When The Police formed in England in 1976, they were already seen as impostors who were merely riding the wave of punk rock. After all, drummer Stewart Copeland was an American transplant who’d done time in prog band, Curved Air. His brothers Miles and Ian were also well-known promoters and booking agents on the punk scene, thus any involvment they had with Stewart’s band would be viewed as nepotism.
By the time Andy Summers, a veteran guitarist who had recorded and toured with the likes of Kevin Ayers and Eric Burdon’s New Animals, had joined the band, the final piece had fallen fatefully into place.
Upon hearing the band perform the newly-written “Roxanne”, Miles Copeland could no longer remain uninvolved. He knew a hit when he heard one and, with a bravado that belied any actual leverage he and the band may have had, called in a favor at A&M Records that landed the band a worldwide record deal.
Outlandos d’Amour opens strongly with the three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust rocker “Next To You”. “So Lonely” continues the fast pace, but also integrates tasteful reggae groove that the band built upon even further on “Roxanne”.
Over the course of the first three tracks, one gets the feeling they’re listening to a band gradually finding their own identity. “Can’t Stand Losing You”, while not as immediate as “Roxanne”, bristles with the brash confidence of a band now in full command of their sound.
Not every song is a winner, of course.
Just as critics had earlier dogged the band’s extensive onstage jams as evidence that the trio were short on material, songs such as “Hole In My Life” and “Masoko Tango” are non-essential exercises in musical versatility, if nothing else. Of course, “Be My Girl/Sally”, a slightly unsettling (and unfunny) spoken-word ode to a blow-up doll, accomplishes little to dissuade such criticism.
While a bit of a mixed bag, stylistically, this is a strong debut.
Nowadays, a band is seen as prolific if they release a new CD every two or three years. In the 70’s, even your most popular bands were expected to churn out to albums every year or so. While by no means a big band (yet), The Police released their second album within a year of their sterling debut effort and showed the world that they had truly come into their own.
No other band had yet bridged the gap between reggae and rock so effectively. Bands such as The English Beat and the two-tone movement (The Specials, Selecter, et al) had yet to get off the ground by the time this album was climbing the charts. Still, I recall many reviewers failing to grasp the innovation of this band. Instead, they wrongly pegged the band as pretenders to a punk throne the band had long ago lost interest in.
Much like their debut effort, half of the record is incredibly strong: “Message In A Bottle”, “Walking On The Moon”, “Bring On The Night”, and “Bed’s Too Big Without You” are all found here. While mostly an instrumental, the title cut is also one of my personal fave Police tracks.
The other half of the record is made up of inconsequential, albeit listenable throwaway tracks like “Contact” and “Does Everyone Stare”. Still very much a democracy, writing credits are spread amongst all members of the band, with Copeland getting credit on six tracks. It is obvious there were at least two members eager to take control of the band. At this point, it was obvious to everyone except Copeland who would win that battle.
Releasing a new album every autumn like clockwork, October of 1980 brought the third Police album and, with it, mainstream success in America via their first Top 10 hit single, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”. They followed that success with “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and went from blowing bands like The Cars off the stage to headlining their own sold-out tour.
Even with some of their most accessible material to date, the band was still pushing the musical boundaries. “Driven To Tears” is a favorite of pop fans the world over despite an odd rhythmic timing, and lyrics that showcased Sting’s newfound political leanings.
Zenyatta Mondatta is an album that a lot of Police fans are on the fence about. Even Sting has gone on-record as saying the album was a rush job. While it was their mainstream breakthrough, the album is arguably a tad thin on material. Sure, one finds it hard to hate songs like “Canary In A Coldmine” or “Man In A Suitcase”, but these are not songs for which the band would come to be remembered. Copeland’s two contributions to this record, “Bombs Away” and “The Other Way of Stopping”, are forgettable. Summer’s sole contribution, “Behind My Camel”, hints at his future work in motion picture scoring. I like it, but then again, I find the whole of Zenyatta Mondatta to be quite listenable in its entirety. That, in my opinion, is why this is my favorite Police record. It’s only when you break it down song-by-song that your inner rock critic comes to view certain songs as lacking in actual substance or identity.
