I recently gave Sting quite the verbal lashing on a recent SoundwavesTV’s Mass Debate. I equated his solo career with dental office waiting room music. Go for the ratings or go home!
But to be fair his solo music was such a huge part of my youth that many songs are embedded in me like jewels on a necklace. And an album like The Soul Cages haunts deep crevices in me only my best friend (and maybe therapist know about).
But when compared to The Police… It just shows the vast difference between being in a band and being a solo artist. And how having other band members forces you to in some fashion to “work together”. Also in their later years it showed how being a band with members you hate pushes the energy higher as you try to outdo each other while both trying to keep the sound that made you popular and evolve.
That tight three piece of Sting, Andy, and Stewart is so woven into the sinews of muscles and chromosomes of my DNA that they are listed on my chart for Ancestry.com. Around 5th or 6th grade it was Every Breath You Take: The Singles That I played out over and over and over.
This was the late 80s and by that time The Police were done and supposedly never to reunite and Sting was well into his solo career. Also at that time all childhood memories before 5th grade had been wiped clean due to trauma from abuse. So all I had left in my memory banks was music fragments I had heard as a child, like Ravel’s “Bolero”, the soundtrack to films like Top Gun and Little Shop Of Horrors, and The Police. There was other 80s music lodged in there for sure but The Police for some reason resonated the strongest and managed to build this huge reservoir of emotional connection in a way very few other bands have before or since.
That was basically a greatest hist package. It wasn’t until 1993 when I got Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings that I got to hear the other songs. Because as a music hoarder I wanted ALL the things. And in the beginning well, I didn’t care for most of the non-singles. As I said in my write up on The B-52’s, it sounded foreign to me. And I hadn’t yet figure out how to dance to songs like, “Voices Inside My Head”. But I did love “Bring On The Night” an album cut off Regatta De Blanc.
But “Walking On The Moon” was my favorite song in the catalog by far.
I just loved the hazy drifting dub of it all. And it some how blended so well with all the 16-bit space opera games I was playing on Sega Genesis.
At some point I realized the box set was not in album or track order and on some snobbish kick of “albums are single works of art” I ditched the box set in favor of the proper albums. Reggatta De Blanc still maintained dominance as the fan favorite. Oowning the album proper was when I rediscovered all these sounds from my youth and oddities such as, “On Any Other Day” with the lines,
And when the wombat comes
He will find me gone
He’ll look for a place to sit
I now understand how very British that song and those lyrics are. Though while I was playing out these songs trying to defeat “end guys” I never really focused much on the music specifically other than it haunted me and was just there seeping into the pores. And that haunting feeling is tied to much of 80s music especially new wave acts because music is the only memories I have left of that childhood. And for a long time most of it was just fragments of songs. But over time I slowly got educated and learned where these various little haunting pieces of bass line or synth were from originally and rebuilt memories of my youth through music format. So at least I have the songs even if very little else remains besides the PTSD. And I have no complaints about that, the music is great.
Despite that sophomore efforts dominance on my charts Synchronicity had “King Of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” two songs that might trump most of that album and still get into the core of my being. And “King of Pain” even more so now that I am older and slightly jaded and cynical. Also as a poet, lines like
“There’s a blue whale beached by a springtime’s ebb”
“Skeleton choking on crust of bread”
“There’s a black-winged gull with a broken back”
Who else was writing lyrics like that in the 80s. Not even most of the goth going then was that dour. And credit to Sting for managing to pull out rhyme schemes that didn’t sound cliched and certainly were not predictable.
But if we start at the beginning… It was straight up angst-punk with, “Next To You” opening Outlandos D’Amour.
In fact that album is mostly a straight punk affair with some strands of the reggae and dub they would lean into later. And it is the album that sounds the “loudest”. Meaning, on later albums even as the sound got more polished the music itself would feel “softer”, more sparse, and less in your face. Maybe, foreshadowing the solo work to come. When I revisit the album now I find myself remembering how many of the songs I would skip just to get to the singles. Songs, like “Born In The 50’s” still don’t really do much for me. But songs like, “Peanuts” and the album closer “Masoko Tanga” a weird semi-instrumental I enjoy just fine now and have found my way to move to them.
But that sophomore album Reggatta De Blanc is the one where I smash the nostalgia button over and over from the first song, “Message In A Bottle” to the last song, “No Time This Time”. This is an album I would fall asleep to it was so comforting to me. And listening to that pogo inducing opener I am hit with an odd irony… I so adored that song all those years while metaphorically not even realizing I was sending out my own S.O.S. trying to figure out who I was and why I felt like worthless shit so much of that time. Always seeking and asking questions sending out my “bottles” looking for answers.
