The Police: A Look Back

The Police had a great, but relatively short commercial period of success. Here is a look back at their music.

The first Police album came out in November 1978. Labeled as “New Wave,” The Police were a punk rock offshoot, contemporaries of Elvis Costello, U2 and The Jam. High energy, short and concise songs, minimalist production, tough and coordinated stage wear, pounding world music rhythms, with a dash of Billy Idol sneer.

There was something very interesting about the late 1970s and early 1980s with the blending of post-punk and reggae. The infectious energy was great at the local clubs, it was danceable, but not disco. Bands like Madness, The Members, The Clash, English Beat, XTC, Squeeze, Eddie Grant and others recaptured the frantic energy and bouncy rhythms that I remembered from the mid 1960s, although the vibe was more worldly and the beat would cut you with a knife. The Police rode this wave, but did so with their own distinctive sound. The band was like a message or genie in a bottle. Once it was uncorked, it’s brilliance was intoxicating, but short-lived.

Outlandos d’Amour (1978) didn’t set the world on fire, but it made us take notice. Lean and rocking, this British trio, did not sound like anyone else – at least no one you heard on the radio. “Roxanne” was the strongest release from the album, followed by “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely.” The album is a bit messy, unconstrained as I call it. There is filler, but as a self-produced effort, it shows a lot of potential.

Listening to my old vinyl copy, I remember thinking his band had something, certainly worth paying attention to. Sting’s vocals were impressive, his bass playing was bouncy and melodic. Copeland’s drumming was like Keith Moon under control. Summers guitar work set the rhythm, particularly the reggae riffs, and was angry enough for some sizzling fills. “Roxanne” is still a show-stopper, driving, pulsating with sexual energy and smart grooves.

In the late 1970s, while disco, heavy metal and yacht rock battled for airplay, other musical forms were building their own audiences. Reggae, rocksteady and ska were big in British clubs, migrating from Jamaica and taking root in Western countries courtesy of Toots and the Maytals, The Wailers, Bob Marley and others.

Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers are talented musicians, another reason to not lump them into a category of musicians known for loud, three chord songs and poofy hairstyles. Don’t let the wrapper fool you. These three lads were good-looking, great in videos, blonde (not exactly true), played danceable grooves and had a funky hipness that quickly pushed them to the forefront. Marketing or talent. Both. Marketing only gets you through the door. Talent keeps you there.

Each Police album showed their growth, complexity and commercial sensibility. Sting quickly became the focal point, as the vocalist and main writer. Whatever tensions would grow in the band, it seemed to push the music to greater heights. The interplay between the instruments was as powerful as any musical group. I immediately think of U2 as a contemporary, and similar powerhouse of interlocking greatness of drums, bass and guitar supporting and building off each other.

Reggatta de Blanc

Their second album opens with “Message in a Bottle” featuring killer guitar work by Summers. It’s got a pounding beat and Sting’s glorious bass. “Reggatta de Blanc” comes next. Written by the band, it sounds almost like a U2 early recording. Energetic and rocking, with lots of echo. “It’s Alright for You” is a Copeland/Sting song is more New Wave rocker than reggae. Average at best, it’s really just attitude. “Bring on the Night” sounds like it’s flowing backwards, a jazz-reggae rocker with exceptional guitar work. “Deathwish” is a group collaboration. It’s a punchy, New Wave pounding song. Powerful beat, once again the guitar work is amazing.

Side two opens with “Walking on the Moon” sounds more like The Fixx with the ringing guitar chords. Sparse instrumentation, but it’s strong to fill the space. “On Any Other Day” was written by Copeland and it’s really just filler. “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” was released as a single, its a reggae-rocker, and terrific. It slashes and glides, the guitar and bass working together keeping the beat and energy pulsating. “Contact” and “Does Everyone Stare” are Copeland songs, with the latter being a pretty good one. “No Time This Time” is a rocker played at warp speed. Not particularly memorable, it’s just the kind of track the band does well, and has often.

Zenyattà Mondatta (1980)

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me” a great example of the bass, guitar and drums all working together to creat the rhythm and melody. “Driven to Tears” is a taught, driving song. Summers as usual creates lush fills and distorted leads, as a counterpoint to Sting’s bass. Not a big hit but solid song, followed by by “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around,” an upbeat with Sting’s pulsating bass and Summers chorus chords on the guitar. Sting is a great bass player, inventive and melodic beats. “Canary in a Coal Mine” is an energetic reggae beat, with fast picking fills by Summers. Almost too fast for dancing. “Voices Inside My Head” a slower, beat heavy song. Summers uses two different guitar patterns and sounds. The vocals are mixed into the background, the steady beat is front and center. “Bombs Away” is a Copeland tune, more of a rocker, a decent album track.

Side two opens with the bouncy, fun “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” has to be one of the band’s top five songs. The words are goofy, but the music is sterling. Summers is absolutely first-rate on his guitar work. “Behind My Camel” is a Summers written track, which incredibly won a Grammy Award for the performance. The guitar work is decent, but the song is so-so. “Man in a Suitcase” is more of a straight reggae song. Decent, just not very special. “Shadows in the Rain” is a slower reggae song. Sting’s vocals are drenched in echo. “The Other Way of Stopping” is a Copeland written instrumental song. It does not anything special to the album, but the band excel at these tracks.

