This song is about a man who falls in love with a prostitute. Sting got the idea after walking through the red-light district of Paris when the band was in town to play a club called The Nashville. He imagined what it would be like to fall in love with one of the prostitutes.
This was the first major-label release by The Police, who were struggling at the time. A year earlier, they released the single "Fall Out" on an independent label owned by Stewart Copeland's brother (and the band's manager), Miles. It was a flop, and the group felt a lot of pressure to produce something that would keep them off the dole.
When they convened at Surrey Sound Studios outside of London in January 1978, they recorded the song with producer Nigel Gray, who owned the studio. Sting liked the song but didn't think it would be a hit, as it was far more brooding than their other material. Miles Copeland thought differently - he was far more impressed with "Roxanne" than with anything else they recorded at those sessions, and insisted it be the single. Miles got a distribution deal for the song with A&M Records, getting no advance, only royalties from sales.
The song was released in the UK on April 7, but didn't garner much attention. It was also largely ignored in the US when it was released there on February 24, 1979, but The Police soldiered on with a tour of America anyway. When a disc jockey in Austin stared playing the song, it got a great response and other radio stations added it to their playlists. The song became a minor hit, peaking at #32 on April 28. The song also got some attention in the UK around this time, and it made #12 about a year after it was first released.
The intro to the song contains one of the great happy accidents in rock history. There was an upright piano in the studio, which Sting sat on thinking the lid was closed. Tape was rolling for his vocal, so the sound of his butt hitting the piano and his subsequent laughter were recorded. These sounds were mixed into the intro, providing a unique texture.
Sting chose the name Roxanne because it has a rich history behind it. Roxanne was the name of Alexander The Great's wife and Cyrano de Bergerac's girlfriend.
Police guitarist Andy Summers made a key contribution to this song. In our interview with Summers
, he explained: "'Roxanne' is so identified by that guitar at the beginning - the first verse before he starts singing. It's immediately identifiable."
The Police performed this when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. With the exception of a drunken jam at Sting's wedding in 1992, it was the first time they played together since they broke up in 1986 over personal differences. At the ceremony, guitarist Andy Summers joked, "I'd like to make it very clear that there is no ego in our band whatsoever."
The beat on this song is a classic fusion of rock and reggae, but Sting considers is more of a tango.
In 1987, Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah starred in the movie Roxanne, which is based on the Cyrano DeBergerac story of a dramatist with a big nose who falls for a beautiful woman. The song was not used in the film.
A remake of this song was featured in the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge
. Christian (Ewan McGregor) sings this about Satine (Nicole Kidman) when he becomes enraged in a fit of jealousy. And guess what? They made it into a tango, so this song can no longer be mistaken for a reggae beat... Sting must be very proud.
Sting performs this at most of his concerts, as it's one of his favorites and it always gets a great audience response. He played it at Live Aid in 1985.
In the 1982 movie 48 Hours, Eddie Murphy sings a very off-key version of the song in a jail cell.
This song is the basis for a popular drinking game of the same title: men drink when it says "Roxanne," women drink when it says "Red Light."
When The Police reunited in 2007, their first public performance came at the Grammy Awards, where they played this to open the show.
A version by San Francisco singer-songwriter Juliet Simms debuted at #86 on the Hot 100 in April 2012 after she performed the song on the reality music show The Voice.
The original sheet of lyrics for this song is decorated with Sting's random doodles, most dealing with the passage of time. They are "three clocks - one at five to four, another at ten past six, and one sidelong that looks to be showing eight o'clock - a sundial, an hourglass, five sets of five-bar gates that prisoners use to mark the passing of days, some kind of whirlwind vortex spinning in the top right-hand corner, and a spear or an arrowhead. I imagine I was drawing these as I was listening back to various takes of the vocals, but I don't know what they mean," Sting wrote in Lyrics By Sting. (These illustrations can be seen on the back cover of the book).
"I sing 'Roxanne' every night," Sting told Daniel Rachel for the 2013 book The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters. "There's always a little inflection that is new or a possibility that opens it out. It's not my job to reproduce a record that was made thirty years ago. I use that and I respect that, but it's only a template. It's that jazz mentality. You use the head of the song just as a starting point."