Sunday 2 December 2012

The POLICE: Reggatta De Blanc

(#217: 13 October 1979, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Message In A Bottle/Reggatta De Blanc/It’s Alright For You/Bring On The Night/Deathwish/Walking On The Moon/On Any Other Day/The Bed’s Too Big Without You/Contact/Does Everyone Stare/No Time This Time

When I was at university in the early eighties one of my key music reference texts was The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia Of Rock. It was a paperback edition dating from, I think, around 1980, and apart from Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden being credited as editors I didn’t recognise any of the contributors from the rather more radical NME that I knew at the time. There was a companion volume, the Encyclopedia Of Jazz which I had, and still have, in brilliant blue hardback, and which was an invigorating read, written as it was by Stan Britt and the great Brian Case (broadly speaking, Britt did all the pre-Parker entries and Case the post-Parker ones), complete with excellent photographs by the tireless Val Wilmer. I don’t talk about Brian Case much, but he was one of the quieter influences on me as a writer, with the urge towards ekphrasis – to be inspired by a musician to write a work of poetry. I specifically recall his wonderful description of trombonist Roswell Rudd, who more or less leapt straight from Dixieland into the New Thing, as “riding tailgate on a spaceship.”

But enough about Mr Case for now – though do pick up his 1969 novel, The Users, if you see it going at a decent price; a work worthy of Booker shortlisting if ever there were one – and back to the Encyclopedia Of Rock (which, sad to say, I consigned to the attic some decades ago). As I say, this was written in the region of 1980, and written, I suspect, by writers of the old music journalism school who hadn’t quite got with this New Punk Thing; and so the entries on the Pistols, the Clash, etc., are composed with a degree of prove-yourselves scepticism.

Not so, however, the entry on the Police, or, as I dimly recall the book referring to them, “Police,” with no definite article, like “Buzzcocks.” Oh no; they had a huge, colourful two-page spread for their entry, were praised to the highest of heavens for being “new” yet being firmly (even then) in the lineage of Classic Rock. The entry concluded by more or less saying that “Police” were the keepers of the rock flame.

This was an attitude widely felt at the time; as Morley puts it to Ted Nugent in Ask: The Chatter Of Pop, the Police were already (in 1979) being used as shorthand by any clapped-out old rocker wanting to prove that they were still “keeping up.” “New music? Oh yeah, the Police; I LOVE ‘Roxanne.’” Although not particularly new themselves, as musicians, they looked the part and fitted the bill; anybody confused or repulsed by what was happening in 1979 music that they didn’t know before were reassured by the Police. They acted as a marker group, a buoy of rock, a point of modern reference, the rail you clung to as you ascended into unknown space.

Or maybe it was just enough to look and act new. Although on the cover of their second album the Police, even Sting, do not look as though they emerged from any decade other than the seventies (and the pre-punk seventies at that), but neither were they bearded or tie-dyed or flared. If anything, they look like a slightly less distressed Walker Brothers (stretch a narrow point for Stewart Copeland as Scott). Musically, however, they were energetic and propulsive enough to make their listeners feel like they were in the thick of the New, though clearly had sufficient chops to prove themselves to sceptics who didn’t really feel the Clash could sing.

To pop fans the Police simply became one of those acts who made far more sense being in the charts and on TV than they did playing to twelve people as support act to Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias (this statistic is not plucked randomly out of the air, by the way; the Police did indeed serve this function at a gig at St Andrews’ University in May 1978 – nobody at that time, of course, knew who they were, and most students were busy swotting up for their Finals). Prior to being Proper Pop Stars they were a bit of a new wave laughing stock; old fart ambulance chasers, a standing joke, A&M’s Sex Pistols consolation prize, and so forth. But then came the Wrigley’s ad (which was filmed but never broadcast; see, however, Mark Grout's comment below) and the required bleach hair and a sweep of audio clean and then, before anyone (save the Americans, who had got to them first) knew it, there they were – I remember going away to Italy at the beginning of July 1979, for a month, free from charts and music papers, only to return and discover with some shock that the Police were pop stars; “Can’t Stand Losing You,” a cheery song about self-pity and suicide threats, featuring a picture sleeve of Copeland standing on a block of ice, his head about to enter a noose, which in 1978 had struggled to reach #42 here, was, seemingly inexplicably, standing at #2, kept off number one only by the terrible “I Don’t Like Mondays.”

