The Untold Story of The Police

Downing Benylin, touring with a transsexual and playing alongside Nazis - just your average fare for Sting and the boys during The Police's early days in the Seventies.
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Downing Benylin, touring with a transsexual and playing alongside Nazis - just your average fare for Sting and the boys during The Police's early days in the Seventies.

The Roxy was the London mecca for punk rock. Despite having only opened its doors on New Year’s Day 1977, it had already established itself as the premier punk venue in London. Previously, it had been a gay-fetish club called Chaguarama’s (commonly referred to as “Shagaramas”), which had drawn a crowd of outlandish freaks wearing their own glam rock-inspired S&M creations — the progenitor of “punk” fashions. It was also frequented by the teenage rent boy runaways who plied their trade in the “meat rack,” the nickname for the streets and amusement arcades around nearby Piccadilly Circus.

Cherry Vanilla, who had parlayed a talent for screwing rock stars into a career as a professional PR lady (for David Bowie) and performance artist, ended up at the Roxy with her band the first night they arrived in London and immediately felt swept up by the energy of the place. “It was just exciting to walk in to because it was so crowded,” she said. “It had a cachet, it had an atmosphere. Everyone would hang around outside in the street.”

The Police had also ventured down to the Roxy the month before they made their live debut, taking in concerts by the Damned and the Heartbreakers. While Stewart Copeland and Henry Padovani sucked up the atmosphere, Sting viewed the delinquent chaos that surrounded him with a smug superiority. He was almost ten years older than the average age of the Roxy crowd, and he had a wife and child. Every band he saw merely stoked his ire and fuelled his competitive nature. His antipathy only grew after watching the Heartbreakers, whose performance prowess seemed directly related to their collective chemical intake. Any sloppiness was largely overlooked by the crowd, awed by the presence of front man Johnny Thunders, the only bona fide rock star on the London scene.

“Sting hated them,” maintained Copeland. “He’d see all these guys and say, ‘Look at these guys causing all this media attention. They’re shit! I can do better than this fucking lot.’ He’d get wilder and wilder. He became very aggressive but also very determined.”

A few weeks later, Sting would get a chance to prove himself in front of the same crowd. Playing at the Roxy provided the first real test for the Police to establish themselves on the London scene. It was only their second ever show.

“I can’t remember how the Roxy crowd reacted to them,” said Jayne County. “But it was pretty hard not to go down well at the Roxy ’cause the kids were so starved for good music! And they were all extremely drunk and fucked up on sulphate!”

Cherry Vanilla recalled it slightly differently. “They didn’t have the punk gear and I know that the audience gave them grief over that. I remember some people criticizing them and saying, ‘You look like wankers.’ Stewart and Sting did not have the bleached hair yet, and Sting was a little on the chubby side.” But it might have also been Sting’s insistence on playing bare-chested in dungarees that marked them out as interlopers. While playing sideman to Cherry Vanilla, he at least made an attempt to look the part, wearing a black T-shirt with the Max’s Kansas City logo on it.

Immediately following the Roxy shows, Cherry Vanilla and the Police headed out on tour, travelling around the UK in a van provided by Miles Copeland. “We went out on the road with zero dollars,” said Cherry Vanilla. “And I had to run the show with whatever earnings that I could make. Miles was just getting us whatever bookings he could all over the place. Sometimes we’d get there and it would be like a shack. Another city would be a cool place. There were a lot of new little punk clubs popping up, and Miles didn’t go out and check them all out.”

Along with playing backup to Cherry Vanilla, for which they shared the princely sum of £10 among them, the Police played their own set as well. Sometimes, both bands played two sets a night. The Police also doubled up as drivers and roadies on the tour, helping to lug Zecca’s upright piano out of the van and into the venue every night and back again after the show. On a good night the Police might get paid twice. A promoter in Wolverhampton recalled paying Cherry Vanilla and her band £40 to play at a student night and throwing in an extra £12 to cover expenses for the Police. Other times, they’d get to a club to find that it was operated by shady management who paid whatever they felt the act was worth, rather than the fee agreed on with Miles Copeland. On those occasions, Cherry Vanilla said that she felt obligated to make sure that the Police got paid, no matter what. “We barely had money to eat. Sometimes we ate chips and beer and that was our dinner.”

