The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
A Folksy review by Sean M. Hebner
Exclusively written for
4 “Whosawhatsits” out of 5
Welcome to the first installment of “IT CAME…FROM MY WIFES CD WALLET!” This is a series where I’ll randomly take a CD from my beautiful wife Loretta’s collection and give it an honest listen and review.
I should point out that my wife and I have vastly different tastes in music. This will create the cognitive dissonance required to create a HILARIOUS review. Also, when I try to take an unbiased approach to music, I don’t generally have an emotional attachment to it which helps me become a REAL writer!
However, I’ll admit that this particular review is kind of cheating. I’ve been a fan of Folk and Filk music as long as I can remember. One of the first tapes I ever enjoyed as a child (that wasn’t Weird Al or Elton John) was Bay Filk 3, which was recorded in 1983 and featured a younger Mercedes Lackey (on backing vocals on one song) and an aging Peter S. Beagle (author of “The Llast Unicorn”). My mother owned the tape as it featured my former Cousin MEW (www.mewsic.com). Little did my mom know, that my eventual lust for Power Metal and other Folk infused genres of music would stem almost exclusively from this tape.
I say all this to imply that “Civil Wars” is a Folk album. I happen to like it a lot, thank you. Every spin of this record brings out new, exciting positives. The lyrics are a “joy” (HA GET IT!? This album is depressing!), a great mixture of classically influenced Folk and modern, poetic explorations of poetry. You could probably use some of these lyrics in a poetry class. They’re THAT GOOD. Take their single “Poison and Wine,” for example.
“Poison and Wine”*
I find it rare that a song so bitter and honest gets main stream air play. “Poison and Wine” has been referred to as Country and I can see why: once upon a time, this genre was this depressing:
I don’t love you and I always will
I don’t love you and I always will
I don’t love you and I always will
Editor/Boss-man Eric doesn’t know it yet but I’m going to make him cry again. (Editor/Boss-man Eric: Manliness challenge accepted)
I’ m fairly close to crying as I type this. That’s some lyrical heaviness neither of us has encountered since “The Magnetic Fields.” I’m sure Eric has heard more depressing lyrics, but perhaps not something we’ve been mutually exposed too.
Anyway, “Poison and Wine” starts out with the line “You only know what I want you to/I know everything you don’t want me to” and there is only a grand total of like 50 words to the song …and yet it instantly brings to mind relationships from my past. Specifically, dysfunctional relationships where the words “power balance” didn’t exist and from which the pain long dissipated is temporarily restored by these potent lyrics. Thankfully, they indirectly teach me to never repeat those mistakes and should a legitimately REAL problem arise in my marriage to just frickin’ TALK about it. This paragraph brought to you by Life©, ain’t it somthin’? (Editor/Boss-man Eric: life is the only thing worth living for)
Hope, the only thing left at the bottom of “Pandora’s Box” as a way to combat the evils of the world, feels in short supply on this album. I mean it IS here. However, the duo broke up last year only to reunite to make a new album this year, but they will NOT tour.
It seems that one member wants to get famous and the other wants to be a non-sellout. All the turmoil in the band has me thinking that the hope that’s tucked within this album is more superficial than I realized. For a duo this powerful to give up after existing since only 2008, it’s a wonder that they even lasted this long. I’ve found no information to tell which one wanted to end it and which one wanted to take off …your guess is as good as mine.
Not that I like proving my wife wrong about stuff, but while writing this review I told her “wow this is a really ‘hopeless’ album!” Of course, she immediately said “NO ITS NOT!”
The marriage argument game had begun! I countered her witty retort with my own, elucidating that “okay, maybe not ‘hopeless’ but it’s fairly dark…”
Then, I decided to look up the lyrics to the rest of the songs just to see if my instincts on the album were correct. Ammunition is important in this vital arguments, my friend. If you’re married, I know you’re nodding your head in agreement, male or female.
Well anyway, the first track is about a deadbeat father who, after 20 years, won’t claim responsibility for a child from a one night stand. Boom.
The title track “Barton Hallow” is about a man wanted for Murder in…heh, heh…Barton Hallow. He is never going back to the place that was once his home town. Boom boom.
In fact, reading through the lyrics revealed three songs focused on unrequited love, murder, regret, prostitution or just plain loneliness. Mostly Hopeless. Three out of 14 tracks is A LOT of dark….and I LOVED every minute of it.
Heck we can even dabble in cover songs that they did to see if their overall mood as a duo is better when being “casual.” Nope. The Civil Wars covered Portishead’s song “Sour Times” and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”, another song about denial of parental responsibility. They are a tour de force of depressing and heartbreaking heartbreakyness.
“My heart, in the parking garage, with the guitar…you win Civil Wars”
What can I conclude about this venture into my wife’s CD wallet? First of all, my wife’s favorite band is freaking awesome. However, I’m not surprised that they aren’t sustainable. Country music fans dip their toe into the depressing aspects of real life, but tend to confine them only to Johnny Cash or Willie or some other old hat star.
A new group that puts out Cash caliber depression doesn’t really work (at least as a business model) in a world of Brad Paisley or Taylor Swifts.
Yeah, Taylor Swift is mad, but she’s adorable, adorably mad with still less issues than one ALBUM from a duo that’s a bit older and a bit worse for wares. Lastly, my wife thinks this band deserves a seven out of five on the “Whosawhatsits” scale. I’m thinking she’s right…this is some of the best stuff if not THE best Main Line Country music…nay Main Stream Music period has produced in the last 5 years. So I’ve changed my original score to match her request because it really is that good.
Tune in next week when I do, some more METAL YEAH! Goodnight!
Today at Culture Fusion we are featuring a guest reviewer, Metal-Alholic and all around musical omnivore Sean M. Hebner. Sean presents a unique and highly enthusiastic approach to writing that exactly mirrors talking to him (he talks just like this in person, at a mile a minute and with endless hand gestures and peals of laughter) and which results in a rather personable, informal writing style which is a lot of fun to read.
He chose to review “Shazam!” by The Move on his own impetus after reading a few of my Move reviews. He has been a fan of this album for some years and has a lot to say about how it fits in with the history of Metal and Hard Rock. I hope you enjoy!
SHAZAM! By THE MOVE
A Review by Sean M. Hebner
Rating: 5/5 whozawhatsis
Unlike the leader of this blog (who is older than me by a smattering of years), I was not exposed to a plethora of Progressive Rock growing up. I discovered Heavy Metal at the age of 12 or 13 and was a ‘purest’ for a good many years after that. But my long time obsession with metal and some well placed covers of ‘’Uriah Heep” and “Mike Oldfield” songs got curious about metals roots.
Over the past several years, I have been growing my psychedelic and Progressive knowledge and in the process started a job where my boss, *Redacted*, was a music fanatic. He is as obsessed with “great” music as I am with Metal. He hadn’t really steered me wrong yet, turning me on to such artists as Nick Lowe and Richard Thompson.
