Andy Summers’ echoing, textural approach to the guitar is forever linked with the Police, but he’d been an established figure in music for more than a decade before rising to stardom with that sound alongside Stewart Copeland and Sting.
As Summers prepares to release the debut album from Circa Zero, his first rock band since then, he delved into a couple of key moments from the Police’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career — but also what came before. Prior to 1978′s Outlandos d’Amour, he sat in with the likes of Soft Machine but also (during one particularly lean period) Neil Sedaka.
It seems that from the start, Summers was mixing and matching influences, performing with both Zoot Money’s Big Band and the Animals over the years, while eventually creating a sound that would influence everyone from Rush’s Alex Lifeson to U2′s the Edge. Long before the Police initially broke up after 1983′s Synchronicity, Summers began a similarly rangy solo career — starting with a collaboration with Robert Fripp, of King Crimson fame: “I have a lot of affection for that period,” Summers says. “It was a great time. We never actually went out and played, although I think we should at some point.”
Since, Summers has written scores for some 10 films, dabbled in jazz and more exotic genres, reunited with the Police, and — most recently — begun working with Rob Giles on Circa Zero. He talked with us about a handful of key moments that came before …
“CAN’T STAND LOSING YOU,” with the Police (OUTLANDOS d’AMOUR, 1978): Summers’ revolutionary experiments with delay devices created a stunning ambience, filling the space between his trio-mates cadences with clouds of sound — as heard on signature in-concert moments like this one. Though he’s long past the days of the Echoplex and guitar synth, Summers continues to dabble in the latest technological advances. He’s found that, unlike that heady era when the Police were starting out, everybody’s a fetishist for pedals these days.
ANDY SUMMERS: I think the quest to make fresh and original sounds doesn’t go away. In terms of being an electric guitar player in the modern scene, there’s basic palette that we all use. Everyone uses some kind of sustain or distortion, various echoes and reverbs, and chorus on or not on. Those are the three basic colors that most guitar players would play, unless they just play straight into an amp. It’s really become, right now, the sort of golden age of guitar equipment — certainly, the golden age of pedals. Back when I started, a pedal or vibrato or tremolo, these were like novelty things, used almost for a joke. But now, pedal are part of the sonic palette. I have a lot of pedal now, and I’ve got some new ones coming soon that I think are going to be remarkable. Now I’m not a pedal junkie, as I call it [laughs], but I do experiment with them still — trying to get this sound or that sound. In fact, I’m working on a piece of music right now that is going to be pretty pedal driven, because that will push you into a certain framework. I’ve always been interested in it, but there are people who are much more obsessive about it than I am and really go to that sonic place. I’ve always first been about trying to be a great player, but I’m certainly interested in the sonic side of it, too. I’ve thought a lot about the sounds on the Circus Hero album, wanting to make sure the tone was really right for a track. I know my sound, though, and I have my studio and all my equipment, and I’ve actually notated it in books. So, I do pay quite a bit of attention to it.
“COLOURED RAIN,” with the Animals (LOVE IS, 1968): Summers didn’t just sit in on this, the final album before the Animals 1969 breakup — he unleashed an epic four-minute guitar solo as Eric Burdon and Company set fire to a Traffic song. (That’s nearly half of this version’s 9:38 length.) For a musician still searching for his voice, there’s a lot of absorb, not least of which is Summers’ facility with a molten improvisational style that was utterly unlike his work with the Police — or even as a subsequent solo artist.
ANDY SUMMERS: At that point in time, we were very much into these long, sort of psychedelic solos. That was my voice, at the time. I don’t know if it holds up or not, anymore. But, at the time, I think it was the longest guitar solo ever recorded at the point when we were doing it. That was very much ’60s acid rock, a here-I-am-flying-around-the-heavens sort of thing.
“I ADVANCE MASKED,” with Robert Fripp (I ADVANCE MASKED, 1982): The opening track on the first of two solo Summers collaborations with Fripp that arrived on either side of the Police’s studio finale Synchronicity, followed by 1984′s Bewitched. Rather than a solofest, these projects turned into a study in differing textures — with moments that ultimately referenced both men’s careers: “New Marimba” could have fit in seamlessly on King Crimson’s Discipline, while this title track sounds something like the Police. Turns out, Summers’ connection with Fripp goes further back than these two recordings.
ANDY SUMMERS: I was interested in working with him because, by the time I was in the Police, he was famous of course for King Crimson — and he’d developed a very singular style that was really different than mine. He’s a very different kind of player. But I should preface this by saying we come from the same hometown, so there is a bit of shared history there, and we both became famous guitar players. There’s a certain weird logic to it. Then we both actually went back to our hometown in England and recorded the two albums we made there with someone else we grew up with. So it was whole little thing. We had a really good time doing it together. The challenge was to take these two sort of disparate styles, and bring them together to make something interesting and good — and I certainly think that I Advance Masked was about 25 years ahead of its time. There’s so much stuff like that now, but remember how early we did that. There was nothing else like it at the time. And surprisingly, it got up to about No. 60 on the Billboard charts which, I think, everyone was sort of amazed about.
“THAT’S WHEN THE MUSIC TAKES ME,” with Neil Sedaka (LIVE AT ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, 1974): This concert-closing anthem is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a showcase for Sedaka’s Rat Pack-esque vocal showmanship, with a bright if largely uninteresting big band in the form of the Royal Philharmonic taking up most of the other musical space. Just before the two-minute mark, however, there is a brief flash of guitar from a figure who turns out to be a pre-Police Summers, who was still struggling to make ends meet while waiting for his big break. The introduction came courtesy of Fripp, actually, whose pre-King Crimson band Giles, Giles and Fripp featured Michael Giles. By 1974, Giles was on tour with Sedaka, and soon — for the princely sum of 35 pounds per night — so was Summers.
ANDY SUMMERS: It’s just something I passed through, to help me survive at one point. Neil was great. It saved my life at the time.
“BRING ON THE NIGHT,” with the Police (REGGATTA de BLANC, 1979): Recorded in a rush, the Police’s sophomore effort ended up being short on new material — prompting Sting to recycle some lyrics from his previous band to complete “Bring on the Night.” The song, which would also serve as the title for a Sting concert release, is one of several where Summers’ makes prominent use of his thumb. A technique most associated with jazz legend Wes Montgomery, its rare practitioners include Jeff Beck and John Abercrombie.
ANDY SUMMERS: There are certainly times when it’s nice to play like that. I don’t do it all of the time; it depends on what you’re playing. Certainly, I like it on slower things. I don’t have the rapid speed that Wes had — and I don’t think anybody’s ever had that. The thing about playing with your thumb on your strings is, you’re essentially one closer. There’s really nothing between you and it. Especially, if you are playing a ballad, I find that playing with the thumb, you phrase differently than you do with a pick. You get this very sweet sound. You play, in a way, more soulfully. There’s something about the thumb that takes you right into it. I play with my thumb a lot, but it depends on what it is really.