Throughout their tenure The Police managed to get such a full sound on all the records (similar to The White Stripes much later) while only having three people laying it out most of the time. And Sting had one of those voices that you’d never mistake for anyone else.
There is something about our years from ages 11/12 to 17 that just absorb so much into the body that then become cornerstones of one’s history occupying large swaths of the nostalgia section. No other music I’ve loved since hits me this hard in the same way, causing inner chemicals to stir and bubble. And I was fortunate in a way, that I came to the band after the fact. It allowed me to have none of that strong 80s sellout bias music often had back then when somebody got to popular, or had one too many hits.
Also at that time I had not discovered liner notes so I just assumed all this music was from the period of late 80s when I had started listening to it. I didn’t know The Police were done right when Madonna first poked her hair bow and bangles into the pop music room. So for me the music doesn’t scream 1980’s. It definitely screams alone in the bedroom sitting at the C64 playing Ultima IV or some such game. But whatever images it concocts of my youth pale in comparison to the feelings inside my body I mentioned.
That feeling I describe as haunting was also mixed with joy and with melancholy at the loss of innocence. But as time goes I find myself less and less feeling the melancholy listening to these songs and more willing to dance and sing-a-long as if no trauma had ever happened.
“Walking On The Moon” definitely retains it status as an all time favorite both in The Police catalog and in my general music pantheon. But as a total romantic, “Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is another favorite that was a hit but also seems to go MIA when people talk about The Police. I suppose it is not angsty enough or quirky like “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” or “Man In A Suitcase” or “Spirits In The Material World”. But damn it if those almost 4 and 1/2 minutes don’t make me giddy as hell.
Fun Fact: Sting what more upbeat song to counterbalance the rest of the mood on Ghost In The Machine but the rest of the band hated it so he had to fight with them for it’s inclusion.
And that is really the only love song in their entire catalog. “Hungry For You (J’aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)” is too carnal, and their biggest hit “Every Breath You Take” is well… you know, a stalker anthem. And also, weirdly, that song is one of the most popular first dance songs at weddings. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” I suppose is another love song but it doesn’t have that same feverish heartbeat bounce of being in the throes of love.
The albums Zenyatta Mondatta and Ghost In The Machine maintain the consistent level of song-writing and playing presented on the previous albums. And those two albums released only a year apart in 1980 and 1981 have a lot of similarities in tone and song variety. I suppose today fans would give that some “era” label since they are so similar. And then in 1983 the band dropped their biggest album one of the biggest albums of 1983 and the entire 1980s, Synchronicity.
Listen… Can you hear that? It’s the sound of snobs yelling, “Man, they sold out!”
Pffftttt… hardly. By that time they were already the biggest band in the world and not really enjoying each others company. They were so huge that the labels left them alone and they produced an album that was all over place. Synchronicity had everything but Sting’s even bigger ego to come. They had always had odd songs in there mix but on their final curtain call you get songs such as “Oh My God”, “Miss Grandeko” and “Mother” all sheer oddities mixed in with some of their biggest hits and some of their softest songs like, “Tea In The Sahara” and “Walking In Your Footsteps”.
Let the record show, I have many songs titled “Mother” and I have to say most of them are not chipper. And The Police are no exception
Well every girl that I go out with
Becomes my mother in the end
Every girl I go out with
Becomes my mother in the end
Well I hear my mother calling
But I don’t need her as a friend
Well every girl I go out with
Becomes my mother in the end
What is that saying… It would be funny if it wasn’t true. For the record my ex girlfriend HATED The Police and especially Sting and my mother I believe had no opinion on them at all so that was one small difference.
Again, this is not say the other albums didn’t have their strange detours, the instrumental “Behind My Camel” of Ghost In The Machine definitely leaves me with some questions for the band. And it was one of the rare songs Sting did write. But of Sting being a perfectionist control freak hated it. It won a Grammy for best rock instrumental.
I put Synchronicity fourth in my ranking of all their albums despite having one of my favorite songs, “King Of Pain”. This is because there are no real rave ups like their previous records. There is no “Driven To Tears”, “Demolition Man”, or “Canary In A Coalmine”. Maybe they were done with the punk-ska sound. Maybe Sting was driving Andy and Stewart to the more jazz infused sounds he would create on his debut solo album Dream Of The Blue Turtles.
Still, despite that lack of any get up to get down fervor the whole album is intense because the band was imploding. And all the cliches you know about bands imploding came out at this time. And that translated to the record and to the live stage where it was so obvious they were trying to outdo each other in one last, “I’ll show you”.
