VII. In Praise Of The Police

I was eleven. Liking Rush was not only cool, but mandatory. The number one album in the country was Escape by Journey, which is still a terrific album, by the way. MTV was new. Imagine that. We did not have cable in our house, so this magical network which played all these cool music videos was something I only got to see at friends’ houses after school. I remember one such afternoon at my friend Jeff Post’s house. MTV was a regular thing to Jeff, its novelty somewhat wearing off for him, having had it on for a few months straight, but it was still big news to me, and I wanted to watch it. So we did. Not much we saw for that first hour or two was that special or exciting, but then, on came the video for a song called “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” I froze. Jeff said, “Oh yeah, listen to this! This is great.”

I knew immediately it was good. There was a tension in the music, a captivating sense of rhythm, an ominous feeling in the rising bass figure. The singing voice was buried in the music, giving it mystery and romance. There was the feeling it was important. And that island-y chorus was joyous and memorable, the mark of great pop song. It was an interesting looking group playing it in the video as well. They were in a dark, evocatively lit studio through most of it, each playing their respective instruments, an unspoken synergy crackling between the three of them; the guitarist sprightly hopping around in place with a summery Gilligan’s hat on his blonde head, the drummer, also blonde, commanding a huge red Tama drum set, wearing big sunglasses, hitting the drums hard, and the wild, un-caged singer playing an upright bass, his hair spiky and again, bright and dirty blonde. It was Sting, and at that moment, singing lead and playing bass for The Police, he was the coolest guy in the world, in the coolest band in the world.

Tall and handsome, a gleam of danger in his eye, slightly arrogant, like he had a secret he knew everyone else would like to know, Sting was the second man I ever thought was sexy. The first was John Travolta in Grease the summer I was eight. Now I like girls, and I always have, but I’ve never not acknowledged or appreciated when a man is sexually charismatic. There’s much to learn from it. I understood this was a quality you had to have in some way to get girls to notice you in the first place. It was the underlying reason I took guitar lessons to begin with, other than the desire to be as much like The Beatles as I could. I was sure Sting had his share of attention from the finer sex, as I knew Travolta must have had the same. There was something undeniable about them. You could tell girls liked them, but guys thought they were cool too. That’s the key. Even at eleven, I could identify with this quality and recognize it as something I should be cultivating in myself if I could (for there is nothing quite like attention from girls, now is there?) And while I still question whether I ever found it in myself, I’m glad I found it in Sting when I did. He intrigued and excited me, made me think and made me feel cool. That’s the greatest thing our stars do for us. By being their charismatic selves, they somehow make us feel better. Or cooler. That’s usually why we give them so much of our money.

Sting and his two brothers in The Police had charisma to spare. They seemed a modern version of The Beatles. They had that same gang-like vibe, an unspoken brotherhood, although they were not blood-related. They didn’t have to be. They looked alike. They dressed alike. They moved as one. The were visually powerful. You could tell they’d been through a lot together. And they rocked, which is always good, especially to an eleven-year-old. They played “up” music, happiness in the beat, but there was darkness and tension also. When Sting sang “I resolve to call her up a thousand times a day and ask her if she’ll marry me in some old-fashioned way, but my silent fears have gripped me…” it reverberated deeply. I knew what he was saying, I knew that fear…of not being able to talk to someone you like. “Must I al - ways - be - a - lone…?” he pressingly asked, and then after an empty beat, the band leapt back into that explosive chorus of joy and unrequited love. Emotionally charged, melodramatic, frenetic; all the makings of great pop music. Like John Lennon scoffing on “You Can’t Do That” or Paul McCartney lustily singing “I Saw Her Standing There.” You get it immediately. It’s the whole world in a song, it’s your whole life sung to you, and it might not take you exactly where you’d like to be, but it points the way, loud and clear. By the end of the video for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” where Sting, Andy and Stewart are jumping all over the studio recording console and hamming it up as only the great ones can down there with the people of Montserrat or wherever that sunny place it is they were, I was a Police fan for life. It’s great what one song and a couple of exciting images can do for you. I went out to Caldor with my mom and bought Ghost In The Machine and a week later, Zenyatta Mondatta.

