Listen to this track by soundtracking blonde-headed trio The Police. It’s “I Burn For You”, a song as taken from the 1982 film soundtrack Brimstone & Treacle, a film with a very familiar presence on screen; bassist, singer, and head songwriter Sting.
The soundtrack featured a number of tracks from the band, most of which were instrumental. Other tracks were provided by The Go-Go’s, who were Police tour-mates around this time, and Squeeze. Otherwise, this soundtrack provided something of a stop-gap between major releases for the Police after Ghost In The Machine and before Synchronicity.
Also, it was a way to support a film project that involved Sting in his pursuit as an actor. He’d previously been featured as Ace Face in 1979’s Quadrophenia, a part that relied on his ability to scowl with maximum cheekbone exposure. With this new role, as a charming but bestial deviant named Martin, things were more involved when it came to the demands of the script, written by the renowned playwright and screenwriter Dennis Potter. The film is based on his play originally made for television in 1976, but not broadcast due to its disturbing subject matter. Plus, it was on this same soundtrack that would host Sting’s first solo single – “Spread A Little Happiness”. That song is a music hall-era tune written in 1929, and sung by Sting with a decided smirk. The song’s vintage didn’t stop it from reaching a top twenty showing on the British pop charts at the beginning of the 1980s.
Perhaps it stood to reason. By this time, The Police were the biggest band in the world, and still on their way up. Yet like that musical hall chestnut, “I Burn For You” had a lot more to do with the past, reaching back into a pre-fame era for Sting before The Police, number one records, or international fame were even thought about.
Sting hadn’t always been a Nordically handsome frontman of a world-beating rock band. At one time, he was a jobbing musician in the clubs of Newcastle in a fusion band called Last Exit. He was also a schoolteacher by day often writing songs at his desk when he probably should have been marking papers. This was one of them, a love song that seems rooted in the theatrical, coming off as something downright Shakespearean, with “coolth of your evening smile” and “shades of your parasol” sounding decidedly old-world. This may be because it was written for stage actor Frances Tomelty, to whom Sting was married at the time of its writing.
After being a part of Last Exit sets, the song sat on the shelf until the Ghost In The Machine sessions, when it was taken up again complete with a group of male backing singers that characterize the haunting outro section of the song. By that time in Sting’s career as a songwriter, a lot had changed even beyond his level of success. This included his marriage to Tomelty, which had ended around this time. At the same time, the song’s timing is significant in the band’s catalogue. The Police were beginning to show signs of wear by this time. And as good as this tune is, it feels very separate from the rest of the songs that The Police had written and performed to date. Its language is different. Its approach and emphasis is less removed from its writer. Sting’s return to it was also a return to a head space that had nothing to do with being in the band. This ready-made song that he had brought back from his old repertoire was like an outstretched arm out of the golden cage of The Police.
In terms of that, his acting career was a similar move. It was Sting on his own, with something artistic to prove besides that which had already been proven in the band he was in. Of course, 1982 held similar importance for Stewart Copeland who worked on a film project of his own with his first film score for Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish. That would be a starting point for a full-on vocational path for Copeland that he would stay on for many years. Andy Summers kept busy that same year too, in part with his work with Robert Fripp and their joint album I Advance Masked. All of the members of the band needed to remind themselves that they were individual artists as well as members of a three-headed pin-up entity that appeared on the bedroom walls of teenagers, while selling loads of records and concert tickets as a trio.
Yet the choice of returning to “I Burn For You”, and in engaging in another artistic form as an actor on Sting’s part seems to communicate something other than a need for a side project. It sounds like an attempt to extricate himself from his situation. The song itself is so primal, particularly with that aforementioned male chorus on the outro that may as well be an ancient evocation of some kind, sounding solemn, yet unsettling too. Even Sting’s sonorous acoustic bassline sounds less warm, and more foreboding instead. This song is full of tension, maybe fuelled by those internal pressures which were pushing the band apart at the time. I can’t imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t pursued solo projects by this time. Perhaps we never would have got Synchronicity out of them at all.
The Police’s take on “I Burn For You” sounds like the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. “King Of Pain”, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, “Tea In The Sahara”, and “Walking In Your Footsteps” would all carry the same mark that you’re hearing on “I Burn For You”; a sort of spare, moody, haunted, and unadorned quality full of inward-looking sentiments that sound more like the statements of a solo artist than they do with a band relying on their ensemble playing to carry across the material. Despite the success of that shift resulting in the biggest hits of their career, the end was near.
Significantly, when Sting eventually did embark on a solo tour and recording career by 1984, “I Burn For You” would be prominently included in the setlist. It would be featured in yet another soundtrack, this time for the film Bring On The Night, a document of Sting’s risk-taking initial solo tour with an entirely new band that year. He’d continue acting in films and on the stage, too, sometimes to the chagrin of Police fans!
For more on Sting and his role in Brimstone & Treacle, check out this interview (conducted by Bianca Jagger!) in a January 1983 issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. Warhol even joins in at one point.
For those of you who haven’t done it already, learn more about The Police at their official site.
One thought on “The Police Play “I Burn For You””
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this nice piece of writing (and musical analysis). There is so little in-depth commentary available on the songs of The Police, even though they merit more attention in my opinion. I especially liked your characterization of I Burn For You: “a ready-made song that he had brought back from his old repertoire was like an outstretched arm out of the golden cage of The Police”. I think that indeed something important happened to the band in 1981-82, the period in which Sting started to execute his escape from The Police, reaching back to his old musical self. After listening to some Last Exit demos from Sting’s pre-Police days, which contain also “I Burn For You”, I was amazed by the extent to which these demos resemble the musical style of his solo career, especially the first solo album. By choosing to play this song in his live sets (and even such b-side throwaways as “Low Life”), it was as he was saying that THIS is what I want to play, instead of running through the trio-piece Police catalogue. – Interestingly, you can hear I Burn For You (or actually, the male chorus outro) as an ending to the live versions of “Shadows In The Rain” in 1982 Police concerts.