Tuesday 9 April 2013

The POLICE: Ghost In The Machine

(#253: 10th October 1981,  3 weeks)

Track listing:  Spirits In The Material World/Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic/Invisible Sun/Hungry For You (j’aurais tourjours faim de toi)/Demolition Man/Too Much Information/Rehumanize Yourself/One World (Not Three)/Omegaman/Secret Journey/Darkness

“Conscious and unconscious experiences do not belong to different compartments of the mind; they form a continuous scale of gradations, of degrees of awareness.” – Arthur Koestler

The story begins, appropriately, late at night.  It is August 23, 1981.  It is past 11, but it has been a hot day and only now is it starting to cool down.  My window is open, there is barely any breeze coming through the screen. My father is downstairs, on the phone in the kitchen talking to someone, angry that this noise is keeping him awake – what is it?  I can hear it too, this odd bass rumbling, not continuous, but sounding out now and then, a booomm that is loud enough to keep us all awake, along with the humidity.

I open the window a bit more and listen for that bass.  I know who it is; and my father, upon finding out, maybe is thankful we live where we do, and not any closer.  It’s The Police, at their own Police Picnic, and that bass is Sting’s; future Police Picnics will take place in Toronto, but for now it’s in Oakville, in an empty field called The Grove, and if I had known about any of the other bands playing that day I would have desperately wanted to go (to see The Specials and The Go-Go’s especially); but as it was I only knew about The Police.  Having only just moved back to Oakville six weeks earlier, I had no one to go with, no one known to me outside of my family.  And so I stood there listening for the bass as I was looking out at the other townhouses and rather indifferently at the other building I could see – my high school, White Oaks.  And got back in bed and went to sleep after I had heard it one more time.

In the fall of 1981 there were only a few good things in my life; among them were my French class and a radio station.  At 14 I found myself once again having to make friends at school (ending up at the freaks and geeks table during lunch break, somewhat inevitably) and trying and trying to do well, but coming up against Science and Math and being defeated by both.  I did best in French, which was a surprise to everyone but me as I liked learning languages (I had taken Spanish the year before in Berkeley) and that I was good at something kept me going.  And so did CFNY.

The Police Picnic would have been unthinkable without CFNY; they undoubtedly played them first in Toronto and the band’s touching loyalty and faith in response was really kind of sweet – did I mention John Otway and Killing Joke were also on the bill? – CFNY played what other stations would think way too out of bounds, left field, weird…and to someone who had heard nothing but ordinary San Francisco radio (we were in the Bay Area for a little while, before father decided working with macho “Hollywood” types wasn’t for him) that pumped out either Journey or the various versions of Jefferson Airplane/Starship on a regular basis, CFNY took some getting used to.   I had to listen to CHUM – a Top 40 station, also on fm – to get back my bearings, at times.  I had never heard anything like what CFNY was playing, and at first it sounded like pure noise, odd and awkward and provocative.  The Police were one of the few bands both CFNY and CHUM shared, what with The Police being the biggest band in the world, more or less.  As I continued to do worse and worse at White Oaks, I got used to CFNY more and more, gradually, and Ghost In The Machine was a virtual land bridge from the one ‘normal’ station to the more experimental one.  I got it as soon as I could, on tape, and listened to it as I adjusted to my new circumstances; I was an outsider who lived kitty-corner across from my school, a part-time dropout who was dedicated to French class, who listened to the radio as an escape in a place where there really wasn’t much going on…
This album is about darkness and light; about the spirit that has to get used to (or not) being stuck in a body, a dumb body of habit and anchored weight, a body that can only do so much.  This is exactly the kind of adolescent frustration anyone who ever had to attend classes against his/her will can understand immediately; I was having my very own existential crisis that fall, a time when the world seemed intent on self-destruction (reinforced by my seeing Dr. Strangelove, commercial-free, on TVO in September) and I was depressed over that, as well.  From world leaders to my cruel and indifferent teachers, nothing made sense and seemed endless, repetitive, essentially meaningless in the face of possible nuclear war. 

And that is where this album is coming from; that same point.  The Police being world famous didn’t mean that much to Sting; he was a dad now, and his focus was on not just now but the future.  (Or as Devo would put it, Duty Now For The Future.)  Not that there was much of a future to look forward to; believe me, no one at this time was thinking about the 90s; not with the totemic year of 1984 growing ever closer.  Things were so dubious that even getting to that year looked doubtful.