So when *Redacted* told me that SHAZAM! By The Move was his favorite album of all time I decided it needed a listen. So I sampled it on Amazon.com, when WHOLY SHIT WHY HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS BEFORE and bought the download. It felt so…ahead of its time. Cause it was clever…without being wanky. It was toned and paced well while being Mellow and Crushingly Heavy all at the same time. More people need to hear this album; in fact, if you haven’t heard this album yet, DO IT NOW!
Now we’ll go track by track:
ALBUM OPENER: Hello Susie – Hot DAMN! That’s almost a metal intro! Oh man I’m in love already the grand “circus” like delivery of the lyrics. This approach becomes common place in the future of heavy epic music and I’m glad to see it has such strong roots.
I’m reminded of “Grand Illusion” by Styx and the role that they played influencing heavy pop rock as well as anything by Queen. But it’s NOWHERE NEAR as pretentious! I’m not one that really pays close attention to lyrics and lyrical content doesn’t make or break a song for me.
SECOND TRACK – Beautiful Daughter. OMG they turned to the Beatles!! Because I’m easily distracted: the wiki article discussing this album uses the word Heavy Metal a lot. This is WRONG: its Proto Metal. Heavy Metal won’t exist till Iron Maiden gets Bruce and Black Sabbath gets DIO.
THIRD TRACK – Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited this one is my personal Favorites on the album as it’s all over the place. Musical Perfection. Lock the door and throw the keys away! I love the references to Alice in wonderland and the firkin BASS. I LOVE the bass playing on this album. Entwistle can shove it!!
Then the song ‘ends’ and CLASSICAL MUSIC!! Wait. WAIT.. FANTASIA!!! AWW YEAH! I get this. This album was written for people with my sense of humor and sense of musicianship. I am not a musician but if I were this is what I’d try to do. Singing the guitar part is my favorite part!!!!!
Track Four – Fields of People. Ok now this is a cover as is the rest of the second half of the album and not having heard the original I can say that this song rocks if only in this context. Its by and large a product of the seventies and its at the same time moving in the direction of the future of heavy music.
Track five – Don’t Make my baby blue A Proto-Metal cover song……………………… If that doesn’t get you sexually aroused then The Move and/or Heavy Music isn’t for you.
Track Six – Last thing on my mind. When most people make the family tree of heavy metal you don’t see The Move on any lists per-say I’m ADDING them to the list. Even This last ballad, so depressing and soul crushing. Melancholy. So good, Roy Wood is the Crazy Uncle to Heavy Metal. And SATAN bless (curse?) him!
Overall this is a Must own for anyone who loves Heavy Metal and wants to understand the roots of metal more fully. Especially those of us who Like Mr. Bungle and its derivatives. I’m thinking that The Move has a lot to do with making these sub-genres of jazzy metal.
Also this is my first written review and its 6 hours before I have to be up for work in the morning. I like to ramble.
The more I listen to the Move, the more I frigging love them. Case in point: I have now given all four of their studio albums a single listen and am currently listening to the second disc of the 2012 live album “Live at the Fillmore 1969” the only document (and only likely document) of a full concert by “The Move” on their only tour of America in 1969.
Nominally, my new review style is supposed to avoid repeating bands too many times but I simply have to comment on this album: it really proves to me the fantastic nature of the band and really makes me lament how overlooked and under valued they are in general.
The story behind this album goes as follows: singer Carl Wayne held onto the tapes of the show for decades hoping that they could be cleaned up as recording technology improved. And they were: the sound isn’t exactly “crystal clear” but it’s clear enough to be enjoyable with a minimum of muddiness or dissonance. The only problem that bothered me was the balance between vocals and instruments: when all the band members start singing in intricate harmony, it tends to overshadow the instruments.
Nevermind that. Let’s go on to the good signs of the album, which are many.
In the studio up to this point (1969, before the simultaneously heavier and more intricate days of the Jeff Lynne era) the Move had been more…delicate in the studio. They had only released one album, 1968’s “The Move” which was a masterpiece of pop songwriting, diverse arrangement ideas and bizarre lyrical ideas.
It also showcased a tight band that had mastered a solid interplay of rhythm guitar, lead, bass, drums, lead vocals mixed with four and five part harmonies. It was the only album to feature original rhythm guitarist Trevor Burton and bass player “Ace” something or other who suffered from a bad acid trip that caused an early departure that switched Burton to bass.
By the time the band travelled to America, Burton had departed to be replaced by Rick Price, who stayed with the band for two more years. Burton departed due to the “softness” of the singles that he felt betrayed the band’s hard rocking roots.
One wonders how Burton would have felt hearing the band performances on this album? The set starts with the riff heavy “Open My Eyes” by The Nazz and the band fully adapts to the purpose, stretching it out to nearly seven minutes with wild Wood guitar (who knew the guy was a super star?) and wild, wild drum bashing by Bevan (nearly Moon level, which makes me feel the man is severely under rated as a drummer) with solid bass from Price and Wayne…
I feel like Wayne is the big discovery listening to this album. Wayne always had a great voice but always seemed more set to “croon” (as he pushed the band to the lucrative cabaret circuit) but he really roars on the album in a way I wouldn’t have expected from him.
He really reminds me of Rod Evans from the first period of Deep Purple: a rather smooth, yet powerful voice that fits in well with the general style of the band. It may not be the “Gillian-esque” or “Dio-style” scream that has set the style for heavy metal vocalization but its no less powerful for its intricacies, subtlety and power.
Another huge discovery is hearing Wood unleash on guitar: it’s no shock that this band was as big as they were on the touring circuit. Wood is a minor master on guitar, more in the vein of “Hendrix” or garage rock superstars as opposed to the flash of Ritchie Blackmore and his tone is satisfyingly thick, his leads and solos solid (and integrating direct classical approaches from time to time) and leads the band through song-after-song with an amazing fluency and grace while maintaining a steady, hard rocking groove.
Fivesongs from the 1970’s “Shazaam” are highlighted here: “Don’t Make My Baby Blue,” “The Last Thing On My Mind,” epic length Ars Nova cover “Fields of People,” reworked Wood classic “Cherry Blossom Clinic” and new Wood original “Hello Susie.”
Three tracks go over 10 minutes and two stretch to 14 minutes and 17 minutes. A highlight for this reviewer is closing “Under the Ice” one of The Nazz’s hardest rocking, tightest written tunes stretched to a bizarre 14 minutes.
“Fields of People” remains a classic as its a tightly written psychedelic classic extended with wild Wood ideas (including bizarre, near sitar style sounds from a “banjo-tar”) and bashing drums from Bevan that at times remind me of a less bass heavy Who…which is a huge, huge compliment from me.
