Wednesday 6 February 2013

The POLICE: Zenyatta Mondatta

(#239: 11 October 1980, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Don’t Stand So Close To Me/Driven To Tears/When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around/Canary In A Coalmine/Voices Inside My Head/Bombs Away/De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da/Behind My Camel/Man In A Suitcase/Shadows In The Rain/The Other Way Of Stopping

Followers of Hemingway will know that at the beginning of chapter seven of Death In The Afternoon he writes: “At this point, it is necessary that you see a bullfight.” Similarly, I am now going to say to you that, at this point, it is necessary that you go and read a book before continuing with this story.

Not any book, but a specific book, although really if you want to try to get to the nub of what Then Play Long is all about, then I can only recommend that you read as much as possible, books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, blogposts, anything from Cortazar to Popjustice, and also try to listen to as much music as possible, since behind each of these entries lie at least seventy-four or ninety-nine other albums (as far as the charts are concerned) and beyond those, probably about a thousand apiece. Where do you think you are going to learn more – from watching a jaded television nostalgia show about a non-existent “golden age” or from reading me?

Actually, the book you should read before progressing any further with TPL is Ask: The Chatter Of Pop, by Paul Morley, published by Faber and Faber in the late spring of 1986. Essentially a collection of Morley’s interviews with various (mainly pop and rock) notables, remixed, boiled down and boiled up anew with much late 1985 rage, it is also the first part of his disguised autobiographical triptych, the other two being Nothing and Words And Music. It is not an easy book to find on the high street; it has never been republished and is, in the words of a Faber and Faber man, probably “unrepublishable.” This is because one of the interviews is with a performer who is now routinely referred to in newspaper articles as a “disgraced rocker,” who took the unusual downhill slide from National Treasure to one of the most hated men in Britain, and in it the performer in question more or less admits to (some of) his misdemeanours.

That is too bad, since the rest of the book is a useful pointer to just how Morley, one of the architects of New Pop, viewed the Frankenstein monster that he was in part responsible for creating. How we got there and how we might have got stuck there, and unable to get out. This is not to say that it is a great book. The book (with the exception of an extended South Bank Show/Grace Jones prelude) begins fifteen months after it ends – the timescale is variable, ranging from 1977 to 1984 – with the one interviewee who has nothing to do with pop or rock, Quentin Crisp, interviewed in his dusty Beaufort Street bedsit, clearly charming the writer with his practised anecdotal verbosity and cavalier attitude to life.

I am not sure that either the book or Morley really recovers from this initial impression. Reading it now, I feel that some of the musicians are being confronted with the crime of not being Paul Morley – the Richard Cook wisecrack in the Phil Collins piece would probably now be a sackable offence – or not being Anthony Blanche, grand, blowsy raconteurs. The hapless encounter with Wham! reads like two bored schoolboys being sarcastically told off by their House Master. Fish bores him, Jerry Garcia is politely bored by him (and pretty much defuses his Fire Engines firecracker before he has a chance to launch it). Jim Kerr’s imagined internal monologue holds up better, mainly because we get a chance to look inside Kerr’s mind and also see very clearly what Morley makes of him and Simple Minds.

But the book effectively ends in March 1980, in the city once known as Bombay, where Sting and the Police are on tour and Sting, still, just about, has the time to sit down with the writer and muse, brightly, about where pop might be going. Sting is articulate, thoughtful, just before the world does things to him, and he talks about the Beatles and “that whole heavy punk thing” and that it’s not healthy that the old superstar rota is coming back and about Gang of Four and Joy Division and the responsibility of the pop star not to give his fans the same old shit: “…the next single has to be an alternative, a direction that we really shouldn’t take, that the forces around us say we shouldn’t take.” About the next Police album, he says: “I want something that I can’t actually put my finger on.”

And Morley and Sting see poverty and deprivation all around them, but somehow Morley comes out of it convinced that pop music is more, not less, important because of this, that it has to affect people from the inside out without becoming an instruction manual. That pop, against all the odds, still has a future.

So, you’ve read the book – what did you think of it? Provocative? Funny? Tough to follow? Firmly in and of its time? You had to be there?

Whatever you thought of it, I hope it will give you a better idea of what Sting and the Police were attempting with their third album, which at the time of Morley’s piece had not been recorded. In fact the album was taped more or less concomitantly with their second tour, over a four-week period, in Holland for tax reasons (although Nigel Gray, at no small cost, was retained as producer). The group were never satisfied with the results – indeed, they will go on to re-record two of its songs some years later, one of which will be written about here, the other as yet unreleased – and the reviews were at best lukewarm.