But still, there are eternal verities, and Sting was essentially trying to bring Koestler’s book to life, to inspire people who heard this album to read his book of the same name; whether anyone did I don’t know, but I do know that this was not rock ’n ’roll as it was commonly understood.  I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but listening to CFNY I began to understand there was a whole other world of music which was talking about things besides love and its vicissitudes.  The Police sang about things directly – information overload, the false divisions between “us” in the first world and “them” in the third world – but the music on CFNY was more oblique, indirect, talking about something by talking about something else, dropping signifiers, but also being so, well, POP that the songs couldn’t help but crossover to the more commercial stations.  This was something different, something which had a name but I didn’t know it yet; I did know that The Police were far too obvious to be a part of it.  And yet somehow without The Police to make way for others, people like OMD would have had a tougher time getting heard*.  In short, I was hearing the New Pop movement take shape and gather amazing momentum, but had no idea of it at the time.  
New Pop was going against regular chart pop, and starting to win – Soft Cell was the real “a-ha!” moment for many (including myself ) in Canada in ’81.  And only a few weeks after having heard the whole 12” of their single, at about the same time as I heard Sting’s bass rumble through the humid night air, appeared Ghost In The Machine.  (Note:  it took me a long time to figure out the cover; I can only imagine Kraftwerk admiring it.) 
And so then, to the album; since it’s an album best understood as it goes, I’ll be looking at each song in sequence.  

Hmm…this is a kind of synthesized skank; and oh look, there’s Sting attempting to play the saxophone.  I will get this out of the way now – The Police clearly thought that they needed to stretch themselves, and bringing in more synth and Sting’s sax playing was the way to do this, without needing any outside musicians.  Some – Marcello in particular – may well grimace in pain as Sting plays, but these folks can take solace in Sting’s mere competency by knowing that Stewart and Andy were probably laughing behind his back, one way or another.   I mean, it’s not like Sting ever claimed to be great, is it?  He just wanted to try something new.  For the general benefit of mankind, however, he hired Branford Marsalis for his first solo album, instead of continuing to play himself.  He isn’t as good as Bowie is on “Sound and Vision” which may be where he got the idea, in the first place….

“Spirits In The Material World” is a light-footed look at the various ways The Man tries and fails to control and subdue others, from laws and rules to “rhetoric” – because we are spirits stuck in the material world, uncontrollable and unsatisfied with just living day-to-day.  “Is there something we can buy?” Sting sings pathetically, as if soul power was something he could pick up at the BHS.  “There must be another way.”  The body-mind dichotomy that exists in Koestler’s book is laid out here pretty clearly.  Once you are aware you have a soul, a spirit, you can’t really ignore it and claim it’s not there – you can be distracted or distract yourself with gross material things, including your body, but that’s not really going to work with the threat of annihilation on hand, is it?  No.  But there you are, stuck in the drag that is the material world…well, may as well have some fun while you’re here….

“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was the only song on the album to be recorded in Canada – at the now neglected Le Studio in Quebec, to be precise – and it has a joie de vivre about it that knocks sharply against everything else on the album.  It was put on against the band’s wishes  – the Man wanted a chirpy love song as a single, and so, here it is.  But it is a strange song – once again, about the incoherence and maybe meaninglessness of speech – the verses in shades, the chorus in pure sun struck colors, the lover in love and riding high on the joy of that love, even if it is unrequited and he has no nerve to propose to her on the phone (all things considered, it’s just as well he’s too nervous).  The label was right to insist on this being included; there is a spirit here that cannot be contained, that is exuberant, too big for words and perhaps too big to be ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ love.  This is a dizzy spin, eee—oohhh-ooohs  of warmth and elegance, a very Canadian sounding song (to me anyway) of a lover being in love with his beloved and rejoicing in that love, as a way to unify that spirit, to be uplifted.  There is another song that talks about this later on, but there’s much darkness as well…         

…and here it is, seemingly 1980 again with the song being counted in to six.  I am writing about “Invisible Sun” on my blog Music Sounds Better With Two in time, but again this is a song about negation, about not wanting to be a number (paging Bob Seger) either on a “government chart” or in prison.  It is specifically about Northern Ireland (Sting’s wife Frances Tomelty was from there and knew people in the Maze prison) – the mention of the armalite rifle harks back to the song of the same name by Gang of Four, a band Sting admired even though he knew probably hated him anyway.  The song is dolorous, flattened, a huge weary sigh; the sun is there, somehow, giving people hope, even if that hope is tattered and stained – it’s still there.  It is a grey day of a song (paging Madness), a lament.  That it was the first signal from this album showed how ambitious The Police were, how much of a risk they were willing to take; this was the year of Bobby Sands, after all, and other hunger strikers, and what the hell, maybe Gang of Four actually liked this song…

