Today it’s the birthday of one of my favourite drummers. And every year I think about how it is Stewart Copeland’s birthday, July 16. One of the only musicians where I actually think about the birthday, remember it.
None of his dynamic musicianship has rubbed off on me but I’ve been an admirer of his playing since I first heard The Police – and that was some time ago, way back, back when I was just a wee thing (there was a time). I consider him an influence – if not on my playing then on my approach to how I hear (and try to play) the drums. I like his philosophy – I love how musical his playing is; precise – perfect without ever feeling too clean, too measured. He takes risks. Beyond all of that I believe he hears things other players simply do not.
I’m such a Stewart Copeland fan that I bought Oysterhead – the album by the makeshift/wannabe-supergroup that paired him up with Mr. Primus – Les Claypool. I bought it because I found out Copeland was on the record. He’s one of those guys for me – if he’s on a record I find it. And buy it. The record also features the guitarist from the band Phish. This was in no way a selling point for me – but I was enough of a Primus fan, and a huge Stewart Copeland fan, so I not only bought it way back some 20 years go – I stuck with it. Revisiting it just recently.
At some stage – in my teens I guess – I found out about Copeland’s birthday. Probably from hearing it on a radio station, that sort of thing. One of those On This Day-type segments. They name famous birthdays.
Pointless trivia – but I’ve retained it.
I’ve kept that piece of information floating around in my head for about two decades now I reckon. More like three decades actually…because though you can syncopate it all you like, particularly if you’re Stewart Copeland, you cannot stop the march of time.
I grew up when The Police had a bunch of hits on the radio and I loved the drums on Message In A Bottle and Walking On The Moon. I first got to actually see Copeland’s approach to playing when I rented the Synchronicity concert. I rented it over and over – I even borrowed a mate’s VCR, connected both and tried to make my own copy of the tape. It worked – but there was no sound. So, you know, it didn’t work. I watched it anyway. But only once. It was back to renting the tape, over and over. Every second week for a while there. I should have just bought a copy. When it eventually came out on DVD I had no need for it – it was committed to memory by that stage.
It’s very easy to take aim at Sting these days and as long as he keeps creating symphonic versions of his old hits or making albums where he plays a lute he’ll do little to convince people otherwise even if there is a trio of very fine Sting solo albums from the early/mid-1990s.
But I’ve always loved the music of The Police.
I purchased the Message In A Box collection – it jammed all of the Police’s albums and b-sides into one handy 4-CD compilation.
And you have to remember that this was at a time when we didn’t have the internet for information. We didn’t have the internet. So information was exciting and you retained it, or did your best to – I not only committed the birthday to memory but also the stories in the box-set’s booklet about all of the work that Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland and Sting had done away from The Police.
The big name was Sting, he had written the band’s hits and had a string of solo albums and some movies. But it was a revelation as a youngster to read about all of Andy Summers’ work – photography, jazz combos and solo albums, he wrote the soundtrack for Weekend At Bernies! And some Police songs too.
Copeland had moved into soundtrack composition also. He had composed the score for the TV show, The Equaliser. I loved that program! Mostly because my dad and older brother liked it. He also had a pseudonym – Klark Kent – he played all of the instruments on the Klark Kent recordings. Copeland wrote some songs for The Police as well.
Reading about his exhaustive post-Police work – composing operas and ballets, visiting Africa (as seemed to be the post-dated rite of passage for so many drummers of his generation), forming the band Animal Logic with Stanley Clark and so many film and TV scores – was what made him influential to me. I already loved his drumming, his thought-process, the decisions he made as a percussionist as well as the actual playing – but this was an early example, in my life, of finding out that you could be more than just the drummer. He is a true composer and mulit-instrumentalist. I love his film score work.
I’ve kept collecting Copeland’s work where and when I find it. I enjoyed his light but entertaining, often diversionary memoir, Strange Things Happen. And more recently he told the incredible story of his father being a spy on a hilarious, illuminating podcast-series you can only get through Audible. I free-trialled the shit out of that!
And of course a highlight of my life and Police/Stewart Copeland fandom was seeing The Police reunion show. Three amazing players – but, seated about 10 rows from the front – my eyes and ears were trained on Copeland. Watching him apply himself to thoughtfully to that elaborate percussion rig for Wrapped Around Your Finger was so cool.
In terms of his work with The Police, well there’s the two songs I mentioned at the top of this post and then there are so many great examples of his innovative (and informative) playing throughout the band’s career. But his polyrhythms and clipped beats, his sharp instincts and his precise playing is a feature of the band. Impossible to imagine the group without his playing – that can be said of all three members of course and indeed that might be the mark of a truly great group. No one member is replaceable.
But it’s Stewart Copeland’s birthday and I’d like to mention some of my favourite Police songs that I can listen to just for his performance. For his placement, his ideas.
So: Walking In Your Footsteps, Driven To Tears, Synchronicity I, Fall Out, So Lonely, Roxanne, Can’t Stand Losing You, When The World Is Running Down You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, Spirits In The Material World, King Of Pain, Murder By Numbers, Miss Gradenko and Wrapped Around Your Finger.
There are so many more of course – that Message In A Box compilation did the rounds for me. When I was sick of Sting’s voice I had Andy’s guitar and Stewart’s drums to focus on.
Subverted reggae rhythms, punk with somewhat incongruous precision, driving rock music, flirtations of jazz, heavy syncopation and an octopus-like sprawl of independence – if Copeland wasn’t a composer outside of being a drummer we would have his drum tracks to study and marvel over at any rate. The way he plays the ride cymbal. The way he hits the hats. The way he paints sound; the use of splash cymbals for colour, his sticks dipping into them, dropping splotches of crash, tracing shades, colouring over and around the lines.
And then there’s all that fabulous work away from The Police too. Peter Gabriel called him in just to play hi-hat on Red Rain.
So happy birthday Steward Copeland. Every year, July 16 – I’ll always remember.
And the real reason I never forget his birthday is of course because it’s my birthday too. So to one extraordinary drummer from one stunningly average one, I say a Happy Birthday. As long as you continue to play the drums and make music, well, in a non-creepy way I’ll be watching you!
There’s loads of great Copeland/Police music scattered throughout this newsletter– do check out the things you haven’t heard before. And though it’s my birthday I never take a day off – so I’ve got you covered with the 21st volume of our Something For The Weekend playlist. Enjoy that as well, or instead.
I also wrote about Stewart Copeland in my Drummers You Just Can’t Beat e-book. So you can check that out there in the link.