For some reason, The Police are best known today for two particularly creepy songs: “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” in which ex-teacher Sting references Nabokov’s Lolita while describing a female student’s crush; and “Every Breath You Take,” a favorite song at weddings even though Sting has made clear that it’s about a stalker. I’d say it’s past time for a look back at some other Police tracks!
By coming up with an original blend of rock, fusion jazz, reggae, and punk, the three members of The Police – bassist/singer Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland, and guitarist Andy Summers – helped usher in the British New Wave. They were exactly what a lot of young people were looking for: intelligent, stylish, musically skilled rebels. Hats off to A&M Records for realizing that esoteric can sometimes sell if it comes along at the right time. While the Police made only five studio recordings, all are important works of popular music, and all are on A&M.
With Outlandos d’Amour (1978) the band showed its unique voice, mesmerizing new fans with its plaintive single “Roxanne.” It’s one of the most artistically worthwhile (not to mention best-selling) debut albums ever. In large part, this is thanks to Sting’s emotional but thoughtful songwriting.
Copeland had not yet found his compositional legs, but he is given co-author credit on “Peanuts.” The frantic pace and angry mood of “Peanuts” is a good reminder of The Police’s connection to the burgeoning British punk scene in their early days. Not surprisingly, the drums take center stage in this number about being disappointed in a former hero. The lyrics sung by Sting here are also by him; Copeland had originally composed this song with different words.
It’s also interesting to hear Summers’ hysterical, dissonant scrabbling on the guitar, a style not found in any of the band’s singles. For all their originality and weirdness, The Police don’t usually sound out of control.
The singles “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon,” off 1979’s Reggatta de Blanc, proved that Sting’s quirky worldview could consistently appeal to millions. Both of those singles hit number one in Britain and were smashes in the U.S. as well. The Police also won their first Grammy for this record.
Unlike the first album, the tracks on Reggatta are a nearly even mix of Sting and Copeland compositions. “Bed’s Too Big Without You” is Sting’s; it luxuriates in his love of reggae more thoroughly than most of the band’s catalogue. They went all-out in getting that Jamaican vibe, including the reverb associated with bands like Bob Marley and the Wailers and Steel Pulse. Rhythmically, the empty downbeat and double-emphasized second beat of each bar is a classic reggae trope.
We get to hear another side of Summers’ guitar playing on “Bring on the Night.” One of his favorite composers is Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), important for his intertwining of Western European counterpoint and the guitar traditions of Spain and his native Brazil. The gorgeous fingerpicking patterns Summers plays against Sting’s voice in the verses are meant as a tribute to Villa-Lobos.
Two Grammy Awards awaited the 1980 album Zenyatta Mondatta: Best Duo or Group Rock Vocal Performance (“Don’t Stand So Close to Me”) and Best Rock Performance (“Behind My Camel”). The latter is an Andy Summers composition and one of two instrumental tracks on the album. Although the song is in eight-bar phrases in 4/4 time, the most common configuration in rock music, the bass and drum syncopation lies in an off-kilter relationship with the guitar, making the meter seem complex and uneven. There aren’t many pop tracks with only two chords and just a single eight-bar idea repeated for over three minutes; the result is an authentic impression of trudging along an endless desert.
Zenyatta Mondatta also finds The Police showing their socially conscious side. Sting’s lyrics for “Driven to Tears” confront those who witness suffering in the world and do nothing about it: “How can you say that you’re not responsible? What does it have to do with me?” This might come off as condescending if Sting didn’t seem to be including himself in the guilt: “My comfortable existence / reduced to a shallow, meaningless party.” The rhythmic fluidity of those lines creates a sense of lamentation, like someone so distressed that he blurts out his pain in waves of rambling words.
In their first foray without co-producer Nigel Gray, Ghost in the Machine (1981) paired The Police with Hugh Padgham, who would go on to produce hits with Phil Collins, Human League, and others. The over-bright, synthy production does not do the listener any favors, unfortunately. The singles from this album are an especially energetic group, including “Spirits in the Material World” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” seemingly intent on emphasizing the pop angle.
While the album’s songs are mostly credited to Sting, there’s less use of reggae rhythms and harmonies than on the earlier records. And it seems like there’s more focus on Sting the rock star than on The Police. One of the non-single tracks features him pouring out his heart in French. He wrote “Hungry for You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim de Toi)” for Trudie Styler, the actress he was having an affair with. The song must have eventually worked: Styler has been married to Sting since 1992. Reportedly, Sting had recently learned to play the saxophone from a do-it-yourself book, and he premiered his (modest) new skills on this track.
There’s a lot to be said for going out at the top of your game. The band’s final album, Synchronicity (1983), was their best selling and most award-winning. While it produced a pile of hit singles, including “Wrapped around Your Finger,” it’s not an overstatement to say that every track is outstanding.
Consider “Tea in the Sahara,” with its sultry, pulsing bass. Copeland’s syncopated accents on the drums and splash cymbals give this song a hint of bossa nova, diffused into a spacy coolness by the atmospheric electronic effects of guitar and synths.
And that was it for the band. Copeland and Sting were constantly at each other’s throats, and everybody had other things he wanted to do. It was time to stop. The Police took their last tour in 1986, with a brief reunion in 2007. Sting went on to a successful solo career, Copeland has focused on production and composing, and Summers is a photographer.
The Police may be gone, but you can be sure couples will continue using “Every Breath You Take” as their hilariously inappropriate wedding song until the end of time.