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 The film is based on his play originally made for television in 1976, but not broadcast due to its disturbing subject matter.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. Read more
Listen to this track by musically multifaceted three-headed hit machine The Police. It’s their 1981 hit “Spirits In The 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 The 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 The Material World”. But, the sonic landscape is completely different, even if the Police sound is consistent, 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? Read more
Listen to this song by flaxen-haired Novocastrian singer-songwriter and former Police vocalist and bassist most popularly known as Sting. It’s “The Lazarus Heart” as taken from the 1987 album …Nothing Like The Sun, his second solo record and his biggest-selling to date. Perhaps ironically, the record is less commercial than many of his albums in terms of content, with many extremely personal reflections about the nature of history, political upheaval and injustice in the modern day, and the loss of loved ones.
It is with the latter that this song deals; Sting’s mother Doris Sumner died the year this record was being made. In part, this has been identified as one of Sting’s motivating forces in writing it, with a dedication of the record to his mum and “all those who loved her”. But in addition to this, Sting himself had just become a father again the year previous to this tragic life event.
It’s pretty easy to conclude that when this song was recorded, the identity of ‘parent’ would have been pretty strong in the life of the songwriter behind this song on both fronts; as a father, and as a son. Yet, the song contains other elements that make it more universal, and as such, it’s less about Sting, and more about humanity and human experience in general. Read more
Here’s a clip of the the Police, as taken from a live appearance in Hamburg in 1980, just as they were about to hit stadium critical mass. But, at this stage, they were still shaking off their stab at punk rock. And this track “Next To You”, taken from their debut Outlandos D’Amour, is a leftover from that early period, before we began thinking about every breath they took at Shea Stadium.
Much criticism has been leveled at the Police for their perceived appropriation of punk rock early on, and probably even more criticism for their appropriation of reggae. But, this is the way I look at it. Even if these guys all had credentials as musicians, and could play anything they wanted to – which is a punk rock no-no – they were fans of the genres from which they borrowed.
This is particularly true when it comes to Bob Marley who inspired Sting’s melodic sense on a number of tracks (‘So Lonely’ for instance), not to mention his vocal delivery. And drummer Stewart Copeland was a Steel Pulse fan, easily taking his love for their work and incorporating reggae drumming into a pop/rock idiom.
But, this track is their take on a punk tune, which is really just a speeded up blues-rock number. There gets to a point where the labels began to blur at the edges. And I think this is where the strength of the band really lay. They knew how to borrow from various sources to make something of their own, which to a certain extent is true of any band. Maybe this track doesn’t demonstrate this as well as others. But one thing it does do is show that even if these guys weren’t actual punks (too old, and too skilled…), they sure had the energy of punk.
Here’s a clip of flaxen-haired 80s hit machines the Police with their 1983 album track “O My God” as taken from their final (to date) studio album Synchronicity . The record was their most successful up until that point, and the tour was one of the biggest of the era. So, they broke up soon after. That’s showbiz!
But, the most interesting thing about the Synchronicity album for me, which is embodied very well in this song, is that writer Sting wasn’t really interested in putting across standard pop songs, despite the enormity of their success at the time. Every track on this album is about doubt, insecurity, and the exploration of the darker side of the human experience. They simply don’t make pop-rock records like this anymore.
Smash hit “King of Pain” is about being spiritually bereft. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a classic tale of ruthless ambition and ultimate betrayal. “Tea in the Sahara” is about the dangers of expectation and disappointment. And popular first dance wedding song “Every Breath You Take”? Well, let’s say that couples should take heed before choosing it as an anthem for romance.
“O My God” may be the daddy among all of these for me. Sting was raised as a Catholic while growing up in the North-East of England. It would be a force in his life which he would continue to explore in his solo career. But, no song of his comes close to this, which basically is the voice of a man who is wracked with doubt, yet still yearns to believe that there is a god who is interested in humanity and human suffering. But, ultimately one gets the impression that his plea to “take this space between us/fill it up some way” is one that echoes into the darkness, returning nothing but a reverberation of an unanswered prayer.
I love the arrangement on this too, a sort of funked-up R&B derived groove, which works against what you would expect in terms of how it relates to the lyrical subject matter. I love that, a classic post-punk gambit, this time in the context of a pop song. On the studio version, Sting’s saxophone lines (yes, that’s him playing sax…) bringing off a groove like a low-rent Maceo Parker. It’s clear that he was interested in going beyond the drums-bass-and-guitar sound, starting from the preceding record Ghost in the Machine. Sting would later re-embrace his jazz-rock roots more fully on his first solo record in 1985, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. But here, it’s clear that Sting was interested in wrapping some pretty weighty themes in palatable packaging. And none is more weighty, perhaps, than the problem of evil, a very common dealbreaker in placing faith in an all-powerful, all caring god.
When I was younger, I really thought the song was an anti-authoritarian anthem made to shock. But, later I changed my mind. Much like XTC’s “Dear God”, this is not a song made to make people uncomfortable, even if it seems that way on the surface. It’s a song that is the expression of the writer’s disappointment in what he was promised, more so than his disdain of it. It is the sound of a spiritual ideal of a loving god who cares being challenged in the mind and heart of that writer.
For my money, the best songs about god are never the ones which try to define whether the writer is devoted, or whether one rejects the idea of god. Rather, I think it’s one that acknowledges that a part of the power of god lies in what human beings have placed in god, regardless of which side the writer ends up on. I think this is true because it is the more common connection across human experience. The power of culturally ingrained ideas are impossible to deny, whether they’re flawed or not.
Valparaiso is a city in Chile, known as its cultural center. In this song, we get a hint of the history of exploration in the region, where the New World was a mythical place, a dreamworld to which sailors would dare to escape from the mundanities of their seaport homes. Sting has famously told the story of growing up in the North East of England, wherethe British shipbuilding industry once thrived, building some of the largest ships in the world. When completed, the ships were launched into the sea, and into the unknown – away from the predictability of life in an industrial town. In this light, it makes this song a rather personal one. The metaphor is a pretty strong one as far as pop stardom in the life of a working-class boy from Newcastle. Gordon Sumner created Sting, and launched himself in a similar way, after all.
Sting’s wide musical interest is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it started him on a path where he could write anything in any style using any of his influences. “We Work the Black Seam” on his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles is a far cry from “Every Breath You Take”, for instance. But, by the early 90s, and after his last solidly consistent record, The Soul Cages, his eclecticism became his undoing for me. His writing became somewhat workmanlike, and Sting himself became less the personal artist and more the pop craftsman. Basically, a lot of what interested me in his writing – the contrasting psychological light and darkness to be found in his work with the Police, and on his first few solo albums – was gone.
Maybe this is why this song strikes me as one of his best in a period of his career when he lost me as a fan of his solo work. It is personal, not an obvious grab at a hit, and less the excursion down the middle of the road than many of the other tunes on the very same album. Sting would later make a return to his roots, re-connecting with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland for a much-anticipated 2007-08 tour as the Police. He would also continue to delve into various styles which interest him – folk tunes like “My Ain True Love”, written for the Cold Mountain soundtrack and performed with Alison Krauss, and Tudor classical music on the album Songs From the Labyrinth: The Music of John Dowland.
But, whichever way he goes next, I hope that he finds himself unburdened by the pressure to make safe music, and turns again toward the personal. Whatever the material, strong or weak, his voice is one of the most distinct in rock history, and certainly one of my favourites. I hope his next album is worthy of it.