One of these days, in a British crime movie in the vein of Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast or Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, there will appear a gangland boss with a fetish for the Police. “Come in, come in!” he will say, affably patriarchal at the door of his mock-Tudor mansion. ‘This is my boy Outlandos . . . the twins, Reggatta and Zenyatta — say hello, girls. And our newest addition, heh heh, little Synchronicity. . . . Don’t mind the rottweiler — he’s just being friendly. Down, Ghost in the Machine! Down!” And later, after a night of warm work in the streets and gambling dens, with blood on his shirtfront, this character will repair to his basement and unwind with a few spins of “Walking on the Moon.”
The gag wouldn’t work with U2, and it wouldn’t work with Dire Straits. It definitely wouldn’t work with Phil Collins. Of the rock aristocracy of the 1980s, only the Police were strange enough, remote enough, non-mammalian enough, to appeal to a real sociopath. Blonde, cold-eyed, and arrogantly handsome, playing songs that cut through on the radio like existential bulletins (“So Lonely,” “Message in a Bottle”), the Police arrived fully formed on the tail-end of punk rock.
The vogue in 1978 was for amateurism, but neither their proficiency nor their eerie sense of entitlement could be long disguised. A London music journalist commented at the time that there was no sillier phenomenon in contemporary music than the spectacle of the Police trying to play like punks. In truth, they were a mini “supergroup”: drummer Stewart Copeland had been sitting in with prog-rock kings Curved Air, bassist/vocalist Gordon “Sting” Sumner got his apprenticeship in jazz bands, and guitarist Andy Summers was a vintage session man with appearances on albums by Neil Sedaka and Joan Armatrading under his belt. Together they made a lithe, unsentimental sound that fused sophisto jazz-pop with the hard chords and reggae grooves beloved of the punk rockers. It was Steely Dan meets the Ruts, bred in a test tube: Sting’s vocals, thin in timbre and with a strangely persistent Martian/Rastafarian accent, were the icing on the cake.
An ex-teacher, Sting also brought a certain professorial severity to the project, and a daunting frame of reference. For a pop star, his references to Vladimir Nabokov (“Don’t Stand so Close to Me”), Carl Jung (“Synchronicity”), and philosopher Gilbert Ryle (inventor of “the ghost in the machine”) were impossibly esoteric. For an intellectual, he could write a nifty little tune. 1981’s “Every Little Thing She Does” moved seamlessly from a dark, reverberant intro to a chorus so catchy it was almost trite. Almost?
It was trite as hell. 1983’s “Every Breath You Take,” on the other hand, refused to be lulled by the soft pulse of its own melody: the lyrics are as creepily isolated as anything Sting has written. “Every vow you break/Every smile you fake/I’ll be watching you. . . .” It was the Police’s biggest hit — number one in the UK and the US. Who says the masses can’t handle nuance? “Message In A Bottle,” meanwhile, has sired a dynasty of cover versions, the two best of which are by Matisyahu (airy, sorrowful, with some heavy Hasidic rapping in the middle) and the Venice Beach punk/metal band Excel (aggrieved, bottom-heavy, with some fantastic double-kick-drum action in the outro).