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 The film is based on his play originally made for television in 1976, but not broadcast due to its disturbing subject matter.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 track by mysterious Kryptonian-monikered one-man band, Klark Kent (reprinted in some quarters as Klerk Kant to avoid legal entanglements with Warner Brothers, who own DC Comics…). It’s “Don’t Care”, a knocked-off 1978 UK top 40 single, eventually appearing on the 1980 10″, green-vinyl EP recorded quickly and cheaply while another band – the Police – were on a golden track to becoming the world’s biggest stadium draw.
You see, Klark Kent was the pseudonym for Police drummer and founder Stewart Copeland, who wrote all of the songs on this side project EP and played all of the instruments, taking the name to shed the glow of fame while he was doing it.
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.
Here’s a clip of Virginia-born, Lebannon-raised drummer Stewart Copeland behind the drum kit and in front of the interviewer’s microphone. The piece is taken from the 2005 album Orchestralli . In many ways, the music from the record brings together Copeland’s interests in rock drumming, orchestral soundtrack music, and world music.
Stewart Copeland was raised in the Middle-east along with his two brothers. His dad, former Glenn Miller Orchestra trumpeter Miles Copeland II, was stationed there by the US government – he was one of the founders of both the OSS during world war II and later the CIA, a fact that Stewart learned only while away at college. All the while young Stewart had an interest in music, particularly in the drums, although he was a multi-instrumentalist from an early age. While a teen in the 60s, he was enamoured of 60s rock from the Doors to Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, along with the music of the Middle East with which he was surrounded while growing up in Beirut.
Through his career, Copeland had a wandering interest in taking in as many influences as possible, serving time in prog-pop outfit Curved Air after making his way to London. After the band folded, he took an interest in the nascent punk scene, slightly too old to be a punk himself in any authentic sense, yet enthusiastic enough to start a three piece band loosely modelled after the punk sound. He called the group The Police.
The band should never have become successful. It was made up of former progressive rock drummer Copeland on drums, a bassist and singer called (oddly) ‘Sting’ from Newcastle who was late of a jazz rock combo called Last Exit, and a Corsican named Henry Padovani who filled in on guitar, barely speaking english and being only a little more competent on his instrument at the time. And just when Padovani had helped them gain some punk credibility after the release of a few singles (he was the only one who had any credibility as a punk…), Copeland and Sting replaced him with Andy Summers, who had toured with The Soft Machine! What hope did these guys have in the land of the new wave? Well, a lot.
The Police were an enormous success of course, scoring hit after hit, and eventually going on hiatus, playing their last show in 1986, and waiting until 2007 to come back together to tour again. In the interim, Copeland had other interests to pursue in the form of soundtracks for films and television – Rumble Fish, The Equalizer,Droids, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Dead Like Me, and Desparate Housewives all featured his soundtrack work, just to name a few. His enthusiasm to try out a wide range of projects is self-evident. He wrote a ballet version of King Lear for the San Francisco Ballet Company and an opera for the Cleveland Opera House – Holy Blood and Crescent Moon. He also scored for the Spyro the Dragon video game series. That’s a pretty wide spectrum!
In addition to instrumental scores and stage productions, he continued to record pop albums, first with legendary jazz bassist Stanley Clarke and vocalist Deborah Holland in the group Animal Logic for two albums, and later with Trey Anastasio (Phish) and Les Claypool (Primus) for one album as Oysterhead. He almost collaborated with his former boyhood heroes The Doors, with whom he was ready to tour when they reformed without original drummer John Densmore. Both Copeland and Densmore would sue the newly formed group, although for different reasons; Densmore for the use of the Doors name (which he won), and Copeland for breach of contract, which was amicably settled. More recently, Copeland played on stage with Foo Fighters.
Stewart Copeland is my favourite drummer. I love that his approach to the drums is so unconventional to the rock world, that he pulls in reggae and jazz, and other world musics into the rock idiom so naturally. And in seeing him drum in a live setting, I realized that a lot of what he’s doing is done using one hand, not two as I had only assumed. His dexterity with percussion instruments in general underlines just how musical his approach is as well, like a conductor with each piece of the drum kit like a member of his orchestra.
Click the image to see the Police play in front of a group of journalists just before the band embarked on their 2007 reunion tour. The song is a medley of two Police album tracks from the band’s third album Zenyatta Mondatta, two storming tunes that not many people realise are so good; “Voices Inside My Head/When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around”. Note the scorching solo from Summers, betraying his love of jazz playing.
Most know Andy Summers’ work in the Police. But, he was active well before his job with Sting and Stewart Copeland. He started as a contemporary of Eric Clapton, active in the London R&B scene with the Zoot Money Big Roll Band. Among other bands he’s played with are Dantalian’s Chariot, Eric Burdon & the New Animals, and a brief stint with The Soft Machine, with whom he toured but didn’t record.