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The Police's Andy Summers: "The way I was casting myself was like a sonic experimenter – I was leading the way and everybody was copying me"

Andy Summers
(Image credit: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage for The Recording Academy)

During the hot summer months of 1977, the Police were not unlike any other unknown rock band in the world. The three members – bassist-singer Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland, and their newest member, guitarist Andy Summers – all of them flat broke, would rally their spirits by sharing dreams of stardom. 

“We’d sit around and say, ‘One day, we’ll be as big as the Beatles,’” Summers recalls. “Every band says it. Of course, no band could ever be like the Beatles – they were a phenomenon that will never be repeated – but that’s always the high mark musicians shoot for. But how on Earth do you get there? We didn’t have a clue.” He laughs. 

“We had a few things going for ourselves, I suppose: we were these nice-looking guys, and we had this uniform look with the blond hair and all that. There was a freshness to it. But in the end, it really came down to the songs. That’s what carried us over the line.”

By 1981, the world was at the Police’s feet. Their first three albums – 1978’s Outlandos d'Amour, 1979’s Regatta de Blanc and 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta – were knockout smashes. 

Audiences and critics alike thrilled to the band’s artful blend of reggae rhythms and bracing punk-rock energy, all of it delivered with the kind of daring, virtuosic musicianship that most new wavers couldn’t come close to. And indeed, there were the songs: Roxanne, So Lonely, Can’t Stand Losing You, Message in a Bottle, Walking on the Moon, The Bed’s Too Big Without You, Don’t Stand So Close to Me, Driven to Tears, De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da – each one a masterclass in pop craftsmanship that ran up the charts. 

The same band that called themselves the Police at a time when they couldn’t get arrested was now reaping untold rewards, moving millions of units and playing sold-out dates at arenas across the globe.

“In many ways, it’s the classic story,” Summers says. “We went from having absolutely nothing – when we started out we had to push our van around because we couldn’t afford the petrol in London – to world prominence. 

“We had limousines, five-star hotels and private chefs. To the extent that it all happened, and how quickly it took place, we were kind of shocked by it all. The whole thing was unbelievable, and I supposed it warped our senses of reality.”

With their success, ultimately, came something new that the band members hadn’t figured on: pressure. Each new triumph came loaded with the unenviable (but no less inevitable) proposition of either blowing it or topping it, and the band felt this burden both internally and externally. 

“For a time, it seemed bigger than even the three of us,” Summers remembers. “It was as if the whole of the music industry was relying on the three of us to support it. We’d come out of a very depressing time in the UK, and we got people back into stores. It was like the lights got turned on and people were buying records again. So while everybody was behind us, they were also putting pressure on us.” He laughs and adds, “On the other hand, we were completely into it. It was fun to be in that position.”

For their next move, the Police responded in a manner that was unorthodox, risky and almost diabolical. Their fourth album, Ghost in the Machine, would be a darker work than its predecessors, more complex and less obvious. It would also mark the band’s first time working with co-producer Hugh Padgham (famous for his gated drum sounds on records by Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins), who insisted on recording the band members in separate rooms, a stark change in how they normally tracked basics. 

Perhaps unwittingly, such isolation extended to many of the themes and topics Sting was exploring in his lyrics, drawing inspiration from Arthur Koestler's 1967 book, The Ghost in the Machine, which delved into alienation, mind-body constructs, and the nature of individual and collective relationships.

With the exception of the undeniable radio hit, Every Little Thing She Does is Magic (which Sting had written back in 1976), the record was devoid of easy singalong ear candy, and for the most part, the band dispensed with the reggae pulses that had formed the bedrock of their signature sound in favor of fierce, almost chaotic jazz-rock vamps.

Gone, too, was the sparse, crisp, power-trio wallop that drew heavily on Summers’ inventive use of chorus and echo pedals. Many of the new songs were denser and harder-edged, such as the hypnotic set opener, Spirits in the Material World, and the haunting vision of war-torn Belfast, Invisible Sun, with much of the sound built around Sting’s growing fascination with synthesizers (and some tracks featured, much to Summers’ dismay, the band’s frontman playing alto sax). 

“There was a lot of experimentation, but artistically, we had to do what we did,” Summers says. “What we were trying to avoid, especially at the level we were at, was just blatant repetition. ‘Why don't you make another hit like the last one?’ This is the typical record company mentality, but there was a bit more going on with the three of us than that.”

Ghost in the Machine could have been a mad gambit that sank like a rock, but upon its release in the fall of 1981, the album shot to the top of the UK albums chart and hit number two in America (where it ultimately sold over three million copies).

Overall, the reviews were positive (Rolling Stone raved, “The Police display more commitment, more real anger, on Ghost in the Machine than ever before”), but some journalists were less kind, like the Sydney Morning Herald, which wrote, “The Police have turned out a disappointment. Ghost in The Machine is occasionally promising but more so a sad reminder that some bands have only a limited lifespan before they flounder without sharp musical direction.” 

