The Police – Message in a Box, Part 2 (1981-1986)

Last week, I got through the first two discs of the Police’s all-inclusive boxset, so now let’s talk about the last two. It’s a good dividing point, separating the Police-as-band era and the Police-as-Sting’s-backing-back era, both of which have their merits, though there does seem to be a lot of vitirol for the latter. Copeland and Summers were every bit as vital to the band’s sound, and if you need proof, just check out Sting’s solo career. In fact, if you listen to Copeland’s album as Klark Kent, you can probably figure out who was really doing all the arrangements, since it very much sounds like a lost Reggatta-era Police album without Sting. But Sting was the guy in front, and more importantly he was writing all the hits. The Police were a great band, but they wouldn’t have amounted to much without “Roxanne”, and then without “Message in a Bottle”, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”, and so on. Funny enough, A&M’s suggested first single for Ghost in the Machine was “Omegaman”, written by Andy Summers, the only song he wrote for the band that was even remotely workable for radio. Sting of course rejected this, most likely throwing a fit and giving an ultimatum. Even if the other members didn’t write a whole lot of songs for Zenyatta, you could tell they at least had a hand in the arrangements and the overall direction of the record.

Ghost in the Machine on the other hand feels more contrived, with horns, synthesizers, and plenty of post-production, grabbing the hot hand of producer Hugh Paghdam, the man who’d pioneered the drum sound of the 80’s. It’s not like the songwriting was changing a whole lot – leadoff “Spirits in the Material World” was the same kind of fake reggae they’ve always done, and extended cuts like “One World” and “Demolition Man” vamp on one chord for so long that they easily could’ve been on Zenyatta. At least they would if not for those saxes, slathered all over the middle section of the record, not to be heard at all on the final three tracks, or any of the hits for that matter (save for a brief squeak-squonk on “Spirits”). To make matters even stranger, they were played by Sting himself, who insisted on learning the thing from scratch rather than just hire someone off the street. He does fine, probably because the lines are so simple (*doot do-doo doot* x 1000). Not bothersome, just…different, and it’s my favorite Police album next to Reggatta de Blanc. There’s still some menace in Sting’s voice, the songs bop n’ groove enough to make it a fun listen, and the hooks are there. Andy’s tune is great, as are both of Stew’s (“Rehumanize Yourself”, “Darkness”), and Sting of course contributes the immortal “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”, a damn fine pop song, though it’s quite a bit outside of what The Police were all about.

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This is where the off-album stuff starts to get more interesting. The dramatic “Low Life” is straight up great, excluding Sting’s squacky sax solo of course. Not deserving of its B-side status, though Sting obviously thought more of it and would re-record it for his solo live album Bring on the Night. “Flexible Strategies” could’ve fit on Ghost, taking the logical leap into funk, though Sting didn’t write any lyrics for it. The group also did some soundtrack work for a film that Sting starred in, called Brimstone and Treacle. “How Stupid Mr. Bates” is another instrumental, this time with a lot of synthesizers (or guitar plucking that sounds like a synth?), an interesting direction that the band didn’t pursue. “A Kind of Loving” on the other hand – lets just say it’s not the kind of thing you want to come up on shuffle when you’re in mixed company.

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Which brings us to Synchronicity, which of course needs no introduction. It spent 17 weeks at #1, contains the most-played single ever, and your parents probably own a copy. That’s an awful lot of baggage, making the album hard to evaluate fairly, though 32 years later I guess we can try. There’s a big divide between the two sides of the record, so it’s probably best to discuss each separately. Side 1 has the worst stretch of music The Police ever put out – “Walking In Your Footsteps”, “O My God”, and of course Andy’s infamous “Mother”, which has got to be the most abrasive thing to ever appear on a blockbuster album. The good news is that both halves of the title track rule, the first being led by an exciting keyboard line and the second rocking out in a way that the rest of the album doesn’t. The video features Sting at peak hair, and the music is pure Rush – again, an interesting direction the band could’ve taken but didn’t.

Side 2 is where the hits are: “Every Breath You Take”, “King of Pain”, and “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, in that order. The closing “Tea in the Sahara” wasn’t a single but it fit in well, with it’s mellow groove that actually lets the band play a little. Summers is the unsung hero of the album, contributing some fascinating textures and experimenting with sounds that must’ve seemed pretty new at the time. His playing on “Every Breath You Take” drives the whole song, and it makes one wonder how badly he got jobbed when Puff Daddy came along. Copeland on the other hand plays like a teenager after being told to take out the garbage. That’s probably the biggest sin of the album, taking a drummer as creative and dynamic as Stewart Copeland and sticking him with music like this. Though I will say those electronic pads on “Footsteps” are quite interesting, again they don’t go far enough with them. Synchronicity isn’t The Police at their best, but it’s still a good listen, and maybe Sting’s peak as a songwriter too. Also, with Paghdam on board it sounds great. Listen on and you’ll see what was missing – “I Burn For You”, actually another soundtrack tune from Brimstone, is one of Sting’s very best, with a chilling crescendo that’s almost worth the price of the box itself. Sting also revisited this one on Bring on the Night, and rightfully so, though it really should’ve been on the album in place of the limp “O My God”, and shuffled somewhere near the end. There are some other decent B-sides here but that and “Low Life” are the crown jewels.

Closing the box out we have “Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86”. Suffice to say The Police were not in a good place at this point. All three members had released albums in the interim; Summers started working with Fripp again, Copeland wrote the great soundtrack to the not-so-great Rumblefish, and most importantly Sting had released his solo album Dream of the Blue Turtles. It was a hit of course, though at the time it was just something to go in between Police albums. The band reformed in 1986 and was unable to hack it – Copeland fell off a horse (which I guess is how members of The Police get injured) and was unable to play, though this band’s interpersonal relationships were so rocky that he probably would’ve broken his hand on Sting’s jaw anyway. The band apparently didn’t have a lot on new material on hand anyway. So the idea was to get their feet wet by re-recording all their hits for a new collection, which lasted exactly two songs before they decided they could not stand each other any longer. Of those two, only one was released – the other, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da ’86” can be found on Youtube.  The remake of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” gets a bad rap, though I think a lot of that is because the original is so good. They really do suck a lot of fun out of the song, turning it into something that maybe could’ve fit on Side 2 of Synchronicity, adding big computerized drums and sequenced bass lines that quite frankly don’t belong anywhere. Though to be fair with Copeland unable to play they didn’t have much of a choice. “De Do Do Do” is much worse, and it’s easy to hear why it never got released. I’m guessing that a new album probably would’ve sounded something like Big Generator by Yes, and would’ve been about as good too. Besides, they were at the point in their career where there was nowhere to go but down, and they all knew it.

So they split, Sting unleashed himself on the world, and the other two went into relative obscurity, at least until the band reformed in 2007 for one last massive tour. Which I saw by the way, therefore fulfilling a childhood dream of mine, especially since I thought it would never actually happen. It became the 7th highest grossing tour of all time, which is amazing for a band that hadn’t recorded any music in two decades, especially given that Sting’s star was starting to finally fade a little. But tons of people turned out for it, many of whom, like me, weren’t actually alive when the band was together. I guess they really are undeniable in a sense; say what you want about their ubiquity or their frontman, but they earned their position in rock history.  Message in a Box is a great testament to that; it’s as consistent an all-inclusive boxset as you’ll find, and one of the few I can listen to straight through.

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