It is difficult to believe now that
the debut album of The Police,
released 40 years ago this week, was an outrageous double-bet at the time.
Firstly because Stewart Copeland’s brother, Miles, lent the band 1,500 pounds (approx 8,200 pounds in today’s currency) to allow them to record music he didn’t actually like, and promised a further 2,000 pounds to the studio, apparently on the basis of brotherly love.
And secondly because while The Police’s debut album had punk elements in it, it was also tinged with reggae and mellow, even romantic, songs.
In fact many at the time argued strongly that the punk sound was nothing more than a shallow attempt at manipulation; many from the punk fraternity hated the band. As one critic wrote: “For all its surface threat, there’s no danger in this music, none of the spontaneity or passion that punk (and reggae) demands… The lack of emotional commitment becomes truly offensive in the minstrel-show Natty Dread accent that Sting puts on for the reggae numbers.” In attempting to navigate a ‘middle way’ between two genres, the band seriously risked alienating fans of both punk and reggae music.
However, as just about everyone now knows, several singles from the album became huge classics, and in 2013 Rolling Stone put the album at number 38 on its list of best debuts of all time. Sting, on bass guitar and vocals, went on to become a superstar. On the other hand, Police’s enormously talented rhythm section, comprising Andy Summers on guitar and Stewart Copeland on drums, also became music legends. Miles, it might be presumed, had no reason to regret his early generosity…
Miles Copeland, in fact, played an even more important role in The Police’s early success. While it is true that both the album and, in particular, the track Roxanne failed to make an initial impact on the charts, it was he who first saw the potential. The band were initially a bit embarrassed by Roxanne because it was slow and didn’t really fit in with the rest of their material. Miles however immediately thought it was outstanding and, incredibly, within 24 hours of hearing it had managed to secure a record deal.
Since then the reggae/tango song about a prostitute, with its impossibly catchy refrain “Roxanne…you don’t have to put on the red light”, has been hummed uncountable times all over the world. The mix of Sting’s strong bassline, on what appears to be a Fender Precision, and Summer’s sparse, skanky, guitar chords, with use of an Echoplex, gave the band a huge international hit.
Can't Stand Losing You, about young suicide, was the second single to be released from the album and caused controversy because the cover showed Stewart with a noose around his neck. But in June 1979 it made number 2 in the UK charts. The Police followed this up with another reggae-tinged track, So Lonely, the album’s longest song, which reached No. 6 in the UK charts.
Some argue that the remaining tracks on the album are much weaker but they are, at the very least, experimental. Next To You contains a lovely guitar slide solo by Summers; Hole in My Life is complex instrumentally; Peanuts, Born in the 50s and Truth Hits Everybody showcase driving punk rhythms; and Be My Girl-Sally contains possibly the world’s first love song to a blow-up doll. The album closer, exotic groover Masoko Tanga, also signals a valient change in mood and direction.
In sum, Outlandos d’Amour bravely crossed musical genres and took risks at a time when punk was in the ascendancy; it is full of energy and ideas. Very few bands produce an album of this variety and richness, and to do it on a debut is, of course, something extra special. As Sting later said of the album’s recording: “We were insane in our optimism, and we were never happier."