding memory of the Police from that time is through those pre-MTV promo clips they made for Top of the Pops, where they came across as serious and snotty but also frothy and fun. I used to think they were like the Monkees.

Looking back at those videos now, the jollity seems incredibly forced—probably because it was. You’re actually seeing the spikiness that occurs when incredibly competitive personalities are in close proximity. Reading back over a lot of their old press—and there’s a huge amount of it because the Police really embraced the media, probably more so than any other band of the time—they all come across as fantastically vain and self-important and not particularly likeable.

Certainly, the person who comes out of the book best seems to be their manager, Miles Copeland, despite being fairly unsavoury himself. Do you see him as the villain of the piece?

CC: I wouldn’t describe him as a villain at all. Rock managers are a breed unto themselves. They have to be pretty single-minded and amoral to do right by their clients and, in some cases, that can make them far more fascinating than the people they represent. That was definitely the case here. All the big ideas that drove the success of the Police came from Miles Copeland. It was his connections, business nous and internationalist approach that undoubtedly made it all happen for the band. He’s also a real character, probably the last of the great rock managers before the bean counters moved in.

The interesting thing about Miles Copeland is that he was a staunch conservative and a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher. His (and his brothers Ian and Stewart’s) father was a founding member of the CIA and a key player in clandestine politics around the Middle East. That family background and the political views he inherited heavily influenced his approach to the music business. Rock ‘n’ roll and the CIA would seem to be two things that are diametrically opposed, yet Copeland managed to move through the rock world and did so with great success. He also released records by groups like the Dead Kennedys, the Fall and the Cramps, who came from the opposite side of the spectrum to him politically—all of whom quickly fell out with him.

I was interested in exploring those contradictions and what that said about the Police. Initially, they had tried to pass themselves off as a punk band. That obviously didn’t wash with the U.K. music press, who thought they were a put-on. So Copeland took them to America, where he knew that not only would their Englishness make them a novelty but that they would experience far less resistance. And he was right. When the Police returned to the U.K., they got their first hit single the same week that Margaret Thatcher moved into Number 10. They were the first pop success of the Thatcherite era.

A lot of the book seems concerned with the social and political culture of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80s that the Police emerged from and operated within.

CC: Yeah, it’s about what happened to music during the Thatcher and Reagan years, but seen through the eyes of a group that benefited from what was going on in the culture rather than fought against it. I thought that was a far more interesting line to take and one that ends up telling you a lot more about the culture of the time.

The obvious way to explore the ‘80s is through its musical subcultures, be it post-punk, no wave, hardcore, or any of the other genres that sprang up in reaction to the mainstream. That approach trades on a cosy nostalgia that papers over the egregious aspects of the era. Instead, I wanted to put myself in an uncomfortable position — looking at the culture from the inside as someone who feels outside of it — which allowed me to take a more distanced and critical view.

The book also examines new wave, the pre-eminent genre of the time, which the Police became a figurehead for by default through their association with Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. Records, the pre-eminent label for new wave acts. New wave is an exceedingly odd genre. It’s not cut-and-dried like punk or post-punk, but quite amorphous and schizophrenic. It encompassed everything from DEVO to Kajagoogoo—from the most radical pop music of the day to the most banal. In that respect, it represents the extremes of the ‘80s quite well.

The music industry backed new wave and its various offshoots to the hilt as a way of harnessing all the energy that had come out of punk without having to deal with all the bothersome social and political stuff. And, because it was largely stripped of content, new wave ended up having a huge impact around the world—initially, and strangely, much more so than punk—especially behind the Iron Curtain, and in countries like China and Argentina, where kids keyed in to the apolitical aspect of the music as a means to rebel and express themselves against the diktat of the authorities. That link to Cold War politics ties back quite neatly into Miles Copeland and his idea about using the Police to fly the flag for Western democracy .

Are there any bands around today who you think are comparable to the Police?

CC: The Police, and Sting in particular, bought into their own myth. That translated into this aggressive selling of music that was not aggressive at all, but quite anodyne and compliant. That arrogance and sense of entitlement is all too common now. The music world is drowning in acts whose ambition and ego far outstrip their talent and ideas. Acts who believe their own hype and are shameless in celebrating their mediocrity. Take your pick.