Already somewhat of a drummer by then, and a huge Neil Peart fan, I was taken with Stewart Copeland, the daring clown and driving force of The Police. He had a style all his own; different than Neil Peart, who was, and still is, God bless him, a towering monument of power, precision, intricacy and consistency. Stewart was more chaotic, off-the-cuff, like anything could happen at any point in the song. He was unpredictable, seemingly totally improvised, and he willfully ignored any idea of keeping a steady beat, which is why, I would come to find later, Sting could not bear playing with him. This is a shame, as it could be argued that Sting’s music was never as exciting after leaving The Police, certainly never as devil-may-care or dangerous. But that’s another story. His solo career has had its share of highlights, but he never rocked as hard again or felt as much a part of something bigger than himself. Yet another mark of a great band. Stewart Copeland, like Keith Moon before him, blew many a young mind with his expertly controlled insanity, and for my money, he was the drummer of the early ’80’s, ranking in the all-time Rock pantheon with Charlie Watts, Moon, Bill Bruford, John Bonham and of course, Neil. Put it this way: Carter Beauford is the “Stewart Copeland” of modern rock music; that’s how great Stewart was in The Police. Dave Matthews Band would not exist without them. And that blond guy in the Foo Fighters has Stewart splashed across his DNA as well.

Ghost In The Machine, The Police’s fourth album, was unlike any music I knew. There was a pitch dark to it, right from the beginning hit that introduced the rat-in-a-maze energy of “Spirits In The Material World,” certainly one of the only top ten hits ever to completely fool listeners as to the location of the downbeat. It is a magical song, draped in mystery, and within the chaotic world painted by the dense rhythms and swirling synthesizers lies the voice. That voice of his, unlike any other, high and elastic, foreboding and cynical, almost menacing, entirely inviting. Again, the dangerous allure of Sting, or at least that’s the way it sounded when I was eleven. You could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. And the voice carried words of doom and despair: “There’s no political solution to our troubled evolution, have no faith in constitution, where does the answer lie, there must be another way…we are spirits in the material world.” What was he talking about? Pretty serious stuff, I thought. A dark world on the edge, with music to match. This was some band. (They were so good, I noticed the following year that my favorite band at the time, Rush, was subtly paying homage and reflecting the influence of The Police on their brilliant Signals album.) The single that started it all for me was next. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was even better in my room, now having it all to myself to revel in. It was clear, sharp, satisfying. The single of the year. What followed was confusion, turmoil, and darkness, all wrapped up in the most inspired, kinetic musicianship I’d ever heard. I was eleven, as I’ve stated before, but it was mind-blowing nonetheless. And it still is: “Invisible Sun,” a lament for the troubles of Northern Ireland, making it plausible for the achievement of U2’s breakthrough War album (and the rest of their amazing career - it is no coincidence that the ascendance of U2 happened in the wake of the break-up of The Police, much like that of The Rolling Stones filling the void left by The Beatles); the lusty French rave-up and dissonant jazz saxophones of “Hungry For You”; the pulsing cartoon arrogance of one of Sting’s many self-designed alter-egos in “Demolition Man.” And that was only side one.

Side two was where this three-headed dynamo really got unhinged. The industrial one-two punch of “Too Much Information” and “Rehumanize Yourself,” the Lennonesque extrapolation of “One World (Not Three),” the post-apocalyptic freak-out of Andy Summers’ “Omegaman,” the spiritual levee breaking of “Secret Journey,” and the bored, everyday lament of Stewart Copeland’s appropriately titled “Darkness” - a hyper-world unto itself, engulfed in the dehumanizing machinery of modern times, and one that while frightening and unsettling, rewarded continuous revisits. Everyone talks about how arty Radiohead can be, and how great they are for always being able to stay mainstream at the same time, no matter how weird they get. Along with the weirdest stuff from The Beatles and Pink Floyd, side two of Ghost In The Machine is where Thom Yorke and the gang get this license, this fearless acumen. When is someone going to point out that their very own masterpiece of modern times alienation, OK Computer is really just the 1997 edition of Ghost In The Machine? The only difference between these two masterworks is that The Police had two top ten hits on theirs.

