1978 — 1983 Studio albums (A&M)
Let's have a Regan rave, say I, to reflect on The Police's studio albums (1978-1983).
Aside from their fine music, the Police are a very interesting "big" group, for a number of reasons:
— Their members straddle the 60s/70s hippy-long-hair and 70s/80s new wave eras
— They made only five albums in a five-year period, disbanding at the height of their popularity
— They were an Anglo/American crossover, of sorts
— No two fans agree on what their best album is
That latter point is interesting. My purpose, as ever, is not to rank the albums, as such, but rather to engage in stimulating your appreciation of them. All the Police albums are very good and worthy of your time, and I myself do not really have any particular favorite.
And speaking of appreciation, let's also take a moment to thank The Police for being one of the few money-spinning bands not to beat a dead horse; not to milk the cow for every last drop from a tired, twisted teat; not to wring the last drop of sweat from that freshly-soiled gym sock that you just wore for two hours of basketball in an under-ventilated gym in humid Tokyo. What I'm saying is, let's thank them for not becoming the latter-day Rolling Stones. As Andy Summers once said, "People hadn't got enough of it" when The Police went to their separate beats. Quite so.
(And no, I haven't forgotten that The Police – then more accurately christened "Sting's ego" – reformed for a reunion tour in 2007-08 whose profits would probably feed the entire developing world. There is that fact, I concede. But as these endless reunion tours go, theirs was quite respectable, with a high quality of product and professionalism. And, like their recording career, it didn't go on and on. It was one final go-round and then out. That's okay... maybe.)
A lot of history:
American Stewart Copeland (who'd grown up mainly in Beirut, as his dad was a bigwig in the CIA) was The Police's drummer and group founder. As a teen, Stewart made his way to the UK for a time – perhaps because his mother was Scottish – and later studied at universities in California, before returning to Britain and joining the just-past-its-prime progressive UK band, Curved Air, by 1974.
British guitarist Andy Summers – by a decade the eldest Policeman, born in 1942 – got his professional start in the late 1950s, and was a familiar face of the UK's rhythm & blues scene of the 1960s. Summers was a member of Zoot Money's Big Roll Band (r&b with some jazz), which enjoyed some success, and this band, probably after some particularly good acid trips, morphed into the psychedelic Dantalion's Chariot. Andy briefly joined Eric Burdon's new Animals, far away in San Francisco. He later got out of showbiz for a while, studying music for five years at university in California. Returning to the UK around the same time Stewart did, Andy picked up a bunch of session work and looked around for something fresher and more stable...
Singer/bassist Gordon Sumner, way up in Newcastle, was called "Sting" by some of his fusion/jazz band members, because he wore a yellow and black striped sweater. He joined the Newcastle Big Band, playing double-bass, and this group actually released an album, locally, in the early-1970s. Meanwhile, he qualified as a school teacher (his day job), and helped form a locally-successful fusion group called Last Exit (you can hear these Last Exit recordings nowadays quite easily, and they're very interesting). Sting, as it soon transpired, was an extremely gifted songwriter, whose Last-Exit tunes garnered a songwriting contract of sorts with future gazillionaire Richard Branson; however, his band was going nowhere from Newcastle, and Sting was talking about moving to London to make it big....
Curved Air visited Newcastle for a show in 1976, and after their own gig, Stewart saw Last Exit perform. He later said he saw dollar signs falling from the sky when he saw young-Sting in action.
Stewart had the idea of starting up a new group – UK punk was just taking off – but needed a singer (and a saleable commodity). Some months later, Sting took up Stewart's invitation to look him up in London, and, at last, the two formed The Police. On guitar was a Corsican name Henri Padovani. They played some shows in France as a backing group, and recorded some demos. Stewart had a punk-ish song, "Fall Out", he wanted to
release, and they recorded it for a one-off independent release. The single was popular in London, sold-out its pressing, and was even reviewed favorably in the music press by none other than Mick Jagger.
But the guitarist wasn't good enough, and they still had no record deal or real distribution. Stewart's encounter with Andy Summers took care of the first problem (Stewart claims that Andy told him: “You need a new guitarist – me!”). For the second problem, enter Stewart's elder brother, Miles Copeland. A fast-talking windbag, Miles heard his little brother's trio playing a new song, “Roxanne”, and smelled the money. Miles took the recording to A&M records and offered them a risk-free chance of issuing it, which they did, in 1978. The single went nowhere, but A&M agreed to issue another one, “Can't Stand Losing You”, which reached #42 in the UK. The label put up enough money for The Police to slowly (between January and June of 1978) record their first album.
At the tail end of that year, and at the start of 1979, The Police's relentless touring of both the UK and (on the cheap) the eastern seaboard of the USA, sent a re-released “Roxanne” way up the pop-charts in both countries. The timing was good, since the first album was now available. Then, the second single, “Can't Stand Losing You”, was also re-issued, and hit #2 in the UK charts. The Police had arrived as a new hit group.