“Hungry For You (j’aurais toujours faim de toi)” captured my attention at the time as hey – I’m learning just enough French to kind of get the song.  Well.  My French wasn’t that great back then, so a lot of this sounded more than a little than I could handle, in more ways than one.  Sting sang it French because the lyrics were “filthy” and almost immediately now I want more singers to do this with their songs – write stuff like “Can’t get to sleep tonight/I want you until I am dry/But our bodies are all wet…You have devastated my heart/And me I have drunk your blood.”  Cough.  Oddly enough the song is a kind of James Brown workout, all easy swing and not at all indicative of  “The world is mine/I won it in a card game/And now I couldn’t give a damn/I won it too easily” self-criticism at its heart.  Even lying there in cold sweat, the world at his feet, he is insatiable and his mouth is bloody and his “beautiful treacherous” Other has him jealous, unsatisfied…there is again a linguistic peek-a-boo here, with only “No matter what I do, I’m still hungry for you” being sung at the end, as if what is really being said is too ugly.  The world of The Police is many things, but can it be ugly?  Can such a tight group ever loosen up? 

“Demolition Man” was written by Sting for Grace Jones and in fact she got her version out (on Nightclubbing) before The Police did, so their version cannot help but suffer by comparison.  Sting’s voice doesn’t have the harsh authority that Jones’ does, so the song’s very physical and relentless side is best reflected here by Andy Summers’ blues work-it-on-out guitar, not to mention Stewart Copeland’s as usual on point drumming.  (It really is Copeland’s album, overall, though this is Andy’s song.)  At the time I had no idea about Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (science fiction is not my strong suit, as anyone who knows me well knows).  There’s simpler sax here, as there was on the previous song, to the point where you want Sting to stop so you can hear Andy better.  The band at this point is starting to fracture, to not quite sound as unified as they should…

What is this, Pigbag?  No, it’s “Too Much Information.”  Hmmm.  One can only imagine how much information there was back then, as opposed to now; but here I should note that the song – veering from one chord to another, endlessly – has Sting again on sax, this time signifying the “overkill” of the song, the endless stupid repetition, which is driving him and everyone else insane.  This is like my old Media Sociology teacher with a party hat on, more or less.  And as Marcello said, the sound of this song will be picked up by other bands to come on TPL, influencing them in good and bad ways… 

And now…it’s a Stewart Copeland song.  Only it’s not.  Sting rewrote the lyrics, kept the music, and I can only wonder how Koestler felt about having his notions of people regaining their individual dignity and identity to a fast skank.  Still, this is the song where TPL reaches the “c” word (to rhyme with National Front, of course) and I can only wonder if anyone in said group ever did try to “rehumanize” themselves and what that led to.  And then I look at the news these days and wonder if it’s not just factory workers who are alienated from what they do.  But that line about “violence here is the social norm” must reflect what the streets of the UK were like by this time; I can’t ignore that this album appeared after a whole spring and summer of riots, some of them deadly.  The music itself is as busy and detailed as you’d expect something by Copeland to be, fast and slightly sardonic, and I hope he liked Sting’s lyrics.  Hmmm…so far we’ve had information overload, sexual insatiability, humans as violent/fascist robots…with only that invisible solar power keeping anything going.  What comes next?

Well, it’s The Police’s own dub Bob Marley tribute of sorts, “One World (Not Three)” that’s what.  This is a very typical song for the group – only a little sax from Sting, no synth, prominent bass, arrows of chords from Andy, a very jazzy sound from Stewart…an upbeat song about how the world is “one big boat” that says “it” gets a “little closer every day.”  That the world actually was like this was something I was learning at the time – a place that confusingly had a “first” and “third” place but no second, a place of extremes, a world where people wrapped themselves up in flags and asserted domination, a world where the utopian ideals of the 60s – hell, of the late 40s even – were screwed up.  The early 80s were a time of “us vs. them” to an almost rabid degree, a time of battening down.  Sting looks at all this and skanks along, seeing the unity and chiding those who are hiding from it, who cannot see that the world is – God help me, I’m going to quote Disney here – a small world after all.  Very small, and getting smaller – due to information technology, amongst other things – all the time. 

“Omegaman” is the only Andy Summers song on this album, all sleek and desperate, quick and dream-like at the same time.  (This song is inspired by the movie The Omega Man, a movie whose music is not unlike that of The Prisoner.)  Here is another alienated man – not the walking disaster area that “The Demolition Man” is, but a man who is (as the name implies) at the end of his rope, the end of life itself.  “The edge of time closes down as I disappear.”  He may well be the only sentient being left alive; we are getting close to Gary Numan territory here.  “The pretense of another world comes close to me.”  After the Omega comes the Alpha, of course; but this song doesn’t sound as if it’s depicting someone who wants to be a top dog.  This is the extreme of alienation; a song of someone who is trying to reach a “perfect life.”  To get away from all the chaos and too-muchness of the previous songs.   He is tired of being who he is.  So what next?