For the band and their fans, as far as Police albums go, Ghost In The Machine is a horse of a different color. By now, the band was no longer part of a new music movement; they were the movement. Sting, after all, was now a full-fledged pop idol and it was obvious to just about everyone by now that The Police were his band, much to the chagrin of Copeland and Summers.
Where most bands may have chosen to continue with business as usual, The Police decided to throw a wrench into the spokes of convention. They changed producers (from Nigel Gray, who’d manned the board for the previous three records, to Hugh Padgham) and unveiled songs that addressed political and societal themes.
“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is about as light as the proceedings get. Even so, there is an underlying tension that has always filled me with a sense of unease. For such a perfect slice of pop perfection, this track has always struck me as a little cold and calculated. The production of this entire record also lacks warmth and, for the most part, it works on songs like “Demolition Man”, “Invisible Sun”, and “One World (Not Three)”.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Police album without at least five tracks one could live without. The throwaway cuts found on this record, though, are some of the most forgettable tracks of their career.
Overall, I find Ghost In The Machine to be the least essential Police record. I recognize the artistic growth taking place herein, but don’t find it anywhere as listenable as past efforts.
This album broke the mold (and, ultimately, the band along with it). Sting’s desire to take full control of the band was now in full motion, with Copeland and Summers relegated to roles as studio musicians, merely fleshing out Sting’s demos.
That Synchronicity benefitted from this arrangement is inarguable. Sting’s songwriting had never been better. Songs that would have been standout tracks on any past Police effort (namely “Walking In Your Footsteps”, “Tea In The Sahara” and either of the two “Synchronicity” cuts) are almost completely eclipsed by the outright brilliance of “Every Breath You Take”.
Songs such as “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “King Of Pain” contain very little of that trademark Police sound, and, instead, are built around subtle keyboard figures and benefit from Sting’s exploration of his lower vocal range.
The appearance of songs like “Miss Gradenko” (co-penned by Copeland) and “Mother” (co-written by Summers) are obvious concessions to his bandmates to maintain some form of calm, it would seem. In both cases, they detract from an otherwise almost flawless record that still sounds as creative and vital as it did upon first listen over 20 years ago.
This 2-CD live set is taken from two different concerts; Disc 1 is from Boston 1979, and Disc 2 is Atlanta 1983.
While both were professionally recorded, the overall mix of both concerts (as overseen by Andy Summers according to the liner notes) is sub-par and ultimately detracts from the enjoyment of one of the best live bands of the 70’s and 80’s.
Disc 1 also loses points for including too many filler cuts like “Hole In My Life”, “Fall Out” (I know, I know, it was their first-ever single, but it’s a clunker plain and simple), and “Peanuts”.
Disc 2 has but one filler cut (Synchronicity’s “O My God”), but shows the 1983 live band to be rounded out by backing singers that bring an unappealing Vegas sheen to songs like “Synchronicty I”, “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” and, gasp, “Message In A Bottle”.
This live set is a necessity to completists only.
These live recordings are far superior to the official live album the Police released in ’95 and were taken from in-studio BBC sessions and live concerts from ’78 and ’79. Most notable is an in-studio rendition of the newly-written “Message In A Bottle”.
The Lost BBC Tapes showcases the band’s quick transition from brash up-and-comers to a band in full command of their talents.
All tracks are available for download to DONATE TO CHARITY SLICE readers.
1. Next to You
3. Truth Hits Everybody
4. So Lonely
6. Message in a Bottle
7. The Bed’s Too Big Without You
8. Can’t Stand Losing You
9. So Lonely (live)
10. Fall Out
11. The Bed’s Too Big Without You (live)
12. Message in a Bottle (live)
13. Roxanne (live)
14. Walking on the Moon (live)
16. Bring on the Night
17. No Time This Time