There Are No Happy Police Songs: A Chronological Stroll Through Radical Duality
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
Music author James Campion takes a deep dive into the five-album discography of The Police and resurfaces with a single conclusion: that there are no happy Police songs.
It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.
— Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
On March 4, 1984, The Police wrap up a monumental world tour. The three members of the ska/pop group – bassist and lead-vocalist Sting (32 years-old) from Northumberland, England, guitarist Andy Summers (41), Lancashire, England, and drummer Stewart Copeland (32), Alexandria, Virginia, U.S.A. – have been together for nearly eight wildly successful years and are now the biggest band in the world. The Police’s latest album, Synchronicity, its fifth, released the previous June, is a certified monster – on the charts (eight weeks at #1), with critics (Rolling Stone magazine’s album of the year), and with the increasingly dominant MTV monolith (three songs on incessant rotation for months). For eight weeks in the summer of 1983, the album’s biggest single, “Every Breath You Take,” stood atop the U.S. Billboard charts, and for a month in the UK. It would win a Grammy for Song of the Year and end up as the year’s best selling single. And yet The Police, at its summit commercially and creatively, are done. They will never record a single new song together again and would only convene to tour as a nostalgia act a quarter-century later.
Sure, they are constantly at each other’s throats – in rehearsals, in the studio, at strategy meetings, on tour, in interviews – mainly due to being equally articulate, well-read, intensely opinionated and fully convinced each is the group’s primary voice of reason. Friction is baked into the package. Its titular leader, Sting, whose given name is Gordon Sumner, is driven and manipulative, which clashes with Summers’ erratic moods and Copeland’s volatility. All three are well aware of their prodigious contributions to the cause. Yet, despite all the rancor, The Police are a musically tight and commercially titanic unit, and, as mentioned, the biggest band on the planet in the winter of 1984. They are also history.
I maintain, and always have, that The Police, only together for the aforementioned eight years over the noted five albums (Outlandos d'Amour (1978), Reggatta de Blanc (1979), Zenyatta Mondatta (1980), Ghost in the Machine (1981), and Synchronicity (1983)) none of which failed to reach the UK Top Ten and some reaching #1, provide us sonic and lyrical clues to how things would go in the long run. Simply because, despite their sprightly rhythms, melodious virtuosity, and clear universal appeal, there are no happy Police songs.
I had uttered that last sentence long before the band convened to record Synchronicity in the winter of 1982/83 amidst the obligatory backbiting and general spatting. It was probably the previous album, Ghost in the Machine, an extremely foreboding effort thematically and musically, that sealed it for me. A fan of the band since high school, I was in college when I read an interview with Sting in which he lauded the works of Arthur Koestler, sending me to a library in the fall of 1981 when I had just turned nineteen and ripe to be intellectually indoctrinated. Turns out, Ghost in the Machine was a 1967 book by the Hungarian/British journalist and novelist, who would become a dedicated philosopher of all things doom. In it, Koestler cites and then deconstructs what he deems is the constant turmoil between the mind and body, presuming our descent as a species into abject violence and/or apathy towards our fellow man, our environment, and our political constructs. Eight years after its publication, Koestler and his wife would commit suicide. Admittedly, getting through that book as a teenager was a rough gig, but I loved it, for it helped prepare me for the realities of this world in ways that are hard to explain. It certainly inspired Sting enough to use its theses as the context of an entire album, then follow that up two years later with Synchronicity, based on analytical psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of “meaningful coincidences” that Koestler analyzes in his 1972 work, The Roots of Coincidence.
This is all to say that, quite apparently, bummer concepts set to nimble pop/rock songs are key ingredients to the rising popularity of The Police and its dominance of the early 1980s. These two albums, a common thread to the previous three, are the culmination of deeply disturbing tales performed with verve by a finely tuned, musically expert band that strategically masks all of this with intricately fashioned danceable backtracks and hummable tunes. Perhaps the best example of this is the band’s 1980 top-ten hit “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” from their third album, Zenyatta Mondatta, which conjures notions of teen idols or doo-wop fun. And it does sound fun, most Police songs do, although its verses devolve into an ominous minor key in which Sting unfurls the true meaning: that much of our world is made up of claptrap gurgled by sub-mentals who we elect or allow to force-feed us media folderol.
You see? Not happy.
