'We wanted to Police-ify it': Stewart Copeland on "Every Little Thing," "Murder by Numbers" and "Message in a Bottle"

Stewart Copeland takes readers inside the studio for a trio of key Police cuts, revealing the struggles the band had to get its sound right, and the overdubs that made one song all but impossible to replicate.

In the second of a probing two-part interview with MusicRadar.com, Copeland breaks down his role a trio of tunes: “Message in a Bottle” from 1979’s Reggatta de Blanc, which became the Police’s first charttopping single in England; “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” the 1981 hit single (No. 1 in the UK; No. 3 in America) from Ghost in the Machine; and “Murder by Numbers,” issued originally the B-side of “Every Breath You Take” and later included on the compact and cassette editions of 1983’s career-closing Synchronicity.

All along, there were pitched battles between Copeland and frontman Sting over the group’s direction, a creative friction that originally sent the Police — which was rounded out by guitarist Andy Summers — to ever greater heights. But by 1985, Sting had launched a solo career, and Copeland had turned to his own second career in film scores.

And so it remained until the long-estranged trio got together on the Police’s 30th anniversary for an improbable reunion that lasted from 2007-08. That tour eventually became the third highest-grossing ever, with revenues of more than $340 million.

“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” in fact, could have been a Sting solo recording — since the singer-songwriter arrived with what Copeland said was a radio-ready demo. “You could put it on the radio just as it was,” he tells MusicRadar, “and it would have been a huge hit. It had all the elements. But we wanted to ‘Police-ify’ it, because we’re a band.” That led, he says, to “a long war, a battle,” with the trio eventually running down reggae versions, ballad versions, punk versions — “to the extent that it veered away from the original demo and didn’t sound like a hit anymore.” Ultimately, they returned to the original: “That take you hear on the record are the drums overdubbed to Sting’s demo, with Sting standing over me waving me through it. Then Andy started working on the guitar with just the drums, and then Sting redid his bass to my drums instead of the drum box. We built it all up from there.”

“Message in a Bottle” might be one of Copeland’s most celebrated performances as a member of the Police, with a whole subculture of YouTube of drummers trying to mimic his complex polyrhythms. Turns out, there is a reason everyone else has had so much trouble getting it just right: “Well, that’s because there’s overdubs. There’s a ride cymbal bell on the backbeat. And I might have added some toms, but I later ended up playing them as part of the part,” Copeland says. “The main thing is the ride overdub that I’ve seen drummers in lounge bands attempt to play with whatever else is going on. The things that you can do in the studio to tart it up can only do just that – decorate it a little bit. But when you’re actually playing it live, you don’t need all that help.”

Other times, Copeland says, things would come together for the Police very quickly — with no arguing, and no overdubs. “Murder by Numbers,” for instance, was a first-take success: “Sting and Andy were sitting at the dinner table in Montserrat, Andy starts playing the guitar and Sting says, ‘Hang on, I’ve got a lyric for that.’ He pulls out his book, and while the two sat there over dessert, figuring out how to put the lyrics to the chords, I’m sitting there thinking about what to do with it. Then they said, ‘OK, let’s put that down.’ They went down to the studio – my drums were in the dining room – and I started up the rhythm while they played the song. That performance is what’s on the record.”

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