The set is closed out with a further three songs from a second night at the Fillmore, repeats of “Don’t Make My Baby Blue,” “Cherry Blossom Clinic” and “The Last Thing On My Mind.” They’re good but don’t differ incredibly from the previous night’s versions. It’s still good to have them though.
Closing out the set is a great 10 minute interview from the intelligent and insightful Bev Bevan, reflecting on the tour with a humorous and self deprecating style that holds the attention all the way through.
I can’t recommend this enough to fans of hard hitting, yet ambitious, well played and tastefully arranged raw guitar rock. There are other drawbacks: the song set isn’t ideal for fans of “The Move”’s earlier, gentler singles and was in fact designed as a way to impress west coast audience; the endless jamming, while entertaining, can become a bit wearing after awhile if one isn’t ready for it; it’s not representative of the first line-up of the band which is said to have burned even tighter and brighter.
However, it’s highly unlikely that very many other shows were recorded by “The Move” (especially the first lineup which wasn’t around long) and in the absence of any other live album (not to discount the EP “Something Else by the Move”) this may be the only live set we ever get by the band.
Thank God it’s great! Get it.
Songs to YouTube:
Both Nazz Covers are phenomenal and blow poor Todd outta the water.
“Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” was always one of Wood’s best tunes and the rearrangement is great.
“Fields of People” may be the longest song of the set but its melodies are amazing and the band pulls them off with pizazz.
Since I just reviewed Jeff Lynne’s “The Idle Race” and am currently listening to a wide range of Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood related products (having purchased the discography of both men recently) I decided I’d try out a review of the first of their “The Move” collaborations: 1971’s “Looking On.”
I actually listened to the first two albums by “The Move” before getting to this one and thought of reviewing them first but I decided to stick with “Looking On” because a) it was the first of three collaborations between these two talented men b) it’s rather underrated and ignored throughout both men’s careers and most importantly c) I’m currently listening to it. Talk about “real time” reviewing!
“Looking On” came at a point when the original line-up of “The Move” had completely collapsed, leaving just Roy Wood, Bev Bevan and replacement bass player Rick Price left to pick up the pieces.
Wood had been trying to seduce Lynne to join “The Move” for a few years but was unable to due to Lynne banking on the success of “The Idle Race.” After the failure of their superb second LP, the Lynne written and produced “The Idle Race” it became clear to the ambitious Lynne that he had to change things up. And moving to a highly successful band like “The Move” was a great idea.
In theory: Wood was already moving past “The Move” (pun not intended) as a sonic idea and wanted to integrate strings and classical ideas into rock and roll. He and Lynne were on the same page (“Come with Me” from “The Idle Race” should be all the proof you need of that) and both were ready to create a group called “Electric Light Orchestra” to explore those ideas.
But contract obligations ruined their plans: “The Move” owed their record label a few albums. So the two decided to stop touring and crank out the albums they needed to finish their contract. “Looking On” was designed as a swan song but they would record one more album before retiring “The Move.”
Wow! Sorry to drown you in so much history but I think it’s important to understanding this rather…unique album. “The Move” were a highly successful psychedelic pop band that had been turning towards a heavier sound for some time (being in the band’s natural inclinations) and Lynne was fresh out of the idyllic “Idle Race” and was perhaps hungry for a…more ballsy sound.
So, “Looking On” sees the two (Bevan and Price are good at their instruments but aren’t exactly key creative forces for the band) creating a heavy, heavy, heavy sound that completely betrays their past styles. Of course, going “heavy” made sense with the times but…not the way these guys went heavy.
They basically go heavy while betraying their pop sensibilities.
Opening “Looking On” starts as a plodding, mastodon of a song with heavy, heavy guitar tones and a slow, slow tempo. Wood was never a great “riff” writer so the song sort of sits there looming at you angrily without affecting you for quite some time.
Thankfully, the band was smart enough to throw in an excellent, emotionally engaging instrumental section with wild guitar solos, sitars, saxes and an epic, moving melody that helped end the song on a high note and get the listener engaged.
Basically, “experimentation” is the name of the game here and the band goes all out. “When Alice Comes Back to the Farm” starts out as a precursor of Wood’s later “Wizzard” group: it starts with a heavy, slide riff with a bluesy, nearly “country” feel that is nice without being incredibly catchy.
Then, out of nowhere, the music stops and a striking and loud cello riff pops up for a few seconds. Why hello, ELO! I knew you were coming. Roy then overdubs an army of saxophones during the verses and choruses that has to be hard to be believed.
And then there’s the infamous “Brontosaurus” with it’s “Lady Madonna” rip riff that lumbers along like a…brontosaurus with the insane and inane “you know she can really do the brontosaurus” chorus gradually transforming into a completely convincing and exhilarating fast paced rock and roll jam.
Lynne makes two huge contributions with the slowly building, immaculate, melodic epic “What?” that serves as a precursor to his ELO approach to writing ballads. It builds in a slow, slow way as Lynne pops out great melodies, one after another while he and Roy overdub as many manic instruments as possible to create a near symphonic sound without the use of a symphony or mellotron.
Even better is Lynne’s “Open Up Said the World at the Door” which is highlighted by a wild multi-part song structure, great Lynne melodies and harmonies that sound EXACTLY like Queen (who had yet to emerge on the scene, I remind you) with great drum performances from Bevan (including a drum solo highlighted by a section being played backwards). Later in the song, a pounding piano riff is balanced with a delicate yet hard hitting oboe part by Wood that sounds EXACTLY like Roxy Music (who, again, hadn’t yet emerged).
A stern piano, bass and guitar rhythm pound out an epic coda as Wood shows off some epic guitar moves that illustrate how sadly underrated the man is in ever aspect of his musical career.
“Feel Too Good” is basically Wood’s version of “Open Up” and features some of his wildest guitar playing of all time and an out of nowhere and mind boggling accapella“doo wop” outro.
The whole album is like that: if the song is under written or potentially unengaging (which most, frankly, are), Roy and Jeff throw in wild instrumental sections, weird slide guitar solos, overdubbed saxophones, odd chanting voices layered with special effects, thick, thick bass tones and wild, ear catching melody and rhythm changes.
Does this sound like a head spinning, exhilarating art metal experience? It mostly definitely is all of that and more. However, those looking for the delicate melodies of the earlier “The Move” albums, the quaint psychedelia of “Idle Race” or even the ambitious classical stance of “Electric Light Orchestra” are going to be sorely disappointed.
And this lack of pop sensibility is a flaw: none of these songs will stay in your head for very long unless you sit around and listen to the album for days on end, which I would avoid: you may end up going quite mad and end up in the “Cherry Blossom Clinic.”
But weird sonic details will stick around in your head, like the odd moog bass that pops up out of nowhere in “Brontosaurus” and thickens the sound even further. Or the relatively simple yet hard driving boogie of “Turkish Tram Conductor Blues.”
