522. ‘Every Breath You Take’, by The Police

We’re back among the classics, after a dubious (though admittedly catchy) detour with New Edition. The Police then, with their final, and their biggest, chart-topper.

Every Breath You Take, by The Police (their 5th and final #1)

4 weeks, 29th May – 26th June 1983

I press play, and before the song is halfway through questions begin to arise. Has this record been dulled by repetition? (At any given moment of the day, a radio station somewhere is playing ‘Every Breath You Take’.) Is it just that little bit too glossy, too polished? Has Sting’s voice tipped over the edge into soft-rock crooning…?

Don’t get me wrong, the opening riff, and the simple but effective chord progression thereafter, is a great hook. It can take its place among pop’s great moments. It’s a record that begins with complete confidence in itself… but I’m not sure it builds upon this strong start. It comes close with the How my poor heart aches, With every step you take… line, which is great. But the rest of the song is a bit cold, a bit clinical and, by the end, a bit boring…

Perhaps the problem’s not musical, but lyrical. It’s become a cliché to point out that this is a stalker’s anthem, but it’s true. It’s not a nice song. Every single day, Every word you say… It’s clearly about a possessive, jealous, and potentially dangerous, lover watching his ex. Yet take the title by itself, with the lines about hearts aching and people belonging to one another, and you can convince yourself that it’s a love song. Apparently it some people play it at their weddings…

I was ready for this to finally redeem The Police in my eyes, to show me why they were the biggest band of the late-seventies and early-eighties, as I’d struggled to love their previous #1s. But it hasn’t… In fact, turns out my favourite is their first: ‘Message in a Bottle’. I just didn’t realise it at the time. I’m in the minority on this, though, it seems – ‘Every Breath You Take’ is a Rolling Stone / Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Greatest of All Time kind of tune. In 2015 it was voted the UK’s favourite ‘80s #1, and in 2019 it was named the ‘most played song in radio history’, taking over from ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’.

You could compare The Police with another band we’ve recently bid farewell to on this countdown: The Jam. Both rose out of the punk scene in the late seventies to become two of the biggest British new wave bands. Both left their punk roots far behind, but The Jam did so with a sense of exploration – look at the funky ‘Precious’ and the Motown influenced ‘Town Called Malice’. Whereas The Police went down a more soft-rock route, culminating in this monster hit.

And it is a good song, I’m not writing it off completely. But it’s a little too cold, too negative, and too overplayed, to be a favourite. To finish, here’s a very tenuous link between this record, and the previous #1 I mentioned in the intro. ‘Candy Girl’ was the first rap chart-topper… while ‘Every Breath You Take’ will be heavily sampled in what I believe is the best-selling rap single ever released…

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10 thoughts on “522. ‘Every Breath You Take’, by The Police

  1. In America, this is by far the biggest song the Police ever did being their only #1 here for eight weeks and named by Billboard as the biggest song of 1983. Tom Breihan even pointed out that if you combine the #1 chart run of this song and the Puff Daddy song that sampled it in 1997 it would tie with “Old Town Road” for the longest run at #1 ever. It’s also the last time a song would spend this long of time at #1 for almost a decade when the charts adopted SoundScan tracking technology instantly allowing songs to spend more and more time at #1 as they were now being better tracked. From now til 1992, it’s a lot of turnover in the #1 spot in the US. Perhaps the song’s more soft rock/slow dance nature is what turned the song into a massive hit in a way the Police’s earlier hits couldn’t along with now being a big act here. I like it just fine for me considering it has a lot of interesting elements especially that guitar riff that anchors the song and Sting sings it well despite the stalker undertones which is hilariously pointed out by Selena Gomez in the Hulu show Only Murders In The Building when Sting makes an appearance. Though I have noticed that while my family do like the Police’s music and even saw them during their peak, they usually don’t play “Every Breath You Take” but instead the more rocking early stuff like “Roxanne” or “Message In A Bottle.” Of course, the Police wouldn’t last much longer but Sting would impact the charts on his own with his vocals and songwriting credit on Dire Straits’ 1985 #1 “Money For Nothing” and in 1994 got his only solo #1 with the schlocky and forgettable soundtrack ballad “All For Love” with Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams and was still charting high as recent as 2000 with the #17 “Desert Rose” though with his own music got as high as #3 with 1985’s “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.”

  2. Monotonous…I never understood why it hit so big and man it was played way too much. I liked them a little when they were fun…this is not fun.

  3. I love the moody starkness and monotonous rhythm, sets off the disturbing lyrics beautifully as does the black and white video. Its not like it could have realistically been an every little thing soundalike. I love this in the same way i love the maligned Invisible Sun. Serious but not pretentious. The album is great too youve got the beautiful but semi disturbing Wrapped Around Your Finger the rocking out Synchronicity II and the not bad King Of Pain. Not much reggae on display but hey its a zillion times better than the awful 90s rewrite that didnt convince me of its sincerity, and even if it had it still comes over as one of those charity records thrown together to raise cash. Only without the charity. Sorry I know its beloved of many!: )

    • It’s a fine song, I was just expecting a bigger ‘wow’ for such a renowned hit. Not that I hadn’t heard it many times before this, obviously… But it’s different when you’re actually sitting down and paying attention. As for the remake/rewrite/cover… whatever it is… I liked it as a kid, but unlike the original I haven’t heard it in years and so am interested to see what I make of it when it comes along. I have a very specific (sad) memory attached to it, too…

  4. Pingback: 523. ‘Baby Jane’, by Rod Stewart | The UK Number Ones Blog

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