I have dwelt on this backstory considerably, I know. I don't usually do that. But in the case of this overview of the singular Police, I feel their interesting history of divergent paths from different places colliding in the London of 1977 is essential to understanding, and appreciating, them. Now, for a pithy discussion of their actual albums... (the tracks in BOLD highlight are the ones I consider truly first-rate):
1978 – Outlandos D'Amour (A&M)
1) Next To You
2) So Lonely
4) Hole In My Life
6) Can't Stand Losing You
7) Truth Hits Everybody
8) Born In The 50's
9) Be My Girl – Sally
10) Masoko Tanga
They certainly hit the ground running. The first seven tracks on this album are all pretty great, and yes, I know, I may be the only person who rates “So Lonely” a bit lower than the other top tracks (it's good... but I find it over-long and a bit repetitive). Regardless, I would indeed be hard-pressed to think of another post-60s' band that put this many killer tracks off the top of their first long-player.
“Next to You” is fast and catchy: “What can I do? / All I want is to be next to you.” One can imagine Sting, the jazzman, showing this tune to the others as a Beatles-esque pop tune, and Stewart Copeland saying: “F*** that! We're gonna make this into a punk song and separate these London kids from their money!” It does sound a bit forced into the upper of uptempos, but it's a real winner, fast and fresh. This is the kind of song you want to hear again after listening to it once, which is a real compliment. “So Lonely” is Bob Marley/folk chords, with an easy melody and some quite whiny Sting vocals (this really could have been transposed down). In a way, it's the prototypical early Police song, with the relaxed feeling of the verses and then the super-explosive choruses. I like it, but this tracks drags and bit and sounds a bit desperate to my ears. Fortunately, “Roxanne” awaits. If you ever want to get really depressed, listen to today's top-40 for an hour (if you can make it that long) and then crank up this one. My God, this is a great tune... and it's a tango! As with several Police songs, the bass (played by the singer, don't forget) is just as catchy as the guitar part, which here is merely a series of chunky chords. Those Sting bass-lines are sinewy and funky, and “Roxanne's” is no exception. Stewart's minimal drums in the tango verses turn to straight rock 4/4 in the choruses, which works a charm. Sting wails for the hopeless prostitute he loves in the highly mixed backing vocal (his own), as his lead vocal tells her she doesn't need to “put on the red light”. This is late-70s' rock nirvana. “Hole in my Life” is another winner, again structured around Andy's fast chords, with lots of space between bass notes and drum-beats. While not as exciting as “So Lonely” or “Roxanne”, it's very well structured harmonically and just pleases your ear (a two-fingered piano part at the end adds some spice). That excitement factor is cranked up again with “Peanuts”, a track almost as fast as “Next to You”. This may be the most “rock” of all the really good songs on this record, and it certainly works a treat with its catchy verses and killer chorus (Andy even sneaks a guitar solo past the punk-police of the era). Lyrically, Sting was targeting late-70s Rod Stewart and the false-idol rock stars whom celebrity turned into gossip-column subjects, hanging on past their primes. Stewart's super-intense drums as the chorus repeats over the outro are just fab.
The second half of Outlandos d'Amour is inevitably a bit of a comparative let-down, but it starts off strongly with two more timeless cuts. “Can't Stand Losing You” is maybe the closest the band ever came to white reggae mixed with rock, and it really bounces and swings. The lyric is funny and dark, with the narrator threatening suicide to the girl who has dumped him (the single sleeve featured Stewart in a noose, standing on a block of ice). Stewart makes the rhythm really bouncy, and the choruses are well structured to allow them to run on repetitively, a bit longer each time, until the last one goes on and on, fading the song out. It's often overlooked that this is really the song that broke the group in the UK (not “Roxanne”), and if it hadn't done so, who knows what shit I'd be writing about now? “Truth Hits Everybody” is another super-uptempo cut, and another one with rock-solid harmony that just holds up. Sting was just a great songwriter, even in his celebrity-infancy. I think this is one of the record's very best songs, and it's a shame that The Police dropped it pretty early on – nor did Sting ever revisit it, in his solo years. Maybe the most awkward cut on Outlandos d'Amour is the generation-referencing “Born in the 50's” (which, of course, Andy wasn't). This is a really rock'n'roll-style song, which immediately makes it sound too straight for this record. It's still a memorable tune and would be a solid composition for a group like The Who, maybe, but in the hands of The Police it's awkward as hell. Interesting, but not completely successful. Things get silly with “Be My Girl – Sally”, which is just the repeated refrain of “Would you be my girl?” interrupted by Andy Summers' spoken interlude on his life with an inflatable blow-up doll named Sally. It's funny... sort of. “Masoko Tanga” sounds like the result of studio jamming. It's really an instrumental, though Sting scats along vocally. An enjoyable enough listen, but not the kind of thing that's going to thrill you.
In short, Outlandos d'Amour is very, very good for a first album. The only thing that might limit this one slightly is that its identity and style are still unformed. At times, you can feel that the group don't really know what kind of group they want to be yet (“Born in the 50's” comes to mind), but when they get it right – which is most of the time – they really get it right. Trails off a bit at the end, though.
1979 – Reggatta de Blanc (A&M)
1) Message In A Bottle
2) Reggatta De Blanc
3) It's Alright For You
4) Bring On The Night
6) Walking On The Moon
7) On Any Other Day
8) The Bed's Too Big Without You
10) Does Everyone Stare
11) No Time This Time
The Police were one of those really hard-working, opportunistic kind of groups. When, in early 1979, they got the tiniest bit of a break with some radio play and media support, they put their noses to the grindstone and eventually churned Reggatta de Blanc, released in October 1979. This second record was recorded back at Surrey Sound, with Nigel Gray. It wasn't an easy record, by most accounts, with the band suffering a dearth of new material. But Sting revived a couple of Last Exit tunes, they jammed their way into a couple of songs, and Stewart wrote a few numbers himself (in fact, he gets a songwriting credit on no fewer than six tracks!).
