The New Wave revolution takes another swerve. The Police score their first number one with some reggae-rock. (Not Ska, though. It is, apparently, very important not to call this Ska.)
Message in a Bottle, by The Police (their 1st of five #1s)
3 weeks, from 23rd September – 14th October 1979
Vocally, we also have another interesting fusion: Geordie-Jamaican. It’s Sting, of course, really laying it on thick in the verses. Just a castaway, On an island lost at sea, Oh… (The rhyming of ‘sea, oh’ with ‘me, oh’ and I can’t help but hear the ‘Banana Boat Song’) Can I just admit right here that The Police are a band I… struggle with? They leave me a bit cold. Admittedly I wasn’t brought up on them, have never gone beyond the big hits – even this is a song I hadn’t heard too often before – and I wonder if my problem is with Sting more than his band… (See also: U2)
I shall use this blog, and their five chart-toppers, to try and improve my opinion of them. And it doesn’t take me long to find something to love here: the driving, punky guitars in the bridge – I’ll send an SOS to the world… – are great, as is Sting’s bass. But it stands right out for me, because the rest of the song is quite plodding in places. The band are marooned on a desert island, and send out messages in bottles, hoping for a connection…
Come verse three and lo! Walked out this morning, Don’t believe what I saw, Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore… It seems they weren’t alone in being alone. We’re all waiting for a message in a bottle. It’s kinda deep… (Though for a hundred billion bottles to have washed up means every human on the planet – going by 1979 population levels – had to have sent around twenty-three bottles each…)
Anyway, this is yet another patch of fallout from the punk explosion. Mix it in with other acts who have appeared in recent months: The Boomtown Rats, Ian Dury, Gary Numan, and of course Blondie. Actually, Blondie and The Police draw a good few comparisons: both post-punk, both red-hot for a few years at the turn of the decade, both with five #1s (at least initially, in Blondie’s case) For me, though, it’s Blondie all the way.
But, these views are mine and mine alone. ‘Message in a Bottle’ is objectively a good song, well-written rock with an effective hook. I am looking forward to getting to grips with more Police in the coming months, and hopefully enjoying it, as we’ll be hearing a lot more from the former Gordon Sumner and his bandmates. Bring it on.
22 thoughts on “443. ‘Message in a Bottle’, by The Police”
Like a lot of classic rock, I was exposed to the Police by my family though notably not their more poppier ‘80s stuff like “Every Breath You Take,” their only US #1. My dad even had the fun pleasure of seeing the Police at CBGB’s around this time when they were just getting big. I think Tom Breihan puts it best about the Police in his review of “Every Breath You Take” in that they come across as posers considering the members were trained in jazz and prog but adapted to what was popular being able to sound punk, new wave, and reggae, without being any of those things at the same time. Despite the Police’s early songs like this one and “Roxanne” being classic rock staples today, the band didn’t exactly set things on fire in America yet as they did back home with “Roxanne” peaking at #32 after a re-release and “Message In A Bottle” peaking at #74. They wouldn’t get into the Top 10 til 1980’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” at #10. It probably had to do with new wave not being as big yet in America despite acts like Blondie crossing over though with them it was by playing with the dominant disco sounds. Listening to “Message In A Bottle,” it sounds weird to think that it wasn’t bigger in the States considering it feels so familiar. And it’s a fun song to boot with a catchy guitar riff and performance with hooks all over from the “I hope that someone gets me” to the title and the ending “Sending out an S.O.S.”
Yeah, the Police are hard to place… They were pretty enough to be a boyband, they got quite yacht-rock at times, and also pretty hardcore post-punk in their earlier hits… Jacks of all trades? By the time I’ve reviewed all 5 of their UK #1s I hope to have made a definitive decision on them!
Thinking about it had Sting been a little younger when he got big he could have easily been marketed as a teen idol but maybe it was for the best that Sting was almost 30 by the time he got famous. I don’t know about yacht rock. The Police don’t strike me as the kind of act that could make the kind of smoothed-out self-assured music for rich people to listen to.
Maybe yacht rock was too strong, but I feel by the time of their last album they were a much glossier proposition. AOR, then, rather than yacht. Message in a Bottle is much spikier, much closer, in sound and time, to punk.
Tom Breihan made the comment that Yacht Rock doesn’t exist:
I only like their earlier songs like this…when they seemed to have fun…their huge album Synchronicity can bore me at times. I’ve never been a huge fan either way. It’s something about them that I cannot put my finger on…I don’t know I just never connected with them.
I will have to say though…they are great musicians.