A theoretical breakdown of the band’s five albums reveals the arc of its story and what Sting may have been getting at throughout a fruitfully tumultuous progression. Doing so helps to understand the shocking development of the biggest band around – choosing to bag it in the wake of achieving a creative masterwork and subsequent international fame and fortune. In fact, this highly talented trio, who did not make a bad (if not mostly unhappy) album, chose the poignantly somber tone and wide reach of Synchronicity to design the perfect coda, which simultaneously moonlights as a suicide note.
The fact that in the early years of the mostly greedy, image-conscious, electronic age of the 1980s Synchronicity became one of our most popular musical documents speaks volumes about what all Police songs seem to suggest: We live with a spectacular lack of happiness. This is spread over the five Police albums like an evolution of the human emotional experience – from loneliness to disillusionment, then to helplessness into paranoia and, inevitably, despair. Veiled in incredible rock and pop songs with the dynamism of three blonde, spikey-haired jokesters hatched from the twisted mind of a master song craftsman, it is a heaping spoonful of honey to help swallow all of this bitter resentment. So, let’s examine what was going on with The Police from the very beginning to better comprehend its demise.
I used to be the same sort of person onstage that I was in private life, but now it’s sort of a monster. He looks wonderful with the lights and the crowds, but in the kitchen, it’s a bit much. I’m just trying to find out who is the real me – is it this monster or someone more normal? Right now, he’s a bit worn at the edges.
— Sting to Rolling Stone, 1983
OUTLANDOS D'AMOUR : LONELINESS
Be a happy man
I try the best I can
Or maybe I'm just looking
For too much
— “Hole in my Life”
Roughly translated from the French as “Outlaws of Love,” The Police’s debut album accomplishes what every great debut album must: it provides the long-ranging sonic and lyrical roadmap to the subsequent evolution of the band. There are tight reggae grooves and raging punk blasters featuring lyrical black humor sung with youthful obstinacy. Sting’s soon-to-be signature high-range, quasi-falsetto sing-scream showcases an impeccable balance of pitch and control. There is barely a sliver of light between the bass and drums, providing both a thick underline to the melodies and a rising crest for which the guitars’ rhythmic edges can ride. Infectious basslines, tirelessly elastic drumming and kill-scratch guitars dominate each song that thematically range from the broken-hearted pathos of the jilted (“So Lonely” and “Can’t Stand Losing You”) to the pleading pangs of love (“Next to You” and “Roxanne”) to a blatant cry for help (“Hole in My Life”). All of them kick ass.
Widely considered, and rightfully so, one of the finest opening statements of any band, Outlandos d'Amour sounds so fresh today because it was made to sound so damn clean in 1978. It is as if the band is jamming in your living room. The in-your-face beauty of every track, so stark, so punchy, so utterly devoid of sonic artifice (even A&M Records initially refused to release it) drives home the album’s central theme: loneliness. This insular three-guys-against-it-all ethos includes a sense of being lost without a connection to society at large (a key Police premise going forward), the frustration of “fitting in” and to a great extent the futility of being understood, loved, appreciated, and fighting like hell to matter.
The obvious lynchpin is “So Lonely” (duh), as purely honest a depiction of alienation as can be mustered in a pop song: “Just take a seat they're always free / No surprise, no mystery / In this theater that I call my soul / I always play the starring role.” It is penetratingly sad. So, of course, it’s the album’s third single. Coming after its first two, the soon-to-be signature early-career staple “Roxanne,” with its emasculated narrator pathetically begging his Parisian hooker girlfriend not to “put on your red light,” and “I Can’t Stand Losing You,” a song so tragic it makes the other two appear pedestrian. Its most disturbing aspect is a flippant allusion to suicide, as Sting sings in its pre-chorus, “You can call it lack of confidence / But to carry on living doesn't make no sense.”
