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The Story Behind the Song: 'Roxanne', the red light classic by The Police

Before 1978, no band was even coming close to writing a song in the form of tango, no less a song about falling in love with a prostitute. The ultimate power trio, The Police, were looking for a single hit so they didn’t have to sign on to the dole again and collect their unemployment benefits. 

Sting started writing a lot of songs and would bring them to the guitar player, Andy Summers, in his damp basement in London. Although Sting was awfully shy at this point, Summers encouraged him: “Sting played it for me in my living room early on. He was very shy at first bringing in his songs. But it was brilliant, and later on, we all worked it out in a damp basement in North London. I remember Stewart telling Sting where to place the bass notes, which was a bit tricky.”

Andy Summers then continues his anecdote about how Miles Copeland, the brother of the drummer Stuart Copeland, and was managing the band at the time, absolutely loved the song: “Miles Copeland came down to hear us and we were kind of embarrassed to play it for him because Miles had blinders on and was into fast and furious punk. But much to his credit, he said, ‘This is great, a knockout!’ I was really surprised. And he took it to A&M and got a contract for one single. I don’t think it ever broke the top 40 in America, but eventually, it became the Police signature tune.”

When the single, ‘Roxanne’, originally came out in ’78, the reason why it didn’t catch fire immediately would be the same reason it did the following year. Between 1978 and 1979, punk had exploded across the western world, and no one was doing what The Police were doing at the time. Here was a trio band who were all technically adept musicians, not looking to sing overtly political songs or play with fervent energy and abrupt attitude the punks were. This was a different operation.

The Police would convene at Surrey Studios with Andy Summers, who had just joined the band. Nigel Gray, who owned the studio, helped The Police conceive the beautiful off-the-beaten-path reggae/tango single. 

The guitar riff to the song has become one of the most memorable riffs of all time. As the song kicks in, you will hear a happy mistake in the form of a clumsy piano thud. Unbeknownst to Sting, the tapes were rolling, and he sat on a piano, which he didn’t realise, had its lid open. As he sat on the piano, a barrage of dissident notes came forth from underneath his behind, and then a burst of nervous laughter from Sting.

The song didn’t perform well at all in the States. In fact, if it wasn’t for a lone vigilante located in Austin, Texas, who happened to have spun the single innumerable times, then a subsequent string of radio stations would not have picked up on it. By the time 1979 rolled around, The Police, now with some more momentum, decided to rerelease the track and to better success. The song peaked at number 12 on the UK singles chart.

The subject matter for the song — a man who falls in love with a prostitute and tries to convince her that she doesn’t have ‘to turn on her red light’ — was inspired by some local prostitutes in Paris, France, who were hanging near a seedy hotel The Police were staying at as they had a show at the local Nashville Club. “We were supposed to do this shitty little gig with The Damned,” recalled Summers to Louder Sound, “And we’d driven to Paris from Holland in my Citroen Dyane 6. The night before, we all went our separate ways and Sting was wandering around, looking at all the hookers.”

The name ‘Roxanne’ comes from a character in the play, Cyrano De Bergerac, a poster of which was hanging in the foul-smelling foyer of the hotel and shows the delicate dexterity with which Sting can craft his songs. Summers remembered that Sting “got this notion for a song that he played like a bossa nova on a nylon-stringed guitar.”

“It was the first time I’d seen prostitution on the streets, and those birds were actually beautiful,” Sting explained in 1981 of the track’s famous connection to the streets. “I had a tune going around in my head, and I imagined being in love with one of those girls. We didn’t have much material and were struggling to put a set together, so when we regrouped to rehearse up in Finchley we tried it out.” It would prove to be one of the greatest songs Sting would ever write.

The single is a brilliant display of musical fusions and is a good example of how a drummer can play a significant part in shaping a song’s identity.

Take a listen to the track, below.