10. “Can’t Stand Losing You”
From 1979’s Outlandos d’Amour, Second Single
Sting has written a whole bunch of songs about unsavory characters over the years. This is one of my favorites. When I was a kid, I listened to this song and felt empathy for the main character. His girlfriend broke up with him! He wanted to die! So sad! Of course, that’s not what the song is about at all. I may be overthinking this, but the evidence from the lyrics suggest the narrator character here is an abusive, manipulative asshole who is almost certainly not going to kill himself. I read the “your brother wants to kill me” line to suggest that, at some point during the relationship, the narrator did something that justifies the brother wanting to beat him up. Furthermore, she broke it off with him without telling him (“I guess its all true what your girlfriend’s say”) which suggests he did something to inspire the break-up. Then there’s that whole threatening-to-kill-himself so she’ll feel bad move, which is classic emotional manipulation. My favorite clue, though, is the chorus where he specifically sings the words “I cant stand losing” ten times more than he qualifies that statement with the word “you.” The song is constructed as a plea for sympathy (or, perhaps, submission) from a spurned suitor when its really a manipulative threat from an abusive ex. It a really smart lyric and sort of foreshadows ‘Every Breath You Take.”
9. “Synchronicity II”
From 1983’s Synchronicity, Third Single
I love how the verse and chorus on this song are thematically related but aren’t literally related – Sean and I sometimes try to play with this sort of lyrical structure in Oil In Alley. There’s a real sense that the businessman driving home is akin to the monster casting his shadow on the door (of a cottage on the shore of a dark Scottish lake). Its one of the hardest rocking numbers in The Police catalog and is resolutely an anti-pop song. Its absolutely bizarre to think this was actually a top 40 hit in both the US and the UK. It was and the world is better for it.
From 1978’s Outlandos d’Amour, First Single
I know I was familiar with this song for years, but the first time I remember hearing this song was when I watched 48 Hours and saw Eddie Murphy relaxing/rocking out to the tune. I think there are kind of songs that are secret, unspoken markers for group identity and “Roxanne” was kind of a marker of cool youth in the early 80’s. Hearing Murphy sing it was a moment of “hey, that thing we like is something everyone knows now.” “Roxanne” wasn’t as huge a hit upon first release as it eventually became – in the UK it failed to chart and in the US it just cracked the top 40. At the time they recorded it, The Police were somewhat embarrassed about the track but Stewart Copeland’s brother, Miles Copeland (founder of IRS Records) dug it so much he went out and got them a contract with A&M Records after hearing it. You never know what people are going to like. Sometimes they like the best work you’ve ever done and sometimes they like the stuff you wish you hadn’t made. Art is weird.
7. “Next To You”
From 1978’s Outlandos d’Amour, released as a single in Brazil in 1982
No much to say about “Next to You.” Its a great high energy love song. This song is a great example of why the Police were never going to be taken seriously as punk rockers in 1978 England. Its just a straight-up, well-played rock love song. This was also the absolute final song The Police ever played or may ever play together live.
6. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”
From 1980’s Zenyattà Mondatta, First Single
As I said, Sting loves his creepy characters. He also loves finding challenging rhymes. Since the song is about pedophilia (or at least a situation likely to lead to it), he decides to reference “Lolita” by Nabakov. This, of course, requires him to find a rhyme for “Nabakov.” He chooses “shake and cough.” Close enough. I’ll tell you what, I knew what this song was about when I was a high school student and its fascinating how different my perception of the song has changed as I’ve gotten older. I liked it as a remarkably catchy pop song back in the early 80’s (that great minimalist guitar and drum work with the foreboding synth line that underscores Sting’s first verse is a wonder – and the moment the tension breaks into the chorus is one of The Police’s great hooks) but once I passed age 20 or 21, I realized how incredibly uncomfortable the song is. My 49-year-old-me reading of this song is that Sting does not let the lecherous teacher off the hook here. The teacher is telling her not to stand so close to him in public because he doesn’t want to get busted. In private, he’s picking her up at the bus stop where she’s waiting – not for the bus, but for him. His colleagues know what’s going on. He is doomed – or at least his career is doomed – and that’s good thing. Typical for Sting songs, though, the impact of the music is deliberately more “let’s dance” than “let’s think hard about the criminal activity of the main character.”
