This time I really screwed myself in the ass without the lube and have no one but myself to blame.
When I opened the door to New Wave bands, I thought I’d do a couple of reviews and move on to more substantial stuff. Blondie—check. The Cars—check. All done—not!
Call it conscience, obsession with thoroughness, hating to leave loose ends, stupidity, whatever—but I couldn’t leave the New Wave behind without reviewing the most successful New Wave band of them all.
Let me stake my position at the outset: The Police wouldn’t have been shit without Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers. They are both outstanding musicians responsible for nearly all the delightful moments I experience when listening to The Police. Stewart Copeland is a percussion genius, with a unique ability to integrate influences from disparate musical traditions, a southpaw who had the mental agility to force his brain to play right-handed. Andy Summers is a sensitive, disciplined guitarist whose subtlety in support of a song often causes people to miss how important his contributions are.
As for the other guy, well . . .
It’s hard for me to get past the massive ego and unbridled ambition Sting brings to most of his performances. The trajectory of The Police tracks perfectly with the expansion of Sting’s I-am-the-center-of-the-universe mindset. What started as a pretty tight trio devolved into one self-important singer and a backup band. As a songwriter, I find his music occasionally interesting and his lyrics hit-and-miss (the lack of self-awareness in some of those songs is bloody astonishing). As a singer, he’s decent when he sings in his natural voice, but when he attempts an accent located somewhere between Jamaica and Trinidad, I don’t know whether he’s trying to show respect or exploiting the reggae and ska originators. He certainly isn’t on my list of favorite bass players, and while I appreciate his donations and contributions to worthy causes, I feel the same way about Sting that I do about the equally charitable Bono: I can’t hear the message because all I hear is how fucking wonderful you think you are.
Due to an allergic reaction triggered by extended exposure to egomaniacs, I can only take The Police in small doses. This compilation of their greatest hits fits the bill nicely, as the chronological order helps sketch out the trajectory. I’ll be reviewing the U. S. version, which does not contain the U.K.-only track, “So Lonely.”
Okay, girl, get ready. Adopt lotus position. Breathe slowly, deeply. Align your chakras. Chant “OM.” Empty your mind of all fear and loathing. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Experience your essential oneness with the universe. In, out. In, out. OM. In, out.
Fuck. It’s not working. Let me grab some vodka and a cigarette.
“Roxanne”(Outlandos d’Amour): “Roxanne” was one of those middling hits like Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” that garnered more attention years after the fact, eventually becoming one of the band’s signature songs. At the core of the song is the tango rhythm, a brainchild of Stewart Copeland. As tango has no near-analogy in rock, Copeland had to teach Sting how and when to play the necessary bass notes, resulting in one of his best bass performances. Andy Summers came up with the perfect approach on guitar—sharp, on-point chords that highlight the beauty of the sustained and major seventh variations while maintaining the connection to the subtle B-note continuity. Stewart Copeland drives this song, providing appropriate thunder to introduce the heavily syncopated chorus and easing up nicely during the verses to bring Andy Summers to the fore. The background vocals are absolutely solid. From a musical perspective, “Roxanne” is a gem.
On the downside, both premise and lyrics are silly and sexist. The myth of the white knight to the rescue of the poor, fallen whore holds a special appeal for men who believe it is their life task to protect women from the evils life has to offer. Hey! We don’t need your protection—we just need you to stop beating and raping us! The myth was given further validation in the film Pretty Woman, encouraging men all over the world to believe that they could rescue a street worker somewhere and, with a little tender care and a whole lot of money, turn her into Julia Roberts.
Look. The guy in this song only wants to rescue Roxanne because he wants to control her:
I loved you since I knew ya
I wouldn’t talk down to ya
I have to tell you just how I feel
I won’t share you with another boy
I know my mind is made up so put away your make-up
I told you once I won’t tell you again it’s a bad way
Shit, he hasn’t even convinced her to go along with his loony scheme and he’s already bossing her around! What an asshole! Sting completely misses the irony of rescuer-as-conqueror, unintentionally giving his control freak an air of nice-guy credibility.
I’d love an instrumental-only version of “Roxanne,” as Sting’s faux-Caribbean delivery seems both pointless and condescending.
“Can’t Stand Losing You” (Outlandos d’Amour): Sting described this song to The Independent thusly: “And it’s a song about a teenage suicide, which is always a bit of a joke.”
No, it’s not. Yes, some teenage drama queens threaten suicide as a way to get attention, but you know what, asshole? Some teenagers actually go through with it, devastating friends and family for a lifetime.
And guys, the music here is Roxanne Redux, so can we like, move on?
“Message in a Bottle” (Regatta de Blanc): One of the better pieces on the record thanks to Andy Summers’ guitar tones and Stewart Copeland’s mastery of the multiple rhythms, “Message in a Bottle” presents us with a naïve but pleasant view of the human race as a species with empathy for those in isolation. The main rhythmic shift from verse to bridge accelerates the song, adding a valid sense of urgency to the request for rescue. We’ll allow Sting the luxury of hyperbole with his reference to “a hundred billion castaways,” as it dramatizes the essential loneliness of the human race, reiterating the message contained in the “no
man person is an island” metaphor.