Album number three won two Grammy Awards and was a top five album in the U.S.

Ghost in the Machine (1981)

“Spirits in the Material World” leads off the album and was a number eleven single. “Everything She Does is Magic” has that jaunty groove with the steel drum and rocking chorus, a number three chart hit in America. The incredible piano part was played by the legendary Jean Roussel. “Invisible Sun” was released in the U.K. And other places but not in the U.S. The song has a pulsating synth bass and is rhythm-heavy. Some of the album was recorded in Monserrat. “Hungry For You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)” has another strong groove, try not to move your body when listening to it. Not a classic, but a darn fine song. “Demolition Man” was first recorded by Grace Jones, but The Police wanted to cut their own version. One of their longer songs (almost six minutes). Sting plays saxophone, not bass.

Side two opens with “Too Much Information,” which has two distinct grooves, the bass and several layers of synth. The lyrics are very basic and the song repeats the same groove throughout with minor variations. “Rehumanize Yourself” is a fast, percussive song co-written by Sting and Copeland, who provides backing vocals and keyboards. “One World (Not Three)” is back to the Island groove and a simple message. These groove songs might seem rather formulaic, but the boys are good at it and offer some noticeable variations. “Omegaman” is written by Summers, not a bad song, just not as good as the best songs on the album. Summers’ guitar work quite rocking. “Secret Journey” didn’t quite crack the top forty, but did offer Sting’s mystical head trip. “Darkness” is written by Copeland, and is surprisingly good.

The album is heavy on synthesizers acting like horns and groove creators. These add depth and variety to the songs to compliment Summers’ guitar riffs and reliance on Sting’s bass. The Police were on the world stage now, there were expectations and a need to up their game.

Synchronicity (1983) was the final Police studio album. That was 40 years ago. Produced by the band and Hugh Padgham, the album barely resembles the music from the debut, just five years earlier. Padgham was one of the top producers of the era, working with Genesis, Phil Collins, Kate Bush, Elton John, Hall and Oates, Mike + The Mechanics, Paul McCartney, David Bowie and many more. He is credited with coming up with that deep, echoing drum sound of Phil Collins used on the Face Values album that became the industrial drum sound on the 1980s.

Five singles were released from Synchronicity, and it topped the charts all over the world. Side one starts with “Synchronicity I” a fast-paced song, with a strong marimba groove, but not a reggae one. “Walking in Your Footsteps” is a tropical rhythmic songs, heavy on percussion. “O My God” has a “Spirits in the Material World” vibe, very similar. “Mother” is written by Summers and is an odd track. “Miss Gradenko” is written by Copeland. The guitar work is decent, but it’s an average song. “Synchronicity II” is a different version of the opening song.

Side two is where the gold is. “Every Breath You Take” was a number one song in many countries. “King of Pain” was another single. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” a top ten song throughout the world, and “Tea in the Sahara,” based on The Sheltering Sky.

Synchronicity was like Bridge Over Troubled Water or Abbey Road – where could you go from there? When you’ve reached the pinnacle, the answer is stop and find new challenges with room to climb.

That was Sting’s answer anyway. Apparently, the recording of Synchronicity brought out tensions within the band, even though they intentionally used less overdubbing and studio gadgetry. Already winning awards for his songwriting and wanting to try new things, the Police disbanded. He has had the most commercial solo success of his band mates, selling millions of albums, winning Grammy Awards, worldwide concert tours and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Sting’s journey over the past 40 years is deserving of its own blog.

Stewart Copeland turned to television and film, composing soundtracks for dozen of projects like Rumble Fish, Wall Street, Talk Radio and The Equalizer. Among his other projects include composing the music for ballets, video games and even ringtones. He produced a film about The Police and wrote his memoirs. There is definitely more to explore with this guy.

Guitarist Andy Summers has one of the most distinctive guitar styles and tones of the era. Older than his bandmates, Summers is now 80 years old and still active. He has released numerous solo instrumental albums, bridging the genres of jazz, new age and ambient music. He released two collaborations with King Crimson founder Robert Fripp: I Advance Masked (1982) and Bewitched (1984), both of which I enjoy and have been listening for these many years. Teaming up with Fripp, who was on hiatus from his band was a stricken of genius as these two guitarists have so much in common, but come from different musical genres. Summers is an accomplished artist and has penned several books. Summers really flew under the radar; perhaps by his own design.

2 thoughts on “The Police: A Look Back

  1. I really enjoyed The Police. They had great songs on all of their five albums: “So Lonely” , “Roxanne”, “I Can’t Stand Losing You”, “Message in a Bottle”, “Bring On the Night”, “Walking on the Moon”, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”, “Driven to Tears”, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”, “Spirits In the Material World”, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, “Demolition Man”, “Synchronicity II”, “Every Breath You Take” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” are all tunes I still dig. I was fortunate to catch them during their 2007-2008 reunion tour. They still sounded great!

    Liked by 1 person

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