“There were a few bad reviews, but that’s par for the course,” Summers says. It's the same tabloid mentality that makes you want to scream. And all you can say to those fuckers is, ‘Well, I bet you wished you were me. I bet you wish you were making this kind of money, and I bet you'd like to be a success.’ Meanwhile, we just went on being gold men and selling out concerts all over the world. We had the last laugh.”

As opposed to the first few albums, which were made very quickly, you guys spent six weeks recording Ghost in the Machine

“Which felt like a luxury to us. For Ghost in the Machine, we said what every band says when they’ve reached a certain position: 'Oh, let’s go make a record in the Caribbean.' If you’ve got money and the projected record sales you’d like to achieve, you could do that sort of thing. 

Hugh was hired as a producer, but he wasn't really. It was the Police. We were all on the desk, moving faders around and all that

“At that point, A&M and our manager were realizing, 'God, this is going so well. We want to sell millions of records, so the record’s got to be great. Give them some more time. We’ll put them in AIR Studios in Montserrat.' So that’s where we went.”

Hugh Padgham came on board as producer. Were you all in agreement on working with him?

“Well, the truth of the Police in the studio is that we were the producers. Hugh was hired as a producer, but he wasn't really. It was the Police. We were all on the desk, moving faders around and all that. 

“He was OK, a very competent recording engineer. But I mean, the three of us – it was a very tight setup that no one could get inside of. Hugh was sort of on the outside, trying to be at the desk while we put our stuff down. We weren't looking at him for advice. It was a much more organic between the three of us.”

Were songs fully demoed before recording, or did any of them take shape from jamming in the studio?

“A lot of it came out of jamming. Sting would usually bring in fairly spare demos. He had an idea, but the real thing was when we all played it together and would change everything. Obviously, Sting couldn't play drums like Stewart, and he couldn't play guitar like me, so that's where it got real. 

“Yes, Sting is a really good songwriter, but what you got was the sound, the three of us, which was a one-off. I don't think it's ever been repeated. It's a unique chemistry.”

On the subject of jamming, you guys sound like you’re having a good time on songs like Too Much Information, Demolition Man and Hungry for You.

To me, the sound of the Police is the guitar trio. We sort of had to put up with the new and elaborate instrumentation for Ghost in the Machine

“Oh, yeah. We could really play. I mean, most of our soundchecks were just jams. Same with the shows. The sound man would sort it out. But as we went on and became so fantastically popular, we were locked into this cage, if you like, fortunately, of having all these hit songs. We would be duty-bound to play them every night. We always had a set of about 12 to 15 songs, but we were very loose in our playing and improvising. I never played songs the same way twice.”

Despite the jamming, a lot of the album veered away from the tight power trio attack of your first albums. The instrumentation got more elaborate. Did you lobby against that at all?

“Yeah, I probably did. I probably hated it. Sting suddenly decided to play alto sax, and he kept squawking around everything. It wasn't something I liked. Because to me, the sound of the Police is the guitar trio. We sort of had to put up with it; it’s another way of doing something different on the full album, I suppose. I don't think it added much to us.”

You had already used the Roland GR-300 guitar synth on Don’t Stand So Close to Me, and on Ghost in the Machine you played it on Secret Journey.

“Yes, the Roland guitar synth at that time was brand new, and it was a very hot item to have. I still have it, actually. It's sweet now, because it’s sort of an antique. Stewart always used to take the piss out of me for playing it, because it could only make one sound, really. It was effective on Don't Stand So Close to Me. I played it in the chorus; it got this big wave of sound, which was not like a standard guitar solo, but it was a kind of a fresh sound at the time.

“With Secret Journey, I think the lyric was out of a book Meetings with Remarkable Men by [G.I.] Gurdjieff. It’s sort of semi-mystical, these sages he was meeting around the Middle East and the Himalayas and all that. Sting and I both picked up on this Tibetan Himalayan vibe, and the Roland synth seemed to be the collective of a travel soundtrack for that. It was effective. I always liked that song, although we barely played it live.”

For me, solos were always completely improvised, not worked out… All your thousands of hours of playing go into that one-minute solo

There’s a lot of great guitar parts in the song. You have volume swells in the intro, which lead into a mysterious riff, and underneath it you play echo-drenched chords. Did you experiment a lot to work it all out?

“Well, yeah. No one was telling me how to do that. It was all down to me. And I felt at the time that I was considered to be pretty innovative with the guitar sounds and all that. Sting started to emerge as songwriter, and my thing became sonic.

“I had sort of a simple instruction to myself: 'All right, you're on stage for at least an hour and a half. You can't just play one sound through one amp.' I could have, of course, but I didn't do that. My thing was to open it up. 

“I started using a sort of automatic wah-wah and phasing chorus, different Echoplex settings. I worked all this out, and I was very into it. The way I was casting myself was like a sonic experimenter. I was kind of leading the way, and everybody was copying me at that point.”

Invisible Sun features two knockout guitar solos. Were they first passes, or did you work them out beforehand?