Sting was very complimentary of his efforts on this song. “I think the lyrics are subtle and well crafted enough to hit people on a different level from something you just sing along to. It’s quite a cleverly put-together metaphor. It develops and has an artistic shape to it,” he remarked to Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh in the book 1000 UK #1 Hits.
What a guy.
“Walking on the Moon” (Regatta de Blanc): The backstory here is Sting was visiting avant-garde composer Eberhard Schoener (he wouldn’t be caught dead with a run-of-the-mill composer, of course) when he had too much to drink and wrote a song about walking around his hotel room in an attempt to shake his drunken stupor. He decided that “Walking ‘Round the Room” was a dumb title, so he went with the more fantastical “Walking on the Moon.”
The result is a dumb fucking song that would have been so much better as an instrumental.
“Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86” (Zenyatta Mondatta, re-recorded version): The original version of this song is driven by a reggae beat that is far too light for the subject matter. The ’86 version dispenses with the Caribbean (and Sting’s silly accent) for a more dramatic arrangement that better supports the emotional content. As Sting was a teacher before the transformation to megastar, he obviously had a clear understanding of the organizational and human dynamics of an educational institution filled with teenagers driven by exploding hormones and confused emotions. For the most part, the drama is presented well, but Sting can’t resist ruining the whole thing by showing us how well-read he is:
It’s no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That famous book by Nabokov
Reinforcing his status as a supremely erudite gentleman, “Nabokov” is misspelled in the lyrics that appear on (what else?) sting.com.
Although well-executed, the fundamental problem of the song is its complete lack of moral character. The male teacher gets dressed down by his colleagues, and while Sting has claimed in interviews that the teacher got the sack, that event is not captured in the lyrics. Essentially, the predator is given a pass—no, a mulligan!—for his uncontrollable lust for a teenage girl. Methinks the problem lies with the songwriter:
I wanted to write a song about sexuality in the classroom. I’d done teaching practice at secondary schools and been through the business of having 15-year-old girls fancying me – and me really fancying them! How I kept my hands off them I don’t know . . . Then there was my love for Lolita which I think is a brilliant novel. But I was looking for the key for eighteen months and suddenly there it was. That opened the gates and out it came: the teacher, the open page, the virgin, the rape in the car, getting the sack, Nabokov, all that. (Wikipedia)
Hey, dipshit! You have a fucking brain! The brain has an on-off switch called “the morality button.” Maybe yours is disconnected, but when it’s working, the mere thought of using the power derived from male supremacy and a teacher’s authority in order to plunder a vulnerable young girl should make you nauseous! You don’t fancy them! It becomes UNTHINKABLE.
Ah, but let’s not be too hard on old Gordie. After all, he came up with a much more socially acceptable explanation when asked about the song a decade later:
You have to remember we were blond bombshells at the time and most of our fans were young girls so I started role-playing a bit. Let’s exploit that. (Wikipedia)
“De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”: (Zenyatta Mondatta): He’s nothing if not consistent—in an interview with the NME, Sting attempted to compare “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” to Finnegan’s Wake.
Almost everyone who reviewed it said, Oh, this is baby talk. They were just listening to the chorus alone, obviously. But they’re the same people who would probably never get through the first paragraph of Finnegan’s Wake, because that’s ‘baby talk’, too. (Songfacts)
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Andy Summers’ shimmery guitar is the highlight here, his picking carefully executed to highlight all the right notes in a given chord, creating a pleasant echo of the main melody. The transitional bridge lines are beautifully implemented, with stereo guitars accentuating the offbeats over Stewart Copeland’s steady drums.
As for the lyrics . . . well, they fall just a teeny bit short of Joycean richness.
“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (Ghost in the Machine): At this point in their career, The Police go for more elaborate arrangements, pretty much abandoning the relative spareness of their years as a trio. Horns, synthesizers and piano are thrown into the mix to give the music the appearance of greater substance and significance. The approach certainly worked on the remake of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” but for the most part, it buries Summers and Copeland in an 80’s version of the wall of sound.
“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is as light as a feather, a distant relative of the more poetically economical story told in The Hollies’ “Bus Stop.” The overproduction here represents a lame attempt to imbue meaninglessness with significance and fails miserably.