When Sting is not floundering in isolation and heartbreak, his songs of desperation take over, like the punk-fierce “Next to You” that opens the album, in which he spits with crazed abandon: “I sold my house / I sold my motor, too / All I want is to be next to you / I'd rob a bank / Maybe steal a plane / You took me over / Think I'm goin' insane.” In the musically deranged “Peanuts,” which vilifies phony drug-taking, muck-raking celebrity gods, he declaims, “Oh no, try to liberate me / I said oh no, stay and irritate me / I said oh no, try to elevate me / I said oh no, just a fallen hero.” The trip through wrath culminates with “Truth Hits Everybody,” evoking the inner thoughts of someone so broken he turns to violence to make you feel his pain: “Take a look at my new toy / It'll blow your head in two, oh boy.” Lyrical asides to the echoes of seclusion (romantic/ideological/maddening) gone awry include the wincing, “I stepped outside myself and felt so cold,” and its victim’s deduction, “The only certain thing in life is death.” Knowing Sting’s eventual foray into mining current events as an echo chamber, how far could these sentiments be from the recent events of the Son of Sam murders in New York the previous summer? Same goes for “Born in the 50s,” where the snotty corner of the Boomer complaint department comes calling, “Oh we hated our Aunt / Then we messed in our pants / Then we lost our faith and prayed to the TV / Oh, we should've known better.” Not even the generation you are born into or the outside sources of distraction can be an elixir to loneliness.
The most humorous track on the record, and maybe the entire Police oeuvre, “Be My Girl – Sally,” sums up Outlandos d'Amour while providing insight into the dark tongue-and-cheek esthetic of which the band heavily relies. An ear-worm sing-along that playfully repeats, “Won’t you be my girl?” over a bouncing rhythm before falling apart into an eerie poem written and recited by Andy Summers, the narrator is a “blue and lonely” sad-sack who realizes one day that “the seeds of desperation were growing in me head.” He chooses to fill his psychological void with a blow-up sex doll he abuses, then marries – sharing dinners and conversation with – leading to his having a “permanent grin,” but yet he still lives in constant fear that one day his girl, Sally, may eventually “wear thin.” Maybe I was wrong about “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely.” This one takes the prize for capturing the quintessence of loneliness, setting up the band’s next record, which more than pulls off the most difficult of rock and roll feats: a follow-up to a fantastic debut that may eclipse its predecessor.
REGGATTA DE BLANC : DISILLUSIONMENT
No time for the complexities of conversation
No time for smiles, no time for knowing
No time for the intricacies of explanation
No time for sharing, even less for showing
— “No Time This Time”
It is Stewart Copeland’s favorite Police album. It is the first of their LPs to reach #1 in the UK (it got to #15 in the U.S.), while boasting two top-of-the-charts singles there, “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon” – both ringing allegories for the offspring of loneliness: disillusionment. Once again, packed with dreary yarns regaled with relentless syncopation and head-swimming melodies, The Police manage to raise the lofty stakes with Reggatta de Blanc, another frisky title that roughly means in French, “White People Reggae” – although, considering my three years of High School French it should read “blancs,” but I shan’t digress into Franco syntax.
The album opens with “Message in a Bottle,” another terrifically despondent metaphor for emotional isolation, using the island leitmotif to set the stage for one of the best lyrical payoffs in rock history (we’ll get to that). The first words we hear from Sting on the band’s sophomore effort is: “Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh / Another lonely day, no one here but me, oh / More loneliness than any man could bear / Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh.” The solitary voice, reflected in the band’s previous record, is now physically cut off from civilization. He sends out his solemn message in a bottle, singing, “Only hope can keep me together,” and repeats in the refrain: “Sending out an SOS” until one morning he awakes to find (here it is!) “A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore / Seems I'm not alone in being alone / A hundred billion castaways looking for a home.” He takes odd comfort in realizing the world is fundamentally a lonely place, and thus finds misery in company. He should know, because the song’s composer spent a good long time seeing that world.
The Police recorded Reggatta de Blanc quite literally on the run, tirelessly touring the planet for three years, taking four weeks over random months for hit-and-run studio stops, infusing the energy from concerts that are growing in number and enthusiasm, woodshedding new material, and making note of everything and everyone they encounter in Japan, Hong Kong, Greece, Egypt, India, Australia, France, United States, Argentina, and Brazil; so many lost souls to mine for songs – a revelation from the last years of the 1970s into the decade they would rise to rock/pop prominence. The very idea of pop stardom – an illusion unto itself, and the dream of young musicians seeing the world as an elixir to the isolation found on Outlandos d'Amour – turns out to be a red herring. What we hear on Reggatta de Blanc is the realization that there is no escape from one’s demons.
“Message in a Bottle” is followed by the title track, an instrumental, with a “yo-ho-ho Jamaican meets old British Naval ditty” played with a punk thrust into a smooth reggae groove that reminds one of the lonely narrator from the previous song’s island set adrift. This coalesces with the album’s third track, “It’s Alright for You,” another punk rave-up of indiscriminate generalities about people, ideologies and bigotries with the telling lines, “Watching while the world die” and “People don't want no less, no less,” yet apparently “the people” have accepted this stasis, because “It’s alright for you…and you and you and you and you.”