If we remove my nostalgia and preference from the equation and put on my objective critics hat. I think Synchronicity is their best album precisely because it was the eye of the storm in so many ways for the band. And it certainly was one of the most risky takes in the mainstream music world in 1983. A year that saw many rockers like ZZ Top, Def Leppard, and Kiss go full on 80s major label overproduction. It was also the year that debuts came out from both Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and I think She’s So Unusual out of all the great albums of that year is the only other album to matches Synchronicity’s wild all over the place energy pushing the boundaries of what pop sounds like while also being very mainstream.
The CD and Cassette versions end with, “Murder by Numbers” and frankly it feels tacked on. At that time in 1983 those two mediums were just starting to gain real traction so I imagine the band had chosen to leave that “bonus track” off the LP for good reason. It is a great song and I personally would’ve replaced the song “mother” with it. But in doing so it would have been a lesser album. Plus, LP ends so nicely with “Tea In The Sahara”. My preference for you digital listeners is to move the song so that it sits between, “Miss Gradenko” and “Synchronicity II” if you want to keep the song in the rotation and not upset the track order too much.
Of all The Police albums though, Ghost In Machine is the most straight ahead The Police in my opinion with Zenyatta Mondatta a close second. On the latter the band had figured out their sound while still having hints of a forward moving direction, but Ghost In The Machine ekes out the win because it has that 5 song run of; “Hungry For You (J’aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)”, “Demolition Man”, “Too Much Information”, “Rehumanize Yourself”, and “One World (Not Three)”. A glorious 5 song stretch of punk-ska-reggae pogo action.
Check out this peak live energy before it all came crashing down from that run of songs.
The Police are another band like The B-52’s that are hard to compare to other acts. If you ask somebody for more bands that sound like The Police who do you say? Madness? The Beat? The Slits? The Members? Squeeze? The Upsetters?
They were in many ways their own genre of sub-genres. Unlike say, glam metal bands of the same period that had a template and ran that template so far into hell it came back out the other side of heaven. But also the new wave/punk scene was filled with acts nobody could really define then or even now other than to say that it is 80s or it is new wave. But The Police are not Elvis Costello or U2 acts that I can link quite easily to other rock acts. And they are certainly not Devo or The B-52’s, who are also on their own stretch of music highway.
In fact my favorite new wave bands The B-52’s, The Police, Eurythmics and a-ha (you bet they will be getting their own write up soon) sound NOTHING like each other in the slightest either. Not in sound or subject matter. And I guess if that is my musical foundation, at least with bands, it’s no wonder I like the variety of music styles I like. Like my favorite acts, I too refuse to be pigeonholed.
I will take a moment here to address Sting’s solo career because despite my dressing down on SoundwavesTV I like his solo work up to a point. In the 90s it starts to be diminishing returns. He starts sounding like somebody who bought their own hype and is just resting on the name. Or like one ego with nobody willing to tell him, “No”. Or maybe all that yoga and meditation kicked in simmer all the anger and whatever esle that made The Police so electric.
Personally, I checked out around the album Mercury Falling (it started to edge ever closer to “new age” and even “smooth jazz” lanes) but “Desert Rose” from 1999, a huge club hit, was when I really decided, OK. You and I must part ways.
It was like he was trying to do the world music electro thing Madonna did the year before on Ray Of Light and that just didn’t fit for me in his context. The Soul Cages is amazing, his debut solo record is also filled with great material, I LOVE “Fortress Around Your Heart” and “We Work The Black Seam”. And Ten Summoner’s Tales, holds a special place. But songs like the single All For One, All For Love… with Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams… I’m just going to cleanse my palate with something like, “Man In A Suitcase”, thank you.
As I pull this squad car back into the station, much like when I said The B-52’s were my favorite band, what does that ultimately mean here. Well, in this case it means, this is music that was a soundtrack to very specific and important parts of my youth and so it recalls both the comfort the music brought and the pain the memories bring of that period in my life. I won’t go so far as to say it “saved my life”. But it certainly gave me something to turn to when my life felt like something not worth saving. And it is one of very few parts of my history that escaped the PTSD, avoiding becoming repressed memories. It is a link to an era in my memories that was wiped blank. Honestly, that sounds dramatic, but it’s OK. Because I’d rather have the musical memories than any direct memories of the trauma and abuse I went through during those elementary years. I may not play The Police as much as a used to these days (I am rather consumed with country music) but playing the albums now it is good to hear the power of that music is still present and still connecting but in older and wiser ways and most importantly ways that make me get up and skank and pogo like nothing bad ever happened.
PS: After Gene Krupa, Stewart Copland is my favorite drummer.
Albums In Order Of Preference:
Reggatta De Blanc
Ghost In The Machine
10 Favorite Songs (In No Order):
Walking On The Moon
Bring On The Night
King Of Pain
Message In A Bottle
Every Little Things She Does Is Magic
Driven To Tears
Voices Inside My Head
Spirits In The Material World
I Can’t Stand Losing You
Wrapped Around Your Finger