The Police – Message in a Box, Part 1 (1977-1980)

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The Police were my first favorite band, even though they called it quits the same year I was born. Technically not a “break up” but make no mistake, they were about as broken up as could be. Still, I was absolutely obsessed with them; we had the Every Breath You Take singles collection, the live 2-disc set, Reggatta de Blanc (which my Dad played every day in the car on the way to drop us off at day care), and two copies of Synchronicity. Later on I used birthday money to buy the rest of ’em, and from there they became my entire music collection for a year or two. Otherwise I’d check out music from the library, grabbing discs from bands I’d vaguely heard of, none of which impressed me as much as The Police did. That didn’t really bother me, since I didn’t exactly crave variety back then; I liked the idea of figuring out my favorite band at such a young age. That’s a load off! One day I stumbled upon the box set section at the library and found Message in a Box, The Police’s 4-disc “complete works” box, which lo and behold included 24 “non-album” tracks. Yes, there were some alternate mixes and live tunes in there, but there was also a lot of stuff I hadn’t heard yet, and to me that was the holy grail.

Message_in_a_Box_-_The_Complete_RecordingsEven though The Police have a reputation as a singles band, I really do think that all five of their albums are worth hearing in full, even now. Message in a Box is priced at about $40 which is a steal, just eight bucks per album and all this bonus stuff for free. I wish I had known about it back then. Of course the great thing about it is that it tells a story, allowing you to follow exactly how the band went from an angry punk supergroup to restrained hitmakers who wound up becoming the biggest thing on the planet, all within a span of about seven years.  The boxset kicks off with their first single – “Fall Out” and “Nothing Achieving”, both written by Stewart Copeland, both pure shots of energy, with Sting yelling as aggressively as he can and Copeland bashing in a way he rarely would do afterwards. Andy Summers hadn’t yet joined the group; instead they’ve got Henry Pandovi, The Police’s very own Pete Best. You don’t really get a sense of his playing either; Copeland actually handled most of the guitar parts on the single. They obviously wouldn’t stay this way for long – on these tunes and “Dead End Job” (one of their first B-sides, this time with Summers) you may notice that the bass lines are a bit too complex for punk. Though the precense of the 36-year old Andy Summers probably took away their punk cred anyway.  Not to mention Sting’s background as a teacher, the very authority some of these dudes were railing against. By the time of their first album, Outlandos D’Amour, most of the punk had either gone away, or was refactored in a way more emblematic of power pop. That album’s leadoff track, “Next to You” is somewhere in between, a fantastic kick-off to a career the same way as “I Saw Her Standing There” was – Sting still plays the tune today.

More importantly, this was where the band started to dip their toes into reggae, similar to how The Clash did, though The Police had arguably a more interesting take on the genre. “Roxanne”, as we all know, was the band’s first big single (not even reggae, technically), and the tune that convinced their manager that they’d found their direction. This was how the band transformed into Sting’s vehicle overnight, with the album being a combination of faster punk-rock oriented songs, sometimes co-written with Copeland (“Next to You”, “Peanuts”, “Truth Hits Everybody”) and the new reggae style (“So Lonely”, “Roxanne”, “Can’t Stand Losing You”). You can see which side won out, though the songs in the first category are still great. What drags down Outlandos is the miscellany, though honestly outside of “Be My Girl – Sally” this stuff ain’t bad – “Masoko Tanga” in particular is interesting; it’s not very substantial but it’s a cool groove nonetheless. Sting sings a bunch on the track, though there are no lyrics. Which is funny, because you have a hard time making out what Sting is singing on the rest of the album, with his high-pitched voice and tendency to drop out words (the lyric sheet often doesn’t match with what he’s actually singing). Not that his lyrics were much worth hearing at this point anyway; lots of self-pity and garbage rhymes (“My mother cried/when President Kennedy died”). Still a pretty good album, even though it was very much a low-budget, DIY sort of effort, with some pretty obvious mistakes (the jump cut in “Be My Girl” is about as shoddy an edit as you’ll hear on a major label record).

