This is one that I’ve been giving some thought to for a few months as I know that putting the spotlight on The Police and attempting to justify them having an ICA will appal rather be of any appeal to most readers. But given that this was the first headline band for whom I ever bought a concert ticket (May 1979 – Glasgow Apollo) and that I’ve included one of their 45s in my list of my favourite ever singles it would be ludicrous not to make this effort.
There’s no doubt that the rapid growth in popularity of the band which saw them transform from post-punk new-wave wannabees into stadium rockers in the blink of an eye had a lot to do with how they have come to be acknowledged or otherwise by music fans of my generation. It is also nigh-on impossible nowadays to separate any feelings for the bland outpourings, musically and otherwise, of Sting over the past 30-plus years from much of the music that he and his two mates made when they were initially together between August 1977 and March 1984 (the dates of their first and last gigs as a trio). Having said that, they were a band who, for this fan, really came to represent the law of diminishing marginal returns in terms of quality – the bigger they got in terms of mainstream fans, the more bland the music they made; conversely, the more bland the music they made, the more units they shifted and the more money they made.
They were, for a while the biggest band on the planet. Five of their six studio LPs went to #1 in the UK and Australia. Their two final albums have picked up 11 platinum discs in the USA and it is estimated they have sold 75 million records the world over. And their final number one saw them deliver one of the most instantly recognisable pop singles of all time – albeit I cannot bring myself to include it in this ICA which unsurprisingly focuses very much on the earliest material.
1. Can’t Stand Losing You
The song that made me fall for the band, courtesy of seeing it performed live on the Old Grey Whistle Test in late 1978. Housed in one of the greatest single sleeves of all time, it limped to #42 on its initial release but reached #2 ten months later on its re-issue, kept off the top spot by I Don’t Like Mondays, the ode to mass shootings as recorded by The Boomtown Rats. Three minutes of pop magic with that hint of a reggae that was prevalent in many of the early singles and which seemed to offer something a little bit different; a jaunty tune over the black tale of a teenage suicide after being unable to cope with being chucked.
2. Dead End Job
I’m not going to make any grandiose claim that this is among the best the songs by the band but I feel it fits in really well at this early stage of the ICA. The b-side to ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ is just a bit of new-wave noise that was partly reliant on a riff developed by the drummer but it demonstrates that the initial output of the band wasn’t that different from many of their contemporaries other than they clearly had a very talented guitarist (who was of course more than a decade older and experienced than most other new wave axemen).
3. Message In A Bottle
The band’s first UK #1 single and the proof that they were about to really make it big. There shouldn’t be too much argument that this is a tremendous bit of pop music however you look at it. It is driven along by a cracking riff and it also gives space to demonstrate that the rhythm section are quite talented. Bought on green vinyl by me on the day of its release in September 1979, the 7” take isn’t widely available as the album and all subsequent CD releases of greatest hits etc. have offered up the longer version in which ‘sending out an SOS’ goes on for just a wee bit too long.
4. Next To You (live)
The opening song on the band’s debut album was always one of their most popular; Sting would include it within his solo sets while it has also been given the cover version treatment by a number of other acts including Foo Fighters. It is that unusual beast from the new wave era – an unashamed love song. Such was my desire to get everything by the band baack in the days that I bought an import LP called Propaganda in late 1979 as it contained two live tracks recorded earlier in the year at the Bottom Line club in New York. Next To You was the second of those tracks and quickly established itself as my favoured version.
The breakthrough hit. It is worth recalling that this had been a huge flop in the UK in April 1978 when released as the band’s debut as much for the fact that our notoriously conservative radio stations would naturally shy away from airing any songs that were about sex never mind one that was so openly about using the services of a prostitute. It was only after the 45 became a hit in the US and Canada in Spring 1979 (hitting the Top 40 around the time the band were captured for the above mentioned Propaganda LP) that the UK stations decided to get behind the band and this led to A&M Records quickly re-releasing Roxanne to enjoy an eight-week residency in the Top 40. The red light that had stopped the band going anywhere had now totally changed colour….
1. Fall Out
The flop debut single from May 1977 recorded and released before Andy Summers was part of the band. It is also the only 45 not written by Sting. The band have been very self-deprecating about it and in many ways disowned it quite early on with the admission that it was recorded before they had done any live performances and that original guitarist Henry Padovani was so nervous about it all that he only played the guitar solo with Stewart Copeland (who had written the track) playing the other guitar parts as well as the drums.