I can’t tell you how much I love the next song; the whole album leads up to it, in a way, and yet I don’t think anybody has ever said so.  This must be why this album doesn’t get enough praise – because it is a trip through alienation to…mysticism.  Yeah.  Not very fashionable, I know, and yet, here it is.  It is like a promise, a promise that at 14 I was all too ready to accept and understand.  I SO wanted to go on my own secret journey it wasn’t even funny, but where I was that amounted to going to the mall or library by myself, which was a start but not really the genuine thing.  This song promised that the real thing was out there and I was just going to have to find my way before I saw light in the darkness, before things made sense.  My most reliable and far-reaching secret journey was in listening to CFNY of course; to grasp and understand what was new, to willingly make a fool of myself, to be quiet and just listen.

The song opens with a 1981 wash of synth, classical and portentous; and back comes that thudding bass (as in “Invisible Sun” – c’mon, this is like the actual sun being revealed; it's also a second cousin to "Walking On The Moon") – and he meets a blind man who nevertheless has more vision than he does.  The song practically describes Meetings With Remarkable Men – we are away from Koestler now, free of that false mind vs. body dilemma – and while I had no idea about that book either, I was more than ready to find joy in sadness, to quit being so lonely.  That this song might be seen as mysterious or pretentious by others I can understand, because – not to put too fine a point on it – not everyone has time to hang out with holy men, or to even read very much.  And if you’ve had a mystical experience, this song is as obvious as the daylight it represents.  Summers’ guitar spans and reaches, the music rises and falls like waves, and now all of a sudden the general understanding of the world is turned upside down.  A whole world is inside yourself, a world apart from chaos and violence, and it is worth exploring.  This isn’t narcissism; this is beyond mere “rehumanizing.”  The holy man knows the world is in pain; he knows loneliness; but the secret journey brings such a wider perspective on these things that – oh, what can I say? – that the world afterwards is just the same – as we’ll see – but also very different.  This is the “other way” that Sting looked for at the beginning; one that is only available if he stops thinking about himself so much (including what he tries and fails to say) and actually pays attention to someone else for a change. 
There is so much isolation on Ghost In The Machine, so many people who are alone and unhappy; very publicly unhappy, at that.  And wasn’t another song from this year – the most important song, really – a plea for direction, for guidance, as well?  “I wonder where I am…please show me the way” pleaded another Northerner in an equally humble manner, while the music around him was like another sun coming up, one lighting up an even more terrible darkness.   The terrible fragmentation of 1980 is being dealt with here, bit by bit something new is vividly and gratifyingly coming to life…

And so we end in “Darkness.”  Even if you have a mystical experience – in fact I can say especially if you’ve had one – you crave times when you can be alone, as Copeland’s song (his lyrics too, I should add) suggest.  Darkness is both friend and enemy – making him fumble (as the music sounds vaguely as if it is being played backwards, even though it’s not) and yet giving him time to be in that world where he could “be someone that nobody knows.”  The music warps back and forth like time-lapse photography, the light appearing and disappearing, or is it the darkness?  The door is wide open.  Once you have an experience, it is a comedown to say the least to have to deal with mundane reality again, when life was “boring” all the time.  (Cue the noise of thunderstorms, of a bit of squealing sax, of ‘normal’ existence, irritating again on purpose.)  Life is a lot easier if you adhere to the standard and don’t go on that secret journey, whatever it is; but this is not an album about easy things.  It is a crushing album, one that bluntly states how things are, not just for Sting but for everybody.  And then it goes to another level, to a whole new dimension really, and maybe this let some people down at the time.  Sometimes this whole album feels like a Social Studies class, like I’ve suggested.  Despite his wariness around words, Sting is going to try to communicate something, something worth saying in the chaos of 1981; and in the end the way out of the mess is one of adventure, of self-reflection, and of a willingness to learn, to stretch, to be inspired.  To be enlightened, and then to return to the darkness of life and see something else in it, besides itself. 
This is hard work, in hard times.  The Police’s juxtaposing groovy rhythms and funky beats with so much ugliness isn’t New Pop as such, but it helps it along, makes way, yelping and hooting and “ee-ooh—ohh”ing.  And then sitting down and contemplating the world for a bit, to the point where the dualities of so much of life, political and personal, all dissolve into one.  In the weeks after this album came out, a veritable avalanche of New Pop albums were released, each their own light in the darkness, full of their own signs and wonders.  I got some of them, eventually, but for my own turbulent time this sufficed; an album which can be exasperating and elegant, sweaty and tidy, an album that didn’t pretend things were at all fine.  But there was that promise of joy and love; the sun that is indeed there, no matter what...
Next up:  “I want to tell you what I’ve found to be true.”
*Please note that in the fall of 1981 I had no idea about Joy Division and hence New Order for me was just another New Pop group, more or less.  I was as ignorant of post-punk in the fall of ’81 as I was of punk, really.