I think they were being a little too hard on themselves. Zenyatta Mondatta is an uneven record – a song about the apparent meaninglessness of lyrics is followed in fairly quick succession by two instrumentals – but is never less than an intriguing listen. Its lead track was also its lead single – the one Sting wanted to be “a bit off” – and as a single, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” outsold everything else in 1980 Britain.

What engages our interest is that it marks the first occasion in this tale when explicit tribute is paid to Joy Division. Ian Curtis was still alive while the majority of Zenyatta Mondatta’s predecessors were being recorded, but had gone by the time the Police reached Hilversum, and the 26-second drone introduction far outdid the three seconds of polite feedback on “I Feel Fine.” Joined by a stalking, sustained second bass drum, scratchy guitar and solemn rimshots, the scene is almost set for a cousin of “She’s Lost Control.”

In fact, as Sting makes clear, it is he (although he refers to the protagonist in the third person throughout) who has lost all nerve. The subject once again is forbidden love, or at any rate unhealthy infatuation, but I think that all the teacher’s pet and Nabokov stuff is a smokescreen; although Sting was once a schoolteacher – he denies any autobiographical intent – this seems to be more a song about his relationship to his fans, his extreme nervousness at their nearness, and so really isn’t that far away from…

“A lot of groups have an image that is very hard to adhere to, like the stony-faced idol who can never be approached. I think Gary Numan has this, and it looks great at times, but how long can you keep it up?”

“Keep it up, it up…/Keep it up, it up…”

…Numan fretting about all the people looking at him but not seeing him. Synthesisers harshly slash into the instrumental break like serrated popcorn. Sting’s emphasis on the “WANT” and “BAD” of “She WANTs him, so BADly” – and when the band eventually break into a stock Police chorus, it isn’t quite believable, doesn’t provide warmth, makes one freeze.

Still, I don’t think it was the Police’s intent to alienate or intimidate, but to guide their fans into things they maybe hadn’t considered before. “Driven To Tears” marks the genesis of Sting’s Social Conscience, and instead of being dour and low-key, is musically lively and perhaps even angry, like a hyped-up “Roxanne” (complete with metaphorical band pauses). In Morley’s interview, Sting admits that crying at deprivation is “a bit of a futile, useless gesture anyway” – the song came into being while Sting watched starving Biafran children on the news while eating his dinner (see also the third verse of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Nothing Rhymed”) – and the music makes it clear that his tears will be nowhere near enough. Live Aid this way lies, amongst other things, though not propelled along by a brief but startlingly angry Andy Summers guitar solo in which, not for the last time on this record, he channels the spirit of Robert Fripp.

While the record represents a clear advance from Reggatta De Blanc - musically it is much more assured and confident, and Stewart Copeland’s multiheaded drum manifestations are never less than inventive; though still fundamentally a jazz trio, they are plainly on their way to the stadium – the reggae genie still remains, although even this is more fervent than previously; both “Canary In A Coalmine” and the obligatory touring’s-a-drag song “Man In A Suitcase” sprint along like 2-Tone B-sides. However, while Sting tells the unnamed subject of “Canary” that they are suffering from delusions, by the time he gets to “Shadows In The Rain,” his doctor tells him that he’s the deluded one.

“Voices Inside My Head” is effectively an instrumental, with only a very minimalist lyric, but its clipped funk, Summers’ Nigerian hi-life guitar figures and gradual arrangemental build-up put one very firmly in mind of Byrne and Eno’s contemporaneous work (Remain In Light or Bush Of Ghosts; you take your pick) as well as, in the longer term, a stripped-down Broken Social Scene. Too bad that this excellent first side is marred by Copeland’s dull Afghanistan war/sex fantasy “Bombs Away” (“Guerrilla girl, hot and sweet”; erm, thank you, Stewart) which is the album’s “Student Demonstration Time” moment, i.e. skip it.

“Behind My Camel” is instrumental and mostly Summers (who also plays bass here, as Sting manifestly did not like the piece) and it’s not a bad John Barry Goes East attempt, although Summers’ tortured, distorted lead guitar puts one more in mind of Alan Rankine on “The Associate” (you expect Billy Mackenzie to pop up, making silly noises, at any point). Summers’ big moment, though, is on the album’s major workout, “Shadows In The Rain,” which gets as close as anything here to Sting’s expressed desire to take his listeners as far out as possible. Over a melancholy, hugely echoed vocal and a stealthy rhythm track, the guitarist is as loose and free as I’ve ever heard him; with discontinuous discordancies and putting his effects rack to full use, he steers the Police remarkably near to AR Kane/dreampop territory. If one remembers that the Police were, in some ways, their era’s One Direction (as well as potential Beatles) – this being an album bought by hundreds of thousands of screaming girls (don’t stand so close to Sting!) – then this is a remarkable push to the left and a remarkably brave demand being made of their audience. After that there is nothing to say, and so Copeland says it with his closing instrumental, clearly enjoying the Sandy Nelson echoes and obviously working up towards soundtrack commissions; you can hear both Rumble Fish and The Equalizer waiting in the distance.