In the UK, Reggatta was an enormous #1 album, producing two #1 hits and making the band the new hype of the pop/rock market. In the US, it was somewhat less successful, but consolidated the success of the first record. Meanwhile, some more hard-touring Stateside was laying the groundwork that would pay off for them very soon.
“Message a Bottle” is an all-time classic. With this track, a #1 UK pop hit, The Police cemented a lasting legacy. The guitar-riff is the stuff of legend, the bass is swaggering and thrilling, the drum patterns diverse and defining, the lyric longing and stately, the vocal perfect, and the dynamics of the whole recording used to maximum effect. It's uptempo and exciting as hell. Andy recalled the band playing the song over and over many times as they recorded it, giving the recording a very lively mood. Incidentally, my favorite moment in this masterpiece occurs around 3:20 or so, as the second chorus ends. Instead of leaping full-power into the “Sending out an S.O.S” bit, Andy plays the sexy guitar-riff for four bars while Sting and Stewart quietly play along. Then, they all converge into the outro at full volume. That's just good dynamics, letting the song breathe a bit. This is the best song on any of the first four albums (apologies to “Roxanne”), and it might be the best one they ever cut.
A few other tracks – namely, “Bring On The Night”, “Walking On The Moon”, and “The Bed's Too Big Without You” – almost scale the heights of “Message In A Bottle”, amazingly. “Walking On The Moon” also reached #1 on the UK chart, as Police-mania began to spread. Sting is particularly fond of this one, which somehow sounds simultaneously very new wave, very reggae-ish, and slightly jazzy. “Walking back from your house / Walking on the moon” – and the song does seem to capture the giddy feeling of walking back home, alone, late at night, after a memorable evening, slightly inebriated. The fat bass-line Sting plays through all the verses and outro is class. “Bring on the Night” is perhaps the band's jazziest song yet, which stands to reason as it's a Last Exit tune re-written by Sting for The Police. The rhythmic patterns are sublime in this one, and the guitar parts are just beautiful. Harmonically, it stands up us a lovely and slightly sophisticated song that could have gone “rock” or “folk-rock” and worked well enough, but in this uniquely talented band's nimble hands it becomes a jazzy new wave sensual scorcher (with reggae chords in the chorus). It's not only a fabulous composition; it also defies genre categorization, which several of the best Police tunes do. “The Bed's Too Big Without You” also can be heard as a jazzed-up new wave track. It's sly, groovy, dark, and brilliant. Sting's bass-line, here, is just a plucked E-minor chord, but then it gets all complex in the choruses. His highly-pitched vocal works well here, to my ears (better than in “So Lonely”). Unique and superb track.
None of the other tracks reach such heights, but somehow they add up to more than the sum of themselves. The title track, “Reggatta de Blanc”, grew out of lengthy jams played in the middle break of “Can't Stand Losing You” in 1978-79 live shows. This one's a winner, and a perfect showcase for the trio's instrumental interplay. (It often sounded even better live.) “It's Alright For You” sounds to me like Stewart-chords that Sting maybe touched up and finished off. It's a pretty good track, very fast paced and exciting. “Deathwish” is not unlike “Reggatta” in that it's a sinewy band workout, but it actually has some real lyrics. It's the Bo-Diddley beat through the bass, with some so-so breaks in between, and no chorus.
Stewart has three songs on the second half of the vinyl platter. The first, “On Any Other Day”, which he also sings, is a real treat. (It kicks off with Stewart's casual chatter in the studio perhaps evaluating his own songs – as he says: “The other ones are complete bullshit!” Just kidding, Stew!). Copeland's lyrics tend to the sardonic in extremis, and this one is more so the lyric of a frustrated dad in suburbia who just can't get no respect, and whose wife is cheating on him. Stewart's compositions may seem musically simplistic compared to Sting's more refined ones, but they are always very solid. This track has a kick-ass chorus that really flies, in classic early-Police style. “Contact” and “Does Everyone Stare” are less interesting, but still fun. No harm done. In fact, I think this album benefits from Copeland Jr.'s slice-of-real-life observations, which help keep The Police grounded in the everyday. At least Sting was willing to sing “Contact”, lyrically awkward as it is. Stewart starts off speaking the opening verses and chorus of “Does Everyone Stare”, but then Sting takes over for the song-proper.
Reggatta de Blanc is a really great album. It somehow hangs together as a piece, despite some awkwardness, as noted, in Stewart's compositions (which, nevertheless, are all quite enjoyable). Throughout, the record maintains a very new wave sound, yet it's also distinctively “Police”. They now know who they are and how they want to be.
I'm tempted to suggest that because Sting had fewer songs ready to go and was less dominant here than on any other Police record, it forced the band into a more democratic final result, which yielded perhaps their most “band-like”, and, some would say, best, album (Stewart Copeland thinks so, for one). I'm not sure the Copeland songwriting is necessarily a good thing taken to large volumes, but I do think the fact that the group was forced to play live together to come up with new song ideas was beneficial. This is, after all, the way tighter bands write all the time. Let's face it, The Police were not a tight, friendly group. But on this album, they sound like one!
