Sometimes you can easily forget just how successful The Police actually were. The summer of 1983, which is often described as the summer of “Thriller” was really the summer of “Synchronicity”. This was an album that sold bucketloads all over the world.
And so had their previous album, today’s subject, “Ghost In The Machine” which was released in the autumn of 1981 to much critical acclaim, as it was seen to move the band’s trademark reggae-rock sound into new poppier territories with keyboard flourishes and a highly effective saxophone backing.
In truth, The Police are synonymous with “critical acclaim” and there is endless debate about their finest album – four of the five they released appear in the Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 ever. However, this album ranks the highest at #323 which would imply that there was a considerable amount of debate still. Indeed, this album’s predecessor, “Zenyatta Mondatta”, which was the only one of them not to be included by the august publication, has its defenders who claim it should be considered the best.
So which one should be there?
None of them.
If ever there was a band who forced pointless filler into their work at even their earliest stages, it is The Police. Even, their worldwide smash “Synchronicity” has to endure the successive horrors of “Mother” and “Miss Gradenko”. They may be musical jokes for the band but for the listener they are tired and destructive.
It is a selfish and combative attitude that comes across all their work.
I have chosen “Ghost In The Machine” because I think it is the album least damaged and most harmonious but “Hungry For You (J’auras Toujours Faim Du Toi)” comes across as exactly what it is – a French New Wave song (and doesn’t that sound hideous even as a concept). “Omegaman” was mysteriously picked by the record company to be the first single, but rightly over-ridden by the band, has an interesting premise borrowed form the science fiction film about being the last man on earth but is turgid and lacks real energy – it would have been #1 because everything they released went there however.
“Demolition Man” sounds other-wordly and subtle when coming from the larynx of Grace Jones when she covered it but here it is over-long and over-blown. “One World (Not Three)” introduces a new phenomenon of the globally-conscious Rock Band – a mantle that would be taken after their implosion by U2 and then subsequently Coldplay (a fact lamented by Andy Summers in a recent interview), where bigger issues would be forced into the public’s headspace, sometimes well and sometimes – as here – a little too earnestly.
Interestingly, in 1982, The Police only played one date in the UK in support of this album which was at the Gateshead International Stadium which was a ragged if largely powerful performance but look who’s lurking (and doubtless observing) lower on what was an excellent bill…
So why am I bothering with this album at all?
Well, it has moments of unsurpassable quality. Not least the global smash “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, which picks up the “when eloquence escapes you” of predecessor “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” from “Zenyatta Mondatta” – even though it actually comes originally from sessions way back in 1977. Whilst all the album was recorded in Montserrat, strangely this song which was the exception being recorded in Montreal is the one that has the mellowest vibe and even now has a sunniness that the band often failed to replicate.
Certainly, Sting would never be this bright again until he went solo.
However, the band also wanted to forge its political awareness and “Rehumanize Yourself” attacks the malignant racist strain that was still rampant in riot torn Britain of 1981. But it is their strong attack on the situation in Northern Ireland – then a very real issue – that delivers, I believe their finest and often forgotten (#2 hit notwithstanding) “Invisible Sun”. A looming countdown followed by an ominous bass line that simply exudes claustrophobia but then explodes into an angry chorus. This is the band at their tense best.
Sting had been living in Ireland at the time, and felt very aware of the explosive situation there and so it has a reality about it that overcomes any doubts as to its legitimacy.
“Spirits In The Material World” is a great album opener and although a little pretentious in its content – it is Sting after all – it does have an energy and oddness with stabbing sax and jagged rhythm that turns it into a real ear worm and all the more enjoyable for it.
So what was The Police’s problem?
Basically they didn’t seem to like each other much. Sting and Stewart Copeland regularly fell out, leaving Andy Summers to try and broker peace. Parts were recorded separately. The band’s songs were regularly rejected by Sting – “Rehumanise Yourself” was written by Copeland but then rewritten by Sting who didn’t like the lyrics at all. The cover itself, came about because they couldn’t agree on a visual and the whole process was underlined with barely suppressed aversion to one another.
They were just too angry – does anyone hit drums as hard as Stewart Copeland? Has reggae, the gentlest of genres ever sounded so ill at ease? Apparently, it was worse during Synchronicity and the cancelled album after that.
Even in later reunions and meetings, the aggravation they felt still existed.
But at the end of the album comes two unheralded saving graces – Sting’s “Secret Journey” and Copeland’s virtually Balearic fore-runner, the exquisite “Darkness” which exhibit all the subtlety that you would expect from fine musical exponents such as these three.
These two closers really do redeem an album that had opened so wonderfully with the three big singles and then meandered as all Police albums did.
Sting’s best solo work “The Dream Of The Blue Turtles”, “Nothing Like The Sun” and especially “Ten Summoner’s Tales” would exercise far greater quality control and deliver far more accomplished long-player material. Perhaps, it helps being in charge entirely.
So the conclusion is really what we have always known that genius and its expression often takes a great deal of tension for it to reach its zenith. For The Police, I believe, we all have had to put up with too many of their workings in the margin – their dry runs and practices. The antipathy that could exist forced them to just force some of their material in to keep the other parties happy and as long as there was some killer material, it didn’t matter. Perhaps Im suggesting that their conflict made them lazy in order to avoid further aggravation.
Ah but when they did get it right…
Maybe, the critics just get it wrong and they were just a brilliant singles band all along.