When Stewart Copeland released the album Police Deranged for Orchestra this past June, his use of the word “deranged” in the title suggested a warped take on the Police unlike anything we’d ever heard. Copeland, who co-founded the superstar pop group with bassist-frontman Sting in 1977, would, of course, be uniquely positioned to add new wrinkles to their one-of-a-kind sound. When he followed the Deranged album up with the internationally-flavored Police Beyond Borders in late August, Copeland again appeared to be presenting the Police’s music as a launching pad to explore unmapped frontiers.
For the most part, though, both records lack the sense of risk that would have helped them live up to their billing. Copeland and his supporting cast—were undoubtedly able to give these songs a new disposition. If listening to some of the Police’s most prominent hits within the confines of a classical concert hall is your idea of a good time, then you might do well to explore Police Deranged. Likewise, there’s an appeal to hearing familiar classics like “King of Pain”, “Murder by Numbers”, and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, fronted by vocalists Amy Keys, Carmel Helene, and Ashley Támar. If Copeland’s goal was to liberate this material from Sting’s melodramatic brooding and make it more fun, then one could say he succeeded.
Oddly, with few exceptions (“Demolition Man”, for instance), Copeland does very little to underscore the rhythmic complexity or unorthodox harmonics that form the backbone of this music. To say nothing of the interpersonal acrimony that was so vital to its creation. In essence, Police Deranged recreates the casual atmosphere of a summertime pops concert by your local orchestra. Which is to say, he’s turned the Police into vanilla-flavored family fare with most of the smooth edges rounded out. Even when he teams up with composer Ricky Kej to add a host of fresh ingredients to the recipe on Police Beyond Borders, much of the music, oddly enough, keeps well within bounds, maintaining the sense of confinement that undermines Police Deranged.
For starters, other than a handful of deep cuts, Beyond Borders sticks to a predictable Top 40 program. Do we really need to hear “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take Again” again? Of course not. Sure, a Hindi version of “Message in a Bottle” has a certain kick to it, but the Police’s catalog is rife with other interesting songs to choose from. Not to mention that several of those songs (“It’s Alright for You”, “Voices Inside My Head”, and “Secret Journey”) lend themselves better to Eastern modalities. Moreover, even in sticking with the hits, Copeland and Kej could have taken way more chances. Instead, they merely scratch the surface. At one point, for example, a suspenseful sitar drone sets the stage for a musical curveball at a moment when it’s unclear what song is coming next.
Unfortunately, Copeland and company squander the moment after just 30 seconds when a pedestrian version of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” emerges from the ambiguity, echoing all too closely what we’ve already heard on Police Deranged. Other glimmers of potential remain mostly unfulfilled: the vocal splashes of cha-cha-cha that rain down across the stereo field, for instance, on the Regatta de Blanc title-track theme leading into “Can’t Stand Losing You”. Elsewhere, Indian superstar and John McLaughlin collaborator Shankar Mahadevan delivers an especially dramatic turn on “Murder by Numbers”, with Mahavedan playing a musical role somewhere between a cowboy and a lounge singer.
One of the only moments Police Beyond Borders lives up to its promise comes during a radical re-working of the Synchronicity deep cut “Tea in the Sahara” that features veteran Korean-Chinese rock pioneer Cui Jian on lead vocals. Highly emotive, Jian employs a gruff, almost growling vocal style (unlike the delicate croon that made him famous in China) to evoke the pageantry of Chinese musical theater while the hybrid East-West ensemble behind him sets forth for the Indian subcontinent. This new “Tea in the Sahara” allows us to imagine a Chinese xiqu opera sequence in a Bollywood film with a story set in North Africa—a startlingly fresh blend that truly does push “beyond borders”.
“Tea in the Sahara” stands out so sharply because the rest of what’s on these two albums doesn’t venture nearly as far. Describing how he grew up “steeped in Arabic music”, Copeland told American broadcaster Bob Costas in 1990 that “the notes I grope for when I’m composing are a very different set of notes”. But that’s not the case here. Sure, Copeland didn’t write most of this material; Sting did. But even when he and Kej draw from non-Western tonal systems, they don’t take advantage of the harmonic freedom (i.e: microtones) those systems offer. At the end of the day, Police Deranged and Police Beyond Borders pretty much amount to the same old notes—quite a shock when you consider Copeland’s career in totality.
One of the most distinctive drummers in music history by any objective measure, Copeland reinvented the wheel when it came to building beats within a rock/pop context. Just ask the members of bands like Rush and Yes, who both borrowed from his vocabulary at key career points. Of course, the sound of the Police was a fusion of punk, reggae, rock, and pop that couldn’t have existed without his signature touch. Copeland also made edgy, inventive music with his projects Klark Kent and The Rhythmatist, the latter of which still stands as a profoundly forward-thinking amalgam of his drumming with field recordings of African percussion patterns. He’s also scored films and written numerous operas.