This comforting cover beneath the mounting horrors of the world continues with “Bring on the Night,” one of the most beautiful of Sting’s melodies that once again welcomes enveloping darkness over the stark realities of day – “I couldn’t stand another hour of daylight” – which descends into chucking memories into the dustbin of history: “God bid yesterday goodbye.” The final wishes for the sweet relief from reality ends side one with “Deathwish,” which predicts a planned car wreck: “The day I take a bend too fast / Judgment that could be my last / I'll be wiped right off the slate / Don’t wait up ‘cause I'll be late, I'll be late.” Wherein we find Sting looking to the flimsy paradigm of his Boomer experiences in “Born in the 50s” on the first record, one made with far less world-weariness and more introspective despondency, now he sees what the collective aspirations of the troubled have wrought on societies from Europe to Asia to the Americas. There are no easy answers, he surmises, if there are answers at all.
The ultimate escapist imagery is found on the first track of side two, “Walking on the Moon,” an outright rejection of even attempting to live on the planet: “We could walk forever / Walking on the moon / We could live together / Walking on, walking on the moon.” At its core the song frames the symptoms of disillusionment as a blatant dismissal of life’s turmoil. Its ethereal minor chords and airy Jamaican rhythms allow Sting’s voice to float across the song’s refrains until its bouncy bridge takes the listener with them. On the middle-eight the narrator awakes from his escape fantasy to refute those who may argue that living in the clouds and ignoring the plight of his fellow man is no way to exist, but, of course, he has no choice: “Some may say / I'm wishing my days away / No way / And if it's the price I pay / Some say / Tomorrow's another day / You stay / I may as well play.” In other words, “Screw you, I’ve seen quite enough, thank you; you stay in the real world, I’m outta here.”
Stewart Copeland chimes in with three songs of woe (maybe this is why it’s his favorite Police album?), the first of which being “On Any Other Day,” a playful diatribe about a clumsy suburban cuckold trapped in a prison of his own making. The drummer talk-sings with dreary reflection: “My wife has burned the scrambled eggs / The dog just bit my leg / My teenage daughter ran away / My fine young son has turned out gay.” He’s helped vocally by Sting’s soaring background vocals on “Contact,” another musically frantic number which centers on the inability to connect with a lover but prologues technology’s inadequate substitute for actual human interaction that will fill much of Ghost in the Machine. This is also true of the character study in “Does Everyone Stare,” which is a less creepy version of the stalking visage that will haunt “Every Breath You Take,” as the narrator gets “the heebie-jeebies” in the shadow of his partner before panic takes over, wondering if “everyone stares the way I do.” The image of an anxiety-ridden young man crippled by romantic obsession is arresting, but only acts as a rather comedic aside to Sting’s continued frigid expressions of regret in “Bed’s Too Big Without You,” “When she left I was cold inside,” and the album’s final track, "No Time This Time." Summarizing the furious pace in which the band was keeping at the time and its comprehension of the world’s quandaries, its final, soul-crushing cries of discouragement hit hard: “If I could / I'd slow the whole world down / I'd bring it to its knees / I'd stop it spinning round / But as it is / I'm climbing up an endless wall.”
It is the “endless wall” that will segue seamlessly into the band’s next offering exactly one year later.
ZENYATTÀ MONDATTA : HELPLESSNESS
Protest is futile
Nothing seems to get through
What's to become of our world?
Who knows what to do?
Driven to tears
— “Driven to Tears”
No one knows what Zenyattà Mondatta means, not even the band, so I’ll take a pass. Copeland, always willing to lend an opinion, said at the time it meant “everything,” so let’s go with that. Considering the aforementioned "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da," a Top Ten hit in the U.S., what’s the point, really? Thus, both the album’s title and its most successful song speak to its central theme: helplessness. Recorded much like the previous record, a mad dash within a month between tours, the album continues to reflect the disillusionment felt by the world traveler confronted with human misery, but this time it burrows deeply into a sense of defeat. Yet, it also triples down on the biting Police humor that, despite the shit-storm, could be counted on to choose a blustery laugh over a good cry.