A major part of the Police story was Stewart’s brother Miles, the band’s manager, and quite frankly the only reason why people know of The Police today.  He was known for his aggressive and borderline unethical promotion tactics, which earned him a few enemies, but hey – they worked.  One such technique – market a re-release of “Roxanne” as being “banned by the BBC” (as the song’s subject matter was somewhat racy), when the reality was that the BBC simply didn’t want to play it.  This time it became a hit, and the band gained enough traction to propel their second album, Reggatta de Blanc, to the top of the chart in the UK. “Message in a Bottle” became a much-deserved #1 single, their first of many. At this point in the boxset it stands out as being the most sophisticated song they’ve done so far, by some measure. Reggatta has long been my favorite album by the band, as it’s a big leap forward for all three members. Summers plays melodies that go all over the fretboard, making one question how big his hands were to pull off tunes like “Message” and “Bring on the Night”. Copeland’s style became increasingly more technical, riding all around the beat and playing these sort of fluid drum bits that were worth listening to on their own. I mean, nobody played like this, not in the context of a 3-minute pop song at least. And Sting’s songwriting was starting to evolve as well, producing gems like “Walking on the Moon” and “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”, both with irresistable choruses and structures which were open-ended enough to let the rest of the band do their thing. Reggatta shows the Police as the supergroup they actually were, giving Summers and Copeland the most input they’d ever get – Copeland has a songwriting credit on six of the eleven tunes, three of which are credited only to him, including one that would’ve fit wholesale into his Klark Kent side project (“On Any Other Day”). Certainly his tunes tend to be a little goofier than what Sting was pumping out, but a lot of the appeal here was in those band sections, with those choruses that could go on forever (“Contact”, “Does Everyone Stare?”).

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From here we enter the band’s superstardom period – Zenyatta Mondatta, a worldwide hit, and also the point where The Police started winning Grammies for just about everything they did. Though the band expressed disappointment over the rushed recording sessions, to my ears this still sounds pretty good. The record begins with that ominous synth tone (from a band that previously had very rarely deviated from their power-trio setup), those reggae-ish chords, and of course the opening lyric – “Young teacher/the subject…”, and you know the rest. They certainly knew how to open an album (closing them was another story), and “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” became their biggest hit yet, though that would get topped again and again. The totally bizarre B-side “Friends” appears here, a supposedly humorous paeon to cannibalism, and a reminder that the Police could get downright weird when they wanted to, at least whenever Andy Summers got involved. His album track here, “Behind My Camel”, has got to have the ugliest guitar tone ever featured on a Police record. Sting refused to play on it at all, instead opting to bury the master tapes in the backyard, but with only three weeks to record the entire LP they had to dig it up and put it on the record anyway. How embarrassed he must’ve been when it won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Rock Performance (!), somehow beating out “YYZ” (!!!), and Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” (???).  Truthfully, Zenyatta is a bit light on songwriting, especially in the second half, with instrumentals, near-instrumentals, and two songs that sound suspiciously similar to each other (“Canary in a Coalmine” and “Man in a Suitcase”, the latter of which has a bridge that couldn’t possibly have been intended as anything more than a placeholder). Still, it’s worth it to hear the band groove around and just play, even on non-songs like “Voices in my Head”, which is good enough to make you wish they recorded a full album like this.  The other development was Sting’s lyrics, increasingly political and socially conscious, flashing around his educational background, for example putting the word “eloquence” in the chorus of a song (how’s that for a word that only appears in one hit single?).  Yes, they were getting the dreaded “pretentious” tag around this time, but everyone knew it was just Sting being Sting – Copeland’s “Bombs Away” (and B-side “A Sermon”) have lyrics that are amusing, and most importantly don’t try to make you think at all.  In fact on “A Sermon” I almost wonder if he’s trying to parody Sting’s writing style (“Emancipate/or indoctrinate/but the traps are all laid/for any honest crusade”).

This conveniently takes us to the halfway point of the boxset, and with this article getting a bit long I figured I’d break it up here.  When we come back: discs 3 and 4, containing their most unavoidable singles, and their reign as the biggest band in the world.

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