One Train Later

It’s all starting to make sense now. Last year, Stewart Copeland screens his film “Everyone Stares:The Police Inside and Out,” then Andy Summers releases a memoir about not only his life with The Police, but also what he did before and after being in the group. The only one who has been keeping a low profile is Sting. And now that the song “Roxanne” will be 30 years old late summer or fall, The Police are ready to go out and show the world why they were one of the greats. Since I first heard the song “Roxanne” on the radio back in the late 70s, I’ve been a fan of the group – even though at the time I didn’t have any money to buy any of their records until Ghost In The Machine came out. Each record that The Police recorded seemed to be better than the last (Well, they hit a snag with Zenyatta Mondatta. But hey we can’t all be perfect!). And when the group finally hit “big” with Ghost In the Machine, the wheels were coming off the new super group’s wagon. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let us start at the beginning, since this is a review of Andy Summers’ book, One Train Later.

Summers was born on 12/31/42 outside a bomb factory in Lancashire, England. His mom worked in the factory and his dad was in the Royal Air Force. His early life was filled with a lot of boyish fascinations with animals, plants, playing with friends. It wasn’t until his uncle Jim gave young Andy his first guitar did his life start to change. Fascinated by the guitar, Andy started to learn how to play the thing by one of the only methods available to a young kid with very little money:

I pick up chords from other kids who have been playing longer than me, for at this time there is no other way to learn — no videos, no DVDs, no CD-ROMs, few books. You get information – chord by chord – only if another kid takes pity on you, so I get it wherever I can and practice into the night.

He starts to learn songs by Buddy Holly, Neil Sedaka, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. But he also becomes a huge jazz fan – a love that comes back into his life after he leaves The Police.

Summers’ life before The Police was marked by a long career as a working musician in a number of bands. Life for a working musician (whether now or back in the early 60s) is pretty much the same for those trying to eek out a living playing gigs: “Wake up, piss, get in van, drive to gig, do gig, piss, get back in van, drive home, piss, get back in bed, sleep. Get up—repeat previous day.” But it’s not all work for Summers. He chronicles moments when the drug haze of the late 60s is very much part of Summers’ experience as a young man in London. His contemporaries are now rock legends (i.e., Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Burdon from The Animals) but at the time, they were like Andy: trying to make a living playing music, getting high, and falling in and out of love.

After recording and touring the U.S. and Japan with The Animals, Summers left the group and spent a few years in LA teaching guitar and doing the occasional pick up gigs. His life in LA was depressing because he was pretty sure that he was washed up and would never “make it” or be in another band again. He was married, but it wasn’t going so well. By 1974, he decided to make a change. Recently divorced and newly remarried, Andy and his wife Kate moved back to London – mostly to get away from their former spouses. They were broke, but they were at least together and away from “all that!”

Life in London was difficult for the returning guitarist. The London music scene in the mid 70s is characterized by Summers as populated with insecure players (who were once friends) afraid to help him out lest they lose their gig. It wasn’t until Robert Fripp (a childhood friend) recommended that he talk to the touring drummer with Neil Sedaka that his luck changed. He landed the job as a guitarist for Sedaka’s UK tour and was paid 35 pounds a night (a good sum when he was barely making it on 5 pounds a week).

By 1975, London had been bowled over by The Sex Pistols as the punk scene exploded in a sea of black leather, spiked hair, pierced lips, and a righteous rage at the British middle and upper class. Forget the hippie vibe of a few years back, punk ruled the roost for the time being! And its music was wall of aggressive noise that shunned proper musical technique. Indeed, the worse you played, the more street cred you had with a punk crowd. Well, what happens when you factor in three guys who are accomplished musicians and attempt to ride that punk vibe to success? Sure, it eventually worked, but not until after quite a few false starts and frustration with the genre.

If it weren’t for a combination of quality songs, relentless touring, and a desire to “make it,” The Police would have been like the vast majority of bands out there. That is to say, they would have reached a plateau too early and split up after realizing it wasn’t going to happen for them. Sadly, after the release of the first Police album I bought, the band was headed for the end. Sting, Andy, and Stewart were growing apart both musically and as a “band of brothers.” The last two albums were exercises in Sting calling the majority of the shots and even though Summers doesn’t say it in so many words, battling egos killed the group. They didn’t like to be told what to play or what would make the “cut” in terms of musical ideas, and this only increased the tensions while recording their masterpiece and swan song, Synchronicity:

In the studio the tension was so high that you could hear it twanging like an out-of-tune piano…It’s painful because none of us like being told what to do or being controlled in any way…As if underscoring our current mental state, we record in three separate rooms: Stewart up in the dining room of the house with miles of cable and earphones. Sting in the control room, and me alone in the actual studio. All this is for what the engineer calls for perfect separation, and with this album we get it, although not quite in the way intended – a weird symbol of where and what we’ve become.

Ironically, by 1983 The Police are the biggest rock band in the world. They had legions of fans, a number one album, a single (“Every Breath You Take”) that was embedded into the summer soundtrack of that year, and a larger-than-life world tour. And then they walked away from it all; breaking up six month after the Synchronicity tour wrapped. Regrets? Not really. The band, as Summers stated, were in “separate rooms” and where could they go from the heights of Synchronicity?

Sting went solo, and with each successive album, mellowed to the point where his Police persona vanished. Stewart found a great deal of success scoring film, television, and stage soundtracks. And Andy? Well, his love of jazz and photography took him down new artistic routes that elevated his guitar playing to the point of being a master.

Even if you’re not a fan of the rock memoir, I think you’ll enjoy One Train Later. Summers has a talent for writing, and his prose is both funny and peppered with literate flourishes that show that he’s much more than “the guy who played guitar in Sting’s band.”

–PK

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