There is, of course, social, political and global helplessness borne out in tracks like “Driven to Tears,” inspired by footage Sting witnessed on the starvation of children in Biafra (“Too many cameras and not enough food”), to the post-apocalyptic groove of “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around” that its composer quips, “Such vanity as to imagine one's self as the sole survivor of a holocaust with all one's favorite things still intact.” But underneath the social outrage there is the growing suspicions of “Canary in a Coal Mine,” sung with fraught abandon that our sensibilities “are shaken by the slightest defect.” An inability to dismiss torment is also prevalent in the song that follows, “Voices in My Head.” Only two lines repeat throughout: “Voices inside my head / Echoes of things that you said.” They say so much about helplessness, as does Sting’s paean to the road-weary traveler in “Man in a Suitcase,” who lives “with a stranger’s face” and sardonically muses that “The world's my oyster / A hotel room's a prison cell.”
Trapped by stasis, seeing the violence, starvation, and pestilence of a world beyond the pop charts, MTV and award shows, Sting struggles with insignificance. This is best covered in a song he would include as a rave-up on his first and brilliantly executed solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985), “Shadows in the Rain.” On Zenyattà Mondatta it is a disturbing off-kilter performance; a sinuous bass line ushered along by a tense drumbeat that is serenaded by an eerie tinkled piano, and later menacing guitar moans, and sung in a dissonant sigh awash in reverb: “And if you see us on the corner / We're just dancing in the rain / I tell my friends there when I see them / Outside my window pane / Shadows in the rain.”
Before any of this, however, is the album’s opener, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” chosen to be its first single and topping the UK charts immediately in September of 1980 and edging into the U.S. Billboard Top Ten in the early months of the following year. A different slant on utter helplessness than the more overt political statements on the record, its central figure is a professor who is being seduced by a student. Name checking Vladimir Nabokov for its central theme, evoking his 1955 novel of moral paralysis in the face of blatant pedophilia, Lolita, Sting would later, rather creepily, say he could not fathom how he was able to refute the fifteen year-old crushes of the young women in his class when he was a secondary-school teacher. In his song – once again highlighted by somber tones in its cringing verses into a bouncy, sing-song chorus – the professor’s helplessness is darkly comedic if not dangerously carnal: “Temptation, frustration / So bad it makes him cry / Wet bus stop, she's waiting / His car is warm and dry.” He is, as every character in every song of Zenyattà Mondatta, a victim of his own making, helpless to stem the tide of desolation.
GHOST IN THE MACHINE : PARANOIA
The sky's alive with turned on television sets
I walk the streets and seek another vision yet
The echo makes me turn to see that last frontier
The edge of time closes down as I disappear
— “Omega Man”
While there is still that patented black Police humor in Ghost in the Machine, it is rare and, thus, rings painfully hollow. The futile sense of unrequited love resplendent in the album’s biggest single and most well-structured pop/rock song, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” is a quaint distraction in an otherwise bleak landscape. Another UK #1, peaking at #3 on Billboard and reaching the Top Ten in all corners of the globe, its charmingly contagious chorus mixed with, as is most of Sting’s musical juxtaposing, lamenting verses, the song acts as the album’s grand decoy. One of the composer’s finest stanzas, later reprised in the fade out and then in future songs – “O My God” on Synchronicity and “Seven Days” from his fourth solo effort, Ten Summoner's Tales, in 1993 – expresses the record’s foreboding mood: “Do I have to tell the story / Of a thousand rainy days since we first met / It's a big enough umbrella / But it's always me that ends up getting wet.”
However, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” ends the playful duality that marks the first three Police albums. From its opening track, “Spirits in the Material World,” all minor chords and irritant sax shrills, a pall is cast upon Ghost in the Machine that begins the band’s most somber statement yet: “There is no political solution / To our troubled evolution / Have no faith in constitution / There is no bloody revolution.” Even its black cover, the first without a photo of the band, replaced by computer-generated symbols that are meant to represent its three members, visually portends trouble.
