Coloring songs

By Sergio Ariza

Andrew James Summers was born on the last day of 1942, the same year Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix were also born. But Summers wouldn’t become famous with his contemporary mates, he would do that 15 years after ‘Beatlemania’, at the breaking dawn of punk. However, before getting there, his strange road to success went through the same as many of his professional mates, beginning in R&B, on to psychedelia, and then progressive rock, with a lot more in common with Eric Clapton than with Johnny Rotten...    

Summer’s first love of music was the very opposite of “do it yourself, at 12 years of age jazz became his religion, and after saving enough money, at 16 he bought  his first great guitar, a Gibson ES-175, after having had a Voss, a Rogers, and a Hofner Senator. Shortly after, it was stolen in a park and Andy went back to London to buy an ES-335, the very guitar of one of his jazz heroes of the moment, Grant Green. He started playing solo gigs around Bournemouth and later formed part of a quintet.    

In 1963 he met Zoot Money, a singer with Italian roots who reveals his passion for R&B to him, and becomes part of his band Big Roll Band. Before long Money gets a call from London asking him to join Alexis Korner's band. Summers doesn’t hesitate in packing his bags and goes off with him. After arriving they get the Big Roll Band back together and in ‘64 they became a fixture at the Flamingo Club in Soho London. Suddenly they became part of the Swingin’ London scene and Summers started rubbing elbows with members of the most well-known, the Animals, the Yardbirdsso not surprisingly he makes friends with the guitarists  and becomes a good friend of Eric Clapton. In 1966 they have the closest thing to a hit with Big Time Operator, but Summers was restless, seeing that the scene was shifting. Meanwhile Clapton was forming a new group and they had just stolen his legendary Les Paul used with the Bluesbreakers, Summers had bought himself one and Eric insisted he sell it to him. As money was a bit tight, he bent to Eric’s wishes and sold his beloved Standard for £200. It was the same guitar Clapton used on Fresh Cream. Not long after the Animals bassman invited him to a club to see an American guitarist he had just brought to London. That is how Summers was one of the first to see Jimi Hendrix performance. He was impressed, and as their girlfriends became friends, he had the privilege to play with the new ‘messiah’.    

It was 1967 and the world smelled of incense, good vibrations and purple haze, Summers saw it clearly and convinced good old Zoot to groove to the new music of the moment baby, psychedelica. It wouldn’t be the last time he followed the trends of the moment. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, it was the year of Sgt. Pepper’s, Are You Experienced?, and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band became Dantalian’s Chariot, and R&B covers gave way to their own songs like Madman Running Through the Fields, written by Summers and Zoot, and the suits and ties gave way to colored vests. The new style showed the guitarist’s talented ear and capacity to adapt, but the change in direction didn’t find success. Yet, it served to connect Summers to part of the psychedelic scene. After a tour with Soft Machine he became good mates with Robert Wyatt and went with them on tour for 3 months. Upon his return, in early ‘68, he was signed on by Eric Burdon for the new Animals, with his old friend Money, where they recorded Love Is, which includes a new version of Madman, besides Colored Rain, with a solo shred of over 4 minutes. But he still hadn’t found his sound/style, but his big musical I.Q. was still there and it’s easy to admire someone who rubbed shoulders with Hendrix and Clapton.       

The career of the Animals wasn't living its best moment and Summers split for the USA where he would spend a few years teaching guitar. It was none other than a student who would sell him the most cherished guitar of his career, a ‘61 Telecaster, totally refixed, that guitar would define the sound of the band that would rescue him from oblivion: The Police. As if it were a gift of fate for his Les Paul sold to Clapton for £200 it only cost him 200 dollars. Its present value is priceless.

Summers would return to England in the mid-70s, when the country was suffering a strong social crisis which served as a breeding ground for the punk movement, but his first steps after getting back were in the progressive scene, with ex-mates like Kevin Ayers and even participating on an orchestral rendition of Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield.  But it would take a call from Gong ex-bassman Mike Howlett, to change his life. Howlett had formed a band called Strontium 90 together with two kids ten years younger than Summers, Sting and Stewart Copeland. The latter two had another band called The Police with which they wanted to jump the punk wave. They were so impressed by Summers mastery, they invited him on board in spite of already having the guitarist Henry Padovani. Summers accepts and after 2 concerts in the summer of ‘77, Padovani left and The Police remains as a trio.