But I have kept two songs aside, and for important reasons, since they provide between them both the key to this record and to why it mattered at this late stage of 1980. Christgau considers “De Do Do Do” the Police’s masterpiece, and it’s not unreasonable of him to do so, since it’s Sting’s clearest declaration of why pop matters. Not just in Summers’ continued inventiveness (the same, stubborn guitar riff throughout the verses, the echo chamber blossoms of the instrumental break) but, more importantly, Sting’s insistence that nothing matters more in pop than nothing. He grew up hearing “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and these records were no less great because their titles and choruses were meaningless (or metaphors for getting it on), and so here it is; it’s all he has to say to us, and it hits harder and more lastingly than “Driven To Tears” because we, as listeners, can get it immediately and think about it for longer, while still enjoying it as a finely honed pop song. This is all, Sting seems to say, that pop has, or needs, to say; anything else is window-dressing – this is pop’s essence.

”Or is rock music the stuff that creates the new nostalgia that helps us settle into the control state with no care for protest?”
(Morley, from the prelude to Ask)

”How can you say that you’re not responsible?”
(“Driven To Tears”)

“When The World Is Running Down” is my favourite track on the album, and a song to which I could listen all day long, with its lovely ascending-but-sounding-like-descending C9/D9/E minor seventh chord cycle. Summers plays it forever with just the right amount of echo delay and sustain to make it sound like a precursor to the Cocteau Twins; paired with the adroitly minimalist approach of bass and drums, and Sting’s skysearing vocal, it sounds, as much of this record does, as the light of the sun streaming in through the now open window. I cast my mind back and think of the North Sea at St Andrews, a blue shimmer in the distant yellow haze, of the openness of fields and seashore, and how this record once made me feel that I was out in the middle of the bluest ocean, on the brightest yacht.

But we have had all this ominous darkness, building up and up, most of the way through 1980, and it is time to reach the end of the tunnel, come out and see the sun BREAK up the clouds. Listening to the Police in this context, you cannot help but feel that, somehow, the air has changed. Things are not as they were. The funk chassis of “Voices Inside My Head” points an upbeat and playful path to Haircut 100 and early ABC. Those drums at the climax of “The Other Way Of Stopping” – what are they, in themselves, ANTicipating? Don’t Follow Us, We’re Lost Too was the title of an album by the long-forgotten Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, but seems to be the motto with this record, the addendum being: “…but that’s OK!”

“When The World Is Running Down,” though…what a song, and what a manifesto. Sting has said that his idea was that he would be the last man on Earth, after an unspecified apocalypse – so there’s another factor he shares with Numan – slowly winding his life down with what has been left behind and is still standing, and working. That works to a degree – the “I ain’t been out in years” and “can’t go out in the rain” remind us that nuclear fallout is about – but its implications seem to be far, far greater. Is this really a World War III survivor, waiting for the last candle to burn itself out before quietly doing away with himself, like Peter Sellers’ schoolmaster in The Blockhouse - or is this some seriously messed-up person who has decided to shut himself away from the world?

“Pick up the telephone, I’ve listened here for years/No one to talk to me, I’ve listened here for years.” You get the impression that even the Speaking Clock has lost patience with him. “Don’t like the food I eat, the cans are running out.” What sort of a mess is this guy in, exactly? An Otis Redding single, videotapes of James Brown and Deep Throat…is this all that’s left when history is all spoken out?

I’m not so sure that it’s about the apocalypse. Given the bright, open air (and not at all ironical) jauntiness of the music that accompanies these lyrics, it sounds like the group are trying to coax, or pull, the singer out of his hole to see, not atomic waste, but a brilliant new morning. But he has convinced himself; and to me he sounds much more like a jaded old man for whom rock finished in 1968, or 1975, living on his own, declining and imperfect memories, glaring through dusty portholes.

Yet the song sets up an aural war of its own; the music, representing the future, or maybe just the present, against the voice, glued to the past. It does seem to me that the song, and this album as a whole, act as a rebuttal to door-locking nostalgists. They suggest that the only alternative to slow, miserable, self-imposed death – that you can’t just deteriorate inside yourself, thinking that your time was the ONLY time - is to GET OUT and stride into the sunshine. And MAKE A NOISE about something, and have fun while you’re doing it. Zenyatta Mondatta represents the road out of the darkness. Perhaps even a New beginning for Pop.

Next: 1979 again, so soon?