1980 – Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M)
1) Don't Stand So Close To Me
2) Driven To Tears
3) When The World Is Running Down You Make The Best Of What's Still Around
4) Canary In A Coalmine
5) Voices Inside My Head
6) Bombs Away
7) De Do Do Do De Da Da Da
8) Behind My Camel
9) Man In A Suitcase
10) Shadows In The Rain
11) The Other Way Of Stopping
Oh, no! The dreaded “middle album!” And yet, again, they come up with a winner, despite the horrible title (I think Miles Copeland came up with the first three albums' names) and the ugly orange-yellow-blue-whatever sleeve, with Andy looking like a rooster. The single, “Don't Stand So Close To Me”, and album went straight to the top of the charts in the UK, and this is the album that really started to break them big in the USA as well (it peaked at #10 Stateside, and later, while on tour, they were on the cover of Rolling Stone). This is the first Police album made under pressure, as established stars. Now tax-exiles, they recorded it in The Netherlands, with Nigel Gray along for the ride again, though The Police themselves are listed as co-producers. Weirdly, The Police almost seemed to record albums faster as they got more successful (it's usually the reverse). Regarding
Zenyatta, Stewart memorably explained: “We finished the album at 4 a.m. on the day we were starting our next world tour.” Indeed, that's probably not the best way to do it, and either because of that, or because they were in an unfamiliar studio, the masters from these sessions, to me, sound... different from the previous two records, and not in a good way. Now, I have not listened to the more recent super-digitally-remastered Police CDs, so maybe this problem has been partly corrected with modern technology, but this album seems to have a slightly “distant” sound. It almost sounds cheap, like it wasn't recorded in a big-time studio. Fortunately, the band was so hot by 1980 that it didn't really matter – they still sound great. And this is actually the last Police LP to feature the power-trio sound that made their name (more of which later, of course).
“Don't Stand So Close To Me” is a bouncy pop tune with an irresistible melody and ska-rhythm. It's very musically simple – like many a pop hit – but the brilliant arrangement and clever lyric elevate it above the herd, as do the usual masterly songwriting touches like the prolonged “Please - don't - stand - so - close - to - me” backing vocal at its end. I also like the touch of the ominous synthesizer drone that kicks off the song (and the album). “Driven To Tears” is another diamond, this time with Sting's bass riff in the forefront, and his vocals somewhat suppressed and sober as suits the somber nature of the lyric. Somewhat like “Message In A Bottle” last time, this is a really tightly composed song that somehow still allows each band-member to strut his instrumental stuff to great effect. “When The World Is Running Down...” has a ridiculously long title, but is another harmonically rich song with a particularly strong chord progression (it's similar to “Bring On The Night”). The lyric is rather amusing, as the Sting-ster waxes philosophical on what to do when you're the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust. The song is slightly hypnotic with its endless chord progression, but the lyrical melody is strong enough and bright enough to keep your toe-tapping and avoid any semblance of trance-rock. “Canary In A Coalmine” is certainly catchy and uptempo, but this is one where the repetitive nature of the chords and the too-cute lyrics may start to grate. Much more interesting is “Voices Inside My Head”, which is a real elastic groove and again shows off the supreme instrumental interplay of the three Policemen at their best. Heck, this track even made the disco chart in the USA.
The second half of Zenyatta isn't as strong as the first, but it starts off with maybe Stewart's best-ever pop song: “Bombs Away”. Remembering that our-Stew grew up partly in Beirut as a CIA-kid, you can imagine the inspiration for lines like: “The President looks in the mirror and speaks / His shirts are clean but his country reeks.” Indeed. The tune has a great melody and a big, floating chorus high on sardonicism. Pure Copeland. The next track, the memorably titled “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”, was another single. It's a good song, with a classic-pop chorus and an outstanding arrangement. Let's let the great Joni Mitchell have a word: “The stops, the pauses, in that one are really fun. I appreciated the rhythmic hybrids, the gaps between the bass lines, the repetitive figures with space between them.” If Joni likes it, good enough for me! The issue here is Sting's possibly too-clever lyric, which threatens to undermine the whole thing. It's one thing to pass off a Nabokov reference in the first single, but it's quite another to base an entire pop-song lyric on the inarticulateness of expression in verse. (Whatever happened to “Be My Girl – Sally”?) Andy Summers' God-awful “Behind My Camel” is an instrumental I really don't enjoy. Sting hated the song so much he refused the play on it, so Andy covered the minimal bass himself. It's just horrible, which makes its Grammy-award win the more hilarious. Fortunately, things recover with the pop-tastic “Man In A Suitcase”, a fast treatise on the nature of life on the road. Nice a song as it is, this is one that surely would have benefited from a little longer to work on it in the studio, or perhaps not being written in the studio. When they played this live in their 1980-81 tour, it really flew with an energy (and tempo) rarely heard by any group, ever. It's much more sedate on Zenyatta, but anything that saves us from “Behind My Camel” is welcome. “Shadows In The Rain” is another Sting jazzy-composition that got Police-ified by Stewart (and a tiny bit by Andy). The lyric is really good and funny, and there's a nice chord progression, but the arrangement is just lethargic and the over-long track doesn't achieve whatever it’s trying to, except maybe to put us to sleep. (The song would be re-cut by Sting and his posse of jazz musicians in 1985, to much better effect.) Finally, the album ends with a Stewart Copeland instrumental (!), “The Other Way of Stopping”, which might have more accurately been titled, “The Most Pointless Way of Ending”. Stewart is an incredible drummer and he always sounds good, even when the song is bad, as this one is. Still, it's utterly forgettable, and is clearly filler.