5. “So Lonely”
From 1978’s Outlandos d’Amour, Third Single
Sting has either experienced some serious loneliness and isolation in his life or is darn good at describing it. Two of my favorite songs by him are about how hard it is to be alone – this one and “Message In A Bottle.” ‘So Lonely” features the classic Police rock/reggae sound – in fact, this might be the perfect example of The Police’s signature sound. Sting says that “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley was a significant influence on this song. Yeah, I can hear that. When I’m down, miserable songs make me feel better. I have listened to this song many, many times (often to break up repeated listenings of Disintegration by The Cure).
4. “Wrapped Around Your Finger”
From the 1983 Album Synchronicity, Second Single
I love this video. If I had my druthers, every Oil in the Alley concert would involves us being surrounded by hundreds of candles that cover the whole room with wax. Every surface would get slick and bands using the stage for the next month would complains about slipping. Also, we’d have fire extinguishers on hand so I could knock all the candles over without too much fear of killing everyone. Standing in a circle of candles and knocking down them all with another candle? That is peak “Sting is cool” right there. Sting went out of his way to find a rhymes for “Scylla and Charybdis” here. He went with “young apprentice.” It scans! I wonder sometimes if sting sits at home and, as the hours grow late, makes a list of words that he think would be hilarious to write into pop songs as rhyming words. Every now and then, his wife comes in to ask him to get tantric and he responds “not now, I’m looking for a rhyme for Fahrvergnügen – let’s see… carpet fumin’… no… get the luge in… better…”
3. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”
From 1981’s Ghost in the Machine, Second Single
The Police’s great up-beat pop love song that is really a love song. Sting loved the “big enough umbrella” bit enough in this song to use those lyrics again in other songs. I always think of “Bus Stop” by The Hollies when I hear that phrase (which leads us, circuitously, to “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”). Neither Copeland nor Summers were especially enthusiastic about the track but they also were savvy enough to know which sound of their toast was buttered so they ultimately just sucked it up and played it. It was a huge smash hit. It doesn’t sound at all like a reggae/rock song because, honestly, its not. It is, however, delightful and hard not to love. I mean, its not impossible not to love, but its hard.
2. “Message in a Bottle”
From 1979’s Regatta de Blanc, First Single
The great part of this song is the lyrical turn at the end where the lonely protagonist recognizes that there’s thousands of lonely people just like him. This is a relief denied to – for example – The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby who remains steadfastly lonely until she dies. Alone. For that matter, the protagonist in The Police’s own “So Lonely” fades off into silence repeating how he’s “so lonely so lonely so lonely.” I always think of Guadalcanal Diary’s wonderful song “Lonely Street” – which has a similar inspiring turn – when I listen to this song. It shouldn’t make me feel better when I’m lonely to realize that there are millions of other lonely people out there, but it does. Misery loves company, eh? Miseeerryyyy. Stewart Copeland and Sting are masters of sudden rhythmic changes and their shift into the chorus of this song is superb – its almost an entirely different song. Almost. I know there’s people out there who hate Sting and can’t stand The Police (and I was one of them for a few years in the late 80’s) but those people are wrong. I submit this song as evidence. Good day sir I said good day.
1. “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”
From 1979’s Regatta de Blanc, Fourth Single
After Saturday Night Live was over on NBC New York in the late 70’s and early 80’s, they showed a bit of a treasure trove of alternative TV – SCTV, Uncle Floyd and – to the point – the Kenny Everett Video Show. This was an English sketch/music show that played videos mixed in with sketches. I am reasonably sure it was awful, but when I was 14 and had stayed up late enough to watch this, I kept laughing. I can’t recall a single funny thing about the show, but I do remember a number of the music performances. The “mono” version of “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” in particular stands out in my mind (see the “Kenny Everett” link there). The killer bass line, Summer’s hypnotic guitar interjections and an expertly restrained performance by Copeland on Drums. Sting’s lyrics (again, about Loneliness and heartache with a touch of sexual obsession) are perfect and uncomfortable. I don’t think the song was ever an especially big hit except in my heart. Except in my heart.
Coming Next: R.E.M. or maybe The Replacements.