Yes, you can tell from just this song that they are very accomplished, and Sting’s clearly a talented guy. But something just doesn’t quite connect with me… Not sure about the album, but ‘Every Breath You Take’ is a bona-fide classic, definitely the best of their 5 #1s for me.
The Police were huge with lads at Uni while I was there, they were the musically credible end of New Wave, and their early stuff was genuinely innovative, taking elements of reggae, rock and punk and making something frantically exciting out of it – Can’t Stand Losing You was the first of 6 chart-toppers for me, I thought they were great throughout their short career, 5 years and gone, and in my final year at Uni my 2 mates in the Halls of Residence had all bought the single, so we decided to test the accuracy of the rpm’s of our record players starting Message In A Bottle simultaneously in our adjacent rooms to the dismay of the girls upstairs. Didn’t take long for all 3 to get out of synch, proving 45rpm was an ambition rather than a guaranteed thing. We went to see them in 1983 at Leeds, and they were fab, tight and rocking. Even if I had to stand on a coke can to get a better view…. 🙂
Meanwhile Sting was a hot pin-up for the teenage girls, so they managed to do what The Beatles did – appeal to both sexes. I can tell you why Sting (& Bono) has attracted so much public criticism over the decades – smart, opinionated and visibly supporting worthy causes. Nothing people hate more than a smart-arse rich pop star being worthy, really gets the goat of Journalists and assorted lazy stand-ups and so on (unless your name is Geldof). Sting’s largely dull solo career hasn’t helped either, but he had me on side the moment he was trying to save the rainforest, and the indigenous people living there, back in the 80’s/90’s. He might as well have not bothered of course, no-one listened, half of it’s gone now and fast disappearing still, and the world is in a sorry state and getting sorrier by the year. To his credit he’s never, ever said “I told you so”. So I’m doing it on his behalf, being quite happy to say to all those short-sighted misery-guts who slagged him off at the time for supporting the lost cause, “Happy now?”, “Rainforest gone, just like you wanted?”.
I’d never want to criticise anyone for standing up for the rainforests, or world poverty, or AIDS etc… But I also do sympathise with those who find unbelievably wealthy rock stars preaching to ‘ordinary’ people a bit off-putting. Then again I’m not – and sadly probably never will be! – lead singer of a hugely successful rock band, and can imagine that it must be impossible not to be changed by fame, for better or worse. Anyway… Elton John is apparently (I just looked this up) the most philanthropic pop star in the world and yet somehow he doesn’t seem to rub people up the wrong way (as much)…
As for the Police – I’m going to use this blog to properly listen to their music, and hopefully realise what I’ve been missing!
Police singles tip: Invisible Sun (about the Northern Ireland troubles) is their under-rated gem along with Wrapped Around Your Finger, which is lovely.
You’re right about Elton (and George Michael, who was also very philanthropic on the quiet) and I feel the same way when I hear huge rich stars moaning about how miserable they are when they can pay to get proper help that ordinary people struggle to get – in Elton’s case though he made a career out of being self-deprecating and funny, which is a great way of deflecting criticism. I don’t think Sting was preaching AT people as such, just highlighting the issues and trying to drum up support for the cause because political solutions are the only answer, and publicising it is the only way to get political support for a problem that everyone had been ignoring since the 60’s when we first were made aware of it. Sting, though, is an ex-teacher and not terribly amusing or self-deprecating in interviews so it comes over as preachy. I think I have more respect for wealthy stars who use their fame (and wealth) for good causes than those flogging lines of perfumes and clothes to get even richer, yet they don’t attract nearly as much criticism. But hey ho, we all have music stars that get on our nerves for one reason or another – I know I do! It’ll be a while till you get round to those ones though 🙂
That’s because Elton doesn’t get all preachy with people. But, then again, as a flamboyant gay fellow, perhaps criticizing him wouldn’t go over as well. Sting and Bono, both, are too smug for their own good, despite their philanthropy. Don’t even get me started on The Police’s connection to the CIA.
That being expressed, they made some good music. I saw them in Greensboro for the Synchronicity tour…it was the very first rock concert I’d ever been to.
For those who claim Elton John above criticism… I give you the furore caused when he spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in flowers:
I had to look up Nigella Lawson. I love the use of “financial incontinence” & “financial constipation.”
So, Elton likes lots of flowers. Oh, well… Everybody is a critic.
Yes, she’s much more famous as a TV cook… Didn’t realise she wrote a column, though it was 20 years ago.
To me, it would be more surprising if Elton wasn’t spending vast sums of money on flowers… At least he was off the cocaine by that point.
I love The Police! This is one of my favorites. They are one of the few bands outside of the “Malt shop” era that I like.
Oh cool. Well, I’ll be posting quite a few of their songs in the next few months!
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