In the late ’70s, The Police were struggling to stay afloat. Yet to make their major label debut, the group felt a lot of pressure to produce something that would keep them “off the dole.” In 1978, the group got just what they needed—a one-way ticket to superstardom via “Roxanne.”
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The sultry track follows closely behind “Every Breath You Take” as The Police’s top offering. Unlike anything their peers were producing at the time, “Roxanne” brought the three-piece out of the shadows, albeit with a few roadblocks along the way (more on that below).
We’d venture to guess that you’ve heard the opening guitar riff in “Roxanne” a time or two, but do you know the story behind the song? If not, you’re in luck. We’re going through the origins and legacy of “Roxanne” below.
Behind the Meaning
In October of 1977, The Police were slated to play a “shitty little gig” (guitarist Andy Summers recalls) with The Damned in Paris. The night before, the band members all went their separate ways and wandered around the streets of the capital city. Sting found his way into an alleyway that was lined with sex shops and prostitutes—a gaudy yet inspiring scene for the frontman.
The band arrived at the venue the following day only to be told that The Damned “had pissed off back to England” and the show had been cancelled. Despite the last-minute bummer, the trip sparked what has become one of the group’s signature tracks: “Roxanne.”
With the alleyway still in the back of his mind and a poster of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac (the main character is named Roxanne) hanging in the hotel lobby, Sting began to lay out the titular story of the track.
“It was the first time I’d seen prostitution on the streets, and those birds were actually beautiful,” Sting once explained. “I had a tune going around in my head, and I imagined being in love with one of those girls.”
He continued, “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.”
Stewart Copeland gave the track its tango-esque feel, rounding out what is now the finished product. Summers explained, “We started playing around with it and came up with something where I was able to play four-in-the-bar, Stewart put that slight reggae thing on, and Sting changed where he put the bass beats. We worked it up in one afternoon.”
You don’t have to put on the red light
Those days are over
You don’t have to sell your body to the night
You don’t have to wear that dress tonight
Walk the streets for money
You don’t care if it’s wrong or if it’s right
Banned By The BBC
“Roxanne” made The Police into certified superstars. Not many bands were making songs that had a tango swing, let alone one about being in love with a prostitute. It was that kind of out-of-the-box musicality that brought the group out of anonymity and onto the world’s stage. However, that shift didn’t happen overnight.
“Roxanne” had a slow start upon its release, largely due to its touchy subject matter. The BBC refused to allow the song on air. The group attempted to circumvent the situation by putting up posters that had “banned by the BBC” written on them, hoping to spark some sort of counter-culture following, but it ultimately didn’t play out.
Sting defended the song soon after its release saying, “There was no talk about fucking in it, it wasn’t a smutty song in any sense of the word. It was a real song with a real, felt lyric, and they wouldn’t play it on the grounds that it was about a prostitute.”
“Roxanne” didn’t gain traction until the group started playing dates in the U.S. —all thanks to a radio station in Texas.
Summers recalled, “From there it went to WBCN in Boston and this disc jockey called Oedipus started to play it in heavy rotation. Then the song picked up and everyone started to play it. We didn’t have a record deal in the States, but because of “Roxanne” and this heavy rotation in Boston, A&M in America came to see us. They got it pretty quick and signed us to an American deal. And it all started to unfold quickly from there.”
He continued, “It all changed fast. We sort of had a year to practice being a rock band, then we started all over again with the same song. It was weird.”
Photo by Peter Noble/Redferns