And then there is the lyrics. You won’t really remember any lyrics or song concepts beyond “She can really do the brontosaurus” which should give you a sense of the lack of lyrical sense common throughout the album. Which is a shame, as both Wood and Lynne have some minor, yet solid lyrical insight: gone are the intriguing looks into insanity and obsession, replaced with…odes to dinosaurs.
Roy and Jeff were obviously more concerned with fully expressing themselves for the first time without the interference of a record company or the confines of writing pop singles. They quite obviously focus on the music arrangements before anything else (including, concise, clever melodies and biting lyrics).
However, fans of weird, wild music that maintains some sense of focus without dipping into pointless avant guardisms or dissonances should really enjoy this album. Especially if they like early “Led Zeppelin” and “Blue Cheer.” An obvious must buy, along with everything else by “The Move.”
Songs to YouTube:
“What?” should give further evidence to “Lynne Haters” that the man does have godly talents.
“When Alice Comes Back to the Farm” gives a little insight into the future development of the first Electric Light Orchestra album.
Finally, “Open Up Said the World at the Door” is worth it just to hear the sounds of Queen and Roxy Music before either existed.
And so my little break stretched on and on until it had been nearly a year before I posted anything…so much has changed in so many ways but one thing remains…I love music…and I love writing about music.
Hello fans of “Culture Fusion Reviews.” I hope things are treating you well. I’m doing well. I won’t go into it but I will briefly explain my abrupt departure and my triumphant return as quickly as possible:
- New jobs
- Life in general
- Sustaining interest
And there is the biggest problem with writing blogs: keeping up an interest and sustaining an interest. I decided to come back because my new jobs have balanced out, my love life is non-existent (in a good way) and I had a burst of interest to write about music again.
New format though: not doing complete discographies in a mad rush. This is part of what drove me crazy and bored me to tears. Just doing the last album I heard. And the last album I heard was…
“Birthday Party” by the Idle Race.
“Who the hell?” you may say and you wouldn’t be the only one. Idle Race is one of a million “also-rans” of the psychedelic era that had a somewhat unique vision, a decent songwriting voice and excellent production and solid-to-raving reviews (Marc Bolan of T-Rex was a huge fan) that simply didn’t have the “it” factor to make it big and which disbanded after a few years.
However, you can pick up a two CD collection named “Back to the Story” that includes everything they recorded: three albums and a variety of singles and non-album tracks. None of their songs were a huge hit and you hardly ever hear them mentioned but as a footnote…and the only reason they maintain that footnote status is because of their connection to Electric Light Orchestra.
That’s right, ELO: the pomp and circumstance, cello, violin and guitar “classical” prog-pop band led by somewhat controversial songwriter-guitarist-producer (and owner of huge hair and aviator glasses) Jeff Lynne. Basically, the Idle Race was an early proving ground for Lynne’s songwriting, arranging and production genius.
So, is it any good? That’s an interesting question. It’s not ELO: it’s very much a product of its era. This means the songs are generally very gentle excursions into musical whimsy: a 23 second orchestra version of “Happy Birthday to You” is the second track on the album; sound pans from speaker to speaker; music hall melodies clash again mellotrons and off-beat vocal harmonies; pianos, horns and strings take up a huge section of the sonic blueprint, sometimes drowning out the band themselves (also consisting of drums, bass, guitar and piano; catchy, sometimes complex melodies sustaining interest throughout as the arrangements shift on a dime to give the album a surprising sense of diversity.
Basically, it sounds like any number of minor first rate and major second rate psychedelic bands of the time (not an insult: second rate psychedelic bands are sometimes the most fun) falling more on the “whimsy Sgt. Pepper” vibe as opposed to the “psychotic space ravings” of early Pink Floyd. It’s gentle music for gentle people with an occasional burst of fuzz guitar and bass to wake you up. Basically, they often sound like a rougher, tougher “Left Banke” but without so many intense classical leanings.
The lyrics, however, are a different story. Lynne has never been a super amazing lyricist: for ELO: at his worst he’s competent while at his best he can be insightful and interesting. But the Idle Race, and especially this first album, is an interesting study in “musical and lyrical contrasts” similar to the “Steely Dan” method of contrasting gentle, smooth music with wild lyrics (but with different sonic focuses).
Lynne explores areas of madness, depravity, lust, love and the seedy, crazy side of the world in a way he never really touched in ELO. Songs like “I Like My Toys” are nearly child-like in the music and arrangements with a lyrical message that crouches the concept of “toys” with “madness” in a unique way.
To me, this contrast between musical gentleness and lyrical strangeness is what helps the album stand out a bit from the psychedelic pack: while not exactly a completely unique idea the band pull it off well and in their own unique style. Yes, the basic style is very similar to the whimsy sides of the Beatles psychedelic style but delving even deeper into near child-like levels of silliness and musical lightness.
The production is solid and typical of the time with lots of experiments in filtering, panning, sound effects and a dense layering of sound giving the album a somewhat uniform but still appealing sound. Of course, the album isn’t perfect and has some flaws (the uniform sound, the sometimes grating childishness of things as well as Lynne’s continuing obsession with de-emphasizing his great voice) but it serves as an early taster for greater things for Lynne and serves as a good case for understanding why the great Roy Wood held Jeff in such high esteem and why Jeff was able to briefly conquer the world with ELO.
Songs to check out on YouTube:
First song “Skeleton and the Roundabout” is a harbinger of their general style and of the silly delights of the rest of the album: carnivelesque melodies and arrangements, great vocal melodies, solid band performances and arrangements as well as a lyrical message that will have you scratching your head (in a good way).
“Follow Me Follow” continues in a similar vein but in a more sentimental manner foreshadowing Jeffy’s skills with love ballads.
“Lucky Man” a great music hall atmosphere with solid vocal harmonies, a great refrain and a lyrical message that touches on insanity.
1) Synchronicity I; 2) Walking In Your Footsteps; 3) O My God; 4) Mother; 5) Miss Gradenko; 6) Synchronicity II; 7) Every Breath You Take; 8) King Of Pain; 9) Wrapped Around Your Finger; 10) Tea In The Sahara; [BONUS TRACK:] 11) Murder By Numbers
8+ out of 10
“The Police” went out in a bang with their biggest selling album, laced with the heaviest amounts of hits-to-songs ratio they ever released. Five of the songs off this album were hits in most territories with most of them being major, major hits that defined the radio of the early 80’s and still live on as some of the most memorable, nuanced and cleverly written songs of the decade.
However, listening to the album now it’s not hard to understand why some writers (such as Mark Prindle) find the album to be the band’s “most boring album.” It also shows a complete domination of the band’s songwriting and sound by the Stingster. Yes, he was always the primary songwriter and ideas guy but the rest of the band seems to bend to his will like never before, especially poor Stewart Copeland who seemingly turns into little more than a session drummer at certain points.