Those who think they know Reggatta De Blanc because of its hits may be in for something of a surprise. Fewer than half its tracks were written by Sting alone, and no less than six were either written or co-written by Copeland. Moreover, some of its songs had histories; of the five Sting numbers, two were carried over and polished up from his days in Last Exit (nothing to do with the titanic Brötzmann/Sharrock/Laswell/Shannon Jackson free-blues juggernaut of the eighties); “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” and “Bring On The Night,” the latter’s title having been changed from “Carrion Prince (O Ye Of Little Hope).” As for Copeland’s compositions, “Does Everybody Stare” stemmed from a piano exercise at music college (hence the brief Pavarotti sample in its introduction, before Sting stumbles into a honky-tonk miasma).

The reason for this unlikely recycling exercise was simple; having been somewhat taken aback by the international (though not yet British) success of Outlandos D’Amour, the Police found themselves in a fairly common second album position, namely not enough songs; and it shows. There really is little to say, for example, about any of the Copeland songs, beyond pointing out that the Police would have been taken for any dopey, jerky, “quirky” new-wavey group had “It’s Alright For You” (a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” rewrite featuring Sting as a markedly reluctant co-lead singer and co-author) or “On Any Other Day” (I can’t beat Copeland’s own spoken self-assessment in the intro – “Complete bullshit” – although I suppose its rhythm and subject matter of harassed family man ready to crack both point the way to “Synchronicity 2”) been the only evidence available (on “Contact,” despite a bridge which suggests the group must have been listening closely to Gary Numan, Sting sounds like, of all people, Jon Anderson; “Deathwish,” credited to all three members, i.e. evolved out of a jam session, does its best to disguise its Bo Diddley roots).

And yet, out of this unpromising situation, the group pulled out a couple of shots of 45 rpm genius. There is an argument that the Police, though little to do with punk, were a sort of post-punk equivalent of Cream; unapologetic and argumentative musos with an askew inkling towards pop. Through the veins of “Message In A Bottle,” you can feel coursing the same, near-reluctant but utterly instinctive bend towards pop that you find in those peculiar Cream singles ("White Room," "Badge," "Anyone For Tennis") with technical chops matching pop and emotional sensibility, as far as the latter quality can be applied to Sting. But a less apparent though perhaps more relevant point of comparison is the Jimi Hendrix Experience – although Sting is no Hendrix (even though both were subsequently admired and interpreted by Gil Evans), the key factor is the hitherto unmentioned Andy Summers, whose guitar, here and elsewhere, similarly combines hard rock bite with bluesy abstractions.

It is unsurprising that Sting not so long ago took to interpreting the ballads of John Dowland with meticulous lute accompaniment, since there is something of the medieval lay about the "o"s in the opening verse of "Message In A Bottle" - "An island lost at sea-o," "There's no one here but me-o." The swing is approximately concordant towards reggae, but Sting manages to keep his cod-Jamaican-Geordie accent under manageable rein. Underneath it all lies the familiar Bobby Vee little-boy-lost lament ("Rescue me before I fall into despair-o").

But the song's structure is immaculate. Guitars and drums clatter against and tumble towards each other in the verses, giving the air of a gritty rockist sea shanty, before everyone suddenly pulls together for the cathartic expectations of the "I'll send an SOS to the world" bridge - then, just as it's all about to boil over, the band pull back, and the title is sung astride that same uncertain major/minor key rocking horse, with Copeland's drums disappearing into dub subdivisions and Sting's stern, half-a-beat-behind-the-beat bass.

In the third verse, however, a catharsis of sorts unveils itself; Copeland's cymbals shimmer into excitable triplets and Sting's voice curdles with wonder as he surveys the "hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore." Eventually Summers' lead guitar cues a frantic extended fadeout of "sending out an SOS," Copeland champing down and clanging on the ride cymbal like an alarm clock heralding salvation. Right at the end of the fadeout the band winds up and we hear Sting winking, "sending out an Esso Blue" - so how, if at all, seriously do we take him?

In the context of 1979 pop, I would have said: very seriously indeed. The accompanying video was mesmerisingly threatening, Sting's lowering eyes and eyebrows and faintest of smiles swinging like a tempting pendulum of sex as he wheels his trolley back and forth from the camera. It was easy to understand the perceived sexiness of Sting, understanding entirely why the girls loved him, while the boys admired the musicianship - the Police at their brief best were a glorious success as popular pop, and although "Message In A Bottle" might qualify as the most rockist of all New Wave number ones, its glory is down to the fact that while it's playing, you don't notice the rockism at all.

Not all of Sting’s contributions to Reggatta De Blanc are of equal calibre. “Bring On The Night” is a good enough lighters-in-the-air concert anthem, its verse chords getting ready for “Fragile,” Copeland banging down his judge’s gavel on snare and cymbal more fervently with each succeeding chorus like a freshman Levon Helm, but Sting’s sometimes strained voice does at places remind me of Andy Fairweather-Low doing “Reggae Tune.” “No Time This Time” is a furious punky rush for the final groove as though they are frantically squeezing it onto the record, Sting’s crazily-phased vocals heading for the moshpit.