Of the five Police long-players, Zenyatta Mondatta is the hardest for me to form a decisive opinion on. There are enough moments that display the power-trio at its very best, and enough winning melodies and confident compositions that only a fool could dismiss it as a less-than-impressive effort. On the other hand, two of the tracks are completely disposable, and a few others give lyrical hints of Sting's more excessively pretentious lyrical moments to follow (indeed, to follow on from The Police). In addition, there isn't really anything new that we hadn't heard on the first two records, and in some ways the sound of this one is almost like a pale reflection of the more vital sound/style of the second album (excepting the slightest hint of a disco influence, which isn't a particularly good thing either). Another interesting point: I've observed that Americans tend to like Zenyatta a lot, and Brits tend to dislike it, for reasons I can't explain.
Let's call this one the confused middle-child – the Jan Brady of Police albums, if you will.
1981 – Ghost in the Machine (A&M)
1) Spirits In The Material World
2) Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
3) Invisible Sun
4) Hungry For You (J'Aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)
5) Demolition Man
6) Too Much Information
7) Rehumanize Yourself
8) One World (Not Three)
10) Secret Journey
I like Ghost In The Machine. I really do. It has a unique sonic identity, and I can't think of another album that sounds like it, or even creates a similar mood. But I can also understand some fans' relative indifference to it. It's kind of dark, as per the sleeve, and lyrically a bit serious. The songs themselves seem (somewhat like
Reggatta) to be more so the result of jams rather than careful composition, and (unlike Reggatta, however) not very genre-pushing. Lyrically, Sting continues his preoccupation with global social-issues in pop songwriting, perhaps a little too much for the band's own good. What's really noticeable about Ghost is the introduction of prominent synthesizers and, to a lesser extent, keyboard parts that mark a turn in the band's dynamic – away from a collective threesome and into more of Sting's musical vision as accompanied by Stewart and Andy. While unfortunate in many ways, this was probably the necessary evolution of the band. They had to go in some new direction, I suppose, and better they followed Sting's vision than Andy's. Still, you can't help but miss the power-trio sound, largely pensioned off for good from here on.
Ghost In The Machine was not recorded with Nigel Gray. The band instead hired Hugh Padgham as co-producer, and recorded initial sessions in Montserrat, at George Martin's (no doubt expensive) AIR Studios, and finishing up at Le Studio in Quebec, Canada.
The band spend an inordinate amount of time working on the single, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”. Sting had written the song way back in 1977, and it was presumably rubbished by Stewart and Andy at the time, who likely thought it was too wimpy. (Sting’s 1977 demo can easily be heard on YouTube nowadays – it’s sublime.) Sting hired a keyboard player to record a 1981 “demo” of the song, with which to re-present it to Andy and Stewart. Once they realized it could be an uptempo ska-pop song, they were sold, but the problem was that the trio tried and tried, unsuccessfully, to recreate the magic of Sting’s demo. They couldn’t. Finally, Andy and Stewart simply played over the demo, while Sting flew in the keyboardist (Jean Roussel) to add more layers of keyboards. Symbolically, this was probably the moment the three-man sound of The Police died. Great track, though!
The album kicks off with “Spirits In The Material World”, whose title – and the album’s – suggest that Sting was reading philosophy, looking for inspiration well outside the standard subjects of rock’n’roll. I have no problem with that, as long as the song-lyrics don’t become ridiculous, and I think Sting pulls this one off well. But again, it’s the non-Police instrumental sound that is most noticeable, here in the form of a synthesizer riff that dominates the song. This was another hit single, and a good one, though rather “cold” sounding (as is much of this record, actually). “Every Little Thing” is the second track, and brings some joy and a lighter touch. Never mind Andy and Stewart’s reservations – this track is just amazing, and deservedly was a worldwide smash hit. If I’m being picky, I could point out that the vocal is much too low in the mix… but let’s not go there, as it’s an essential song. Third track is “Invisible Sun”, a very nice mid-tempo tune, vaguely referencing effects of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. (It was the first single in the UK, hitting #2.) I quite like the song, but I wonder if it would have been better with less synthesizer and taken at a slightly faster pace – but then, maybe Sting wanted people to hear the lyrics. I dunno.
Following this trio of hit songs, Ghost enters a long stretch of diverse tunes that mostly sound like the result of band-jams – yet, anecdotally, it seems they probably weren’t, as Sting was usually presenting his completed songs and was not interested in the others’. The aural tone of these jam-like performances, however, is nothing at all like those on the two previous records. Part of this is down to the AIR studios/Padgham production, and part of it is down to the brass parts that highlight most of the album’s tracks. Who played these saxophone parts? None other than man of the hour, Sting. He’s no virtuoso, but credit where it’s due, I guess, for playing some pretty good parts. The question, though, is: do Police records benefit from brass parts all over them?
