Jon Wurster Talks One Of His Earliest Musical Loves, The Police

The Superchunk and Mountain Goats drummer walks us through the band’s classic albums.

The Police recently reissued their entire catalog once again, with every album but their debut (Outlandos D’Amour) getting the heavyweight-vinyl treatment, and every single track put together in a new box set, Every Move You Make: The Studio Recordings. Because we know that the band — and especially drummer Stewart Copeland — were super important to a budding young drummer named Jon Wurster, we asked him to chat us through his thoughts on the band, and on each specific record.
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

I grew up in the farmlands outside of Philadelphia. I wasn’t terribly far from the city, but when you’re 12 or 13 you’re pretty much stuck out there and you’re not getting a lot of information about what cool stuff is going on in the world. I was lucky to hear “Roxanne” on the local commercial rock station every now and then. That was my first exposure to The Police, hearing them late at night on WMMR in late 1978. There was also this great TV show from Canada called Rock World that aired on one of the local Philly UHF stations. They’d show Police, Clash, Boomtown Rats videos and the like. That was my first visual exposure to the Police.

I got Outlandos in early 1979 and started getting slowly into whatever you want to call it, new wave or punk. The Police were kind of the gateway drug into that scene. And as far as my drumming aspirations, Stewart Copeland was a huge influence.

I bought Reggatta when it came out but the Police record that really impacted me was a bootleg album of theirs called Vinyl Villains. It was from a 1979 show at Hatfield Polytechnic in England. It has the first ever live performance of “Message in a Bottle” on it. I would play along with that record every day in the summer or 1980. I’m sure I was terrible but that’s one of my earliest memories of playing along with a record and really trying to figure out what the drummer was doing. Even though I had no hope of duplicating what Stewart was doing, it was a very, very instructional, educational record. So those first two records and Vinyl Villains were very crucial to me as a music fan and as a fledgling drummer.

I was a little too young to see the Police live on those first tours, but I did eventually see them on August 22, 1981 at a horseracing track outside of Philly. It was a really great lineup:  the Police, the Specials a few weeks before they broke up, the Go-Go’s, Oingo Boingo, and opening was the Coasters. For decades I had no clue why the Coasters were on this bill until I found out they played Miles Copeland’s wedding the day before. He got married in New York and the Coasters played the wedding, he probably folded the racetrack gig into their deal. They were so out of place in front of 20,000 new wavers, but it was really fun.

That weekend was pretty monumental for me because the night before the show, I played my first ever gig. It was just a house party, but it was the first time I’d ever played in public. All those memories of my debut are tied together with The Police show the next day. In fact, I still think of the Police every time I smell weed because that racetrack concert was my first exposure to marijuana. 

The Police are one of a few bands where you can pretty much listen to any song, just the first five seconds of it, and you say, “That’s the Police.” That’s what was interesting about listening to their entire catalog, front to back: You always know it’s The Police. Even though the songs are different, and the band definitely morphed over time and got better and tried new approaches, it’s still the Police. In every nook and cranny of every song.

A lot of that is down to Stewart Copeland’s drum sound. Nobody else really sounds like that. It just shows you what an original he is and how influential he is. They all had their own identifiable sound. Andy Summers, you know instantly that’s him. Sting’s bass playing is very identifiable and of course his voice is one of a kind. They’re one of those few bands that just had that magic.

Outlandos D’Amour (1978)

I listened to Outlandos on headphones last night, and there’s so much space on that record. There’s not a ton of overdubs and I think that makes for a more exciting record. I’ve found over years of making records the more you put on a track, the mushier it sounds. But on Outlandos, there’s not a lot of that, it’s very uncluttered. It sounds like three guys playing together in a room, bashing it out, and there’s a real excitement to it. It’s that manic energy of a band in the studio making an album for the first time.

There’s so many crucial songs on this: “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “So Lonely” — any band would kill to have these on their debut album. Even second-tier songs like “Peanuts,” “Born in the 50s,” and “Truth Hits Everybody” are pretty great. It certainly didn’t hurt that each member could play rings around most of their contemporaries. But that’s one of the great things about the Police, even though they were all virtuosos they did whatever was right for the song, even if, like on “Roxanne,” it meant playing pretty minimally.

Reggatta de Blanc (1979)

Reggatta de Blanc is interesting in that it kind of backs up that old adage that you have your entire life to write your first album and then you’ve got two months to do your second one. Reggatta definitely feels like that, where there’s a few songs that kind of scream, “We need three more songs on this record otherwise it’s an EP!”

It’s odd to me that the title track is the second song on the album and it’s basically just this fun instrumental. It’s not really filler, but it’s a weird song to be in the number two slot. Then there are songs like “Contact” and “No Time This Time” which aren’t bad songs, but you would never confuse them quality-wise with the first track, which I consider one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, “Message in a Bottle.” It’s just a phenomenal song and a phenomenal performance by the band. My understanding is that it’s the band’s favorite song, too. 

You can tell they’ve been on the road a lot when you listen to Reggatta. It feels way more confident than the first record. The first one sounds like three guys just going for it, probably one or two takes, and this one you can tell they’ve been touring the world, playing every day and getting better and better. They’re really in top form here. As a kid, my favorite song was Stewart’s “On Any Other Day” which is his only lead vocal in the Police catalog. 

Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)

I remember the night I bought this at Key Records in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. It was exciting to see a new Police album in the racks. Like Reggatta, Zenyatta shows how touring was getting them even tighter and more confident. They’re putting out a record every year at this point. That’s hard to do, and it’s especially hard to do and come up with a few great songs on each of those records. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and  “Driven to Tears” still stand the test of time. 

One thing that impressed me is how in “When the World is Running Down,” there’s a pretty long space for a guitar solo — Andy Summers is such a great guitar player he could play anything—but the solo is basically one note of feedback for the entire section. It’s really brilliant that he went the opposite of what most guitarists’ instincts would be.

He even got a Grammy for an instrumental song on the record called “Behind My Camel.” The story is that Sting hated the song so much he wouldn’t play on it.  He even took the tape and buried it in the garden behind the studio, and Andy somehow found out where it was and brought it back, and it made the record.

Ghost in the Machine (1981)

When I saw them in the summer of ‘81, Ghost in the Machine was not out yet. It came out maybe a month later, but they played songs from it at that show and you could tell the new record was going to be different. This was a new era for them. Synths were starting to ease into the picture, Sting was playing this weird stand-up bass, and they were all finding new little gadgets to play with.

Ghost in the Machine is a better record than I remembered. I particularly like this song of Andy’s called “Omegaman,” which I think he wrote completely solo. Of course, it’s buried on side two!  You’ve got “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” which is great, and “Spirits in the Material World” which was a hit, and then “Invisible Sun,” which was probably their most political song to that point. So you’ve got three big songs on that record. Oh, and what was the song that Grace Jones covered? “Demolition Man.” She’s more known for that song than The Police are at this point.

Those final two Police records were, from what I’ve read, very hard to make because the golden goose wanted the eggs to be exactly the way he wanted them. And I’m sure there was a lot of ego swallowing to make those songs sound like he wanted them to sound. But the proof is in the pudding, they’re timeless songs.

They’re huge stars by this point, dealing with everything that goes with that and there’s an interesting lyric in the last song on the record, which Stewart wrote, called “Darkness.” The line is, “Wish I never woke up this morning / life was easy when it was boring.” So you’ve got that kind of thing seeping into the lyrics, that success is maybe not what they thought it was going to be. But I guess by that point, you’re strapped on that rocket and you can’t get off unless you quit the band, which of course happened after the next record.

Synchronicity (1983)

I found a great quote about the making of Synchronicity. The producer, Hugh Padgham, says the band members were separated — each guy in a different room — for sound reasons and also “for social reasons.” I think at that point it was really hard to be creative together. 

My understanding is that for Synchronicity, Sting brought in pretty complete demos. And I imagine that could not have been fun for the other guys, because they’re both so creative and they wanted to have input. I find this with a lot of songwriters: They’ve heard the demo so much they want the record to sound like the demo. It’s hard to duplicate that and also bring your own feel, your own contribution to the song. You want to please the songwriter but you also want to get your own little licks in.

On Synchronicity, the playing, especially the drumming, is pretty reined in. You listen to an older slower song, like Reggatta de Blanc’s “Walking on the Moon,” and the drumming is just so extreme in a great way, it almost overpowers the vocal. But for the most part that’s not really prevalent on Synchronicity, that manic drumming where he’s letting you know why he’s the king. On a song like “Every Breath You Take,” there’s only a handful of drum fills, the rest of it is just timekeeping, which is exactly what that song requires.  

I would love to have been a fly on the wall when they sequenced this thing and then brought the album to A&M. I just can’t imagine they were enthusiastic about this running order. Tracks three, four and five: “O My God,” Andy’s “Mother” and Stewart’s “Miss Gradenko” are kind of weird and uncommercial and then you’ve got tracks six, seven, eight, nine—all huge hits! And that was in the days of vinyl. “Everything I want to hear is on side two!” 

That “Mother,” this bizarre nightmare of a Captain Beefheart kind of song, exists on the same album as “Every Breath You Take”, the most played song in the history of radio, shows how weird they were, even when they were the biggest band in the world. With “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “Tea in the Sahara,” you can really see where Sting was heading and what his solo records might sound like.

One thing I want to say about these Police records is that they’re pretty timeless sounding, sonically. So many records from the ’80s just sound so of the ’80s. The Police records really don’t to my ears. With the last two records there’s a little more reverb, but nowhere near the amount those hair bands or pop bands of that time were using. You listen to Police albums and your attention’s not taken away by the production, you’re focused on how remarkable the songs and the performances are. 

I didn’t go to any of the reunion shows because I wanted my live memories of The Police to be the shows I saw the first time around. I just didn’t want to fuck with the memory, which is odd because I will go see Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and other artists I saw when I was younger. With the Police, I didn’t want to ruin it. But I’ve watched footage and listened to the live record of the reunion era and they sounded great. So maybe I blew it.

As told to Josh Modell. 

(Photo Credit: Johnny Anguish)

Jon Wurster is a drummer best known as a member of SuperchunkThe Mountain Goats, and Bob Mould’s band. He is also half of the comedic duo Scharpling & Wurster.

(Photo Credit: Johnny Anguish)