“Invisible Sun” (Ghost in the Machine): The heavier production with its grim drone works much better here with the dark content, particularly in the bleak verses delivered by Sting in a tone of cold resignation. The backstory has to do with the troubles in Northern Island, another stop on the endless tour of places where religion and war comfortably co-exist. The narrator is in the thick of the action, considering life and options in this inhuman environment:
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life
Looking at the barrel of an Armalite
I don’t want to spend the rest of my days
Keeping out of trouble like the soldiers say
I don’t want to spend my time in hell
Looking at the walls of a prison cell
I don’t ever want to play the part
Of a statistic on a government chart
The glimmer of hope is “the invisible sun,” a powerful metaphor for the tendency for humans to cling to hope in dark times, rather like St. Vincent’s severed crossed fingers. While this is clearly Sting’s best vocal and best set of lyrics on both this album and Ghost in the Machine, it definitely feels like we’ve crossed the line from The Supremes to Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Note to Americans: “Armalite” refers to both a rifle and the company that makes those rifles. You are all familiar with the AR-15, the weapon of choice for perpetrators of mass shootings, and you’ll be happy to know that the company was bought out by another arms merchant to capitalize on the insatiable appetite of American consumers for ergonomically designed murderous weaponry.
“Spirits in the Material World” (Ghost in the Machine): Sting was/is a devotee of the muddled philosophies of Arthur Koestler, a man who mixed theories of evolution and the paranormal with extreme misogyny, brutal sexual behavior and alleged serial rape. The aspect of Koestler’s philosophy in play here is his claim that our innate higher spiritual and intellectual capabilities are constantly undermined by regular exposure to large institutions like governments and corporations.
In other words, something that Dickens figured out a century before.
I don’t disagree with the assertion that “There is no political solution/To our troubled evolution,” a legitimate counter to those who naïvely believe that competitive politics can consistently create win-win solutions. The rest of Sting’s lyrics are haphazardly pieced-together fragments of very loose thought:
Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it’s something we can’t buy
There must be another way
By which I think he means the answer is that he has no answer.
The classic reverb-drenched, over-synthesized 1980’s production makes this highly abstract piece feel even more distant and cold. Andy Summers’ guitar is deliberately buried by the synthesizer, as Sting didn’t want him on the record anyway. Every now and then you hear Stewart Copeland and wistfully recall what a great drummer he was.
“Every Breath You Take” (Synchronicity): Synchronicity was clearly a satiric album title, given that the band members were in open conflict throughout much of the recording process. Like Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” the piece features an obsessed stalker as the narrator and was similarly misinterpreted by millions of fans as an expression of undying love.
Even more frightening is the possibility that there are many music fans out there who believe that true love and obsession are the same thing.
“Every Breath You Take” won the Grammy for Song of the Year (whoop-de-do), was #1 for eight long weeks on the U. S. Billboard charts (four weeks in the U.K.), and was listed as the 89th greatest song of all time by the music industry rag Rolling Stone. I think those statistics say more about the low quality of music in the 1980s than anything else; if “Every Breath You Take” had come out in 1966, no one would have paid attention to it.
They wouldn’t have paid attention because they’d pretty much heard it before. The chord pattern for the verse is the overused “Angel Baby” sequence of root, relative minor, major fourth, major fifth. I have to give Andy Summers a lot of credit for making a tired old pattern halfway interesting through his arpeggiated attack. And I’ll give credit to Sting for being in fine voice throughout the song and refusing to overplay the part of one sick puppy.
All I can add is, “Really? You really think this is a great song? Okay, whatever.”
“King of Pain” (Synchronicity): O, woe is me! Woe is me! The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune! I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! Shakespeare and Shelley had no concept of the pain we rich and famous rock stars experience, so let me torture some butterflies and suffocate a blue whale! Ha! My pain’s bigger than your pain! Nyah, Nyah!
“Wrapped Around Your Finger” (Synchronicity): This song gives me the giggles. Only the most pompous ass in the world could have opened a fucking pop song with these lines:
You consider me the young apprentice
Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis
Ooh, baby! Your classical education makes me want to cover your body in the sweet nectar of the goddess!
The tantalizing hints of BDSM dynamics can only be there for titillation purposes, as anyone with any experience in the matter (ahem) knows that gothic crap like this and Fifty Shades of Grey do not actually happen in the . . . material world. While still a long way from reality, Prince’s fantasy of “Darlin’ Nikki” certainly does a better job of capturing the eroticism of the practice.
The real treat on this song is Stewart Copeland’s percussion, a marvelous mix of drum, stick, rim and cymbal in the verses and booming bash in the chorus. Copeland is such a great drummer that I’ve put him on the list of Drummers That Make Me Want to Tune Out the Rest of the Song, along with Ringo, Bev Bevan, Barriemore Barlow, Ginger Baker and Dave Grohl.
The Police represent something of a lost opportunity. Their early work demonstrates both talent and a multi-faceted approach to music, resulting in a sound that was all their own. Perhaps if they had come to an early understanding that the band was to function as an absolute democracy (a la Radiohead) and that individual ego was to be supplanted by a commitment to the whole, they could have produced some really interesting work.
Oh, well. I suppose if you have a high tolerance for narcissism, this album might work for you. As for me, I’ll be patiently waiting for an instrumental-only version . . . one free of vocals, free of lyrics and free from self-important rock star pretentiousness.