Wednesday, 4 July 2012
84 Every Breath You Take The Singles - The Police
Purchased : April 1988
Tracks : Roxanne / Can't Stand Losing You / Message In A Bottle / Walking On The Moon / Don't Stand So Close To Me 86 / De Doo Doo Doo 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
This was the third album bought in Britannia's introductory offer.
I had been waiting for a Police compilation for some time before this came out in 1986. They always had a reputation for putting out dodgy albums half comprised of dross written by either of Andy Summers or Stewart Copeland and when I borrowed a tape of "Regatta De Blanc" during my university days I heard it for myself. So a compilation of their mostly excellent singles was irresistible.
This was put out when the band were on their last legs. After completing promotional duties for his decent but not as successful as expected solo LP The Dream Of The Blue Turtles Sting reunited with the other guys. The original idea was to re-record all their old hits but after subjecting "Don't Stand So Close To Me" to this treatment the idea was thankfully abandoned and the other songs left as they were. Without formally confirming their dissolution the band then went their seperate ways for the next 20 years.
The album is arranged in rough chronological order i.e the singles released from their last two LPs have been shuffled slightly but don't overlap. For capacity reasons "Fall Out" , "So Lonely", "Bed's Too Big Without You" and "Synchronicity II" are omitted. However having 6 songs on each side still means that the sound is compressed - this is one of those LPs that you're always having to turn up.
I've always been rather dismayed by the visceral hatred some hold for the band ; this re-surfaced when the band's number ones were discussed on Popular. Taking their cue from Peelie ( did he ever explain his dislike of the group ? ) their detractors see them as the "anti-punks", the great betrayers of the New Wave who took the sound of the underground back into the stadiums and the Billboard charts. Their ages ( especially Summers ) , musicianship and the Copelands' CIA connections are also held against them.
If you've read some of the earlier posts you will have noted that 1979 was a special time for me so it would be hard to improve on the opening quartet of tracks which were all hits that year ( although the first two were re-releases from 1978).
The album naturally starts with "Roxanne" their breakthrough hit in May 1979 after a string of flops. I must confess to not quite getting it at the time but it sounds pretty classic now. All the trademarks of their early sound are in place , the sparse staccato guitar jabs, simple bass lines, off-centre drumming somewhere between reggae and rock , that instantly recognisable rasping yowl of a voice , the odd glitch left in and acres of space emphasised by the tango rhythm with its dramatic pauses. The song is a plea from a lovesick man to a prostitute to give up and settle down with him. It was apparently inspired by the whores around the band's hotel when they played Paris but it's notable that fellow Geordies Mark Knopfler and Neil Tennant have also written songs about the oldest profession. The revved up chorus owes something to punk but it's the stark minimalist verses that make the song.
It was the second re-release from their "Outlandos D'Amour" LP, "I Can't Stand Losing You" that established them as a major chart force by peaking at number two in July. The song is written from the point of view of a loser trying the ultimate emotional blackmail on his ex by threatening suicide. I thought it was the most exciting record I'd heard in years with the taut verses leading to a chorus which if anything notches the tension up even higher. The production is razor-sharp and Summers switches between skank and power-chording until the last verse when he drops out altogether to be replaced by a single ominous synth chord.
It was then a near-formality that their first "new" single of the year would get to number one in September, a strong contender for my favourite number one of all time. "Message In A Bottle" brings back fond memories of amusingly earnest playground discussions about whether they were punk or mod ( Sting's appearance in the then-current Quadrophenia muddied the water on this point ) among the badge-sporting brigade. The song uses an extended shipwreck metaphor to describe the pain of loneliness and the revelation of the third verse that there are millions of other sufferers predicates the growth in single-person households in the decades to follow. Summers drops the skanking for ringing arpeggios to produce that killer tumbling riff that introduces the song and then augments the chilling "Sending out an S.O.S." mantra at the end with brief but lyrical soloing.
The follow-up, "Walking On The Moon" in December also got to number one, albeit briefly before it was knocked aside by Another Brick In The Wall. It's their most overtly reggae single and even 30+ years on seems a weird song to top the charts with its airy sparseness , a drum track consisting almost entirely of hi-hat and the song's dissolution into an echo-laden mantra for the last minute. Perhaps mindful that the public would only accept so many songs about loneliness and desperation from one of the world's best looking men, Sting writes a happy song about the sensation of weightlessness experienced in young love with a chorus ( sung in a dodgy Jamaican accent ) celebrating irresponsibility. While not being my favourite single of theirs it stands alongside anything from Unknown Pleasures as illustrating the post-punk experimentation of the time.