“Hungry for You (J'aurais toujours faim de toi)” is inexplicably sung mostly in French. It’s a decent funk-workout, but hardly a highlight. “Demolition Man” is also a funk-workout, but a considerably better one, largely due to the catchy bass-line that propels the tune (rather repetitively, though) and the funny lyrics. Forgive it for being a bit overlong – it was the last track on side 1 of the vinyl record. Sting was quite fond of this tune, I think, and later returned to it several times, both in and out of The Police.
Side 2 begins with the most horn-driven song yet, “Too Much Information”. I like this one a lot for its irrepressible energy, and it’s hyper denunciation of the perils of mass-media in the consumer age. It’s another slightly repetitive track, but at three-and-a-half minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome. “Rehumanize Yourself” is another good one, and actually is the best composition (melodically and harmonically) since the three hit singles on side 1. Lyrics are great too, with a worthy message about dehumanization resulting from the herd-mentality and industrial labor. This section is always great:
Billy's joined the National Front
He always was a little runt
He's got his hand in the air with the other cunts
The only limitation to this otherwise fine track is that the arrangement is not quite right – the horn parts sound like unnecessarily added noise, and some of the instrumental breaks between chorus and verse are fairly boring. But I dig this one; it’s frenetic and good.
One of the album’s best tracks is “One World (Not Three)”. The message of the song will be obvious from the title. But it’s not the lyrics that make it work; it’s the melodic chorus juxtaposed with the driving lines of the verses, and the melodically joyful jump from the former to the latter. Behind all this is our man Stewart, pounding away on the skins with some very cool rhythmic parts. Stewart does get a lot of credit for his dynamic percussion… and he deserves it. Fortunately, all the brass (which works well on this cut) and synths don’t drown out the drummer, who is on fine form on Ghost In The Machine. Andy Summers, however, was rightly a bit pissed at all the ornamentation on the tracks, since at this point we’re starting to forget his existence.
But worry, not, Andy – here comes your song: “Omegaman”. And he even got Sting to agree to sing it! This is a pretty good track, with a nice detachable chorus. It’s worlds better than the stinky feces of “Behind My Camel” (and, when you think about it, feces is indeed what’s behind a well-fed camel), but it still sounds like hackwork by a not-very-talented songwriter. I love Andy, and he needed his fair share of the royalties, but stick to the guitar, son!
It’s often forgotten that the ethereal and brooding “Secret Journey” was actually the third single Stateside (Americans evidently couldn’t respond to “Invisible Sun”). Sting writes again, this time about a traveller who, upon completing his “secret journey”, will become a holy man. This song is cool and I say it’s due for a large-scale rediscovery, maybe as the theme-song to some Netflix sci-fi/drama. The chords the song are built on are typically rock-solid, as in Sting’s best compositions. The melodic hook, though, maybe wasn’t quite strong enough for a Police single – this one crept only to #46 on the Billboard charts. But if you’ve forgotten it, give it a few spins again. Great song.
Stewart gets the last word with “Darkness”, a good song based around a simple keyboard part, seemingly about a depressed loser in his bedroom, and featuring the following oh-so-Stewart refrain:
I wish I never woke up this morning
Life was easy when it was boring
Maybe ol’ Stew was beginning to reflect on a life outside the madness of The Police?
By the way, there were some real quality Police tunes around this period that didn’t make the album: B-side “Low Life” is a cool song that would easily have been one of the better half of Ghost’s, had they included it (if memory serves, I think Stewart and Andy thought it was crap). A few months after Ghost, Sting starred in a British film called Brimstone & Treacle and The Police naturally contributed to the soundtrack. This is how Sting got the reluctant Policemen to record his years-old masterpiece, “I Burn For You”, which is frighteningly good. If you haven’t heard this one, you’re missing one of The Police’s greatest tracks. It’s sexy, smoldering, intense, and hypnotic, with a legendarily cool bass-line. Absolutely stunning. The fact that Sting couldn’t get any enthusiasm for this song from his band-mates does make me sympathize with him. One more pretty-good Police tune here is called “How Stupid Mr. Bates”, and it’s an evocative instrumental that’s highly enjoyable. Great stuff.
1983 – Synchronicity (A&M)
1) Synchronicity I
2) Walking In Your Footsteps
3) O My God
5) Miss Gradenko
6) Synchronicity II
7) Every Breath You Take
8) King Of Pain
9) Wrapped Around Your Finger
10) Tea In The Sahara
A strange state The Policemen found then themselves in by mid-1982. They were heirs to the title of “world’s biggest group”. They had survived the punk-police days of the UK press savaging them, had won over the Americans and the world, and were more successful and free to do as they wanted than ever before. MTV had by now started up, and The Police were well-poised to take advantage of that medium, thereby leaving dinosaurs like The Stones (whose Tattoo You had for weeks prevented Ghost from reaching #1 on the US charts) behind in their wake.