That being said, there is still a lot to like about this first album. Many people consider the first side to be a complete throwaway but I can’t quite agree with that assessment. After all, how can an album that begins with “Synchronicity I” being a complete waste? Yes, the song is dominated by synthesizers in a way that had never been approached before.
The song is not just a complete wash of synthesized wimpiness: they actually create a solid atmosphere while Sting plays a capable bass line, Copeland bashes like he rarely does on the rest of the album and Summers plays an excellent supporting role.
Summers role on the album is one of the most interesting aspects of the album. In many ways, he takes a back seat like never before. Pianos, synthesizers and other keyboards tend to fill out the majority of the songs rhythmically, melodically and atmospherically. However, Summers goes nutty with effects and background noise guitar.
In essence, it is some of his most experimental playing and some of the weirdest guitar playing I’ve heard on a mainstream pop album. It’s a testament to Summers strengths and intelligence as a guitarist that he colors the proceedings so thoroughly while still remaining a background, supplementary element to the album at times.
That said, Summers does contribute the worst song to the album, “Mother.” It’s not a bad song musically and lyrically but Summers takes on an exaggerated singing voice that doesn’t really work that well. It’s a shame because if he’d taken it a bit easier on our ears, it might have been a highlight of the album.
Andy does show off his chops quite well on “Synchronicity II” the most guitar dominated song and the hardest rocker on the song. The lyrics are completely and utterly unintelligible (something Sting later admitted) but it’s a nice piece of hard rocking energy that helps end the first side.
Of course, the first side also had a handful of other songs that many people tend to dismiss. Copeland’s one contribution “Miss Gradenko” is one of his better tunes with an incredibly catchy chorus melody and rather strange lyrics. Probably one of his best songs and although I used to kind of hate it it’s really grown on me in the last few years.
“Walking In Your Footsteps” is highlighted by great electronic drum playing by Copeland (all those “bloop bloop” noises) droning guitar by Summers and a pompous lyrical importance matched with an elegant vocal melody. “O My God” it’s Sting’s worst song on the album: pretty dull in all honesty and probably my second least favorite song on the album. The lyrically flow is rather unengaging and Sting really starts showing off how he was going to suck in a few short years.
And now to talk about the four huge hits of the album (“Synchronicity II” was a relatively decent sized hit as was “Tea in the Sahara”). These were such big songs I feel silly even talking about them. What else can you say about “Every Breath You Take”? The song flows as smoothly as the best song written by the Beatles and features one of the most clever lyrical twists ever. I lament Copeland playing like a drum machine but the song is still very well composed.
“King of Pain” is a bit much Sting agony (“there’s a little black spot on the sun today/that’s my soul up there” is a tad melodramatic) but I love the way the song builds from a simple piano, percussion jam into a Summers lead guitar groove and into an excellent chorus build up. One of the best songs on the album musically.
“Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a bit mushy (those guitar/synth chords at the beginning are a tad fey for my taste) and the lyrics can be awful (“I came here seeking only knowledge/things they would not teach me of in college” is one of Sting’s worst) but it ends up being soothing and romantic. Much like “Tea in the Sahara” the most generic “New Age” song on the album that still comes through based on Sting’s vocal charisma and the solid lyrics
The CD edition ends with the hilarious “Murder by Numbers” with a jazzy background contributed by Summers and hilarious, out of place lyrics about planning a perfect murder by Sting. Later covered well by Frank Zappa with Sting chanting along.
I hate to give such short shrift to the second side of the album while concentrating more on the first side but most reviewers take the opposite tact: concentrating on the over heard, over played and well known hits while avoiding the potential “filler” of the first side.
And it’s understandable. Although I think the first half of the album is very solid, it definitely has moments that seem more filler-ish than the Police allowed in the past (“Mother” and “O My God” are a pretty rough patch for me) and the more atmospheric arrangements can make the album float through your mind at times.
The big hits on the albums were rightfully hits because they were the best composed songs on the album. Even though the first side is solid and I love listening to it (it’s very weird and seemingly non-commercial) it’s definitely not as well written as the song side. The experimental streak of the first side is less pronounced on the second side but is still there, making it the stronger of the two sides
And this was the last Police album ever after a pretty acrimonious split that made it clear Sting was going to have a huge solo career. It was the last great album he worked on (“Dreams of the Blue Turtles” has its defenders) as he went completely jazz/new age and went completely schlocky. Summers had two solid albums with Robert Fripp while Copeland drifted off into photography. All in all, a solid swan song from a great band.
1) Spirits In The Material World; 2) Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic; 3) Invisible Sun; 4) Hungry For You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim De Toi); 5) Demolition Man; 6) Too Much Information; 7) Rehumanize Yourself; 8) One World (Not Three); 9) Omegaman; 10) Secret Journey; 11) Darkness.
9 out of 10
“Ghost in the Machine” is the fourth album by The Police and is often criticized as the point where the band “loses” it. “Man,” says the Man, “this is where the band brought in SYNTHESIZERS and a fucking HORN SECTION and they totally mellow out and lame it up. It helps set the stage for the EVEN LAMER ‘Synchronicity’ as well as the WORST THING EVER Sting solo career. This band only had two good albums as ‘Zenyatta Mondatta” was only half good.”
Naturally, judging by my rating, I don’t quite agree with this assessment. In fact, I think this album is only slightly less good than “Regatta de Blanc” and is actually a self assured and interesting expansion of the sound of the band. After all, the sound is still dominated by guitars, bass and drums and the band plays just as hard and interestingly as ever.
Plus, it’s not as if the synthesizers and horns are New Wave lame. The horns (all played by Sting) are actually more funky than lame and more minimalistic than overbearing. Of course, the simple horn riffs are obviously played by somebody who JUST learned how to play (Sting) and there is a certain element of annoyance in hearing the same riff over and over again.
In fact, that’s one thing that can be lodged at this album in certain points: a certain repetitiveness that comes from the band hammering a more funky style in some songs. For example, “Hungry for You” seems to go on forever based on a simple but instantly memorable riff and melody. The synthesizers on the song, if they are even prevalent, are so minimal as to not be “lame.”
Let’s go through a few of the songs first. The album is a bit heavy loaded with three of the best songs at the very beginning. “Spirits in the Material World,” “Invisible Sun” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” are three of the biggest hits the band ever had. The new “synthesizer first” approach rears its head on “Spirits in the Material World” with a reggae rhythm based out on the keys instead of the guitar. The riffs are simple but the melodies (especially the chorus) are memorable although some of the lyrics are horrendous even by “Sting-Standards” (“with words they try to jail ya/they subjugate the meek/but it’s the rhetoric of failure” ugh!).
“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” is also a synthesizer and keyboard based fiesta that still features excellent performances by all band members especially Copeland. The vocal melodies are the best Sting ever cooked up in his career and the “race to the end” ending is magical. Yes, it’s pure pop froth but it’s pop froth of the highest caliber.
