(#337: 8 November 1986, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Roxanne/Can’t Stand Losing You/So Lonely/Message In A Bottle/Walking On The Moon/Don’t Stand So Close To Me '86/De Do Do Do De Da Da Da/Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic/Invisible Sun/Spirits In The Material World/Every Breath You Take/King Of Pain/Wrapped Around Your Finger
"The constant challenge is what next? In the space of two albums we've sold more records than people do in ten. In England our album is quadruple platinum, or something. The constant challenge is to forget that, because it is a distraction, it really is. You've got to try to come up with music that is valid and relevant, not just feeding the industrial machinery that all of a sudden is all around us." Sting in 1980 - Ask by Paul Morley.
When I was at Sheridan College, one of the courses I took was about human relations - how to get along with other people, no matter what kind they were. It was a bit of an odd thing, but as supposed future secretaries we were bound to meet all sorts of psychological types, and this was Sheridan's way of gearing us up, so to speak. The teacher was someone who (by her own admission) had something of a short temper, but she tried her best to get across to us the importance of understanding others. The 70s was full of pop psychology, and we got some of it in the form of what I think was called Transactional Analysis (it was actually Psycho-Geometrics, but we got it all, trust me); something to do with squares, triangles and circles and other shapes and how they could all, with some patience, learn to cooperate with each other.
As you can see, the designer of the cover here definitely knew something about this idea, as above each member of The Police is a different-colored shape: blue square for Sting (I'm sure Sting would think of himself as a star or a hexagon, but no), a yellow circle for Andy Summers and a red triangle for Stewart Copeland. And these are all fitting symbols, seeing as how The Police pretty much ended due to the perpetual disagreements between the square and triangle, with the circle haplessly looking on.
The cover emphasizes the fact that here we have three different people with different outlooks on life who have come together to do nothing less than become the (then) biggest band in the world. That they started as newly bleached-blond for-a-chewing-gum-ad New Wavers born out of necessity seems almost beside the point. "Roxanne" is a sharp song, the chords rough yet precise, the emotion raw and yet old-fashioned. It is a last-ditch plea to a woman who "doesn't care if it's wrong or if it's right" and here's Sting to come along and tell her it's bad, that he loves her and doesn't want her to sell herself anymore. It's something of a fantasy, this song - how many men fall in love with prostitutes and try to save them? - but the increasing tension in the song is damn real, and Sting's yelping (I can't think of another singer for whom that verb is more apt) indicates that he knows just how dangerous it can be for a girl out on her own in the night. I don't know if the blue square is prone to I-know-better-than-you-doism, but the whole band here is united and the sound is a bit claustrophobic and we even here some sarcastic laughter in the beginning, which I've never been able to understand, unless it's some arrogant pimp joking around. Who knows?
If "Roxanne" borrows a bit from reggae, then "Can't Stand Losing You" borrows a bit more - choppy chords, door-slamming drums, the singer's mind is made up - no one's trying to talk him out of his decision - and the accumulating details are sad but also adolescent ("my LP records and they're all scratched" would strike terror into a vinyl hipster today). How reliable is the narrator? What did he do to this ex-girlfriend that was so terrible? Instead of some introspection on how maybe there's a reason for her brother's wanting to kill him and her sending his letters back, there's just self-pitying "you'll be sorry when I'm dead" and an inability to take responsibility for his actions, swallow his pride and admit he's wrong. Again and again he can't stand losing this girl, the whole song pogos to this at the end, over and over. Even at the time I don't think I was that much impressed with this song, but they do it straight and Sting's self-awareness makes his singing convincing and a little frightening.
"So Lonely" could be seen as a different way of dealing with being alone - and the relaxed beat here immediately puts the listener at ease. Summers free ranges over the off-beats, and Sting uses the word "soul" - it's an upbeat song about not having anyone, about having a broken heart and yet bounding along, using sorrow as a springboard to something greater. "Low low low" chants Sting at one part, or is that "Lone lone lone" - metaphorically here are The Police, all alone, not really punk, not really reggae, not really rock, but something of all three, with some jazz thrown in for good measure. Their only rivals here were The Clash, but it wasn't in the nature of The Police to do double or triple albums, and having a fairly libertarian red triangle with Copeland meant that a certain impatience was built into the band from the beginning.
"Message In A Bottle" is just about everything The Police are great at, all at once; our lonely hero is a castaway with nothing but old John Dowland and Bob Marley records on his desert island, and somehow he finds paper, a bottle and something to write with to see if he gets any kind of response back. It's like a cartoon, this song, but that fusion they wanted to make cooks up here very well, and the suspense of whether there will be a response is met with an avalanche, a rush of energy and for all the girls who loved The Police because of Sting, there were an equal amount of guys who were impressed by the band's ability and skills and general coolness. And thus, with Reggatta de Blanc they took on the world very easily.
