Giant steps are what you take…. Five from The Police

I spent a good chunk of time yesterday evening sat on the grass listening – from outside of the festival grounds – to a Sting and The Police tribute act (The Rozzers). Regular readers will know I have a fondness for them that only seems to grow as I get older. Hearing some of their classics played out at such volume by a very accomplished band was actually more of a treat than I was expecting it be and reinforced to me just how many great tunes those three chaps put to tape (we wandered away once they started with ‘Fields of Gold’ – there’s only so much vomit you can get in a bucket after all).

In their relatively short nine year original span they put out five albums of increasing depth that saw them get better with each outing before the inevitable inter-band tensions arose and Sting’s ego grew so large that it become self-aware, ate Andy Sumner and made a drumstick-kebab with Stewart Copeland and convinced The Artist Formerly Known As Gordon that jazz was the way to go (that’s if Wikipedia is to be believed). It’s often been suggested that if they’d been allowed to have a bit more time off between albums that they would’ve been around longer but there’s both that thing about hindsight and the fact that A&M had money to be made there and then.

While Sting may have struggled with truly strong lyrics – see Aphoristic’s brilliant take on this – the trio always had a knack for creating great tunes, surging out with the energy of the punk scene with genuine musicality and some brilliant song dynamics.

So, without a red dress in site, here are five crackers from The Police which, conveniently, seem. to have fallen as one from each album.

Truth Hits Everybody

Message In A Bottle

An obvious choice, perhaps, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a cracker.

Driven To Tears

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

I still think it’s the most wonderful gear change in music and, for once, Sting’s lyric ‘and ask her if she’ll marry me, in some old fashioned way’ is pretty decent. Shame about that Sandra Bollox movie

Synchronicity I

The Police’s later career is where you’ll find most of my favourite cuts. I named Synchronicity my choice for 1983 in the (currently on hiatus due to artistic differences) Albums of My Years series – for me they were at their peak and as both a title track and album opener this is a corker and shows how far they’d come.

Tracks: Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86

It’s been a while since I dusted off this format to highlight / ramble about a specific track but this one has been cause for much enthusiastic discussion between my wife and I since we discovered it a couple of months back so here we go.

The Police are oft-played in my ears and yet pretty under-represented in my collection save a copy of ’92’s ‘Best Of’ cd and a cassette of Synchronicity that I can no longer find. Well, that was true until I found a very clean copy of Every Breath You Take: The Singles at Electric Palace Records* back in January.

It’s a cracking compilation – as I’ve said before it’s got eleven perfectly crafted songs and ‘Roxanne’. The Police had a knack for creating these precise, glorious tunes and rhythms that got better as they went. Every album may have had a bit of filler but when the gold was as gloriously shiny as ‘King of Pain’ or ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’** then you could forgive a ‘Mother’ or two per album.

After the tour for Synchronicity the band parted ways for a bit. Solo albums were recorded all round and Sting continued his climb up his own rear pipe with The Dream of the Blue Turtles and by the time they were meant to head back into the studio on the back of some Amnesty International concerts the tension between the band was into toxic levels. To make it worse, Stewart Copeland broke his collarbone the day before they were due to record so jamming was off the table – not that it mattered: writing new songs for The Police was the last thing on Sting’s mind.

Instead either the label or the band decided to use the time to create a new album made up of re-worked versions of their hits. But even this wasn’t simple, of course. Copeland wanted to use one drum loop programming setup, Sting insisted on using something different. Personally I’d wonder why the choice wouldn’t be left to the drummer but you get the impression that, at this point, the band would argue over how to open a door at this point in their relationship. Regardless of reason, Sting’s request sent the engineer down an alley he couldn’t find his way out of for a few days and Copeland ended up using his chosen method after days of delay and would later claim the argument was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ was the only song they managed to rework during these sessions as the band fell apart at the seams quickly thereafter. It would be released as a single and on a compilation of their hits, Every Breath You Take: The Singles, as ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86’. I’m guessing there were some moans that the compilation didn’t feature the original as it was deleted in ’95 and replaced with Every Breath You Take: The Classics with the ’86 version swapped out for the original. Nor does it appear on streaming services.