Paranoia of our withering morals abounds in “Invisible Sun:” “I don't want to spend my time in hell / Looking at the walls of a prison cell / I face the day with me head caved in / Looking like something that the cat brought in;” as does mob mentality in “Rehumanize Yourself:” “Billy's joined the National Front / He always was a little runt / He's got his hand in the air with the other cunts / You've got to humanize yourself;” geographical apathy in “One World (Not Three):” “I don't want to bring a sour note / Remember this before you vote / We can all sink or we all float / 'Cause we're all in the same big boat;” and violence in “Demolition Man:” “I'm a walking nightmare, an arsenal of doom / I kill conversation as I walk into a room / I'm a three line whip / I'm the sort of thing they ban / I'm a walking disaster / I'm a demolition man.” There is very little hiding under subtext or metaphor here. Sting is coming hard at you, both lyrically and aurally. Moreover, this is the first Police album that eschews a tighter, more pop-y sound for deep reverb, alarming horn blasts, dissonant keyboards and anarchic guitar sounds that denote peril.
To achieve this the band turns to signature 1980s producer Hugh Padgham, whose work with reverb will influence rock and pop forever. Gone is the airtight “living room sound,” the three-men-against-the-world ethos, replaced by a spatial, threatening assault that makes up one of the deleterious albums in rock history. It’s doom-struck “Omega Man” with all these fears reaching a zero-sum (“I sit upon the edge now / Shall I make that leap?”) and Copeland’s morbid “Darkness” (“I wish I never woke up this morning / Life was easy when it was boring”) set us up for The Police’s final statement.
SYNCHRONICITY : DESPAIR
I have stood here before inside the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running 'round my brain
I guess I'm always hoping that you'll end this reign
But it's my destiny to be the king of pain
— “King of Pain”
The well-documented Police rancor that always smolders beneath musical commonality bubbles over into full-on battle by the time Sting, Summers and Copeland convene to record what will be the band’s most revered and popular work. Producer Hugh Padgham recalls “both verbal and physical fights in the studio,” specifically between the combative Copeland and the resolute Sting, both of whom the producer says “hated each other.” Trying to intervene to keep the peace and finish the project, Padgham is routinely berated to know his place; “You don't know anything about us!” Copeland shouts at him.
To mark the occasion, instead of merely opening the album with an underlying theme, “Synchronicity” and “Synchronicity II” bookend its first side of ice-cold realism meets good old-fashioned cynic-speak set to more manic compositions – once again as on the previous album, both songs eschew the duality of bright pop for a sonic warning siren. Sting’s intrepid ranting in the former with iambic interjections of “If we share / this nightmare / Then we can dream / Spiritus mundi” frames his general theory of the past four albums – whether the universal loneliness of “Message in a Bottle” or the collective sin of omission in “One World (Not Three)” – the “connecting principle” of synchronicity is our collective misery.
Of the two, “Synchronicity II” is the more ominous, with its vicious berating of humanity beneath Western civilization’s dystopian factories “belching filth into the sky” whose workers are “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes,” mere “contestants in a suicidal race.” The despair of Daddy, who stares into the distance having endured “a humiliating kick in the crotch” from “his so-called superior” and so “there's only so much more that he can take,” is musically palpable. Simultaneously, a primordial slime crawls onto shore and eventually turns into the Loch Ness Monster – this chilling visage becoming the living symbol of the world’s despair.
And this is the fun side.
There are more Koestler-inspired prognostications of doom (The Trail of the Dinosaur) in “Walking in Your Footsteps,” which foretells our fate to be that of the once mighty dinosaur, and, to make matters worse, in “O My God” we’ll endure the silence of an apathetic supreme being: “Everyone I know is lonely / With God so far away / And my heart belongs to no one / So now sometimes I pray / Take the space between us / Fill it up some way.” Summers and Copeland add to the tuneful desolation respectively with “Mother” and “Miss Gradenko” – one woman, a soul-crushing matron and the other a fool-hearty workaday who has the audacity to show her feelings which prompts the narrator to repeatedly ask, “Is anybody at all in here?” until finally deciding, “Nobody but us in here / Nobody but us.” Strangely, an almost throw-away filler track on one of the finest rock albums of the 1980s best describes the trip The Police have taken us on since its 1978 debut: three artists banging their hearts against a tide of loneliness, disillusionment, helplessness, paranoia and finally despair. Not to be missed, Summers apoplectic screeching in “Mother” about his fears of her devouring him is downright distributing.
And then there is the legendary side: the monster song-of-the-year, “Every Breath You Take,” the follow-up single, “King of Pain,” peaking at #3 on the Billboard charts, and the third, “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” topped out in the U.S. at #8. Three tracks in a row that are huge hits and all three unequivocal bummers.