"Walking On The Moon" has to be one of the quietest number one singles in the UK; which is to say, when you listen to it, you have to turn it up and turn everything else off. The bass and guitar call and respond; the drums drop in and out with ease; something subliminal seems to be happening, dreamlike even. The choruses have ringing, shining sweetness, as the lyrics about love - that first swooning unreal feeling that doesn't let go - finds its equivalent here in the drumming, sense of weightlessness that spaaaaaans and leaps and floats...up...and up...(and here I think of the instrumental break in "Strawberry Letter 23" by Brothers Johnson, which I also could listen to many times in a row)...and then gently comes back down, to walk in the normal world, or at least a bit closer to it. "Keep it up" could refer to the band's playing itself, or to the feeling the song's about, or to who knows what. A song as big as the world. And how to follow that up?
It is very awkward to have to report that when The Police got together in '86 to record again, instead of new songs Sting just wanted to cover their old hits. Yes, believe it or not, the idea was to record all their singles again, but Copeland had an accident and this odd untenable idea was thankfully scrapped. (Copeland and Sting apparently got into a fight over a drum machine or something, too.) The original of "Don't Stand So Close To Me" was the band's attempt to do something a bit different - the ominous beginning, the fantasy threatening reality, the resolution, if there can be one, in the typically upbeat chorus- all this is lost in the re-recording of the song, where there's no tension, where it sounds as if the whole thing has indeed happened before, the end credits are running and people and standing and stretching at the end of the movie*. Lolita is now "that famous book" and the whole thing sounds busy and tired, a waste of time and energy, on the band and producer Laurie Latham's part**. It's impossible to imagine a song like this making the charts now, but if you just shift it a little, it's the dilemma of a famous pop star/blue square who has hordes of young girls screaming at him every night, who has to deal with that pressure...
And with a sigh, we come to the gentle skank of "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da" which is almost textbook Police, a song about how most rock lyrics are meh and how most communication is meh and jumping around signing nonsense is at least unpretentious and somehow more true to rock than heavy messages. If only Sting could've kept more to these words...(I may as well add here that it's entirely possible to do a great compilation of The Police from non-singles, and indeed some think their best stuff is their non-singles. "Voices Inside My Head" from Zenyatta Mondatta would be on mine, for instance.)
I've written about Ghost In The Machine before so I will politely skip the next few songs, except to say that the mysterious Canadian sound appears in "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and gives this side a warm start that it desperately needs...
...because I find the songs from Synchronicity to be metronomically precise and a little cold; Sting has been dumped and is paranoid and lonely, a stalker on the prowl; and yet this is interpreted as a love song, the plea of a lonely man for her to come back, and Sting is trying (?) to have it both ways here. The song is quiet and spacious, like a mansion; empty like one too, circling around and around itself, as Sting sings "you belong to meee" in a way that is again self-pitying and yet hapless. I am always convinced he feels bad, sure, sure he does, but why the constant watching? The song wills itself to be calm, stay cool, but it broods and sulks instead.
"King Of Pain" is about more suffering, endless metaphoric suffering, enough to make Phil Collins green with envy. It's not just that he suffers, but it's his destiny, man; how a little black spot on the sun could be interpreted, either by the narrator (hopefully viewing the sun indirectly) or anyone else as "my soul up there" remains to be seen, but this man is in a groove where all he can see is pain, and he is the rich man on his golden bed, hoping that you - the lost love - will come back and somehow end this whole situation. The song lumbers along, as one awful image after another is presented, and Summers' solo is dutiful, as is the fade in-fade out around that little black spot on the sun. This is a world away from the fightback against being "So Lonely" - the clip-clop here is resigned and somehow proud, as if Sting wants to be the King, to be the top at something.
"Wrapped Around Your Finger" is a nasty song, pure and simple. Sting uses all his education - hello Mephistopheles, hello Scylla and Charybdis - all to talk meanly about his ex-wife, who has no capacity to answer back. Sting portrays himself as an apprentice who then becomes a master, who is somehow corrupted and then triumphs over said corruption. Or something like that. The whole song makes me itch, the ugliness of the lyrics made worse somehow by the classical references, made worse by the blandness of the song, where Sting is so upfront that the other two are there, sure, but not as felt as before - this is Sting and Co., not The Police, and hearing all these songs together shows just what they were able to do at their prime and how they couldn't perceive - not once but twice - when to call it a day and move on.
How this fits into 1986? This seems to be a year where a lot of the old - if I can put it that way - gets to the top, in lieu of the new. One last lap of honor here for The Police; already by '86 standards they seem like a generation ago, a time when MTV didn't exist (there's an offer in the cassette insert for a video version of this album for £15.99, which was a lot back then), Walkmans were unheard of, Smash Hits was a new phenomenon and so on. There is a uniqueness to The Police at their best that can be heard in bits and pieces to this day (see Bruno Mars) and it remains fresh; the delicacy and openness and fun in that are hard to pull off, as the musicians have to be tough with each other, demanding, in order to make it work, stubborn in their own shapes. A better compilation than this one exists, but this is the one that got to the top, which is where The Police made most sense; we will get to the blue square in due course, but for now here is the late 70s/early 80s neatly parcelled out, as if a certain time and feeling are being commemorated, as the black and white cover photos would suggest; something to remember, as a new era dawns...
*It's a very "for improved sound quality, this track has been re-recorded by one or more of the original musicians" but it's all three of them and it's still awful.
**Sort of the proof that Paul Young's albums were very much his creation, with Latham just making the whole thing sound good.