Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Police

From plastic punks to the biggest band around for a brief time....

Outlandos D'Amour (1978)

In 1978, the punk/reggae crossover was at its height - The Clash, The Slits, The Ruts, Stiff Little Fingers all played their own brand of white reggae and reggae was respected by the punks (who respected few other genres, apart from maybe rockabilly) and the rude boys tended to have time for the punks. It was a fine marriage. White reggae was what The Police specialised in at the outset of their career although their "rude" credibility was pretty low. They were not West London squat veterans like The Clash, oiks like The Ruts, tough girls like The Slits or from the mean streets of Belfast like Stiff Little Fingers. Instead they were an ex-teacher, a (comparatively) old guitar veteran in Andy Summers and an American diplomat's son, Stewart Copeland. Remarkably they "crossed over" more than any of the others and became the biggest band in the country for a short while, conquering the charts and winning over the "non punk" chart buying public, including lots of girls who fancied the charismatic front man Gordon Sumner aka "Sting".

They suffered from this credibility problem and also from a notion that they were "up themselves". This is somewhat unfair, particularly at the beginning. This is a good debut album.

The rapid-fire blast of the punky Next To You starts things off and then we get two great hit singles, - the reggae meets rock chorus of the irresistible So Lonely and the now iconic Roxanne with its captivating Sting vocal and sparse backing from Summers and Copeland. Hole In My Life has some dub reggae ambience to it in parts, again, merged nicely with a rock style riff. The Police, as a three man band, were tight as a gnat's chuff. The Jam had more attack and, at times, much more subtlety, and are by far my preferred three man outfit, but The Police could play, make no mistake. On this album, the pressure to be punky as opposed to too much white reggae seemed to dominate. Quite a few tracks, such as Peanuts are played at the requisite breakneck speed, as if to prove they were punks. Joe Jackson's first album featured similar type tracks. Like Jackson, Peanuts had parts in it that betrayed a musical talent far beyond your average punk band. However, this album remained their "punk" album. The follow-up, Regatta De Blanc would be far more reggae-influenced.

Can't Stand Losing You was another hit single, (despite its shocking picture sleeve cover) probably the most "reggae" of the three, with a dubby backing before the rock chorus kicked in. Truth Hits Everybody was another upbeat punker, as was the rousing, anthemic Born In The 50s.

The less said about Andy Summers' Be My Girl - Sally the better. His spoken part delivered to a blow-up sex doll is embarrassing. Better stick to Roxy Music's In Every Dream Home A Heartache for this type of subject matter. The rock bits in the song are good, though, but all too brief. 
Masoko Tanga is an interesting five-minute closer - reggae rhythms, a driving beat and some incomprehensible lyrics. Having said that, it is no classic, and the final two tracks are nowhere near as good as what went before. The album does tend to fade away a bit, after a great start.

November 1978 saw the release of this album, The Clash's Give "Em Enough Rope, The Jam's All Mod Cons and Siouxsie & The Banshees' The Scream. What a month.

Regatta De Blanc (1979)
After their debut album from the previous year, that was a mix of white reggae and upbeat punky, guitar-riff based rock, The Police were back a year later with more of the same. A bit like The Jam's lead songwriter, Paul Weller, with their second album, This Is The Modern World, The Police's equivalent was supposed to have been suffering from "writer's block". The group were said to have dug up a few old tracks in desperation, and there are times it is clear too.
The album gets off to a good start, however. The massive hit single, Message In A Bottle had tinges of reggae behind a driving rock beat and an instantly recognisable introductory riff. Don't Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult, anyone? The chorus parts had inflections of dub reggae. Everything was pretty perfect about this track. No arguments there. The title track, Regatta De Blanc, was an instrumental piece of evidence of scraping of the barrel for tracks, nevertheless it was an upbeat, lively full-on rock instrumental and doesn't sit badly on the album. It's Alright For You is a punk-ish average sort of throwaway rock song, nothing special though. Nowhere near the quality of Message In A Bottle, however. 

Bring On The Night is another kettle of fish. It is an excellent track. Apparently this was an old song from Sting's days with a previous band, Last Exit. It is a slice of reggae with a bit of West African-style guitar and a convincing vocal from Sting. It is probably their finest non-single song from the early albums. Deathwish had a Jam-esque guitar intro, before launching into a familiar Police riff before Sting's plaintive vocal kicks in. It is not a bad effort at all. Some rock parts and some reggae bits too. The old 'side one" had not been as bad as maybe the band had thought it was going to be. Only one average cut on there, so far.

The old "side two" starts with Walking On The Moon, a big chart hit. It was a staccato, sparsely backed piece of reggae that for whatever reason, really caught on with the single-buying public and became their second number one after Message In A Bottle. It was very atmospheric, with that bass, cymbal, lead guitar chops and drum rim backing. Sting's haunting vocal was a great selling point too. 
The alluring This Bed's Too Big Without You was, along with Walking On The Moon, probably the band's most authentic, credible slice of reggae they have produced so far, but Stewart Copeland'On Any Other Day is lightweight, lyrically trite, poorly sung and pretty damn poor, to be honest. It seems this was the point the album's quality fell away. Contact is a bit of reggae-ish rock, with some synthesiser backing and some frantic punky parts. It sounds like a eject from the first album. Again it is certainly nothing special. Not the work of the soon to be "biggest band in the country". Does Everyone Stare is also a poor song really. Hints of The Who in there at times. It would appear that drummer Stewart Copeland's material is by far the inferior of Sting's. It was a shame Sting was feeling the pressure to come up with material. Sting's No Time This Time (a 'b' side to the previous year's So Lonely single), however, was not up to the standard of the other material he wrote for the album. There are some good songs on this album, but some distinctly average contributions too. The Police often remind me of Blondie - superb singles but often patchy albums, unlike The Jam or The Clash.

Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)
After two impressive, reggae-influenced, vaguely punky albums, The Police had caught on with more than just new wave fans and were now on the verge of briefly becoming the biggest bands around. They released copper-bottomed classic singles that their albums could never quite match, to be honest. Compared to albums from the same period from The Clash, The Jam or Elvis Costello this is definitely coming up second. This was their most successful of their five albums though. I do feel, though, that The Police's albums were always slightly lacking in something, that certain je ne sais quoi that raised them higher, to classic status. None of their albums are classics. They were often blighted by internal band problems - Sting's "writer's block", pressure of touring, the requirement to meet commercial demand for an album, the band members falling out. For those reasons, the albums feel a bit incomplete, with some filler, often instrumentals that sound like demo backing tracks.

Anyway, on to the songs. Don't Stand So Close To Me is a now iconic, irresistibly catchy number about a teacher’s problems about the teenage pupil who has a crush on him. It is a great song, with a bit of wry humour on there from Sting’s experience as a teacher no doubt. Driven To Tears is classic Police white reggae, featuring a Walking On The Moon-style riff. The bassy reggae stylings are still there on the wordily-titled When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still AroundCanary In A Coal Mine has echoes of Talking Heads in its manic, frantically-strummed electric guitar riff.

The semi-instrumental Voices Inside My Head has a huge, pumping drum, bass and guitar intro and some hints of African chanted vocals. It has a beefy, impressive sound but, as I alluded to earlier,  I cannot help but feel that it sounds almost like an unfinished demo that never quite made it to being a full song. The Police put several tracks like this on their albums and it does give the impression that they were slightly short of material. That said, it still sounds good. Bombs Away sees the band getting cyncically political. It is ok, but somehow doesn’t quite work for me. It has that typical Police rock sound (without the reggae). 
De Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da, however, is another of those killer singles, a perfect example of a classic early eighties new wave hit single. Behind My Camel is another instrumental, but it is a good one. Sting, however, loathed it and refused to play on it. Andy Summers plays all the guitar bits. 

Man In A Shadow is a typical upbeat piece of straight-up Police rock, while Shadows In The Rain is one of the album’s best cuts - a haunting, bassy white reggae thumper. Full of atmosphere. The final cut, The Other Way Of Stopping is, would you believe, another instrumental. The presence of these tracks considerably undermine the claims of those who say this is one of the greatest rock albums of its age. It hints at a paucity of tracks of the standard of some of the others to me. This album, like its predecessor, doesn't quite get there.

Ghost In The Machine (1981)

This is by far the most “rock” album of The Police’s five offerings. There is a convincing case for it being their best album too. In my opinion, it is by far the superior piece of work to its best-selling predecessor, the patchy Zenyatta Mondatta. It does not contain any “filler” instrumentals for a start.
Spirits In The Material World utilises that archetypal Police white reggae sound and here it is enhanced with some eighties-style synthesisers backing the reggae riff as Sting expresses his frustrations with current world politics. It is a great song, full of atmosphere and verve. One of their best. Sting’s bass underpins the whole song in a muscular, resonant fashion. Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic was a great choice for a single, and although the verses are Police-like, the chorus is really quite atypical of most of their work. Invisible Sun is a truly excellent, mysterious, moody track. Full of paranoia and a huge, pounding backing. One of The Police’s best rock tracks.

Demolition Man is a superb slice of powerful, bluesy rock. This is The Police again at their rockiest. Not a reggae note within earshot. Andy Summers contributes some searing guitar too. It was written by Sting for Grace Jones, and her version is outstanding in its own typical way. This one is different, though, as you can imagine. Too Much Information begins with some searing guitar and has a huge drum beat and an insistent rhythm. Rehumanize Yourself is another pulsating, upbeat rock number. This is by far the “heaviest” material The Police had released.

The lively One World (Not Three) has lots of dub reggae parts in it and some reggae-stye brass bits. The more it goes on the more dubby it gets. 
Omegaman is a rumbling rocker that has a vibrant, pounding feel to it, with a huge bass sound and insistent drums. It is another very rock-ish number. Secret Journey is reggae tinged, but also very heavy in its rock stylings - big drums, big bass. As I said, this is defintely their heaviest album. Darkness is a laid-back, cymbals-driven beguiling song. Overall, this was a truly excellent, upbeat album.

Synchronicity (1983)
Following on from the rock sound of Ghost In The Machine, this, The Police’s final album after five frantic years, followed in the same footsteps (to paraphrase track two on this album). It is a frantic, pulsating rock-ish album on the whole.
Synchronicity 1 gets the album off to a lively, powerful start with its frenetic, busy sound. Walking In Your Footsteps has some intoxicating African-sounding percussion and Sting singing in a vaguely Eastern-style at times. It is maybe the most unusual, adventurous song The Police had recorded thus far. It is full of weird noises, cutting guitar stabs and that tribal rhythm. O My God is a beguiling, bassy number with an infectious, pulsating funk rock rhythm. There is some excellent dubby guitar on this track too.

Stewart Copeland’s madcap oedipal rant Mother is positively dreadful and is best forgotten. It is up there as one of the leading candidates for The Police’s worst-ever song, along with the one about the blow-up doll. It is nigh on unlistenable. 
Miss Gradenko is another Stewart Copeland song, which normally means “oh dear”, as in Mother, but actually it is sort of ok. Sort of. Andy Summers contributes a good guitar solo part in the middle. Now, those two tracks out of the way, the album’s true quality rises once more. Synchronicity II is a killer of a track, though, with a great guitar riff and mysterious, atmospheric lyrics. It is one of the Police’s best rock tracks. Every Breath You Take is known to everyone, of course. It sort of stands alone from the rest of the album, as it is so familiar. I have always found it just a little creepy, lyrically, however.

Now, we get three truly excellent, lesser-mentioned Police songs that show what a quality band they had become. Far removed from that of their first album. King Of Pain is superb, with a hauntingly catchy Sting vocal and a solid, rocky backing. The Talking Heads-influenced Wrapped Around Your Finger has that band’s quirky rhythmic backing merging with The Police’s trademark guitar-driven reggae sound to produce an excellent track. It features some excellent dubby reggae guitar parts. 

Tea In The Sahara is one of the album’s best tracks, revisiting that old Walking On The Moon backbeat and Sting’s vocal taking on that haunting tone that he would use in his solo career from this year onwards. It almost sounds like a Sting solo number. Apparently Sting felt they played the song too fast. Strange, as it is very slow and laid-back. All great stuff. Murder By Numbers, The Police's final track, gave big hints as to Sting's soon to be released first solo album, with its jazzy undertones and his vocal phrasing. For Sting, it was time to move on, but this three-piece band had a great five years.

Check out Sting's solo work here (click on the image) :-