So why am I highlighting this? Because I think that was a mistake. The Police only got better as they developed and this new arrangement is the superior, to me. The moodier take, while at times very clearly a mid-80s song, is much more suited to the subject matter than the original from six years prior (although that version’s intro is spot-on as an album opener too) and Sting sings with an appropriately mature tone vs the bouncier, faux-reggae tint he applied earlier. Given how little of a shit he probably gave about The Police at the time this performance is brilliant. Even with the more mature vibe they remained the masters of the chorus and here the shift in rhythm and sheen of the ‘don’t stand so’ is positively euphoric in its arrival. Again, while it’s clearly a mid-80s song, it’s the best kind of mid-80s song and hits all the right spots.

When I spun this for the fist time I was a little jarred as the original is so embedded in my mind – especially having heard it on the radio so often since it was released – but I was hooked and with each listen became more convinced it was the better of the two.

From here it was curtains for ‘Gordon and the Boys’. They wouldn’t even share a room for the cover photo of the single or its music video – another of Godley & Creme’s classics (of which surely a piece here is deserved) which itself used a different version of the ’86 take and appropriated footage from the video for the original – and The Police were done for twenty years. Solo careers took over, Sting’s being the most successful as he gradually climbed down from his ego trip (if never entirely), before a brief reunion and final tour across 2007-2008 to mark their 30th anniversary.

*It’s billed as ‘Kent’s smallest record shop’ and manages to fit a very healthy choice of records, books etc in a store that feels smaller than my garden shed. This is not a paid promotion but if you’re ever in the area it’s worth a punt if they’re open.

**I think this song is home to the greatest ‘gear change’ in music

Albums of my Years – 1983

1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be…

Man, I’m slipping with these already and I’m only three in… In 1983 the Empire was defeated, Superman split himself in two to fight with himself and Tom Cruise created a new visual that would henceforth be associated with Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’…  Not that I was able to catch any of this on screen at the tender age of two or three.

Nor did I have any awareness of the music world in 1983. I’m sure I heard many a radio hit of the day from The Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ in one way or another but my recollections of them are as likely or valid as that Orange Clown’s tax returns.

1983 saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller – released the previous year – hit the top of the charts in the US. It would spend 37 weeks there eventually. During which time CDs went on sale in America where the Beach Boys were banned from the Fourth of July festivities in Washington – then Interior Secretary (which apparently doesn’t involve dictating wallpaper and furnishing choices) James G Watts stated that rock bands attracted “the wrong element”.  Turned out President Reagan felt a bit cheesed off by the decision as he was a Beach Boys fan – Watt apologised and received a gift from the Pres – a plaster foot with a hole in it.

The Rolling Stones were quids in – not that they were strapped for cash, mind – as they signed a $28 million contract with CBS, a then-largest recording contract ever. Money isn’t everything, though – Jagger and Richards were increasingly stroppy with each other and, the following year, Mick would sign a solo deal with CBS and while the band would drop Undercover in ’83, it would be another 3 years until their first album under their new label and contract.

Both Mick Jones (The Clash) and Dave Mustaine (Metallica) got their marching orders this year. Some decisions made in 1983 worked out well – such as agreeing with the management-employee that said “yeah, Johnny Electric is a shit name, just call the band Bon Jovi” (or words to that effect).  Others didn’t work out so well – like an off-his-tits on cocaine Marvin Gaye, convinced that there were multiple plots to kill him, gave his father an unlicensed Smith & Wesson.38 special calibre pistol for Christmas. Must have been an absolute sod to wrap that.

Simon and Garfunkal called it quits, again, in 1983, as did Sly and the Family Stone, Humble Pie and The Who.  Meanwhile Bon Jovi, The Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices, The La’s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Noir Désir and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds all formed in 1983.

Dire Straits, following the success of Love Over Gold, released ExtendedancEPlay, which contained the worst song they ever committed to tape in ‘Twisting by the Pool’. Sonic Youth dropped their debut full-length, Confusion Is Sex – though, as much as I love Sonic Youth, I wouldn’t call it essential. This one is unlikely to be known to many as it barely made a ripple and, much like the band themselves, sank without a trace shortly thereafter but… a band called U2 released their third album War in 1983, with songs celebrating New Year and pointing out just how frustrating Sundays can be:

I wonder what they’re up to these days. Maybe they found a trade and took an apprenticeship somewhere….

