20. “Secret Journey”
From 1981’s Ghost in the Machine, Fourth Single
I remember that back in 1981, I saw the cover of Ghost in the Machine and was really impressed with it, both for its simplicity and how much it looked like the kind of number art we teens made on our old school TI calculators. Seriously, we used to have whole sets of math jokes centered around how digital numbers looks – like you enter “29004+29004” into your calculator and it gives you the sum “58008” which, on a calculator in the 80’s, looks like the word “Boobs” when you flip it upside down. We were pretty crazy back in those days. Also, we were nerds. And 14. This has almost nothing to do with “Secret Journey.”
Here’s a story about “Secret Journey.” We had a friend back then with a speech impediment. Heck, I had a speech impediment. I couldn’t say the letter ‘R” correctly. True story. None the less, this poor dude became the center of jokes around his particular speech impediment. Essentially, my group of bullied friends were pretty comfortable being bullies when the opportunity arose. Anyhow, we changed the lyrics to “Out on a secret journey/I met a holy man/his name was [redacted bullied friend’s name]/I did not understand.” I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to that friend because, jeez, we shouldn’t have said any of that. I of all people struggling with the first letter of my own first name should have known better. We were pretty nasty back in those days. And 14.
But on to talking about the song itself, “Secret Journey” was a favorite of several of my friends (and most Police fans, and Stewart Copeland) and in fact I like it quite a bit more now than I did back in the day. The Eno-esque fade-in and fade-out are a little too short and slight to really have impact, but the drum work, hypnotic vocals and Summers’ circular guitar riff are all winning elements. If its not quite my favorite Police song, its because of my personal history with it and not really because of the song. Apparently, all of the songs on Ghost in the Machine were inspired by a book of the same title. The title itself refers to the mind/body debate – the idea that the mind is like the ghost residing in the machine of the body. Sting has stated that the titular secret journey is an internal one, so there’s the connection.
19. “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”
From 1980’s Zenyattà Mondatta, Second Single
This is a song about the insufficiency of language and how we use nonsense words in pop songs to communicate feeling sometimes. Its a meta-song that takes the form of the very thing its discussing. If you’re 13 and listening to it, you might miss the meta-subtleties and just think it is the thing it appears to be. If you think this when you’re 13, you might never go back for a second listen and, thus, might always thinks its just a shallow, silly song. Turns out, its not a shallow, silly song. Its a serious intellectual silly song.
18. “When The World Is Running Down You Make The Best of What’s Still Around”
From 1980’s Zenyattà Mondatta, Dance Club Single
OK, I managed to miss this one and am just adding it in late after I already published this so its somewhat unlikely that anyone is noticing it here. All I’m going to say is that I like this song and that it has the longest title I’ve yet included in any of my ranking lists.
17. “Synchronicity I”
From 1983’s Synchronicity, Single Only In Japan
One of the more musically impressive moment on the Synchronicity album (particular Stewart Copeland’s drum work), this is also one of that album’s most “Police” sounding tracks. Its a great jazz-infused stream-of-consciousness piece. It wouldn’t be out of place on a King Crimson album, which I’m just going to say is high praise. I didn’t have it on the list originally because I’m a big dummy and didn’t check Discogs carefully enough.
16. “Walking on the Moon”
From 1979’s Regatta de Blanc, Second Single
A glorious bit of rock/reggae minimalism, “Walking on the Moon” started its life as something Sting drunkenly sang in a hotel room and turned into a metaphor for being in love. Hey, 12 or 13 year old me thought he really was singing about walking on the moon. The further I get into this list, the bigger an apology I feel I need to offer Sting. I suspect he wouldn’t care less. Sting was trying to write songs about real life using poetic devices and I was listening to songs about astronauts having a good time. The same songs, I mean. Now, as a much more sophisticated listener (I hope), I can simultaneously acknowledge that this is a much more interesting lyrics than I once thought and acknowledge that “I hope my legs don’t break” is a throw-a-way rhyme.
15. “Hole In My Life”
From 1978’s Outlandos d’Amour, Greek single only
I didn’t realize this was a single but I’m really glad it is – thank you, record company in Greece! Sting came from a jazz background and both Copeland and Summers were happy to go there as the song required. “Hole in my Life” is an inspired little piece of late 70’s jazz-rock fusion. I especially like the “yeahs” and the “it leaves me vulnerable” sections. My favorite Police songs often leave me with the sense that Copeland, Summers and Sting are playing three or four different songs with similar rhythms and keys at the same time. I mean, this song is so not punk and one can understand why the punks at the time felt they were (at best) biting the style.