For all their enormous popularity, no one talks about how subversive a pop act The Police really were. Sure, they played great, they looked cool, they had ten or so great pop singles, but these guys were also out there. Their breakthrough single was about a prostitute, their first album, Outlandos D’Amour, contained songs about blow-up dolls and contemptuous suicide, their lyrics contained words like “rape” and “cunts,” one song actually referenced the pornographic cult film, "Deep Throat" (“When The World Is Running Down”) and one of their first top ten singles, the brooding “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” was a modern Lolita, with Sting as the handsome older teacher tempted and ultimately seduced by his hungry young student. Not your everyday subject matter for the Top of The Pops, but there it was, right near the top anyway. Maybe that’s why Puff Daddy liked Sting so much growing up: Plenty of off-color, racy material that would later find it’s ultimate expression, both literally and ironically, in rap music.

But to backtrack just a bit, attention must be given to the first three Police albums, which I had the pleasure of discovering and studying right up to the release of their masterpiece and swansong, the beguiling Synchronicity. In retrospect, there is nothing like this music, a funky hybrid of English punk rock attitude, black reggae rhythm, and Joni Mitchell-derived jazz harmony. Add to this an uncanny sense of the old “less is more” approach in the arrangement and production and you’ve got one of the most unique sounding bands in the history of Rock. No one else in the genre used pure space as effectively as The Police. Listening to “Walking On The Moon” from their second album, the propulsive white-punk/black reggae collision that is Regatta De Blanc, you get the feeling you’re doing just that; Sting’s deceptively simple bass line anchoring the space-age wanderings of Stewart’s high hat polyrhythms and Andy’s agile use of electric guitar effects to produce phased images of shimmering color, shadows and light. There is so much space between the three main instruments that Sting’s character sounds like he is tripping around on the moon. With musicians this good, their greatness was often a case of not what was there, but what wasn’t.

Outlandos D’Amour and Regatta De Blanc, released in 1978 and ’79 respectively, are the work of a band on a mission to take over the world. They were accomplished players, all having done their apprenticeships in jazz and progressive rock, but their ticket to the big time came in re-inventing themselves as punk rockers with a twist of, of all things, reggae in their approach to rhythm; a debt Sting will always owe to his beloved/loathed brother Stewart Copeland. For if Stewart had not pressed hard for the beat to come down on the three instead of the one, it’s a good bet Sting would either still be teaching, playing jazz bass in a tavern somewhere in the north of England, or God forbid, dead by his own hand. The songs on Outlandos D’Amour are jazz-influenced in the harmony, especially “Roxanne,” “Hole In My Life,” and “Truth Hits Everybody,” but in the hands of the brilliant Copeland and Summers, they are transformed into angry punk reggae rock. It says a great deal about Sting that he allowed his compositions to be torn apart and put back together in such a radical way, but when you’re hungry for the world, you’re open to such things. And The Police were nothing if not hungry, as seen by the fury with which they played the songs on these first two records. It’s great rock and roll right out of the gate from the bludgeoning count-in of “Next To You” to the euphoric mania of “Peanuts” to the balls-out rage of “Born In The ’50’s” and “Truth Hits Everybody” - and that’s just the first record. The singing on “Roxanne” and “So Lonely” alone are the mark of a new superstar ready to take his rightful place in the pantheon.

