Are spiky hair and guitars necessary or sufficient conditions to qualify as “punk rock”?
While it may be hard to imagine that a group that has over 1 billion plays on Spotify was ever considered a “punk” band, the sentiment that The Police were a punk band that somehow had all of the “right stuff” to transcend punk rock and become legends is considered to be fairly uncontroversial – even their Wikipedia page declares that The Police started out as punk band. I mean, just look at how spiky Sting’s hair was back in 1977 – how could that not be punk?
Then again, it may be that defining The Police as punks who managed to break out of a scene that seemed doomed to mainstream commercial failure is really an act of revisionist history, and that a closer look at their origins may reveal an entirely different story. Let’s do some sleuthing and see if we can get to the bottom of the question of whether or not The Police were ever truly a punk rock band.
One particularly interesting bit of history is that Stewart Copeland wrote and recorded a punk-ish album under a pseudonym, Klark Kent. Klark Kent songs were, in his own words, “too stupid” for Sting to sing, so instead of being Police songs, Copeland did the D.I.Y. thing and played all of the instruments himself and self-released a single and full-length album.
Curiously, while The Police’s early singles languished in obscurity, Klark Kent got the attention the B.B.C., who were scouting around London for punk acts to showcase. Klark Kent (Copeland) ended up appearing Top of the Pops with The Police and friends as his backing band, all of them masked and looking incredibly weird.
Stewart Copeland has also stated that The Police’s early single, “Fall Out” (1977), was self-recorded, and that Sting, Copeland, and then guitarist Henry Padovini packaged, promoted, and sold copies of the single themselves – very much another D.I.Y. move.
These are all pretty interesting tidbits, so let’s dig in and examine the evidence for and against The Police being a punk band in more detail.
Reasons to think that The Police started out as a punk band:
- D.I.Y. singles like “Fall Out / Nothing Achieving” had fast tempos, barre chords, and snarky lyricism in addition to being self-released on Stewart Copeland’s D.I.Y. label, Illegal Records – all recognizably “punk” elements
- Stewart Copeland Klark Kent side-project sounds very much like an early punk band
- They had spiky hair!
Reasons to think that The Police were never a “real” punk band:
- Stewart Copeland was in a prog rock band called Curved Air prior to forming The Police
- Similarly, Sting was in a jazz band called Last Exit before Stewart Copeland convinced him to form a band together
- Andy Summers was a classically trained musician who was in his 30’s and an accomplished professional musician by the time he was asked to join The Police in 1977
- Andy Summers has discussed in interviews how The Police had to pose as punks to get gigs back in late 1970’s London (including bleaching their hair blonde because they thought it looked more “punk”. As musicians, The Police were just too skilled and professional to be able to sound as amateurish as early punk bands did, so they had to play up a punk image to get gigs in a London pub scene obsessed with the emergence of punk and hostile to booking bands that didn’t at least look and sound a little bit like punks
- Perhaps most damningly, Stewart Copeland even admitted that The Police were basically charlatans and fakes and just using punk to get noticed, echoing Summers’ comments above about posing as punks to get attention
- Finally, Sting himself also declared that The Police were not punk in the same interview in which Stewart Copeland looks back at how the British music press caught on to their posing as punks, calling them “bandwagon-hoppers”
The Police were definitely not a real punk rock band. However, despite their obvious shamming and scamming to score gigs (and potential fame), it’s pretty clear that some of their early output is inspired by punk, while not being punk rock itself.
It’s hard to ignore the influence that the meteoric rise of the punk scene in late 1970’s London had on up and coming musicians. Understandably, many of them wanted in on the action and fun (and chaos!), and lucky for some of them, so did record labels – a trend that would emerge again in early 1990’s Seattle.
Bottom line – while The Police were definitely not a real punk band, they were influenced by the genre in positive ways, and it’s at least partly responsible for the uniqueness of their sound, and their massive success.