The group gets on the punk bandwagon but something doesn’t fit quite right, Summers age and past raises everyone’s eyebrows, even Sting isn’t convinced, and Copeland is the only true follower. But his enthusiasm is such that they all dress like punks and even dye their hair platinum blond. Their credibility would be questioned but the songs began to arrive, the best being a bossa nova composed by Sting called Roxanne, where the band learns to mold their reggae touch, and Miles Copeland, Stewart’s brother, lends them 1,500 quid to record their first songs. He didn’t hold out much hope until he heard that song about the prostitute. He immediately took it to A&M Records and got the band a contract. It was released as a single and despite not having much success, the fact that BBC rejected broadcasting it, gave the ‘punk’ credibility they needed. Soon after came their first album Outlandos D’ Amour, their closest to the punk spirit, their freshest and most dynamic of their career. It is easy to see many of the things that would define them, like their obsession for reggae, their fondness for pop, and the incredible chemistry between them. Summers is especially lucid in So Lonely and Next To You solos, on the last he uses something as far away from punk as a slide on his Les Paul Junior. 

The direction of the band becomes much clearer, the reggae feel grows and Sting plucks in more bass lines while Summers, in turn, begins to perfect their sound on an Echoplex, the band appears several times on TV and Roxanne
is re-edited and shoots to the top of the charts. Their success takes them to the USA where they would play in the temple of punk par excellence, the New York CBGB. In the summer of ‘79 Can’t Stand Losing You reaches #2 on the Brit Charts, and in October they begin recording their 2nd LP, Reggatta de Blanc.

Basking after their success, the trio releases an album that perhaps best describes them, with a made up title that is something like ‘white reggae’, in which the first two #1 numbers of their career appear: Message In a Bottle and Walking On the Moon, with Summer’s signature sound. But with success come the first cracks in the relationship, mainly between the two who started it all, Sting and Copeland. Their 3rd effort Zenyatta Mondatta made them global superstars, the band won a Grammy for their instrumental input on Summers’ Behind My Camel.

Ghost in the Machine would be the album on which Summers begins to use his 2nd most mythic guitar, the red ‘61 Stratocaster with 3 original single-coil pickups by Fender, besides one of the first uses of the Roland Guitar Synthesizer. The overwhelming success serves as a bridge between the most direct style of the first records and the more ambitious last one, yet rapport continues to deteriorate with Sting vetoing Summers’ Omegaman as the first single. After its release, the band takes a year off to pursue personal projects. Summers gets together with countryman Robert Fripp and release the instrumental I Advance Masked.

In 1983 the band reunited to record Synchronicity, a more mature album with more distinct influences, the weight of reggae fades and the use of synchronizers looms. The atmosphere is so bad that they have to record their parts separately, even so, it is considered the band’s best record. It definitely contains their best song, Every Breath You Take, which Sting composed about the breakup of his marriage, but it was Summers who put the icing on the cake with his epic riff, recorded in one take on his red Strat. The promotional tour cemented them as one of the greatest bands at the time, culminating in their performance at Shea Stadium in New York in August 1983 before 70,000 fans.

Although it wasn’t made oficial until 3 years later, the group had dissolved. Their tremendous ascent turned against them and their split didn’t come on the best of terms. Still, in 2007 a truce was made and The Police took the stage once again to toast their fans to a farewell they deserved.    

Their legacy and success cannot be understood without Andy Summers, the sound-chaser, someone who knew how to put color to the songs he made, whether it was the long psychedelic odes, pumped up punk numbers or intricate pop arrangements like Every Breath You Take. His taste for innovation carried him from the happy Swingin’ London of the 60s to the ‘no future’ of the 70s, with his guitar as his special signature.