Regatta De Blanc rocked even harder, was more assured, their confidence gaining, although the songwriting did suffer somewhat from what seems now like too little time to prepare a follow-up album’s worth of material in the whirlwind of activity that followed the success of “Roxanne” and Outlandos D’Amour. But the highlights are many, including the aforementioned “Walking On The Moon,” the raging “No Time This Time” (featuring some of Stewart’s most unabashedly off-the-hook drumming), the obnoxiously catchy “It’s Alright For You” (Sting’s take on Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up”), the absurd melodrama of “Any Other Day,” “Does Everyone Stare” and “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” and of course the crowning jewel of the record, and the quintessential Police song and performance, “Message In A Bottle.” Sting has often remarked that he knew immediately “Message In A Bottle” was the one when he wrote it, and he was right. From the moment it begins with that classic guitar riff based on those jazzy suspended 2nd chords he’s so fond of, anyone within earshot knows “Message In A Bottle” is an announcement of a new heavyweight in town. By the time they reach the inimitable coda of “Sendin’ out an S.O.S…Sendin’ out an S.O.S.” it’s clear there’s nothing Sting, Andy and Stewart are not capable of. (Except staying together, of course.) It is no surprise then that within seconds of its release, The Police were number one in Britain with America and the rest of the world to soon follow.

Their third album, Zenyatta Mondatta, features two of their best singles, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” and their most poignantly heartfelt protest song, the withering “Driven To Tears.” There is no doubt that Bono and U2 carried the torch of social awareness in pop music to a new level throughout the ’80’s and ’90’s, but it must be stated that Sting and The Police were the ones who laid the foundation for them with music accessible and catchy enough to carry lyrics as candid and powerful as “Too many cameras, not enough food…This is what we’ve seen.” You could see it at the conclusion of the Giants Stadium Amnesty concert in the summer of '86, when Sting handed his bass to Adam Clayton, literally passing the torch to the younger, hungrier contender for the title of world’s greatest and most socially conscious band. I’ve often thought that the ever-unfolding greatness and staying power of U2 and the level of success Sting has been able to sustain over the past two decades since has dulled the impact and importance of The Police as the years roll on. Which is a shame, because they were awesomely important in their moment. By the time of Zenyatta Mondatta, Sting, Andy and Stewart were well aware of how great they were, and how popular they had become, and it is an even more confident album than the first two. Check out the effortless bop of “Canary In A Coalmine” and “Man In A Suitcase” and you’ll hear just how freshly these guys could rock. Then there’s the extra-terrestrial funk of “When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around,” with its off-beat, hip-as-hell references to Deep Throat, James Brown and the T.A.M.I. Show, an early sixties variety special that showcased the best of American popular music to young, impressionable musicians like a thirteen year old Gordon Sumner. Listening to how modern Zenyatta Mondatta still sounds today, the impression left is that they were subversively cool, very dark in theme for a pop act, and supremely confident in their execution and presentation.

Ghost In The Machine followed in 1981 and with its release, there was no doubt who the biggest rock band in the world was. Only The Who and The Rolling Stones came close. Having been there, I can tell you that the most performed song at junior high and high school talent shows in 1981 was “Message In A Bottle” by The Police. But this was only prelude. For in the late spring of 1983, with Sting’s hair the spikiest, blondest and coolest it ever was, The Police released their fifth album, Synchronicity and promptly exploded into the Rock and Roll stratosphere. The album, a composite of everything great about them, was spearheaded by one of the most terrific pop singles ever made, the intoxicating “Every Breath You Take.” Released ahead of the album just in time to be sitting comfortably in an eight week run at number one on the singles charts as Synchronicity hit the shelves, and based on that old fifties doo-wop chord progression enhanced by the brilliant jazz phrasing of Andy Summers, “Every Breath You Take” quickly became the record of the year and spurred sales of Synchronicity into the multi-millions. If you want to hear record-making at its finest, listen to the drumming, bass playing and guitar work on Synchronicity and marvel at the finesse and restrain of three of the finest musicians to ever play rock and roll music.