However, the individual group members were each going through trying times of marital and life discord, and simply hated each other more than ever. Around the time of the Zenyatta tour, Stewart had written the inspiring message of “Fuck – off – you – cunt” on his cymbals, strategically placed on stage to give him the vicarious pleasure of striking his main enemy, Sting. Andy wasn’t much happier since his once powerful live presence had been mitigated by horns and backing vocalists. Sting also had almost no interest in singing Andy’s songs (though he sometimes handled Stewart’s happily enough). As for the main man, Sting, his marriage fell apart in this period and he jumped the fence to one of his wife’s best friends, who became his new woman by 1983 – a topic the British press lapped up and pasted onto the nation’s front-pages. No wonder Sting ended up in psychotherapy. If nothing else, his exposure to Carl Jung's ideas inspired some new tunes.
Synchronicity ate the world in 1983, the way blockbusters like West Side Story or Bridge Over Troubled Water had in years past. The keynote in this success was the double-whammy of the staggeringly successful lead-off single (more of which later) and the glossy, high-budget videos they could now afford to film – these were helmed by Godley & Creme, formerly of 10cc. The success of the album was not in proportion to its relative quality, in my opinion: Though yet another very strong and interesting Police long-player, Synchronicity was probably no better than the three or four albums that preceded it.
The first side of the album is all over the place, stylistically, and fails to hang together in any coherent way, despite the trick of two tracks titled “Synchronicity” framing it (the two have nothing in common musically). Although “Synchronicity II” was a hit single and is fondly remembered by many, I much prefer the other “Synchronicity” that leads off the record. It’s super fast-paced and in a weird time signature (increasingly, a motif of Sting’s compositions). Stewart once explained that he is playing drums in 4/4, but the keyboard sequencer is in 5/4, with the two “righting themselves” every five bars. It’s weird, but sounds cool. The chord-sequence is very strong, and it’s a great composition… although Sting again goes a bit overboard with the lyrics, this time mixing Yeats and Jung in order to rhyme “spiritus mundi” with “synchronicity”. Yeah, we get it, Sting, you’ve read some books. As this track fades, we jump into the more relaxed, but equally odd-sounding, “Walking In Your Footsteps”. The lyrical message here is much clearer – it’s an ecological song, warning us that the great dinosaurs were swept aside in history, despite their might, and we may be on the precipice of doing the same. This track works for me because of Sting’s great vocal and the typically strong tune, but I can see why some people don’t like it. There’s little or none of the classic Police-sound and some of the lyrics are awkward (the “brontosaurus” / “lesson for us” rhyme is often mentioned). Still, I give it a thumbs up. “O My God” was an old Sting tune from Last Exit, back in Newcastle, and I have no idea why it suddenly emerges here, other than Sting’s power within the group was now so solidified that he could force Andy and Stewart to do his jazzy tunes from yesteryear. I suspect this one was originally composed around the rubbery bass-line, which is very nice indeed and provides most of my enjoyment of this nice little tune (good vocal, too). The track has a lot of Sting, some Stewart drums, and very little Andy, whose guitar provides only some flavor here and there. But at least we get to hear the trio playing together, naturally. Maybe Sting dusted off this one because of its philosophical lyrics, in which he asks God to “take the space between us / Fill it up somehow”. No idea. So, a diverse trio of songs to open this record with.
We jump from here into Stewart’s “Miss Gradenko”. I think this tune, along with “On Any Other Day” and “Bombs Away”, are his trio of great Police songs (though, thinking of it, “Fallout” was pretty good, too, wasn’t it?). Who knows what he’s on about here, lyrically (a coy woman named Miss Gradenko has been letting her feelings show), but the song is very musically solid and has a great arrangement. Good job, Stew – your song holds up well amidst Sting’s side-one mixed bag. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Andy Summers’ “Mother”. Remember how I crapped on “Behind My Camel”? This one is ten times worse. I will go as far as to say this is the single worst song by an otherwise great group on a good album I have ever heard. What a piece of shit. It sounds like the kind of thing Andy wrote in five minutes in the studio when he suddenly realized he might not get his 10% of the album royalties, and then forced it on Sting based on its Freudian lyric (which is also garbage). This song is baaaaad. At least it’s mercifully short.
And so we move on to the first (and, really, last) conventional rock song on the album, “Synchronicity II”. This one even has some power chords and a chance for Andy to shine. The curious lyric tells the tale of a family’s breakfast table, a rush-hour commuter, and other happenstance that is “synchronous” with a monster surfacing in a Scottish lake “many miles away”. It’s a good song, overall, though for me it’s well short of a Police classic (file it along with “So Lonely” in Police-standards-I’m-not-overly-fond-of). By 1983, I think this group was not really in the mode of rock music, and this one sounds to me almost like another band trying to sound like The Police, and doing a so-so job of it.
Back in vinyl days, you would have to flip the 12-inch record at this point. (As little kids, my older sister and I had this album on vinyl, and it’s thus one of the few albums that I always think of as a vinyl artifact.) Compared to the anything-goes first side of Synchronicity, side two is remarkable unified and strings together four of Sting’s finer compositions: “Every Breath You Take”, “King of Pain”, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, and “Tea In The Sahara”. Every one of them is a bit navel-gazing and pretentious lyrically, not to mention mid-tempo to slow, but each also has a killer melody, arrangement, and vocal. The band sounds very unified and “together” on all four, even if Andy and Stewart have effectively become Sting’s backing group by now.
