(Credits: Far Out / Alamy)
“I think it’s hysterical that both Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts called themselves jazz drummers,” Stewart Copeland humorously remarked when Far Out interviewed him back in 2022. “They were ‘Rock Gods’. Saying ‘I’m a jazz drummer, not a rock drummer’ is the equivalent of saying, ‘I have classical training’. But we all have these moments. I mean, I’m an opera writer!”
This lack of pretence is something that typifies Copeland’s playing. In fact, if you ask rock fans unschooled in the science of drumming, they’re far from likely to list The Police sticksmith among the masters of the craft owing to the poppy nature of the tracks he was part of. However, if you ask a drummer with open ears, they’ll tell you in an instant that he is one of the finest technicians in the modern cannon.
As he told us of his own drumming hero, Ringo Starr: “At long last, he’s being appreciated for the musician he is. Normally, singers and guitarists just want a backbeat: ‘Give us a simple backbeat, nothing flashy.’ Ringo did more than that, and it was refreshing to hear a drummer who did.” All the same, he played to the song’s needs, offering up a rhythmic embellishment that served to elevate the ensemble without ever showing off.
The most complex Police fill is very similar. In fact, it is so willing to serve the song that its hidden dexterity barely gets noticed because it melds with the melody so seamlessly while still providing a vital dynamic counterpoint. Many would cite ‘Murder by Numbers’ as “one of the most difficult drum pieces to play”, but Copeland dismisses this, explaining, “Yes, it is so regarded, but it is actually not true. […] Piece of cake, right.”
However, he continues: “What’s really hard is ‘Spirits in the Material World’. That’s hard”. There is a slightly Middle Eastern influence at play in his unique fill, with Copeland layering in the ‘pat your head, rub your tummy’ difficulty of occasionally omitting the bass drum on the downbeat to create a strange sense of jarring syncopation. As it happens, it’s hard to even place the downbeat, creating a rhythm section that you can get lost in.
This perfectly ties into the sentiment of the song, which showcases Copeland’s ability not just as a drummer but as someone with a firm handle on how everything ties into the songwriting. As the song muses upon the bedevilled existence of man in a world surrounded by bewildering obstacles, with Sting singing, “There is no political solution / To our troubled evolution”, the highest facet of Copeland’s drumming is perhaps not the stuttered complexity, but the way that he wasn’t just content with laying down a rhythm that fits the musicology, he went to the next level to play into the sentiment too.
You can check out the mystifying isolate drums for the track below. And contrary to Copeland scoffing at Baker’s pretence, there is something distinctly jazzy about the playing; it is beats made baroque.