Side one opens with the prime kinetics of “Synchronicity I,” all fiery marimba and percussion, ablaze in the tight circular glory of Sting’s multi-tracked vocal onslaught. This was pop music for the intellect as well as the dancing shoes, outlining the psychological study of the natural phenomenon of coincidence and chemistry between all things. “A connecting principle linked to the invisible, almost imperceptible, something inexpressible…” There are no coincidences, Sting is saying; all things are connected beneath the surface of reality, and when people come together in such a way, the results are powerfully magical. A claim that applies to his band, surely. The rest of side one could be The Goons or Monty Python circa 1983, it’s that offbeat. Sting casually predicts the inevitable fall of mankind in the faux-African groove of “Walking In Your Footsteps,” questions the motives and intent of the Creator in the pulverizing “O My God,” a perfecting of the jazz saxophone approach used on Ghost In The Machine, and then turns it over for two songs to his even more perverse brothers-in-arms, Andy and Stewart. If you’ve heard Andy Summers kick and scream through the Freudian nightmare in 7/4 of “Mother,” you know just how perverse The Police could be. If you haven’t, download it and have a good laugh at just how far pop music can push the envelope. To this day, I don’t know if “Mother” is comedy or tragedy. Art tends to encompass both, usually simultaneously. And then it’s Stewart’s turn, and he makes the most of his one cameo with the ridiculous “Miss Gradenko,” a hilarious Communist Party of a tune, commenting on the absurdity of the Cold War in all its processed fear and loathing, a grand fifty-year-long scheme on the part of the respective powers that be to corral people on both sides of the ‘ism’ issue like hapless sheep. “Is there anybody alive in here?” asked Stewart and Sting at their most sardonic, as if to say “is there anyone here who knows this whole Communist thing is just mind control through fear?” Off-handedly pointed, “Miss Gradenko” surveyed and captured the nuclear crazed fear mongering of the early Reagan ’80’s perfectly. Tellingly, the peril of imminent apocalypse runs rampant through Synchronicity, and while this now tends to date the album, it also creates a palpable tension that makes the music loonier and scarier. Side one ends with the ultimate expression of this looming fear, the exploding rock turmoil of “Synchronicity II.” Featuring one of Sting’s most passionately obnoxious performances, and some stunning guitar feedback work from Andy Summers, “Synchronicity II” tells the story of what might happen when a man sits too long in a life that doesn’t suit him, with a family that doesn’t understand him, a boss that castrates him daily, and desires he tries but fails to resist. Sooner or later, Sting seems to be saying, that giant Loch Ness Monster is going to come knocking on the door of a cottage on the shore of a dark Scottish lake. Threatening and menacing, this tale of colliding parallel worlds actually became the fourth hit single from this most subversive of pop albums. While Michael Jackson was thrilling the world with “Beat It” and “Billie Jean,” The Police were slipping some serious themes on to the radio and MTV. Just like all the great ones before or since.

The single of the year kicks off side two and remains one of the spookiest love songs to ever top the charts. Sting has often laughed about the fact that “Every Breath You Take” has turned into such a perennial wedding song, given that it’s about surveillance on an almost psychopathic level. But like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” most people don’t read that far into it to get the full meaning. And that’s fine. That’s the magic of a great pop song. You can take and use whatever you need and leave whatever you don’t, and if it’s a really good one, you can hum it for days as well. “Every Breath You Take” is a good example. The four songs that make up side two of Synchronicity constitute the best overall work of The Police’s amazing six year run. The follow-up single to “Every Breath You Take,” and a top five hit in its own right, was a catchy little tune about depression entitled “King Of Pain.” It might be Sting’s best song. It could be the best record The Police ever made. It features the simplest parts Stewart Copeland ever played on a Police record, and the drumming could not be any better because of it. It’s perfect. As is the vocal performance and the arrangement, capturing one of Sting’s most heart wrenching lyrics. His soul is a little black spot on the sun. A black winged gull with a broken back. A black cat caught in a high tree top. A skeleton choking on a crust of bread. It went to number three. Imagine how catchy a tune has to be to take sentiments like these that high up the chart. Kurt Cobain never charted as high. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” only got to number six! And neither has Thom Yorke or Chris Cornell. Soundgarden’s “Fell On Black Days” and Radiohead’s “Creep” have nothing on The Police and “King Of Pain,” although both songs owe it an artistic debt for the license its success granted all these other fabulous gloom-mongers who walked cheerfully toward superstardom in Sting’s footsteps. The next song and third single was called “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” It’s even better than “King Of Pain.” No wait, I’m sorry. The best song Sting ever wrote is the last song on side two: “Tea In The Sahara.” That’s the one. Flawless, breathtaking, jazz pop rock folk music, played to perfection, sung in the sweetest, most mysteriously sexy voice to ever come out of Newcastle, this is euphoric music. The guitar work alone is worth weeks of study. Andy Summers is the great missing link in rock guitar between the electric giants of the ’60’s and ’70’s and the one-man revolution that is The Edge. Again, another major part of U2’s shining success can be traced directly to The Police. All that marvelous use of echo, delay and chorus flows right out of Andy Summers. Here’s a guy who has never really gotten his due. So musical and subtle was his playing that it was easy to miss him or even dismiss him, and many did. Just like Alex Lifeson and his amazing work with Rush because he had the good fortune to be in a band with Geddy Lee on bass and Neil Peart on drums, so it was with Andy. But then again, better to be third fiddle to Sting and Stewart Copeland than anything else in rock. You know he still thinks The Police have unfinished business. And maybe they do and always will. I’ve always wondered what Sting’s best solo work would have sounded like through the amazing prism of his two equally brilliant blonde brothers. We’ll probably never know.

Synchronicity spent seventeen weeks at number one and by the end of the summer of ‘83, The Police had quickly sold out Shea Stadium like The Beatles eighteen years before them. It was there, at the top of the mountain, crooning “So Lonely” to the faithful that Sting decided he had enough. There was no formal announcement made that I can remember, unless you want to call The Dream Of The Blue Turtles one. It sure made the summer of ’85 something special, and from how different it was, it seemed clear there was no more room in Sting’s music for his two musical brothers. And then there they were, at the Amnesty concert, dislocated and disconnected from each other, unemotionally blasting through a set of Police tunes, the feeling in the air that Sting had most definitely moved on and wished he had been up there with Omar Hakim, Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis instead. They weren’t a band at all anymore. It was over. And the uninspired, antiseptic re-recording of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” for their greatest hits album in 1986 didn’t do anything to dispel the suspicion. It was the only un-Police like record they ever made and it sounded the death knell of the band to anyone who was listening. The subsequent release of Sting’s …Nothing Like The Sun left no doubt that The Police were nothing more than a memory.

As they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame many years later, The Police stood at the podium like handsome old soldiers who had once fought a long war together and lived to tell the tale. Andy and Stewart had much to say, but Sting was not interested in speeches and moved instead to play their two songs together as quickly and painlessly as possible. He and Andy seemed quite in synch, both musicians having matured concurrently over the last decade and a half, turning “Roxanne” into a sensual celebration, but their brother behind the drums seemed inscrutably stuck in 1983, bashing away so hard that by the end of “Every Breath You Take,” he had completely destroyed his snare drum head. This he proudly displayed to the camera covering him, as if it was something to be proud of. In another time, maybe. But given how zen-like, in tune and mature his two brothers seemed up front, the impression was that of someone who had yet to let go of his mammoth past and move on. This might be conjecture, and I am sure that Stewart Copeland is doing just fine in his musical life, given how inspired his compositions for film and television have been, but if you were the drummer in The Police, the greatest rock band of the early 1980’s, who many would argue ended prematurely, you might have a bit of trouble moving on too. I know I would. They were simply that good.

Aug. '05

Outlandos D'Amour A

Regatta De Blanc A-

Zenyatta Mondatta A-

Ghost In The Machine A

Synchronicity A

It's a big enough umbrella but it's always me that ends up getting wet.