ZZ Top dropped Eliminator, which catapulted them to MTV stardom, in March of ’83 while Pink Floyd released Roger Waters’ rant The Final Cut – needless to say it’s not my pick of the year. Mark Knopfler stepped away from the Dire Straits name for the first time with his first solo and soundtrack album Local Hero:

Men at Work’s Cargo – which featured the classics ‘Overkill’ and ‘It’s a Mistake’ – also arrived in 1983 as did, keeping in this blog’s wheelhouse, albums from REM (their debut Murmur) and The Replacements with their brilliant Hootenany on which they really started pushing away from their early punk sound and hinted at what was to come:

I think it’s fair to say there were a lot of solid albums in ’83 that I could quite happily feature on these ‘pages’ – Billy Joel (who I don’t often tip a hat to) released the hit-stacked Innocent Man – which I remember picking up on cassette at some point in time, Bob Dylan dropped back into non-religious music with the brillian Infidels and, much to the frustration of produce Mark Knopfler (who was having a busy ’83) left ‘Blind Willie McTell’ from its track listing while Tom Waits started his journey into the abstract with Swordfishtrombones.  Having boosted David Bowie’s Let’s Dance to a different level with his guitar playing earlier in the year, Stevie Ray Vaughan released, with Double Trouble, his phenomenal debut Texas Flood:

So what gets my pick for my favourite album of 1983…. well, there’s been a couple of their tunes on the entries to date but this the last year in which they could possibly feature because….

The Police – Synchronicity

Released pretty much bang on halfway through the year on June 17th, Synchronicity spawned 5 singles, all of which hit the Top 20 in the UK with the ubiquitous ‘Every Breath You Take’ hitting the top spot here and across the pond. It gained near unanimous praise in the press, interrupted Thriller‘s stay at the Top of the US chart as it traded places to notch up 17 weeks at number 1, picked up a Grammy Award, continues to be named as one of the best albums of the 80s and pop up in Best Albums lists but would be the band’s last.

It was recorded by a band already pretty much falling apart, watch any documentary or interviews with the members and you get an idea of the tensions that drove The Police.  The band members would record from different parts of the studio – Stewart Copeland (fucking awesome drummer) would drum from the dining room, Andy Summers in the studio itself (it was recorded on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, it’s a hard life) with Sting recording from the control room. Any overdubs were done one member at a time.

And yet it never sounds disjointed. Synchronicity is the sound of a band at the peak of their powers. NME’s review from the time described it as “a mega-band playing off glittering experimentation…. the music fuses intuitive pop genius with willfully dense orchestration so powerfully dense it stuns.”

And that’s why I rank Synchronicity as their finest – The Police were masterful songwriters yet, like so many other, they almost fought against it as if it were wrong to create perfectly crafted melodies – they came up in the punk movement so tried to hitch a ride on that scene’s energy, then there was the insistence of trying to shove reggae into the mix, with Sting’s god awful forced accent. I agree with Elvis Costello’s statement at the time: ‘Somebody should clip (him) round the head and tell him to stop singing in that ridiculous Jamaican accent.”

So while I love a huge amount of The Police’s music, Synchronicity, where they finally ditch all that and create beautiful melodies and textures – is the album that I happily sit and listen to all the way through. I can’t recall when I first heard it -growing up after it was released it feels like ‘Every Breath You Take’ has always been there, but even after hearing it so many times it never bores:

Though my favourite on this album is ‘Synchronicity II”, I love the drive and energy of the song and the fact that it’s couple to those lyrics; “Another suburban family morning, Grandmother screaming at the wall. We have to shout above the din of our Rice Crispies..” I can’t think of another song that mentions Rice Crispies or take its inspiration from Carl Jung…. and then references the Loch Ness monster.

The videos….  I think they were all by Godley and Creme (ex 10CC). A duo whose first music video was for their own single ‘An Englishman in New York’ (funny, that) who directed so many pivotal music videos of the 80’s which all had a distinct feel that connects to memories of my youth so vitally that it’s impossible for me to listen to these songs – pretty much the entire second half of this album was released as a single – and not be transported back to that time.