“Invisible Sun” is more “New Age” than anything the band had yet done but it features an ominous atmosphere as well as “we care a lot” lyrics that actually seem sincere. The stateliness of the song doesn’t seem faked (as much of Sting’s later stuff does) but seems well deserved by well chosen chords and well composed melodies.
“Hungry For You” shows off the bands new funky style as well as Sting’s awful French. “Demolition Man” rides a simple but addicting bass riff to the point of no return. Sting’s horn arrangements are especially thick and effective on this song while Summers goes apeshit on the guitar. Summers starts coming into his own with this song, going in a more psychedelic and noise based direction as opposed to a funk direction.
“Too Much Information” features more of the simple horn riffs, funky repetitiveness, great guitar and drum works and a very simple but instantly memorable vocal melody (you’ll never get “too much information, running through my head” out of your head).
The first Copeland song follows and its one of his best: “Rehumanize Yourself.” This is one of the hardest hitting songs on the album with another excellent vocal melody, great band interplay (the band was nearly telepathic in that regard by this point) as well as reasonably decent Sting lyrics. Sting also sings this particular song, saving us from Copeland’s slightly flat vocalization style.
“One World (Not Three)” is another funky pop song with simple horn riffs that repeats the same parts over and over while remaining catchy and non-annoying. I’m not sure how the band (especially Sting) gets away with it, but somehow these repetitive melodies and riffs avoid becoming stale and turn catchy and trance-like instead of boring.
Summers turns in his best performance on the next song with his “Omegaman” one of his best songs ever. Not that Summers ever had too many great songs in the first place but this stands above them. Not because it’s really that heavily catchy or memorable but because it’s not annoying. The guitar work is some of his wildest, noisiest and most atmospheric. I especially enjoy his guitar solo here as he doesn’t go wild with finger flashing nonsense but plays with a weird tone that I’ve never heard anywhere else.
The album does go out on a bit of a slower note. So far, the album has had a lot of funkiness and only a slight touch of synthesized New Age style. “Secret Journey” is much closer to solo Sting than anything else yet played by the band. The “mystical” atmosphere created by the song is much closer to being authentic and much more enjoyable. I especially like the simple vocal melody in the chorus as well as the more synthetic atmosphere. The band still plays well but in a more laid back, less severe manner.
Copeland ends the album with “Darkness” another slow, downbeat song which features the great line “Life was easy when it was boring” and a lot of synthesizer based atmosphere and solid melodies and decent arrangements. A bit of a strange way to end the album in all honesty but not unenjoyable. It may be the least accomplished song on the album though.
As is obvious by now, I’m rather fond of the album. It should also be obvious that a lot of the album focuses on a more atmospheric approach and a more repetitive, groove based approach as opposed to the more dynamic, song-oriented approach from the band’s past. This isn’t a huge deal and it isn’t a major negative for the album but it’s clear that the band is better at songwriting than they are at grooving.
Perhaps this tendency to run a simple groove into the ground over and over is indicative of a lack of creativity and a tendency by the band to “rush” albums. However, it works on this album: if the band had always taken this approach, I would have liked them a lot less.
This tendency to run a groove into the ground mixed with the more synthetic and horn based style as well as Summer’s growing experimental guitar ideas turns this album into a curious mixture of “more commercial” and “more experimental.” It’s a weird style and an odd combination that somehow works here.
1) Message In A Bottle; 2) Reggatta De Blanc; 3) It’s Alright For You; 4) Bring On The Night; 5) Deathwish; 6) Walking On The Moon; 7) On Any Other Day; 8) The Bed’s Too Big Without You; 9) Contact; 10) Does Everyone Stare; 11) No Time This Time.
9+ out of 10
The singles from “Outlandos d’ Amour” were pretty successful instantly, giving “The Police” a commercial success that many of their more respected and critically acclaimed compatriots struggled to obtain or sustain.
In contrast, “The Police” continued to have more and more commercial success while becoming more and more experimental and textural. A strange contrast perhaps and more of the more interesting success stories of the “New Wave” period. Of course, some argue that their last and most successful “Synchronicity” was a total bland sell-out while others claim it was their best, most experimental album.
All of this build up has a point, I promise. Basically, there are two ways to look at this band: as a complete sell-out band that jumped from a once-promising punk/reggae band into an ego-vehicle for Sting’s pop pretensions and desire for money. Or you can look at them as a cutting edge band that successfully blended light experimental and texture tendencies with a rock and pop sensibility.
1979’s “Reggatta de Blanc” is the first warning sign that this band was not going to be “just” a punk or reggae band. While there are perhaps a few instances of punk speed and reggae styling (especially the Sting-Copeland co-write “It’s All Right for You” and the hard hitting “No Time This Time”) the band expands their sound to include a more atmospheric sound.
The best example of this is the classic, immortal “Walking On the Moon.” In spite of a few of Sting’s worst lyrical gaffes (the first lines “Giant steps are what you take/walking on the moon/I hope my legs don’t break/walking on the moon” are grammatically and logically erroneous) the song creates a unique atmosphere that hadn’t really been heard in the world of rock.
The basic set-up for the song is a simple but memorable Sting bass line which creates the melodic hook. Copeland plays some of the most interesting and intelligent atmospheric drumming I’ve ever heard: his work on the high-high defies description.
And who can’t forget Summers echoey, reverbed “BAM!” guitar chord? An instant atmosphere of moon walking. During the verse, Summers plays a more reggae based rhythm but it doesn’t detract from a song that matches the lyrical message of escapism.
Perhaps the most famous song on the album is “Message in a Bottle” one of the band’s main calling cards and a huge hit. It can be easy to dismiss the silly lyrics here (“seems I’m not alone in being alone” is almost good, though) but what can’t be denied are the constant barrage of great musical ideas. The simple but memorable guitar arpeggios. The way the songs transitions between sections organically and flawlessly. The drive of the song.
Yes, the song is very atmospheric but it’s also a hard driving, instantly memorable pop song. Yes, Sting repeats his annoying tendency of repeating a single phrase at the end of the song until you want to slap him but somehow it works better here than the first album.
The band pulls off another solid instrumental with “Regatta de Blanc.” The song isn’t as “world beat memorable” as “Maskogo Tanga” but it has a great build, amazing energy and is highly atmospheric. The same is true of the semi-instrumental “Deathwish.” Both of these tunes were band co-writes, leading me to believe that they were at the very least semi-improvised.
Copeland steps into his own as a songwriter with three solo-written songs to go with his earlier co-write. His first, “On Any Other Day” shows off Copeland’s rather…blunt sense of humor. It is funny, especially to hear and Copeland harmonizing (flatly) during the chorus. However, the song’s a bit too unmemorable to be a highlight.