“No. I'm an improviser. It’s interesting: I was just reading an interview with Steve Howe in Guitar Player, and it caught my attention when he talked about how he would work out his solos. They're weren’t improvised; they were written out. And I thought, 'God, it's the opposite of what I do.' 

“I started listening to Wes Montgomery when I was, like, 13. I grew up in the era of slowing down vinyl records, copying solos for hours on end, note for note. But I was more into jazz improvising. For me, solos were always completely improvised, not worked out. I mean, on a simplistic level, you go, 'What are the chords?' And I know what the scales are – 'OK, I’ve got it.' After that it’s, 'OK, let me start playing.' And then all your thousands of hours of playing go into that one-minute solo.”

Your solo in Omegaman is pretty gonzo, and the opening bars feature a psychotic-sounding doubled riff.

“That song should have been the first single. Yeah, again, I wouldn't have given it days of thought. This is why you spend your life practicing and being a musician and learning how to do things, until it's all very instinctive. I have to go listen to it. But I did recently see a video of this young girl playing the whole thing. She’s a cute girl – a teenager, probably – and she’s sitting there with a guitar miming all of Omegaman. It’s very sweet.”

One has to work a bit to pick out your guitar parts in Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.

“That was an odd situation. Sting had the song, and in an early version it was almost like a Burt Bacharach song. It had the hooks and everything and was an obvious hit song, but it was the sort of thing we never would have played in the early days. We got to a point with the song where it was like, 'We don't know if we can do this.' 

“What Sting had done, prior to Stewart and I playing on it, was he'd written to this keyboard player in Montreal and had somehow worked the song out. When we first heard it, it had like 12 people involved. We pretty much took them all out, got rid of the keyboard player and then had to play it.”

Are you playing arpeggios on the track?

“Am I playing an arpeggio? Because I've played it a lot in concert, particularly in Brazil, where I play with a band. And I've got a whole kind of clipped arpeggio thing that I do, but I don't think it's on the record. I started doing that on the Police reunion tour, and I've done it ever since.”

What were your main guitars on the album? Of course, you used your main ‘63 Telecaster.

“I had the Telecaster, and I think I had a Les Paul Goldtop. I had a Gibson ES-335. Oh, and I think I had my 1958 Gibson ES-175, which I've still got.”

You were also using your ’61 Strat, too. Right?

“Yep, the red Strat. That was always with me. I started playing the Strat more than the Tele, which some people didn't like. But I’ve come back to the Telecaster. Back in 2007, Fender made the replica of my Telecaster, which is exact to the original. I mean, you can’t tell the two apart. I jam with my son, who's a drummer, every day, and I’m really enjoying playing the replica.”

Do you recall which amps you used in the studio?

“I don't I think I would've had Marshalls. I probably had a Twin Reverb and some pedals. I think I had a Pete Cornish board.”

You and Stewart each had one solo composition on the album – you with Omegaman, him with Darkness. Were others presented that didn't get used?

“Yeah, I had another one called Love is the Strangest Way, which I wanted to do. It was very Police-like. I had some very good songs. But anyway, talking about internal politics… I don't know how far you want to go down that route.”

I had absolutely no feeling of being strapped down by the recorded versions, and we made them work as a trio live

Now that you mention it, the Police history is rife with tension and infighting at times. Were things bad during Ghost in the Machine?

“Was it this record, or was it the next record? I did put it in my book. It might have been during Synchronicity. I left the studio and walked all the way across the valley, in blasting sort of noon heat, to George Martin's house, and he was there. He was the owner of AIR Studios. I sat down with him, had a cup of tea and asked him if he would come and produce the record with us.

“He had a very nice way of talking to me, and he said, 'I think you can sort it out. Why don't you go back?' And I did. I walked all the way back, and that just seemed to break the ice. We were incredibly polite with one another after that, and it all went on in a nice way. We got it down.”

Even though the songs were extravagantly produced, the three of you transferred them to the stage pretty seamlessly.

“We did. I certainly felt like, 'OK, that's the album. We have to make it work for us live.' I had absolutely no feeling of being strapped down by the recorded versions, and we made them work as a trio live.”

You did, however, bring a horn section out with you for that tour.

“On that tour, yeah. That lasted one tour, and then we abandoned that idea. I never liked it. They were good players, and they did their little bit of trying to reproduce Sting's alto saxophone.”

Soon after Ghost in the Machine, you and Robert Fripp recorded I Advance Masked together. For you, was that sort of a palate cleanser in a way?

“Yes, that’s one way to describe it. I felt that my musical chops were a lot broader than that which was being done in the Police, frankly. And that's not putting down the band at all; that's just to say there's a lot of other stuff I could play. 

“I wanted some sort of outlet. Robert Fripp and I grew up in the same town, so we knew each other since we were teenagers. I really liked this record he’d done with the Roaches. There was one on it called Hammond Song, and it had a great guitar solo. I thought, 'I didn't know Fripp could play like that.' So I contacted him and said, 'Why don't we try and see if we can do a record together?' Which we did. It was really interesting.”

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.