HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

The Police

Sun, 14th April 2013

Like being clubbed to death by an English lecturer wielding a rhyming dictionary.”

When you have spent the official price of $220 per ticket to see the band that soundtracked your youth, is there any other option but to enjoy yourself? Seemingly not. Twenty-two years after The Police dissolved in a mire of acrimony, their first date of this mammoth reunion tour had all but a handful of the 20,000 fans at this ice hockey stadium standing from the very beginning. Were those fans so inclined – say, during the more protracted instrumental sections of Walking In Your Footsteps – they could done the maths on a 21-song set and worked out that they had spent over $10 a song. But then, perhaps it’s crass to put a price tag on an unforgettable evening. It may be a material world, but as one of the evening’s more familiar songs served to remind us, we are spirits in it.

Besides, if you wanted to be crude about it, some songs performed well for the money. With the three huge screens over the stage yet to flicker into life, the jukebox-precise accuracy with which they played Message In A Bottle ferried you straight back to 1979. There was some narrative sense in playing the song ahead of everything else. Five months before the song’s original release, The Police played the nearby Commodore Ballroom only to be booed off stage. Sting must have derived some poetic gratification, then, from having his hundred million bottles returned with such vocal gusto.

At times, the creative tensions which characterised The Police’s nine years together worked to their advantage. Stewart Copeland’s syncopations and fills ensured that Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic stopped short of sounding banal. And as he busied himself, the 56 year-old former schoolteacher out front proceeded to do that baffling thing that he spent so much of The Police’s first incarnation doing – stepping out to the front of the stage and getting the audience to join in with his famous “aaay-o” reggae yodel.

Other songs were harder to join in with on account of the fact that The Police seemed to have forgotten how to play them. Twenty one years ago, the original recording Don’t Stand So Close To Me – in which the former schoolteacher famously rhymed Nabokov with “shake and cough” – troubled the singer so much that The Police re-recorded it as a farewell single. Tonight, that dodgy couplet was the least of its problems. Sounding not so much of off-key as avant-garde, the band seemed so embarrassed by what they had done to it that they steamed straight into the furrow-browed conscience rock of Driven To Tears, to no greater avail.

It was a slough that highlighted a problem unique to a group of The Police’s stature. With virtually no bands in their wake citing their five albums as an influence, they remain a group remembered for the quality of their singles. But good as those singles were, there simply weren’t enough to fill a two hour show. Perhaps by way of compensation, the tanned, muscular frontman mounted the drum riser for When The World Is Running Down and wiggled a pair of buttocks that could crack a walnut with a mere twitch. While thousands of Canadian women sighed contentedly, countless Canadian men in freshly-starched polo shirts nodded sagely to Andy Summers’ bluesy soloing.

With a good tune at their disposal though, you could forgive The Police anything. In the cold light of day, 1983’s Wrapped Around You Finger is wont to make you feel a little like you’re being clubbed to death by an English lecturer wielding a rhyming dictionary. But tonight, it was an unexpected triumph. As a hydraulic podium lifted Copeland to his own little percussion grotto, it served to remind you how peculiarly gloomy many of The Police’s big hits were. Paradoxically, the “feel-good” climax to the show saw several of their darkest songs played in quick succession.

For the duration of Invisible Sun, the sight of Sting in a sleeveless white top gave way to even more distressing scenes. Now that the song had helped solve the troubles in Northern Ireland, monochrome footage of life in Middle East war zones accentuated the febrile, sluggish manner in which they played it. Such is the yearning magic of Roxanne that not even Sting’s determination to set off yet another round of reggae yodelling diminished its magnificence. It was, of course, this song that Alex Turner referenced in Arctic Monkeys’ When The Sun Goes Down.

The uncool truth is that, at their early best, Sting’s songs had enough poetry in their soul and enough soul in their poetry to stand alongside the new vanguard of pop wordsmiths. As a solo artist though, he has struggled to find musicians willing to square up to him and his loftier conceits. In The Police – a band made and broken by musical differences – that was never an issue. Departing the stage after a rapturously received Every Breath You Take, there followed an unprecedented bout of group hugs. One night down; 71 to go. Better keep some hugs in reserve.