"Sting viewed the delinquent chaos that surrounded him with a smug superiority. He was almost ten years older than the average age of the Roxy crowd, and he had a wife and child."

Sting, she noted, usually came better prepared than everyone else. “His wife, Frances, used to prepare a little box of food for him, with sandwiches and apples and things in it. So he wouldn’t need to spend his money on food and could bring that back to her.”

Despite knowing that Sting and Stewart Copeland, respectively, had a wife and a girlfriend at home, Cherry Vanilla looked the other way when she saw them hit on girls. But when they imbibed stimulants other than alcohol, she felt compelled to say her piece. “They used to take these things, Benylin and Do-Dos,” she said. “I used to criticize them for that, saying, You know, you’re such a jerk, how can you take that crap and everything?”

Both of these over-the-counter cough medicines contained ephedrine and amphetamines, nothing that rock bands wouldn’t regularly imbibe to keep them going through the long hours, lack of sleep, and irregular eating patterns that generally constitute a touring lifestyle. It was all pretty tame compared to the substances other bands pumped into their bodies to keep themselves going, and when the Cherry Vanilla road show crossed paths with the Heartbreakers tour in Liverpool, they witnessed a stark illustration of that.

“We had a hotel that night,” said Cherry Vanilla. “We were in the hotel room and Johnny [Thunders] was shooting blood from the hypodermic needle onto the walls. I liked Johnny, he was a good guy. I just felt sorry for him that he was so addicted to heroin. But I do remember being like, oh my God, I got to get out of here.”

But they were tied to the Heartbreakers for three more dates across the Midlands before they could head back to London. There, the Police joined Wayne County and his Electric Chairs for their first foray into Europe. This time, the Police were relieved of their additional duties and simply played as support. “The Police were the most boring people I have ever met,” said Jayne County. “Polite, charming, professional, but no fun. It was like playing with a bunch of old married men.” Compared to her, though, anyone would seem boring.

Even before Wayne became Jayne (having sprouted breasts), she was the most outré performer the rock world had ever seen. Wayne sang about looking for “Toilet Love” and sometimes took the stage looking like a piece of trash that had been dragged out of one. She had toilet-paper rolls in her hair (instead of curlers) and empty product packaging piled on top like some couture creation by a high-fashion milliner. A pop art nightmare freakish enough to make even Warhol wince, she usually took to the stage in full makeup and drag but wearing not much more than fifties-style underwear (a girdle, a garter belt, a bra, and stockings) and a bouffant blond wig tinted with rainbow-coloured streaks. A living-dead beauty queen who wore place cards in her hair (instead of a tiara) spelling out the name of her favourite band, the Dave Clark Five. After hitting London, she (like Thunders) toned down her act considerably, dressing more conservatively in a one-piece flight suit but still wearing full makeup.

If the Police weren’t much fun, she at least gave them their due for being a “pretty open-minded bunch.” “Hey, they toured with rock’s most notorious transsexual!” she said. “Most of the punk bands wouldn’t even do that! I scared most people shitless, but the Police were very intelligent individuals and they understood . . . or at least seemed unperturbed!”

Wayne County was no Cherry Vanilla. She was more “Queen Bitch” than Mother Hen. “I could be a real bitch and get really fucked up,” she said. Wayne and on-off bisexual junkie guitarist boyfriend Greg Van Cook fought like cat and dog in the back of the van.

“If I hadn’t been so caught up with Greg, I would have done my darndest to get into Sting’s pants, but unfortunately that did not happen. But somehow I think that if I had tried hard enough, I could have! Even before I started my hormones, I could look quite good in drag. And once a cute guy has a few drinks in him and all . . .”

"The Police also doubled up as drivers and roadies on the tour, helping to lug Zecca’s upright piano out of the van and into the venue every night and back again after the show. On a good night the Police might get paid twice."