As far as the much-trumpeted fusion of hard rock with reggae is concerned – and which is only really evident in Sting’s contributions, and for which I think “hard rock” is a apter term than “new wave” or “punk rock” – I remain slightly sceptical. To these ears it sounds as though most of the time the group are trying to straighten out reggae and Dub’s myriad rhythmic detours, to take the downright strangeness of the flesh of Dub out of their fields of vision and approach. Thus, while “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” is probably the nearest the group comes to articulating what they are trying to achieve musically, it is for me far less convincing than, say, “Guns Of Brixton” or anything off the Slits’ Cut or the Pop Group’s Y because it lacks the necessary instinct that makes that music work. It functions well enough for what it is, as Sheila Hylton recognised when she did a reggae cover of the song some 18 months later, but I’m not sure it amounts to much more than its function; there is even a dub interlude with thudding, echoing toms and thwacks but no apparent desire to go into the fibre of sound – it is there, take it or leave it. In addition, it is hard to take Sting’s protestations of loneliness and desolation here, given that the song was apparently initially inspired by the suicide of his first girlfriend after he had ended their relationship (as evinced by yet more incongruous “whoo!”s dotted throughout the song) and the sentiments of “Can’t Stand Losing You.”

The instrumental title track – another jam session-cum-group composition – works better because it demonstrates greater understanding of light and shade; the introduction sounds like Sly and Robbie producing the Cocteau Twins, and even Sting’s barrage of “Ariba!”s, “Ee-yo!”s etc., which again at times makes me wonder if I’m not listening to a Yes outtake, cannot hide the empathy these three musicians obviously have for each other; never does the listener feel that these are not three people in a studio working and playing together (which isn’t necessarily the case with later Police records). Certainly one does get the feeling that the performance is saying, in an upbeat way, “welcome to the eighties.”

And then there is the record’s masterstroke, a song allegedly inspired by a drunken Sting in his hotel suite, walking round the room.

The song opens with a Coltrane citation – "Giant steps are what you take" – and few pop records have treated gravity with more defiance. The record does indeed convey the inner vision of giant spirits tap dancing across the skimming, shimmering surfaces of planets, or satellites, or humanity, with infinite grace. At this stage in pop, the Police were unparalleled in their deployment of vast acres of silence and space; yes, the dub templates and Sting’s accent are firmly in place, yet they are forever ungraspable, and "Walking On The Moon" sees them, and this particular strand of pop, at their/its finest.

The song depicts the giddiness, the floating on air, which arises from having newly fallen in mutual love; the words are minimal and haikuesque – statues of signifiers like "Walking back from your house," "Feet don’t hardly touch the ground," "I hope my legs don’t break." Throughout the song, rhythm is primarily suggested at rather than pinned down, except in the recurring section (since there isn’t really a chorus) where Summers’ guitar glistens in ambient chordality (reminiscent, in retrospect, of things like “I’m In Love With A German Film Star” by the Passions) as Sting considers the cons to match the pros ("Some may say/I’m wishing my days away") but concludes that it’s more than worth it ("You stay/I may as well play"). Having taken the plunge, the song then dives into astonishing caverns of bottomless echo, its harmonies dissolving and diffusing into its constituent elements – here, Summers’ guitar again seems miraculously hand-free, and Copeland (concentrating mainly on his cymbals) frequently either appears to be playing no rhythm at all, or else continuing subdivisions, to a level so abstract the listener has to correct himself that it isn’t Tony Williams or Andrew Cyrille playing, let alone Sly Dunbar (clusters of triplets over an elongated 4/4 beat).

That latter segment folds in on itself throughout the lengthy closing mantra of "Keep it up" – after a final verse where Sting looks forward to and swoons at the prospects of "We could walk forever" and "We could live forever" – and despite being about the Moon, metaphorical or physical, the record is so wonderfully aqueous and time-free (rather than timeless) that it makes you instantly regret that the Police didn’t really continue down this path; for a snapshot of where they might have gone, listen to side one of AR Kane’s 69. And "69," if you know what I mean, is exactly what "Walking On The Moon" suggests – and in the wider context of this record, the difference is made manifest; Reggatta De Blanc is as full, lyrically, of songs about uncertainty, insecurity and premature death ideations as Eat To The Beat but the difference here is that these songs don’t sound uncertain, insecure or suicidal; there is a deeper and more enveloping optimism which listeners sceptical about 1979 found easiest to digest.