The Police pulled off the most unlikely of musical feats. While several bands combined the restless, raw energy of punk with the rhythmic, tuneful urgency of reggae, these guys wrapped it all up in the accomplished musicianship and off-kilter key changes and shifting time signatures of jazzy prog rock. This had never been done before, and anyone who’s tried it since owes a tremendous debt to Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland (no one comes to mind, though). The fact that they were able to retain rock credibility while winning pop stardom and a Grammy for a rock instrumental (1979’s krautrock-influenced “Regatta de Blanc”) are all further testaments to the phenomenal oddity that was this band. While I’ve never been much of a fan of Sting’s solo work, The Police have always kind of astonished me with their bravery and virtuosity.
And so we come to the act of bravery above: in a live appearance at Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire) in February of 1979, the band decides to drop a new, untested song on the enthusiastic crowd. The song? “Message in a Bottle” from the ’79 album Regatta de Blanc, the same record that produced that Grammy-winning title-track instrumental. What’s so brave about that, you ask? There’s often no better way to try out new material than in front of an already appreciative audience. Well, this gig was recorded for a BBC series called "Rock Goes to College." Although The Police were skirting stardom with the single “Roxanne” from their first album, they hadn’t quite made it yet, and their first TV appearance was a risky venue for demoing a new tune. But they pull it off. The crowd bounces in time and the three Police, who seem on the edge of a mistake or dropped note somewhere, give the song a flawless turn.
You can watch the full “Rock Goes to College” concert below, which also includes early hits like “Can’t Stand Losing You” (the opener) and “Roxanne” (at 29:45).
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness