This strong debut is remembered primarily for its great singles: “So Lonely,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” and especially “Roxanne,” the band's first hit and signature song that was forever immortalized by Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours. And it's no wonder that that's the case, because those tremendous songs tower over the rest of the album, which nevertheless offers some pleasingly energetic deep cuts. The three great singles share similar characteristics: all begin with slow but enticing reggae grooves that surge on singable choruses, and each features a frantic, genuinely exiting finish. Also, how can you not love a clever lyric like "I see you sent my letters back, and my LP records and they're all scratched" (from "I Can't Stand Losing You")? This album introduced The Police’s spare, reggae influenced rock sound while being more obviously in tune with their punk brethren than later albums. On hard-driving songs such as “Next To You,” "Peanuts," and “Truth Hits Everybody” (the former and latter in particular are real overlooked gems, in my opinion), Sting (a.k.a. Gordon Sumner, a former school teacher!) shows that he already had a way with a melody, although his arrangements and lyrics are sometimes overly simplistic and repetitive (a reoccurring problem I have with his songwriting). The song titles (“So Lonely,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” etc.) generally make the dissatisfied, self-absorbed nature of these songs obvious, but only the annoying novelty number “Be My Girl-Sally” (presumably influenced by Roxy Music's "In Every Dream Home A Heartache") fails to provide any enjoyment. Elsewhere, there's the slower, Stevie Wonder-ish "Hole In My Life," the melodic if unimaginative "Born In The 50's," and “Masoko Tanga,” an exotic experiment (mostly instrumental) with jazz and world music influences that ends that album with an overly long and somewhat pretentious yet surprisingly effective jam (while we're at it, "Hole In My Life" drags on for too long as well, though it’s still a good song on the whole). On a more general note, Sting is an excellent singer with a distinctive high-pitched voice and he's also a fluid bass player, while economical guitarist Andy Summers lets loose with succinct yet exotic solos. Still, Summers' guitar adds color and texture more than anything, as it's Stewart Copeland’s powerful drumming that actually leads the way, an anomaly for all bands not named The Who. Having all served apprenticeships in jazz bands or played with well-known musicians such as Eric Burdon, Kevin Ayers, and Kevin Coyne, the musicianship within the band was miles above most of their rock contemporaries as well. All in all, despite some growing pains this was a highly worthwhile debut featuring their rawest playing on record. The public noticed, too, in part due to the band's visually striking appearance (3 blondes, 2 dyed, 2 good looking), though major success would come later on, when the band whittled off some of their rough edges for a more easily digestible sound.
Regatta De Blanc (A&M ’79) Rating: A-
Unlike many of the punk bands that were falling by the wayside, this nifty trio’s second album proved their staying power and was a slight improvement on the debut, with a warmer overall sound and a stronger batch of songs. Of course, unlike most of those other bands The Police boasted highly skilled players, nor were they at heart truly a punk band. Unlike those chaotic guitar driven bands, it's the rhythm section that powers their reggae/rock mix, while secret weapon Andy Summer’s echoed guitar ably adds texture and fills out their sparse sound; indeed, often it's the dead spaces, or the spaces between the notes, that makes the band’s music so hauntingly memorable. On the songwriting front, the wealth is more evenly spread out this time, as the band was hard pressed to find new material, as is often the case with a band’s second album. Copeland in particular steps up, writing three songs (“Does Everyone Stare” is average at best and “On Any Other Day” is mildly amusing but “Contact” is quite good) and co-writing three others. These include the title track, an impressively groovy instrumental, “It’s Alright For You,” a surging rocker with a catchy chorus that’s this album’s overlooked gem, and “Deathwish,” which is notable for its energized Bo Diddley beats but is nothing special. Unsurprisingly, Sting alone still writes the album’s best songs, including its two big hits, “Message In A Bottle” and “Walking On The Moon.” “Message In The Bottle” is sparse yet rocking, with a great story-based lyric and of course its famous “sending out an S.O.S.” ending, while “Walking On The Moon” is also sparse but is slow, evocative, and of course quite catchy. Other strong Sting-penned tracks are the atmospheric “Bring On The Night,” “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” a sophisticated, funky number with another good lyric, and “No Time This Time,” a fine, energized finale that’s somewhat chaotic but nevertheless works extremely well. All in all, on this album The Police solidified their unique sound and strengthened their melodic knack. This was aided by the smoothing out of Sting’s high pitched vocals from their debut, resulting in a more pop oriented and ultimately more compelling offering. As per usual, the main drawbacks are a repetitiveness lyrically and musically, while others have criticized their pretentiousness, a trait made obvious by the album title (which means “white reggae”). Still, on the whole this album's moody yet accessible (and still highly reggaefied) songs were a step up in class for this rapidly maturing band.
Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M ’80) Rating: B+
Another classy outing showcasing a more diverse collection of songs, this album is also a stylistic departure from their two previous efforts. Less consciously reggae influenced while accentuating the band's bouncy melodic appeal, Zenyatta Mondatta brings Sting's pop tendencies to the fore like never before, while Andy Summers’ guitar acts more as a lead instrument than previously. In addition, the album is less lyrically self-centered, as political, socially conscious songs such as "Driven To Tears" and "Bombs Away" (quote: "the President looks in the mirror and speaks, his shirts are clean but his country reeks") are a far cry from their previous albums, which were all me, me, me. As per usual, the singles are the albums most impressive songs. "Don't Stand So Close To Me" features a brooding but memorable melody, interesting lyrics, and of course a supremely catchy chorus, while the mindlessly infectious sing alongs of "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" made it a top 10 hit. The aforementioned "Driven To Tears" is excellent as well but in a more low-key way, though there's no mistaking the pointedness of Sting's lyrics (about starving Third World children), while "When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around" is all about its effortless groove. The light and lively "Canary In A Coalmine" is a charming if lightweight album track, as are the similarly jaunty, musically upbeat "Bombs Away" (a Copeland composition whose lyrics again are anything but upbeat) and "Man In A Suitcase," where Sting complains about their rigorous touring schedule. Perhaps due to those touring commitments, the album was rushed, and as a result some of the material suffers. "Voices Inside My Head," whose vocals are mixed so far back as to sound like another instrument, has a solidly atmospheric groove but isn't much of a tune, and Summers may have won a Grammy Award (snicker snicker) for his moody synth guitar instrumental "Behind My Camel," but it's still nothing special. And "Shadows In The Rain" and "The Other Way Of Stopping" could only kindly be called padding, as, much like Outlandos D’Amour, this album ends much weaker than it begins. Still, inconsistent material aside, there's some first rate stuff here, and it was good to see the band broaden their lyrical scope, though I have mixed feelings about them completely ditching the punk inclinations of their early work. Like it or not, they were now simply a pop rock band, but a very sophisticated and experimental one at that, though perhaps too much so as it’s this album's failed experiments that prevent it from reaching its full potential.
Ghosts In The Machine (A&M ’81) Rating: B
Another strong if predictably patchy album, this was the band's biggest hit yet (#1 U.K., #2 U.S.), and it's notable for its increased use of synthesizers and prominent use of saxophones. It has a reputation as being something of a brooding affair, but that's not entirely correct and is mostly due to two of its singles, the ominous “Spirits In The Material World” and “Invisible Sun,” about war torn Northern Ireland, both of which are rather dour affairs despite their catchy choruses. Predictably, both are quite good, though, particularly the latter song, which is led by its somber synths, Copeland's steady, almost hollow beats, an almost robotic, low-key vocal from Sting, and memorable lyrics like "and I don't ever want to play the part, of a statistic on a government chart." Sandwiched between those two songs is another knockout single in “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” an absolutely brilliant love song that’s among the band's very best efforts; it starts all dark and moody but soon moves onto its ebullient pop chorus before climaxing with another great fadeout ending. "Hungry For You (j'aurais toujours faim de toi)," a sax driven, funky workout with (mostly) French lyrics, is another highly enjoyable album track despite its obvious pretensions (hey, gotta give the critics something to complain about, right?), while "Demolition Man" is a jazzy, groovy 6-minute monster that features instruments flying all over the place. Sting grooves and Copeland's cymbals constantly crash, but Summers' performance is particularly notable as he lets loose with some searing solos, and though it doesn't quite hold together as anything even remotely resembling a great song, the jam-based music is enjoyable as an exhibition of the band's impeccable chemistry, even if this song seriously overstays its welcome. Alas, the quality then dips on a couple of overly repetitive toss offs, "Too Much Information" and (Copeland's) "Rehumanize Yourself," though the former is at least notable for its Caribbean flavor. Slightly better but still lightweight is "One World (Not Three)," which features Sting's catchy (if preachy) sloganeering and some surprising ska rhythms; you certainly can't accuse the band of playing it safe on this album, though perhaps they try to cast too wide a net at times. Anyway, Summers turns in his best songwriting contribution with the cool riffs and fluid solos of “Omegaman,” a futuristic tale about the last man standing, and single #4 "Secret Journey" became an occasionally heard radio track that starts slow and atmospheric but soon livens up with the intense incantations of its chorus. Good, not great, like the album itself, which ends with Copeland's merely decent "Darkness," whose airy melody foreshadows the band's hugely successful next album, Synchronicity. As such, Ghosts In The Machine strikes me as something of a transitional effort, even though it has its own distinctive traits (admirable attempts at diversity, more keyboards and saxophones), not all of which are welcome. Fact is, too much of the album, particularly in its mid-section, contains the band’s trademark grooves but without especially strong songwriting to latch onto. The end result is that most of the songs are pleasant enough but aside from the singles they don’t really leave any kind of lasting impression.
Synchronicity (A&M ’83) Rating: A-
This album briefly made The Police the biggest band in the world, largely on the strength of some more stellar singles. The very definition of a “blockbuster,” Synchronicity was #1 in the U.S. for 17 straight weeks, while “Every Breath You Take” was a #1 hit single for 8 weeks. Shockingly, there hasn’t been another Police studio album since, a shame as one wonders what they might have done after scaling such lofty commercial heights. In truth, the album is quite flawed: the jazzy pop of “O My God” is fun but has a Police-by-numbers feel, and “Miss Gradenko” is catchy but slight, though “Walking In Your Footsteps,” featuring exotic percussion and flute, is an enjoyably atypical offering despite its silly lyrics. While those tracks are all quite listenable, “Mother” is simply awful, a deliberately grating number by Summers which makes it clear why he rarely contributed songwriting credits (in its favor is the fact that it’s so bad, one of the worst songs ever, really, especially by a major band, that I’m never even tempted to listen to it). Thankfully, the rest of the album is largely splendid, including the busy keyboards and fast beats of “Synchronicity,” an intense album opener with lyrics inspired by psychiatrist Carl Jung, its heavy-hitting, superlative sequel (“Synchronicity II,” which musically is nothing like I, though both are connected via Carl Jung), and the pretty romanticism of “Tea In The Sahara.” Then there are the three massive hit singles that offer distinctive proof of Sting’s knack for catchy pop songwriting. “King Of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” were superior singles whose singable mid-tempo melodies are easy on the ears, but “Every Breath You Take” was The Police’s masterpiece, featuring a slowly sinister riff and unforgettable stalker lyrics. No, it’s not a tender ballad, though it has often been misinterpreted as such, not the least by Puff Daddy (or P. Diddy or whatever he’s calling himself today), who later stole this song’s melody for his own massive(ly inferior) hit. On a side note, recent NFL Hall Of Fame inductee Harry Carson used this song’s central theme (“every move you make I’ll be watching you”) to motivate himself to shadow Roger Craig before the ‘85 Giants-49ers playoff game, won by the Giants in an upset, largely because Carson saw to it that Craig was a non-factor (sorry for this aside, but I always thought that was a cool anecdote). Anyway, aside from the two “Synchronicity”’s there’s very little rocking out on this album, which caused some people to accuse the band of growing soft. Still, my complaints are minor, as Stings songwriting is at a very high level and the band’s increasingly mature, mellow sound seems perfectly natural to me. Remember, these guys had already been around the block a bit when they formed, and they never naturally fit into the punk camp, so to complain about them moving further away from their punk “roots” seems rather nitpicky. That said, I suppose the album does lack a bit of edge (several of these songs are standards on bland adult contemporary radio stations, after all), it’s just that I think that the consistently strong songs (a few missteps aside) more than makes up for it. Note: “Murder By Numbers,” which has a jazzy cocktail lounge feel, replete with a singable if silly chorus, is a welcome bonus track on the cd-version of the album. Note #2: The entire second side of this album (minus “Murder By Numbers”) is reprised in full on their Greatest Hits album.
Every Breath You Take - The Singles (A&M ’86) Rating: A-
Every Breath You Take - The Classics (A&M ’95) Rating: A-
Greatest Hits (A&M '98) Rating: A
Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings (A&M '93) Rating: A-
The band tried to follow up Synchronicity, but with Stewart and Sting constantly at each other's throats, all they could manage was a much-hyped but boring remake of "Don't Stand So Close To Me" before breaking up for good and going their separate ways (Copeland and Summers mostly to obscurity, Sting to solo superstardom). That song closes Every Breath You Take - The Singles, the first of several "greatest hits" albums. Needless to say, the album was a massive seller, but it's somewhat disappointing at only 12 tracks. Now out of print, The Singles was replaced by the only marginally better Every Breath You Take - The Classics, which adds the original "Don't Stand So Close to Me" and a "New Classic Rock Mix" of "Message in a Bottle." Frankly, I far prefer the later Greatest Hits album, which ditches the lame remakes and adds "So Lonely," "The Bed's Too Big Without You," "Synchronicity II," and "Tea In The Sahara" (the only questionable inclusion as it was hardly a hit). Anyway, The Police made five very good but significantly flawed albums. All had their own distinctive flavor but none were truly undeniable; though they worked as fine collections of individual songs, none were greater than the sum of their parts, and all were highlighted by their spectacular singles. As such, though it would be selling them short to label them a "singles band," as all of their albums are worth owning (even at their most experimental the band was rarely tedious, despite an occasionally off putting pretentious streak), there's no denying that by and large their singles were their best songs. Above all else, it was their stack of consistently great singles that made that them one of the better bands of the punk/new wave era, and given that, it would stand to reason that a singles compilation would be their best album, and indeed Greatest Hits is just that. Of course, given that all of their albums are worth owning, perhaps the best solution is to make your own "best of" playlist; mine would include "Next To You," "Truth Hits Everybody," "It's Alright For You," "No Time This Time," "Driven To Tears," "When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around," "Secret Journey," and "Synchronicity," for example (all omissions from Greatest Hits). Beyond that, Police completeists will probably want Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings, which contains all of the band’s studio albums in chronological order (though Regatta de Blanc is split between two cds) in superior sound quality, while also including a fair amount of choice single-only tracks, rarities, and live cuts. Had the live cuts been grouped together on the last disc instead of repeating certain songs soon after hearing the original version, this set would’ve been much easier to listen to straight through. Still, this handsomely packaged set contains just about everything you’d ever need from this mercurial trio. Note: In 2007, with Sting's solo success on the wane, The Police reunited for a massively successful world tour. As my friend Dave who saw them said, "there's something to be said for knowing every song the band plays," and indeed the tour was a most welcome reunion that reminded people just how big this band once was.
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