The Police are what happens when you try to start a punk rock band but everyone involved turns out to be way, way too good a musician. There’s a memorable passage in “Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash” where Clash manager Bernie Rhodes freaks out on later-period Clash drummer Peter Howard for listening to The Police on his walkman on the tour bus. To many punks, The Police were the enemy. Sort of ironic that Sting (who played the cool dude who becomes a Bellboy in Quadrophenia) sort of ended up living a life similar to that of his character. Cool, edgy dude who becomes mellow mainstream idol. I wouldn’t say he sold out because I’m not sure he ever aspired to be anything other than what he became – a serious, working musician with a good degree of success.
Drummer Stewart Copeland actual founded the band and really wanted it to be a punk act and Sting reluctantly agreed because he was (according to Wikipedia) interested in the “commercial opportunities” of being in a punk band at that time. He was actually more of a jazz dude himself. They brought in a guitarist that was pretty damn punk but who Sting felt had limited musical skill so they eventually booted him in favor of veteran guitarist Andy Summers. They rose to success very quickly, jettisoned the punk thing just as quickly and if they hadn’t broken up after their Synchronicity album would likely have given U2 a run for their money as biggest band of the 80’s. Their sound was a mix of rock, jazz and reggae and, listening to it years later, I’m a bit astounded that it was as commercially successful as it was.
My feelings about The Police are complicated. They were primarily a rock radio staple during my high school career which meant they balanced somewhere just on the edge of uncool. Sting was totally cool (Dune? Heck yeah!) to many of us psuedopunks in Fairfield County, but the ever increasing success of The Police made us eye them with suspicion and occasional derision. We all owned all their records, though. I’ve not spent as much time listening to them in the intervening years as I have with the other bands I’ve ranked so far. I’m not sure why – perhaps its because I heard them so often on the bus ride to and from school (we had a cool bus driver who played rock radio) that I don’t feel I need to play hear them as much now. Who knows? Its been fun revisiting their catalog and thinking about what I like and don’t like about their tunes.
I’ve ranked everything but live singles this time. As always, I derive my list of singles from Wikipedia and Discogs. This ranking is based on the concept of “I enjoy each song more than the previous one” and almost nothing else.
28. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86”
From 1986’s Every Breath You Take: The Singles, First Single
Sting would sometimes include a vocal snippet of a big hit from The Police’s last album on his next song. “Love Is The Seventh Wave” (A Sting solo number) had a lyrical snippet of “Every Breath You Take.” A bit of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” appears in “Oh My God” from Synchronicity. I mention this because I the band seems to really enjoy reinventing their songs. During their heralded reunion tour in 2007-08 (and I’m so jealous of all of you who saw them) they slowed down several of their songs at least in part to showcase how they’ve grown as musicians. During their abandoned attempt at recording a sixth album, they created this slowed down version of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and released it as a single from their greatest hits package. The worst I can say about it is that it’s inessential. That’s also the best I can say about it. In 1986, the video seemed pretty cutting edge. Today, it looks like something that could be put together in a middle school level animation class. That’s not a criticism of the video so much as a comment on how much technology has advanced in 30 years.
27. “Voices Inside My Head”
From 1980’s Zenyattà Mondatta, Promotional Single
Wait, this was released as a single? Really? This? I mean. What? “Voices Inside My Head” is a jam. No, its more of a groove. Sting sings something, but the important thing isn’t the words (his voice is pretty far back in the mix) but the sound of his voice. I mean it sounds like he might be singing this in another room. Heck of a jam, though. Or groove.
26. “Fall Out”
1977 Stand-Alone Single
This is the only single to feature Corsican punk rocker Henry Padovani on guitar. When Summers joined, it was on the condition that they fire Padovani, which they eventually did. “Fall Out” is pretty much a straight out (punk?) rock song that sounds like it could have been recorded by almost any band in London in 1977. Its a competent enough tune, but in light of their later work (and, indeed, in light of what else was happening in London at the time) it elicits sort of a large “meh” all these years later.
25. “Shadows In The Rain”
From 1980’s Zenyattà Mondatta, Promotional Single
Wait, what this was a single, too? How is that possible? Well, I’m not going to argue with discogs. This is a funky little number that focuses largely on Sting’s bass work and Andy Summer’s (I think) Piano work. Copeland again establishes a steady groove, though he sounds a little constrained here to my ear. I like my Copeland playing whatever he wants to play. On some of their songs it sounds like he, Sting and Summers are all playing different songs with similar rhythms and matches keys. Anyhow, there’s a bunch of Police songs that I like quite a bit that weren’t released as singles and a few down here on this end that I’m surprised were released.
24. “Truth Hits Everybody ’83”
1983 UK Only A-Side Stand-Alone Single
The original version of “Truth Hits Everybody” was a track on The Police’s 1978 debut album, Outlandos D’amour. The Police, as I’ve already mentioned, love to tinker and by 1983, they recorded a “Remix” (actually, just a different version of the song – nothing was remixed) that sounds quite a bit like it inspired “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5. The song was released as a promotional A-Side in the UK and wasn’t necessarily a hit, but is a bit of a collector’s album. I kind of like this version better than the original, so good on the fellas for tinkering.
23. “One World (Not Three)”
From 1981’s Ghost in the Machine, Third-ish Single
The reggae tinged “One World (Not Three)” was a bit of a change of pace for The Police. Most of Sting’s lyrics up to this point struck me as songs about outsiders (some benign, some not so much) or songs about failed romance. “One World” is more of a “let’s all live together on this planet” song – something which matched the zeitgeist of the early 80’s. I remember skipping this song a bunch (or, rather, fast forwarding over it) on my Ghost in the Machine cassette so I could get to “Secret Journey,” but now, 36 years later, rather enjoy its bonhomie. I wrote “third-ish single” because it appears this was primarily a club release and its not listed by Wikipedia as one of the four “official” singles from Ghost.
22. “Bring on the Night”
From 1979’s Regatta de Blanc, Third Single
The Police had a fascination with reggae (so did many of the great English punk bands at that time, most notably The Clash) and reggae rhythms found their way into a number of their songs. Oh, hey, Regatta de Blanc actually means “white reggae.” I’ve not really ever listened especially carefully to the lyrics on this song (I was a little surprised it was a single even though I know that Sting used the song title for the title of his 1986 live album) because it is overshadowed by all of the better known songs from its parent album. It apparently has something to do with Pontius Pilate or Gary Gilmore. I (like most of humanity) have a difficult time sometimes distinguishing between positive and negative Sting lyrics (because I don’t listen). I always thought this was a “let’s get ready to have some fun tonight” song but it turns out it is more of a “I’m ready for death” song.
21. “Invisible Sun”
From 1981’s Ghost in the Machine, First Single
My feelings about the various Police singles are largely still very tied up with how I felt about the songs as an adolescent. I can’t help but wonder how I’d have felt about them at the time if I’d understood what Sting was going on about a little better. For example, when I was 14, I made the assumption that this song had some sort of science fiction story behind it. I have labored under that misconception for over 35 years. The song is actually centered around a metaphor for how humans survive during wartime with specific references to The Troubles (note: Bono and Sting have been known to duet on this song). Everything I thought I knew about the song was wrong and its a much, much more interesting song now that I know the truth behind it. Still, its hard to shake off 35 years of mistaken belief. Kudos to Sting for playing to my particular set of interests by referencing a cat (metaphorically) in the lyrics.
Coming Next: Songs that you might actually know.