Revisiting the music of the British/American band the Police, the distinctive singing voice and melodic gifts of bass player and primary songwriter Sting (the former Gordon Sumner) were only one-third of the equation. Equally as key were drummer Stewart Copeland’s razor-sharp rhythms, his quick punch and the sense of controlled tumble he brought to the band’s early, reggae-inspired rock ‘n’ roll.
Guitarist Andy Summers, however, provided the secret sauce. His intricate and spikey chord-work, inspired by years of playing jazz and rhythm ‘n’ blues and drenched in post-modern echo, lent urgency and otherworldliness to songs like “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon,” “Don’t Stand so Close to Me” and “Spirits in the Material World.”
Chemistry, then, made the Police what they were. Not that every little thing they did was magic, but they sold more than 80 million records before their acrimonious breakup in 1986.
Summers, who left England years ago to make his home in California, brings his solo tour to the Capitol Theatre Dec. 10.
He’s recorded a dozen ambitious solo albums (including The Music of Thelonious Monk and two collaborations with Kim Crimson’s Robert Fripp), and photography is his second love. He has published five books of his work.
The cross-country tour that brings Summers to Clearwater finds him alone onstage, in front of curated images from his books projected in High Definition. He’ll chat about them and take the audience behind the scenes of an illustrious career.
Summers’ other project is a trio in Brazil, where he’s been working (and performing) for a quarter-century (he calls it “my second place to play”). A band he formed with bass player and vocalist Rodrigo Santos, and drummer Joao Barone, has begun playing full sets of Police music. To great acclaim.
Call the Police, as the group is known, is strictly Brazilian, for the moment. Will Summers take it on the road? “I think about it, but it’s dodgy,” he admits. “I’d hate to come to the States and get ‘Aw, it’s not the real Police.’
“And I would never take it to England, because they would just kill me for having the audacity to do it. No matter how good the music is.”
St. Pete Catalyst: Where did photography come into it for you? In your story arc?
Andy Summers: I started seriously – like, a formal decision – very early days in New York with the Police. It was obvious we were going to be working all the time for what looked like endless years ahead. I needed something to do on the road.
I was partly inspired by all these girl photographers in New York. Everybody was photographing us, all the time, so I saw all this gear, these Nikons and these Canons and these black camera bags, all this stuff and they were so into it. So somewhere in there I got to be friends with one of them, and I said ‘I want to buy a really good camera. I think I’ll have a go at this.’ It was just like that. And then I bought a Nikon FE and I started photographing. It quickly became kind of a passion, if you like, something I sort of couldn’t put down.
But I think the background to that was when I was a kid, 14, 15, 16, 17, I was always at a place in my hometown called the Continental Cinema. I saw all these incredible European arthouse films, Truffaut, Fellini and so forth, and I think that’s the real seed because at the time I was so inspired by those films, and I thought I wanted to be a film director. But I had no idea how to go about it! But that impulse was there.
Because you were working so hard in those days, with the focus always on the three of you, do you think that looking outside yourself – through a camera lens – was sort of a release valve?
Well, you could interpret it that way. I mean, I had a lot of hours when we weren’t being onstage. There you are, out in the world … you get one and a half hours onstage, and the rest is down time. So what are you gonna do with yourself? Read, watch TV, go for a walk, blah blah blah. It’s the same for any band.
So it’s ‘leave the hotel, let’s explore downtown Cincinnati – what looks interesting here’?
It was like that, and I think I got a lot more out of the travel that way. Because I was really looking, seeing and observing, and I would push myself to go to odd parts of town, or whatever you want to call it, just to see if I could find something interesting photography-wise. It was a great counterpoint to the life we were leading.
In this show, you’re playing solo guitar to images of your photographs?
Exactly that. I don’t know why I didn’t do this years ago. Actually, I did about 11 shows pre-pandemic, and then the bloody Covid shut us down, which was sad. Where I am now with it is more sophisticated, but it’s essentially the same: We have a big cinema-sized screen, and I worked out all these sequences of photography that I’ve taken over the years. And I play specific music to each sequence – there’s solo guitar, some guitar with backing tracks, I tell stories and so on and so forth. And it’s always a sort of work in progress, if you like.
I want to step back I time a little. Getting used to being so massively famous, in the late 1970s and mid ‘80s, in a relatively short amount of time – what sort of a learning curve was that for you? ‘People are going to start just giving us things.’
In my case, I think it was completely natural! I thought ‘This is how it should always have been – why wasn’t it always like this?’ [laughing] I didn’t go ‘Oh, I gotta get used to this.’ I thought ‘This is what I naturally deserve.’ Of course I’m kidding.
Well, I didn’t freak out and go ‘This ought to be over in two weeks, thank God.’ The whole thing suited me, and it suited all of us. We all enjoyed it, actually.
The arc of the Police as a band was always interesting to me. The early, reggae-inspired stuff evolved into sophisticated music like Ghost in the Machine. I could hear you changing, and growing, where a lot of those guys from that era just kept doing the same thing until they petered out.
I think we got better at our own music. And we got better at being the Police. In the earliest days, other people recognized our thing, if you like, before we did. And then we realized we had a thing, that was the way we played – we could adapt almost any piece of material to our style. It became a thing, an objectified style. Which came from a lot of different influences. Once we actually understood it ourselves, we stayed with it.
Sting’s star ascended past you and Stewart. Did it get really dicey on a personal level, over time?
It was the typical band, three mates, we were all struggling together. None of us had any money. Even with the band, we were hanging by a thread at the beginning. But we sort of got through. And then people started to cotton onto us, and ‘Oh, wait a minute – these guys!’ And then it started to be a thing; it went from being like nothing to exploding. Until we were like the hottest band in the world and everybody wanted us.
Yeah, with it comes difficulties. And when you get as ultra-famous as we did – y’know, it’s such a big deal – the personal relationships get strained. It’s very difficult.
We weren’t three natural partners, I don’t think. We had a certain kind of chemistry that worked musically but … I think we were so massive that by the time we got to the fourth album there was a strain there. And by the time we got to the fifth album (Synchronicity), I think Sting didn’t want to be in the band any more. He wanted out.
It’s the typical boring line that happens with every band. It’s usually the lead singer wants to get out. It’s just one of those things. It’s a cliché.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young never worked together unless Neil made the first call. The other three all told me that. That dynamic shift has got to suck.
In the ideal world, you’d all be mates like when you first started out. But it’s a lot of pressure, you know? It’s like Orwell wrote in Animal Farm: Some people are more equal than others. You can always laugh about it, especially when you’ve got to the other end. And Crosby, Stills and Nash are a prime example. And the Police, almost every band.
The Police reunion tour of 2007-08 was a massive success, taking in $360 million at the box office. Coming back together after all that time, what was that like?
It was all right, you know, because it was cooler. We weren’t all in a position where we were starving to make it, and ‘I want to be more famous than you.’ It wasn’t like that. It was like ‘We’re here to do a job. We’re gonna make a lot of money. Everybody’s gonna be really happy. All we have to do is get out there and play the songs very well.’ Which we did. Without getting all f—ked up about ‘I have to have my own limo.’ We didn’t do it like that; cooler heads prevailed. We knew why we were there and it made everybody happy.
There were some problems at the beginning, but once we got past that and got out there, every night was a storming success. We went on and did the work. As it were.
Find tickets for the Dec. 10 Capitol Theatre performance here.