“Does Everyone Stare” is perhaps the best Copeland written song on the album. It starts out with a mumbled Copeland vocal supported by cabaret style piano. Later, the band comes in and supports it with an appropriate rock cabaret arrangement as Sting takes over the vocalizations. It may depart slightly from the rather “blue” atmosphere of the album but it’s still a good tune.
“Contact” is a very strange song with deep synth bass swoops during the verse contrasting with the guitar arpeggios driving the “have we got contact?” chorus. Summers plays up a storm on this song, including simple arpeggios and driving rhythm guitar that show off his skills as a rock-solid, in the pocket rhythm guitarist with an almost unlimited knowledge of chords.
Speaking of Summers, his best showcase comes with the reggae ballad “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The chords he’s playing are rather simple but he nails that interesting hammered on progression perfectly. He also messed with the beat, throwing in off beat chords. Sting perhaps puts in his best vocal performance on this song. You actually believe him, for once.
The list of ballads and songs ends with “Bring on the Night” another semi-reggae ballad that features pretty sharp guitar playing, excellent singing and more of Copeland’s amazing drumming. The guy isn’t exactly the king of flash but he really knows how to throw in interesting variations on rhythms to keep the song from becoming too boring.
“Regatta de Blanc” is an improvement over “Outlandos d’Amour” because it (mostly) eliminates the weird stylistic detours of the debut album (such as “Sally”) and eliminates any serious songwriting gaffes (such as “Born in the 50’s”) and tightens up the playing to the point of pain. The band plays so tight during the album it almost seems uncanny.
However, the biggest improvement on the album is that it feels like an album. Instead of feeling like a collection of songs, it feels cohesive, atmospheric and engaging. The band uses synthesizers fairly sparingly throughout the album but it often feels like there are is something creating that depressing, despairing mood throughout the album.
The band might throw in more reverb than normal and play a bit slower but the atmosphere comes not from any real production tricks but from the songs and playing. These are moody tunes that all combine to create a moody album. It’s easy to feel blue while listening to this album.
However, the band doesn’t seem to wallow in its own depression and pretensions of atmospheric mood making. They avoid becoming overbearing by making their little depressing pop tunes catchy as hell and avoiding blunt, over-obvious lyrical sadness. The songs are a little sad, yes, but Sting does his best to avoid pure unhinged sadness.
A breakthrough for the band that sets the stage for their critical and commercial success.
1) Next To You; 2) So Lonely; 3) Roxanne; 4) Hole In My Life; 5) Peanuts; 6) Can’t Stand Losing You; 7) Truth Hits Everybody; 8) Born In The 50’s; 9) Be My Girl – Sally; 10) Masoko Tanga.
8 out of 10
“The Police” debuted in 1978 with this album that was punky enough to place them in the leagues of the tamer, lamer punk bands, reggae enough to please Peter Tosh fans and Sting enough to please any fan of excessive yoga and meditation. It also has a really stupid name and I hate it. It gets 8 out of 10.
All right lets pull back for a moment and examine the above paragraph and its implications. I actually stand by all those statements (except the hating it thing) but still find the album to be a solid, fun but rough debut from a young (ha!) promising (definitely) band. Even if it has Sting in it.
Basically, the band emphasizes the pure rock side of their playing on this album more than on any other album while synthesizing it with more “mellow” reggae sounds. This potentially creates a situation where the sound will please fans of neither style but the band pulls off a nice coup by highlighting the strengths of both punk and reggae and minimizing the negatives.
“Next to You” starts the album with wild bashing drums, Sting trying to sound like a punk (he doesn’t fail but he isn’t that convincing) and the guitar and bass synching up in a great guitar groove. The arrangement is a little more diversified when compared to an average punk song but it’s still pretty simple.
It’s really the vocal and guitar melodies as well as the pure energy that make it work: the chorus is an excellent example of Sting’s once promising musical mind. When he wails “What can I dooo oooo…all I want is to be next to you!” backed by Summer’s guitar punctuations, the melody is forever stuck in your head.
“Peanuts” is another fairly punky song that seems to have nothing to do with peanuts until Sting inexplicably starts shouting “Peanuts! Peeeenuuuts!” at the end of the song. Not one of the best songs on the album (it’s a bit too shallow melodically) but it has a great drive to it.
“Truth Hits Everybody” is another excellent rocker that features hard hitting guitar lines, excellent drumming (listen to Stewart pounding the toms here) with dramatic pauses, slow downs and a frantic rush to the end. The sustained chords during “truth hits everybody…the truth hits everyone” are genius. So is the weird tolling bell just before Summer’s simple, but desperate guitar solo.
The last hard rocking tune is “Born in the 50’s” which is pretty weak: Mellencamp weak. The lyrics are pretentious, generic and arrogant. If Sting was trying to mock his generation’s self-righteous self-entitled attitude he did a good job. However, given his usual level of self involvement and egoism I can only assume (because I want to and because it’s funny) that he is not.
Next, we have the reggae stuff. I’m really reluctant to call most of this stuff reggae. For example, “Roxanne” is actually a tango. And it’s ridiculously catchy with an excellent, swinging vocal melody. The chorus is immortal but it’s repeated 80 times in the song. I find this to be a weakness: doesn’t “Roxanne…put on the red light! Roxanne…put on the red light! Roxanne…put on the red light! Roxanne…put on the red light!” get a little annoying after awhile?
“So Lonely” is much more reggae but still has a punchy rock chorus, with the title “So Lonely” repeated about a gagillion times.
And that’s what makes this band great: they combine reggae and punk in a way that feels organic. The chorus (as well as the slow down and the rave up at the end) help create dynamics that expand the song beyond its repetitive reggae rhythm and its generic guitar racket.
“Hole in My Life” is the closest to pure reggae on the album with a relaxed vibe and slightly desperate feel. But what’s up with that weird piano sound at the end of the song? Or the excellent vocalization and variations in the melodies. Not my favorite song on the album but solid nonetheless.
“Can’t Stand Losing You” is a song I sometimes get confused with “Roxanne” for the first few bars. However, I like this song better: the lyrics are more interesting, the weird mid-section features odd synthesizers and Sting going “oh!” and it features the line “I guess you’d call it suicide/but I’m too full to swallow my pride” which is ridiculous.
It also has a really repetitive chorus which uses only the words in the title. That’s true of just about every song. Sting tries to get around it by varying the vocal melodies with different intonations and phrasing and it works a lot of the time. It probably works best at the end of this song because it’s such a desperate song and the repetitions feel more like desperate pleas than desperate attempts by Sting to make his song over two minutes long.
I suppose you could say “Roxanne” is desperate too but the chorus is more annoying to me phonetically.