I’ll finish with ‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’ – the video for which spawned one of my favourite Andy Summers quotes and points out just how clearly the writing was on the wall for the band. Godley & Creme filmed it a little unusually – the music was played fast and Sting – who  loves the video “It’s incredibly atmospheric, and I think the set design is brilliant” – mimed at high speed so that when played at normal speed it gives a weird slo motion affect. Andy Summers pointed out: “I was kind of pissed off about that one. I’ve never been much of a fan of that song, actually. Sting got to shoot his part last in that video and made a meal of knocking all the candles out. Fuck him.”

Albums of my Years – 1981

Argh, I’m already slipping on my fairly loose schedule.

I don’t remember anything of 1981. Given that I’d only been about a couple of months when it started that’s no real surprise.

Apparently though a fair old bit happened in 1981:

Steven Tyler – no doubt off his tits on several things at once – took a spill on his motorbike in January and had to spend a couple of months in hospital. Aerosmith itself was in pretty rough shape in 1981 anyway – Brad Whitford left the group a few months later after recording ‘Lightning Strikes’.

All-round butt of jokes and general butthead Phil Collins released his first solo album in February and proceeded  to somehow combine peddling beige musical tosh and raking in cash for years to come – glad I don’t remember that.

On March 27th, a dove was happily minding its own business and wondering why it hadn’t yet been released when some drunk bloke with his own name tattooed on his knuckles bit its head off.

Turns out those four blokes from Ireland did make a trip abroad – who knew?: U2 made their first (probably last too)US TV appearance on the ‘Tomorrow’ show in June, 1981. I wonder what happened to them?

The Buzzcocks, The Knack, Rockpile, Sam & Dave, Steely Dan and Paul McCartney and Wings all called it day in 1981 but the year also saw the ‘birth’ of 10,000 Maniacs, The U-Men, Talk Talk, Sonic Youth,  Metallica, and Hunters & Collectors.

There were also a lot of albums dropped during that year… Van Halen’s Fair Warning arrived in April but it’s a Roth album so doesn’t feature in my wheelhouse. The Cure’s third album Faith also dropped in April and there’s some cracking tunes on there. The Replacements’ first album Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash is a 1981 album that’s far from shabby….

As if to prove a point, The Joe Perry Project released its second album which featured the awesome ‘South Station Blues’:

The Rolling Stones heated up some left-overs and ended up with Tattoo You being received as one of their strongest in some time and the ubiquitous ‘Start Me Up.’ The Police were at it again and dropped the first-class Ghost in the Machine which features ‘Invisible Sun’, ‘Spirits In The Material World’ and the unimpeachable ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’:

Oh, and that little group from Ireland actually made another album! I guess a few people must have watched them on TV in America as they released what must have been their final album, October in, well, October. I guess it’s that lack of imagination that stopped them catching on.

Thing is none of these necessarily jump up at me as being the obvious choice for my selection for 1981.

It would be  a tricky one to call, except an absolute classic was released in 1981:

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises

There’s a precious handful of albums to which the phrase ‘all killer, no filler’ can be applied. Hard Promises is easily one of them. I mean ‘A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me), ‘Something Big’, ‘Insider’, ‘Nightwatchman’, ‘You Can Still Change Your Mind’?! Oh, and then there’s the first song on the album:

Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers’ fourth album, Hard Promises is easily one of their finest and when you factor in that it was written under the pressure of the stardom that had been ‘gifted’ them after Damn The Torpedoes… it’s faultless really.

Petty didn’t mess much with the formula that had yielded gold on that album – he retained Jimmy Iovine (I’ve just realised this is the second album on this list he’s produced and we’re only two in) and he still had a shit load of great tunes in the tank too. Oh, and he went to war with his record label before he’d let them release it too – they wanted to  sell it for $9.98, a full dollar more than the usual price, and Petty was having none of it.

I came to this album far later than ’81 of course. A good couple of decades on, in fact, after I started blowing open Petty’s discography on the back of loving every track on Anthology: Through The Years – especially ‘The Waiting’ and, having picked up the six-disc Playback boxset, ‘Something Big’:

But when I did get to it, I spent a lot of time with Hard Promises.

It’s been a while since I was really able to sit and listen to Tom Petty after his untimely death in 2017. Listening to an album as varied and rich as Hard Promises – from the grooves of ‘The Nightwatchman’ to the fantastically jangly ‘Thing About You’ and the Stevie Nicks collab ‘The Insider’, it’s all the clearer just what the music world last when Mr Petty departed. Every song on this album is enthused with his unique craft and plainly obvious love of it all.