It came out on the small label Illegal Records who took advantage of the band’s higher profile and re-released it in late 1979 where is sold enough copies to hit the Top 50 here in the UK at which time Stewart Copeland said the original release (which can fetch up to around £40-£50 if it is in mint condition) had sold “Purely on the strength of the cover, because of the fashion at the time. Punk was in and it was one of the first punk records – and there weren’t very many to choose from. “
It’s actually not all that bad if viewed as a punk record. It certainly gave no indication however, that the band would be all that special.
2. Invisible Sun
The one time where the trio courted controversy. By late 1981, they were one of the most popular bands in the world despite each of their three albums suffering from ever decreasing quality. They were popular not just because they had shown an ability to make catchy and radio-friendly pop songs but for the fact that their clean living, trouble-free approach to the job in hand, including playing the game of co-operating to the fullest extent with the media, made them a band that was appreciated by folk of all ages. For every snobby review that emanated from the pen of a music critic you could point to twenty or more sycophantic profiles in the pages of newspapers and magazines while broadcasters were falling over themselves to get the handsome and rugged frontman onto their stations.
So the release of a mournful sounding anti-war number, whose video never stood a chance of being aired in the UK thanks to it consisting solely of footage taken from news stories that dealt with the civil war underway in Northern Ireland, was a shock to the system. They didn’t have to do this and indeed a backlash could have set them back in the UK – but the fact that the single reached #2 (kept off the top spot by Adam Ant being Prince Charming) was proof that pop music could be effective in getting across a social and political message. Band Aid was just four years down the line…
3. The Bed’s Too Big Without You
I struggled to understand those who criticised the band for their efforts to deliver a blend of pop and reggae, particularly those whose gripes seem to be centred around ‘white men haven’t got the natural rhythm to make reggae’. The thing is, the music industry played along with the notion and were very happy to pigeon-hole singers and bands in ways that defined the sort of music listeners should expect from white musicians and what should be written, recorded and performed by black musicians – particularly in the 80s.
Sting and his mates absorbed a lot of influences – it’s worth remembering that prior to post-punk/new wave both of Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland had been in bands who encompassed R&B, psychedelia and prog – and therefore they could play a bit. If you want evidence, have a listen to this album track from 1979 , particularly the middle section where the vocals stop.
4. Voices Inside My Head
Here’s the problem I knew I was going to hit with this ICA. Eight songs in and I’m not convinced that there’s another two songs out there to complete the task in hand. Bu hey, every one of the band’s five albums had filler going back to the debut which in Be My Girl/Sally included a spoken word number about blow-up dolls (and on that tour ‘Sally’ would be brought on stage while Andy Summers did his free-form poetry. John Cooper Clarke it most certainly wasn’t!!)
This track from 1980s’s Zenyatta Mondatta has just two often repeated lines over an increasingly aggressive and catchy beat that turns into the ‘cha’ chant that would layer be taken up with great gusto by Stuart Adamson in the early songs of Big Country (see Fields Of Fire….or even better catch live footage of that band on you tune from hose days and you’ll catch what I’m on about).
Voices Inside My Head was a song that came to life in the live setting, often stretching out well beyond its standard four minutes, and seems to be a good fit at this point in the ICA.
This stood out as strange even back in the days The Police were searching for the formula that would take them to the top. It’s frantically fast with a ridiculously punky guitar solo (see also Landlord, the b-side to Message in A Bottle which was a candidate for this part of the ICA) but has the bonus of a twisted and strange sax part and a crazy chant of the song title seemingly coming out of nowhere after a lyric that was attacking pop stars who were not only living life to the full but making a career of singing songs about said lifestyle. It was seemingly aimed at Rod Stewart who had been one of Sting’s idols just a few years earlier….
I do love how the song comes to a spluttering and tired sounding end. Seems an appropriate way to close off this particular an ICA which I’m not myself completely convinced is worthy of inclusion in this what I think is proving a great series (thanks in the main to the guest contributors) but without whom etc……
mp3 : The Police – Can’t Stand Losing You
mp3 : The Police – Dead End Job
mp3 : The Police – Message In A Bottle
mp3 : The Police – Next To You (live)
mp3 : The Police – Roxanne
mp3 : The Police – Fall Out
mp3 : The Police – Invisible Sun
mp3 : The Police – The Bed’s Too Big Without You
mp3 : The Police – Voices Inside My Head
mp3 : The Police – Peanuts
Only 48 hours till the next ICA…..it’s a guest posting from an old friend.