Following the slight gaffe of “Born in the 50’s” we have a major gaffe in the Sting/Summers co-written “Be My Girl – Sally.” The first part is obviously a Sting invention: it has a great guitar groove and a nice vocal melody that gets repeated over and over again as do the lyrics “won’t you be my girl” in as many possible variations as Sting can manage.
However, Summers decided to throw in a tune called “Sally” which is…odd. It’s a lot of semi-dissonant piano playing backing Summers reciting (as Britishly as possible) a poem about falling in love with a blow up doll. It’s played for laughs but it’s somehow more laughable in a bad way played for laughs than when “Roxy Music” played it straight in “Every Dream Home a Heartache.” There, the song was desperate. Here it’s stupidly goofy. “Be My Girl” does come back to help create the sense that the song is complete but it doesn’t help much.
“Masoka Tanga” is a nice bass led jam (where Sting really shows off some awesome chops. No sarcasm, he plays his ass off) that has a semi-world music feel to it as Stewart bashes his drums and Andy keeps a simple rhythm. Sting intones a bunch of nonsense that he apparently came up with while hypnotized (yeah right) and it’s a fun, funny and energetic way to end the album.
I hate describing every song this way but on an album as filled with solid and diverse tunes as this, it’s hard not to go into that much detail. The band shows off a lot of songwriting strength and playing skills but were still pretty rough.
The choruses are way too repetitive often to the point of annoyance (a problem that always plagues Sting) the songwriting was a bit iffy (seriously, I can’t stand “Born in the 50’s” or “Be My Girl-Sally”) and the band seems a bit unsure playing pure rock and roll.
Plus, it’s called “Outlandos d’ Amour.” UGH! 0 out of 10!
In spite of all of their successes (50 million albums sold world wide, groundbreaking tours, musicians who went on to bigger and better things) “The Police” have a lot to answer for in the music world.
On the one hand, there are those who praise their ability to balance experimentation with expert musicianship and well composed, catchy, short tunes. Some people believe they helped expand the range of punk music to include reggae, jazz, exceptional playing skills and synthetic textures.
On the other hand, Sting.
Of course, the band does have more negatives than just Sting (as hard as that is to believe). For example, they have accused of cultural appropriation (the use of ska and reggae rhythms) and for cynically exploiting a youth movement (punk).
After all, all three musicians were at least in their 30’s when they formed, with guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland having already achieved some degree of notoriety and success in the New Animals and prog band Curved Air. Their ridiculous bleach blonde haircuts have a lot to do with that, as do their absurd album titles.
And then there are those people who accuse them of SELLING OUT punk ideals (which they didn’t have anyways according to these critics, but I digress) by laming out, slowing down and turning into a joke of a dinosaur stadium band with the Adult Contemporary sounds and songs of the turgid “Synchronicity” a dry-run for a solo Sting career of cheese ball crap that sucked.
I can’t stress how big of an obstacle “Sting” is to enjoying this band. It’s kind of like passing a kidney stone the size of the Blarney Stone except kissing that stone will bring you no good luck of any kind.
Which of these sides do I fall on? Well, I actually really like “The Police” a lot in spite of the “Sting Factor.” In fact, the sad truth is that I like “The Police” not “in spite” of Sting but because of Sting! After all, how can you not like a band member that writes 98% of the songs for a band? Clearly, there is more to this story than a simple “Sting sucks” party line as much as I agree with the general idea.
The obvious conclusion to draw here is that Sting was, at one point, an incredible songwriter. Perhaps not in the lyrics department (Sting is pretty wonky when it comes to that, often stretching awkward for a rhyme or literary reference) but the melodies of the songs cannot be topped by any pop band of that period. Because, in spite of the band’s reggae and punk sounds, they are a pop band through and through.
Of course, I can’t way that the quality of the band rests entirely on Sting’s feet. He may have written the songs, but I have this sneaking suspicion that Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland helped arrange them into much more edgy musical compositions then they would have been otherwise. After all, Summers played in a rather…ahem…experimental edition of the New Animals while Curved Air was one of the wildest bands of the 70’s.
Sting was a classically trained jazz fan.
I have no evidence of this but I think Summers and Copeland were just fine letting Sting write the majority of the music (Copeland usually had a goofy song or two up his sleeve while Summers contributed a few instrumentals and some rather weird things) as long as they got to help arrange it.
This is probably why those first few albums are so great and alive with energy. Sting’s natural musical tendency (just look as his solo career) is for a sleepy, jazzy sound that is technically immaculate but boring as well. Summers and Stewart weren’t so into that: Stewart was a snappy rhythm guitarist and experimentalist that later stood toe-to-toe with Robert Fripp on a series of textural albums. He wasn’t much of a soloist or songwriter but his arrangement ideas and instrumental themes are solid.
Meanwhile, Stewart Copeland could probably get the award for “most underrated American drummer ever.” Copeland had excellent chops that he rarely if ever completely flashed (lots of restraint) but would often throw out if the song needed it. His tom rolls are creative as hell and the man is legendary for his work on the high-hat. Hell, on Peter Gabriel’s song “Red Rain” he is credited for just “high hat.”
So, “The Police” sound in the early days was basically a mix of pretty basic reggae ideas with punk speed and rock style. Later, they expanded into creating more textural songs (such as on “Regatta de Blanc” and “Zenyata Mondata”) before completely abandoning themselves to synthesizers with “Ghost in the Machine.”
However, the band’s continuing arrangement and playing skills (pushed by Sting’s once impeccable melody writing skills) made albums like “Ghost in the Machine” experimental tour-de-forces that actually charted. And while “Synchronicity” is their blandest album technically, it still has an experimental streak: listen to Summer’s guitar work to see what I mean.
While I fall more on the side of thinking the band was “great” I also have a few issues with them. Blanding out can be done well (as this band did) but blanding out is blanding out and those later albums are indeed a hard sell sometimes. There’s still enough edge to keep out of the dreams of blue turtles but not by much.
Plus, none of the band members really had a good sense for lyrics. Sting probably did best but he is the mind that thought “I came here seeking only knowledge/things they would not teach me of in college” was a good rhyme. Stewart Copeland is usually pretty goofy or satirical but without really any obvious thought of philosophy behind it.
The less said about Summers’ lyrics the better.
So, while I think the band was definitely worthwhile and genuinely deserves being as popular and legendary as they have become, I also cannot defend them as completely as I once did. Their faults are obvious faults (I didn’t even go into Sting’s overwhelming, unbearable pretensions as he is truly pretentious in that I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about half the time but he seems to think he does) but not unbearable and they released a high number of excellent tunes with only a few true stinkers. They also helped expand the textures of rock and roll in new and exciting ways. What’s not to like?
Well, STING for example. As I said, he’s really, REALLY hard to get around! Mostly his head of course…
I’ve read somewhere, that the collective egos of Bono and Sting would, if combined, create gravity of self esteem so intense an egotistical black hole would form that would suck the self respect of everybody in the known universe inside, never to return.