When you contrast Copeland’s strategy here with treatments of some of these same songs by the jazz trio the Hazelrigg Brothers, it becomes even more mystifying that Copeland overlooked the many pockets of fertility in a sound he played such a massive role in building. On their latest release, SYNCHRONICITY: An Interpretation of the Album by THE POLICE, the Hazelrigg Brothers stick to a modest set of parameters. Where Copeland attempts to re-cast the Police within a multi-lingual, globe-spanning sonic lexicon, the Hazelriggs present this music as if you walked in on it at a hole-in-the-wall jazz club on any given night of the week. Yet, by comparison, they often end up with the more intriguing results.
Also released in June as a celebration of the original album’s 40th anniversary, the Hazelriggs’ take on Synchronicity contains a number of distinguishing features that lie almost hidden as the band play it fairly straight down the middle. For one, pianist George Hazelrigg, standup bassist Geoff Hazelrigg, and drummer John O’Reilly Jr. challenge themselves by having to recreate the music’s vocal hooks without the benefit of a horn. They also opt not to mimic Copeland, Sting, and guitarist Andy Summers’ phrasing—a formidable obstacle to place in one’s path, considering how profoundly the unique playing styles of all three defined the music. O’Reilly Jr. and the Hazelriggs, apparently not content to take the easy way out, basically corner themselves into coming up with new approaches to these songs.
Crucially, the trio don’t overreach. Their lack of pretense combines quite nicely with their sense of discretion. In song after song, the thrills come in the form of fleeting subtleties: splashes of upper-register piano accents during the chorus melody of “Synchronicity I”; George Hazelrigg engaging his piano’s sustain pedal on “Walking in Your Footsteps” so that a chord lingers in the air in place of Sting’s haunting refrain, “They say the meek / Shall inherit the earth”; Geoff Hazelrigg transposing the “King of Pain” and “Miss Gradenko” lead vocals to bass; Geoff simulating a quasi-reggae cadence with pizzicato picking on “Wrapped Around Your Finger”; etc.
Elsewhere, they give Summers’ infamously experimental “Mother” an avant-classical makeover. Together, all three players seamlessly transition into chamber music mode—so seamless that you may not initially notice their agility. As O’Reilly Jr. plays disembodied rhythm fragments that fall somewhere between Argentine tango and European gypsy folk, Geoff Hazelrigg’s legato bowing sways against his brother’s Cecil Taylor-esque bursts of dissonance. In their hands, the song seems to creak and heave, re-made in its new image as a rickety, centuries-old sea shanty—but also totally faithful to the original somehow.
Synchronicity producer Hugh Padgham has spoken openly about his dislike for the song “Mother”. Indeed, the original version—basically a demo that Summers prepared on his own—has a piercing quality that verges on sonic violence. And (though I’ve always loved the song myself) one has to wonder whether “Mother” wasn’t Andy Summers’ way of acting out against Sting’s leadership by taking a sledgehammer to Synchronicity’s otherwise slick commercial veneer. The Hazelrigg Brothers clearly saw the oddities—even the ugliness—in Summers’ composition as a golden opportunity to get creative. They relished that opportunity.
More remarkably, they restored the song’s place alongside the other tunes on Synchronicity. Where it stood out like a sore thumb before, “Mother” now flows within the arc of the album. This must have been important to Geoff and George Hazelrigg, who have been avid Police fans since childhood. At that formative age, when the music we fall for makes an impact that defines the rest of our lives, the two brothers discovered the Police together. Their first exposure came with “Every Breath You Take”, as the video was dominating MTV, ensuring the band’s path to immediate superstardom and long-term immortality. The songs on Synchronicity have been a staple of the Hazelriggs’ musical repertoire ever since.
The Police pulled the plug just as their popularity was cresting, which left fans to nurse a nagging sense that the band’s story ended on an unresolved note. That sense has lingered for four decades, and it’s evident that Copeland and Summers feel it, too. Police Deranged, Police Beyond Borders, and Copeland’s new book The Police Diaries—along with Summers’ 2015 documentary and his latter-day twists on the band’s material—all stem from what must surely be a tangled mix of pride and wistfulness over what could have been. On the bright side, Stewart Copeland and the Hazelrigg Brothers have reminded us that the Police’s body of work sits there inviting reinvention.
Even where these three albums can be said to fall short on risk, they’re all long on charm. More importantly, they hint at boldness enough that our imaginations can do the rest. Hopefully, both acts will inspire other musicians to go even further out on a limb than they did themselves. In the meantime, the Hazelriggs Brothers prove that love for the material and an unpretentious game plan can be all you need.