The reverie is then rudely interrupted by the arrival of "Don't Stand So Close To Me 86" their re-recording of their biggest hit about a teacher's affair with a schoolgirl from the summer of 1980. After the previous track it's a really unwelcome jolt to hear the fruit of the band's collaboration with the king of 80s over-production Laurie Latham. The original sinister synth intro is discarded in favour of a grinding guitar sounding like The Pyschedelic Furs before a brief interlude with ticking clock that sounds suspiciously like Sting's solo hit Russians and then the song finally begins. Despite the slowed-down tempo and heartbreakingly pedestrian drum track ( Copeland disowned the record almost immediately after release ) the verses survive relatively unscathed but the chorus is absolutely butchered. It sounds like there was a deliberate intention to drain every last vestige of melody and the result is excrutiating. Oh and that awful line about Nabokov remains, indeed emphasised by the insertion of the word "famous"
The original song was the lead single for the third album "Zenyatta Mondatta" a painfully flimsy collection ( I'm looking forward to it cropping up on Then Play Long ) which illustrates the point that bands tend to produce their poorest work when at the peak of their fame (see also Prince Charming , Monster, Stay On These Roads, Seven And The Ragged Tiger , Be Here Now ). The second single from it was the much-derided "De Do Do De Da Da Da", in truth a fairly thoughtful song about the power of words with the chorus as antidote but the message didn't get through. It didn't help that the music seemed lightweight too, its mid-tempo chug disappointing despite some nice clipped rhythm guitar from Summers.The single also clipped their commercial wings to some extent by failing to get past number five in the Christmas chart.
Side Two has three tracks each from their latter two LPs but not quite in release order. "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" their fourth and probably least-remembered number one was the second single released from "Ghost In The Machine " in October 1981. The album saw a considerable broadening out of the sound with much more keyboard evident to the distress of Summers . The single was actually an old song re-worked and its romantic nature is at odds with the political and philosophical concerns of the rest of that LP . It's about a man hankering after a girl who he feels is out of his league. It follows a familiar template of broody verses breaking into an expansive chorus this time a calypso perhaps influenced by being recorded in Montserrat. It's a decent song but there's an air of forced jollity about it strengthened by the knowledge that the synth and piano parts by Jean Roussell were added to the track despite opposition from Summers and Copeland.
The first single from the LP in the UK was "Invisible Sun" in September 1981 which did direct battle with Sting's successor as teen pin-up Adam Ant's Prince Charming and lost, in part due to a BBC ban on its video for incorporating footage of the Northern Ireland Troubles a topic never more sensitive than in 1981 following the death of Bobby Sands MP.
The song's lyrics contain no geographical or historical reference to Ulster but its pondering of what enables people to carry on living in hopelessly bleak environments was obviously applicable there. It's actually one of their best singles with a superb production from the band and Hugh Padgham setting a dehumanised droning Sting vocal against an industrial throbbing synthesiser. Summers is appeased by being allowed to lay down some coruscating guitar solos after the second chorus and at song's end.
The third single ( released in December before " ...Magic" had left the charts ) was "Spirits In The Material World" an under-rated song which for me captures what was a bleak time both personally and politically. My last remaining close friend had just abruptly terminated our connection ( see the 1982 posts for more details ) leaving a void which has perhaps never been fully filled and I felt something like a ghost forced to live on in a world which no longer seemed to have a place for me. Sting was actually influenced by the rather pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Koestler that destructive tendencies in the brain could not be overcome though the chorus at least seems to be a defiant rejection of this idea. The arrangement is very complex and saw huge disagreement between Summers and Sting with the latter seemingly wanting to erase his bandmate from the track altogether by over-dubbing his guitar parts with synth. Sting also plays the sax on this ska-influenced track. Excepting the limited edition "Six Pack" which was allowed to chart in 1980 and the re-release of debut thrash "Fall Out" it was the first Police single to fall short of the Top 10 since "Roxanne" but the compressed release schedule was probably to blame.
There was a performance of "Spirits ..." for Swap Shop - I don't think it's on youtube yet - which captured the spirit of the band at the time. Only Copeland made any attempt to disguise the miming; Summers strummed the synth parts on what looked like a toy gutar while Sting stood stock still at the mike without touching the bass slung round his shoulders. It began to look unlikely that they would make another album together as Sting pursued his acting career and the other two began more leftfield musical projects but they duly regrouped for the "Synchronicity" album in 1983 and that provides the final three tracks here.
Summers seemed to have beaten back the advance of the synths and "Every Breath You Take" is based on his riff with strings and piano discreetly filling in the spaces. As usual with such megahits I'm not going to waste much time on trying to dissect it. . As has been well established it's a sinister song about obsession and stalking rather than the love song its dimmer champions take it to be and provided the group with their last valedictory number one in May 1983.
"King Of Pain" the fourth release from the LP was the last hit of the group's original lifespan reaching number 17 in January 1984. Its release was probably an A & M decision as no video was made for it. It's a curiously unsatisfying song with a very bleak lyric stringing together disturbing images from legend and the natural world and an interesting arrangement with Copeland's marimba and Summers convincing impersonation of The Edge.
It should be a classic but it isn't and I think it's the weak chorus that lets it down.
The LP concludes with the mellow but haunting tones of "Wrapped Around Your Finger" a dense allegorical song about a relationship where the balance of power eventually shifts illustrated by the gradual rise in tempo in the last verse and the inversion to " You'll be wrapped around my finger " in the ensuing chorus. Summers again seems to have been relegated to a bit part with Sting's keyboards playing the main riffs. Released just after I left school in 1983 it reached number 7 its sales perhaps depressed by the album's recent release.
This compilation itself reached number one suggesting that other people had been biding their time for it as well . It could have been a bit better but remains a fitting epitaph to a great group.