The tour ended at a one-day punk festival in Paris at the Palais des Glaces. “Nuit de Punk” also featured Generation X, the Jam, and the Electric Chairs. French band the Stinky Toys opened the show. The Police were sandwiched between the Jam and Wayne County. But their attitude didn’t endear them to their fellow musicians. “The real punk bands hated them,” noted Jayne County. The feeling, at least on Sting’s part, was mutual.

As a front man, Sting wasn’t just a knock to their credibility, he was a liability. His passive-aggressive stance made itself felt at one early performance in the Nashville Rooms (another famed punk strong- hold in London, located in a West Kensington pub). “Okay, we’re a punk band and we’re gonna play some punk now,” he said, introducing the Police’s set. “That means the words are banal and the music’s fast. So here’s a punk song for you, you arseholes.”

Given that the Police’s handle on their material was tenuous at best, this awkward stab at the audience came off as more of a backhanded compliment to himself. Even his bandmates were embarrassed. “God knows what he thought he was up to,” bemoaned the drummer. Sting’s behaviour proved even more awkward given that the audience that night was crammed full of scenesters and taste-makers who could have helped further the band’s fledgling career, including Mark Perry, the editor of the increasingly influential Sniffin’ Glue, whom Stewart Copeland derisively referred to as the “punkometer.”

“In all honesty, I can’t say a Police gig was high on the agenda of the Sniffin’ Glue scene,” said Nick Jones, Miles Copeland’s second- in-command and a former PR man for BTM Records. “Mark Perry had to put them down. He was an honest guy. Just because he was receiving help and encouragement from Stewart’s elder brother, he wouldn’t endorse something he didn’t believe in.” And because Mark Perry didn’t rate the Police, neither did Miles Copeland. In short, the Police had a credibility problem, but they were the only ones who couldn’t see it.

Outside of the shows arranged for them by Miles the Police rarely made the bills of other punk shows. They did, however, play one show in May 1977—their first as a headline act—with another set of out- casts: a nascent lineup of neo-Nazi punk band Skrewdriver. Although details of the support slot have been whitewashed from official Police history, the gig has been accorded special status in Skrewdriver lore. Prior to their adoption of reactionary far-right politics, Skrewdriver was a regular common or garden-variety Oi! band whose lumpen odes to thuggery (which bore titles like “Anti-Social” and “Street Fighter”) were fairly well-regarded by sections of the punk cognoscenti.

The night the Police played with Skrewdriver at the Railway Tavern in Putney, South London, Shakin’ Stevens was playing with his band, the Sunsets, at a rock ’n’ roll night in a nearby venue. At that time, the tabloids were awash with scare stories about the violent rivalry between the teddy boys and the punks, characterizing it as a replay of the mod and rocker wars of the 1960s. If truth be told, the reporting only fuelled further conflict, and the animosity was largely one-sided. The deeply conservative teddy boys, whose dress and lifestyle were based entirely on a romanticization of the 1950s, viewed the punks as an affront to their culture—particularly the punk fashion for taking razor blades to drape suits (the teddy boy uniform) and customizing them with safety pins.

Despite rumours of trouble from the teddy boys down the road, the Railway Tavern show went off without incident. Skrewdriver’s self-aggrandizing singer Ian Stuart later maintained that “most of the people came to see Skrewdriver anyway.” John “Grinny” Grinton, Skrewdriver’s drummer, did think it strange how “near the end of the night the punks and the Police began to disappear rather quickly.” But the Police didn’t have any reason to stay. Guitarist Phil Walmsley recalled that they had used all of Skrewdriver’s back line: “apart from the drums, Stewart Copeland would only use his own kit.”

While loading equipment into their van, the members of Skrewdriver were surrounded by twenty or thirty teds who had just emerged from the venue down the road. They set about taunting the punks and egging one another on until the incident exploded into violence. Grinny was smashed in the mouth with a microphone stand that shattered all of his front teeth. The Police were nowhere to be seen when they were needed.

This is an extract from ‘Walking on the Moon: The Untold Story of the Police’ by Chris Campion (Aurum). To buy this book click below.

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