It is difficult to overstate the bleak tragedy that lurks below the soothing tones of “Every Breath You Take,” perhaps the most misunderstood popular song ever. The narrator, a desperate stalker of his ex, sends a bleak message to his subject about eying every move made, step taken, and stake claimed to a trembling chord progression eerily used later to the same effect for #1 songs from John Waite’s somber “Missing You” (1984) to U2’s stellar “With or Without You” (1987). However, its bridge, a spectacular climb in key and intensity, makes it the superior composition. Sting proclaims, “Since you've gone I've been lost without a trace / I dream at night, I can only see your face / I look around but it's you I can't replace / I feel so cold and I long for your embrace / I keep crying, ‘Baby, baby, please.’” Interestingly, the P-Diddy/Faith Evans/112 1997 tribute to fallen friend Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, “I’ll Be Missing You” used “Every Breath You Take” and its “Missing You” cousin to create an international #1 hit.
It is “Every Breath You Take” that solidifies The Police as an unstoppable force in 1983, and it is not coincidental that most of its admirers ignore the horrors of a jilted lover reduced to a sullen spy to use it for romantic teen dances and weddings. But no one could ignore “King of Pain,” a personal cry for help from Sting, who would later claim he in fact did see a spot on the sun and thought, “…that’s my soul up there.” Later he fills out the lyric with nods to the victims of apathy, hatred, bigotry and fear, and the vivid image of “a skeleton choking on a crust of bread,” which may be the most stunting verse in the history of popular music. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a sexist revenge story blanketed in Muzak treacle.
The Police end its five-album ode to the futile search for bliss with “Tea in the Sahara” – CDs later include “Murder by Numbers,” another darkly pitched tragicomedy, which can also be found in streaming versions of the album but is not on the original LP. Sting knows just what he’s doing here. During the volatile making of Synchronicity, he would later muse, “It was very clear to me during the making of this record that this was the end of the Police.” And so “Tea in the Sahara” is his grand metaphor, a lasting microcosm of what has come before and the perfect way to wrap up his band’s legacy. Told from the viewpoint of a woman, she and her two sisters long for the company of a mystery man and convince one to have a rather dignified romantic tryst in the Sahara Desert. He acquiesces when apparently a quid pro quo includes that they dance for him “with a joy you could not measure,” prompting him to whisk the sisters to the desert. This becomes a yearly sojourn, something they look forward to with great anticipation, but this final time he does not return. And with “cups filled with sand” they most likely die in the searing heat, alone, disillusioned, helpless, and finally despaired.
Sting, one surmises, sees the “mystery man” of “Tea in the Sahara” as his band, which seduces its audience with the promise of cheery sounding melodic tunes and then offers them the realities of a sinister and eventually doom-struck world.
The Police wasn’t a particularly happy experience for me. Getting what I had desired for so long – success – and finding it didn’t equate with actual happiness made me even more unhappy. What is happiness? Where is it? It’s not in selling millions of records. It’s not in being hugely famous or desired by all these people. It must be somewhere else. I needed to get out of the Police to find it.
— Sting to Rolling Stone, 2007
As a matter of note, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland did not want The Police to break up in 1984. In fact, the band tried to get together in 1986 to record a sixth album but an injury to Copeland and general malaise resulted in merely a cover of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” which none of the members thought particularly stellar and ended up on a greatest hits package. Sting would use his new-found freedom to record his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, a jazz-influenced experiment that ended up peaking at #2 in America and #3 in the UK, spawning a chart-topping first single. Ironically, “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” is a mostly happy song. The album’s second track, “Love is the Seventh Wave” boasts a truly pleasurable message. And so, it is ultimately Sting, the band’s main composer, whose examination of the human condition for seven years as the bass player and lead vocalist for what would be the biggest band in the world, concluded that there was much unhappiness that needed to be expressed in rock/pop songs. He would be the one to accomplish this in what he eventually deemed an unworkable construct and argue that it was all done in the name of discovery.
Just a few years ago Sting told The Guardian, “I’m not usually happy, but at the same time happiness can be thought of as a kind of bovine state – cows are happy; I’m curious.” ▲
James Campion is an essayist, music journalist, contributing editor to the Aquarian Weekly, and author of seven published works including Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon and Accidentally Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon. His podcast with Adam Duritz, “Underwater Sunshine,” concentrates on new and classic music of all genres, as the two hosts curate a bi-annual music festival in NYC each year.