A few words about “Every Breath You Take”: This song is fabulous, and the recording is even better – as close to perfect as musicians in a cold studio can get. As a composition, it’s lovely and harmonically strong, in fact with a standard sort of chord progression. The lyric is interesting in demeanor and tone (basically a pseudo-stalker missing his woman), but has a couple of slightly weak rhymes, as in “every claim you stake” and “every bond you break” (I guess the word “promise” didn’t scan well). Nevertheless, the song so successfully establishes its emotional tone that only the hardest of hearts would deny it. Never in pop history has such a bog-standard verse – “Oh, can't you see / you belong to me / My poor heart aches / with every step you take”
– been so evocative. Much of the credit here must go to the Sting-ster’s outstanding vocal. It’s dry and restrained throughout, but in the bridge (“Since you’ve gone I’ve been lost without a trace…”) he lets loose somewhat, and the effect is cathartic and spine-tingling. A relaxed stretch of several bars passes thereafter, and it was co-producer Padgham who had the idea of the single-notes of piano that punctuate these quiet bars – so subtly effective, as is every recording technique employed in this studio masterpiece. It had been a few years since Andy Summers’ instrument had leaped into prominence on one of Sting’s best compositions, but he rises to the occasion here, playing a Bartók-inspired guitar pattern that is one of the most memorable in rock/pop history. Full marks. Stewart Copeland, however, by his own admission, didn’t have much to do on the track, just playing the simple beats. After all those years of fighting Sting, it must have been galling for Stewart to see the single he played the “least” on become the band’s eternally biggest hit. (According to Stewart, Sting once helpfully told him: “Stewart, have you noticed that when one of our songs comes on in a disco, everyone sits down?”) Anyway, this recording is so good it almost gives 1980s’ studio music a good name. Hell, even the video is a classic. “Every Breath You Take” sat on top of the American singles chart for two months straight and was the year’s biggest seller. Billboard later reported that it was the 5th “biggest” hit of the 1980s in the USA.
“King Of Pain” is another winner, and another huge American hit (though admittedly, a recording of Andy farting likely would have made the top-40 after “Every Breath…”). This was actually my favorite song for years when I was a kid, and I still enjoy it a lot. Again, Sting’s dry vocal at key moments – notably the “there’s a little black spot on the sun today” lines that frame the lyric – is highly effective, and shows a definite change in his vocals from the first couple of records when his highly-pitched voice sometimes threatened to overwhelm the songs. Another very classy arrangement brings out the best in this lyrically dark tune. Some of the images listed in “King Of Pain” (“a black-winged gull with a broken back”, etc.) make me reflect that I must have been a depressed child to have enjoyed this track so much, but there you go. The chorus is one of Sting’s best. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” was yet another huge transatlantic hit, and has a really cool lyric, seemingly about the power-balance between the singer and an older woman, who gets the tables turned on her. Another radio-friendly chorus – with very effective percussion by Stewart, this time – lodges the song in the brain, but in a gentle way. Synchronicity comes to a close with “Tea In The Sahara”, a very slow, jazzy little song that was reportedly inspired by Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, a book Andy had lent to Sting. (One assumes Andy didn’t have the nerve to ask for a songwriting credit after Sting had allowed “Mother” to grace this record.) The song is beautiful, and establishes an otherworldly mood, being rooted not in time or place. Sting actually has written some really good songs in this otherworldly mode – “Secret Journey”, “Tea In The Sahara”, “Something The Boy Said”, etc. Instead of starring in Dune (a box-office turkey), maybe he should have done the
[CD-era issues of Synchronicity include the excellent B-side, “Murder By Numbers”, as the album’s closer… for which it isn’t very appropriate, despite its quality. It’s a tongue-in-cheek song about the addictive joys of mass murdering people (!), set to a jaunty jazzy arrangement. The real missed opportunity for the album was the Andy Summers/Sting co-composition, “Once Upon A Daydream”, which could have replaced the abysmal “Mother” and still made some money for Andy. Fools.]
And with that, The Police were done. Their 1983 tour carried on into 1984, but they were all looking to solo projects a few months after Synchronicity. In 1986, Miles Copeland somehow talked them into getting together to see what would happen… but as Sting refused to write new songs for the group and Stewart broke his arm in a polo match, all they ended up with were slick, very-80s’ remakes of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and “De-Do-Do-Do, De-Da-Da-Da”, neither of which was as good as the originals (the former was released to radio, to no great fanfare). They withstood each other long enough to rehearse for and play a few shows for Amnesty International in summer 1986, but that was the end of the end.
As I mentioned off the top, The Police are one of the few groups to start fully-formed, last just long enough to do everything possible in their power, and then disband at their peak of popularity and before people had become tired of them. I’m not sure if the arc of a group’s legacy is really important or not, but it certainly affects how the public collectively remembers and thinks of them. Imagine, for example, if The Beatles had carried on into their 30s and through the 1970s, with ever-weakening releases and a tendency to look more and more outdated, Ringo drunk and George with a disco-perm. Conversely, what if a never-ending band like U2 had decided to end in about 1994, rather than having to endlessly try keeping up with the Joneses and pretend to be friends with Kanye West? This is not to say that famous musicians should prioritize their legacies over their day-to-day health and happiness (not to mention bank balances), but this is to say The Police’s legacy was a perfect one.
Years later, I listen to The Police occasionally, in certain moods, and their music still surprises, delights, and sustains me after many years. There is something very unique about the convergence of their three individual paths, during 1977 to 1983. Rave on, Police, rave on….