Listen to this track by musically multifaceted three-headed hit machine The Police. It’s their 1981 hit “Spirits In A Material World” as taken from their fourth record, Ghost In The Machine. The song, which is the opening track of the album, is the third of four singles from the album, scoring top twenty chart positions in Europe and in North America, and marking something of a second phase in the life of the band.
Up until this point, the sound of the band had relied heavily upon the dynamics of the three players, to be very easily translated into a live setting. But, “Spirits In A Material World”, and Ghost In The Machine in general represented a break from this approach.
The reggae-influenced verse and rock chorus upon which they’d built their sound makes something of a return in “Spirits In A Material World”. But, the sonic landscape is completely different, even if the Police sound is consistant, rhythmically speaking. This is a claustrophobic, mechanized sound that is driven by the hard lines of the synthesizers instead of being centered around the guitar-bass-drums playing of the three members. Even Sting’s lead vocal sounds cold and distant. Andy Summers’ vibrant and nuanced guitar work is present, yet buried under this new sonic veneer.
So, this record represented a redefined Police. But, was it for the better or for the worse? Could it be a bit of both?
By 1981, the Police had become the biggest band in the world, with their album Zenyatta Mondatta being a smash hit, along with the tour in support of it that took them all over the world. That tour took its toll, undertaken on the very day that earlier album was completed. They were exhausted. But, they won Grammies anyway.
It’s no wonder that Sting began to look inward when it came to his songwriting, with the name of this record being derived from Arthur Koestler’s book of the same name. Koestler’s is a work that explores the nature of the human mind, and further explores the relationship between creative impulses, and destructive ones. Applying these ideas to the band and the circumstances of recording the album is pretty easy to do in retrospect, with destruction and creation certainly playing their respective roles. It’s certainly embodied in this song, which covers similar thematic territory.
But as mentioned, Ghost In The Machine was a record that marked a number of key changes in the trajectory of the Police as a recording unit. Instead of usual producer Nigel Gray at the helm, the band produced the record themselves between the three of them, with newcomer Hugh Padgham serving as engineer. Instead of a more collaborative approach to the songs, Sting had demoed most of his compositions on his own before the band gathered to record them formally, with precise ideas about how they would be interpreted in their final recorded versions. This included his interest in synthesizers, and in his own exploration of the saxophone, both of which would appear in this song and quite prominently on other songs, too.
Andy Summers’ presence here at all was the result of his making a strenuous argument that his guitar should supplant the synth lines that Sting had in mind when he worked up the demo for the song. Summers won the toss in that his guitar lines hold down the on-the-beat riff, but the synth lines still dominate on the final mix. This overall sound helps the song be what it is; one of disconnection, and of the decreasing faith in the human agencies to have any positive impact on where civilization is going.
Yet despite the effectiveness of the mix, it didn’t bode too well for the Police as a working unit when it came to recording it. Trying to shut Summers out of the recording sowed the seeds of bitterness that affected the whole experience of recording, and the way that each member felt about what the band was becoming. Being in the Police by Ghost In The Machine, as Stewart Copeland explains in his documentary Does Everyone Stare: The Police Inside Out, was “getting lonely”.
Despite the change in sound and approach, the band were still top flight players working within a re-imagined sound. Listen to Copeland’s dexterity in managing the shifting rhythms between verse and chorus, making them interesting alone, and also in support of the whole. Listen to Sting’s completely bonkers bassline – where did he come up with that?
This was the sound of an exceptional band, even if the relationship between the members was beginning to show signs of wear, and the visions for where they were going as a musical unit began to be less than unified, to say the least. In fact, they were beginning to dissolve.
And they hadn’t even made Synchronicity yet.
For more information about the Police, check out ThePolice.com.
Also, check out Andy Summers’ book, One Train Later, which among other things goes into great depth about this difficult phase in the trajectory of the band.