14. “Driven To Tears”
From 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta, Charted Song
Not a single but a song that made the Billboard Modern Rock chart so here it is for your enjoyment. I originally didn’t include this in my rankings and had to make some hasty adjustments the other day to accommodate its inclusion. This is another great little jazz-rock number and another one where the three band members may or may not be aware they’re all part of the same song. I mean that as a compliment – there’s some great bass/guitar interplay in particular, but Copeland’s drumming in specific is what make the whole piece work for me. Strip away everything else and just give me the drum track and I’m going to still have a pretty darn good time. I love the shift into and back from the chorus (with that little bass lick – so sweet). Sting didn’t bother to write a set of lyrics that easily match the music, but he manages to fit in all of his words anyways. Put this on loop and listen to it for a couple of hours and you’ll emerge at the other end dressed all in black with a beret.
13. “Every Breath You Take”
From 1983’s Synchronicity, First Single
Are you sure you want to keep following these lists? Because, I mean, I understand if you don’t. These are just my opinions/ramblings about a bunch of pop songs and I sometimes completely agree with wider public sentiment and sometimes sort of agree and sometimes disagree. Its just my hobby. One of them. Well, thank you for sticking with it at least this long.
How can one possible divorce one’s self from this song’s enormous success and listen to it objectively? One would have to have never heard it before to really have that experience of hearing it without decades of weight. My fellow music nerd Eric Caldwell proposes that if the Police had survived past Synchronicity, they would have become an even bigger band. I propose that they did – just that the name of the band became “Sting” and Andy and Stewart weren’t invited along. Already by the time they were recording Ghost in the Machine, Summers felt like they were turning into Sting’s backing band. During the recording of this song, Copeland and Sting got into a fist fight. When I hear the song, it sounds like the drumming is angry and even aggressive. Listen to how hard he’s hitting those skins! The beat is very controlled, but man is Copeland hacked off. Am I the only one who hears this? Summers did create a different guitar line for this than the one Sting originally wrote, so there’s that (and in a band situation, you sometimes have to compromise in ways that actually improves your songs – a thing David Bowie harnessed masterfully when recording his songs). None-the-less, “Every Breath You Take” could easily have been a Sting solo number. Many songs on this and their previous album could be.
So, anyhow, I recall being blown away when I first heard this song. It was the great creepy Sting song we were all hoping he’d write (sinister Sting is my favorite Sting). I was shocked that people thought it was a love song. I mean, it was 1983 and I was 15 or 16 and much more urbane and sophisticated than in my 1981 days of folly. As the song became a ginormous hit, though, I sort of pushed all-things Police away – I was far, far too cool to be listening to one of the biggest pop acts in the world. On the other hand, I bought Sting’s first solo record with enthusiasm (because clearly to my well-developed teenage taste he was pushing away from The Police, too, never-mind that he wrote most of their huge hits).
Listening to it now, I really notice the piano and the strings. I’ve always known they were there, but they’re actually a little weird-in-a-good way. I did not add this song to my library until this last month because, I mean, you can hear this song almost every day to this day just by turning on a pop hits and oldies radio station.
12. “Spirits in the Material World”
From 1981’s Ghost in the Machine, Third Single
Sting tried to veto Andy Summers playing guitar on this track at all. He wanted it to be exclusively synthesizer, drum and bass. Summers argued to a compromise and guitar became part of the track – which is good because I think Summers’ guitar work is actually the secret sauce that makes this song great. The more obvious thing that makes this song great for me is Copeland’s kick from ska to rock when the song moves from verse to chorus. Copeland is a beast.
11. “King of Pain”
From 1983’s Synchronicity, Fourth Single
By the time 1983 rolled around, I was able to tell that Sting was using a metaphor when he referred to the little black spot on the sun. “King of Pain” is a break-up song – Sting was in the midst of splitting up with his first wife. Is Stewart Copeland basically playing the cowbell during the verses? I hope so. That’s what I’ve always assumed he was doing. Soft cowbell, like the cow is wearing it and slowly walking in from pasture. Sting is in the field with the cow on a cart with a piano on it. Maybe the cow is pulling the cart, I don’t know. Suddenly, the whole band is there and the cow stops to listen for a bit before continuing her lazy journey back to the barn. The sun sets. Sting is alone. That’s my vision for the video, not that they had the good sense to ask me when I was a a Junior in High School. Synchronicity is a great album even if I did reject it for most of the 80’s because it was so successful. I was hipster before it was cool.
Next: Lots of loneliness and despair