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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488. ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’, by The Police

Part IV of my ongoing campaign to enjoy The Police more

Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, by The Police (their 4th of five #1s)

1 week, 8th – 15th November 1981

I do really want to like their records, but there’s always something holding me back. Something about the production, the jaunty reggae rhythms, Sting’s voice… It just doesn’t work for me. Here, the punky edge from their late-seventies records, ‘Message in a Bottle’ in particular, has gone. In its place are synths, and a very MOR piano line.

All of The Police’s chart-toppers so far have centred on not getting what you want (‘Message…’) or what you want not lasting (‘Walking on the Moon’ and, at a stretch, ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’). ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ falls into the former category. Sting wants to tell a girl all of the feelings he has for her, in his heart, but… alas.

What usually saves Police songs for me are the choruses. They sure could write a killer chorus. The verses might meander, and the fade-outs may be too long, but the choruses kick. Every little thing she does is magic, Everything she do just turn me on… Even though my life before was tragic, Now I know my love for her goes on… The lyrics may look clumsy when typed out, but it’s such an air-punching moment you don’t really notice.

The rest of the song, though? Meh. Something about the mix is quite stodgy, with the voices buried under the instruments. There’s the piano – unusual for a Police song – and African drums. A stripped-back, more guitar-based version would work better for me. But that’s just, like, my opinion. And it’s something I’ll have to get used to as the 1980s wear on: guitars taking much more of a back seat.

This record, the second single from the band’s fourth album, isn’t a giant departure from what went before, but it was different enough for guitarist Andy Summers to object, both to the piano and to the production. It’s definitely The Police’s poppiest #1. And the reason that Sting’s vocals sound so distant may be because the band played over a demo he had recorded months before. And I’m with Summers on this: something about it doesn’t quite click.

So. Four of The Police’s #1s down, one to go. Will the last one – still a year and a half away – finally be the Police song I can love? Well, actually, yes it will. Because their final chart-topper is a decade-defining classic. Until then, then…

467. ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’, by The Police

You’ve probably noticed that we’re taking our time to meander through 1980. The #1 records in this year didn’t hang around long at the top, with lots of one or two-week stays. But here comes the longest-lodging chart-topper of the year, the lead single from The Police’s brand-new album, entering at the top, for a whole month.

Don’t Stand So Close to Me, by The Police (their 3rd of five #1s)

4 weeks, 21st September – 19th October 1980

Ominous synths, and some guitar noodling. Not the blockbuster kick-off you might have hoped for. But if The Police’s last #1, ‘Walking on the Moon’, taught me anything it’s that this is a band who don’t mind dragging things out. Then in comes a familiar reggae-rhythm, and in that moment you know exactly who you are listening to.

Young teacher, The subject, Of schoolgirl fantasy… I have a few issues with this record, this eighties reboot of ‘Young Girl’, but first off I do like the short, sharp, tabloidy snippets that make up the lyrics. She wants him, So badly, Knows what she wants to be… Though, the tone is so fraught, the synths so ominous, that I think it would be better suited to an even more serious subject. A killer on the loose, Jack the Ripper, something like that…

As with the band’s first chart-topper, ‘Message in a Bottle’, I’m waiting for something to grab me. Luckily, like ‘Message…’ this record has another great chorus. It whacks the song right into life: Don’t stand, Don’t stand so, Don’t stand so close to me… It’s driving, and catchy, and I wish more Police singles could have kept this sort of pace up throughout.

‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ is based on Sting’s own experiences – he was an English teacher before the band took off – and here is where my concerns creep in. ‘Creep’ being the key term. In it the teacher offers the girl a ride, we can assume he sleeps with her, and word travels around… Then we arrive at what is either one of the best or one of the worst rhyming couplets ever to feature in a chart-topping single: It’s no use, He sees her, He starts to shake and cough… Just like the, Old man in, That book by Nabokov… One things for sure: any English teacher worth their salt knows the name of that book!

There is no evidence that Mr Sumners ever had his wicked way with one of his young charges. Though he has gone on record to say that the temptation was real: “I don’t know how I managed to keep my hands off them,” he revealed, in an interview the following year. I mean… I think it might be the modern-day, slightly pretentious, Tantric-sex version of Sting that makes this sit so uncomfortably. Plus, the song comes across as a bit of a humble-brag: oh how awful it was having teenagers throwing themselves at me, so I became a rock star – a profession famous for its limited access to horny sixteen-year-olds…

Anyway. This is an enjoyable song, though I’m still finding it slightly irritating in the same vague and undefinable way that I’ve found all of The Police’s #1s so far. But, not only was it the longest-running #1 of 1980, it was also the year’s biggest selling single. The Police were huge in this moment, at the height of their fame. Four weeks was enough to make this the year’s longest-running, a run which in other years would have been completely average. 1980 will have a total of twenty-four #1s, tied with 1965 for the most up to then. It’s a figure that won’t be matched again until 1996, or beaten until 1998, when #1 turnover was about to reach its peak.

447. ‘Walking on the Moon’, by The Police

Back in my post on Blondie’s ‘Sunday Girl’, I pushed the idea of a forgotten number one. A band racks up a few chart-toppers; one inevitably doesn’t remain in our collective memories quite as much as the others. Here then, is The Police’s…

Walking on the Moon, by The Police (their 2nd of five #1s)

1 week, from 2nd – 9th December 1979

It’s got a slow build up, this one, with a bass riff and sparse, chiming guitars. It’s got even more of a reggae vibe than the band’s first #1, ‘Message in a Bottle, and more than a hint of jazz in the tickly drums. I like it, at first. Sting’s walking back from his girlfriend’s house: Walking back from your house, Walking on the moon… The idea is that when you’re in the first throws of love, you feel light, as if you could defy gravity.

Which is nice. But the concept, and the stripped-back music, gets stretched very thin over this five minute record. I keep waiting for the punk guitars to kick in, as they did to save ‘Message in a Bottle’, but they never do. The liveliest it gets is the middle-eight: So, they say… I’m wishing my days away… The pace quickens, and a little urgency enters Sting’s voice, for a moment or two. But, on the whole, I’m filing this one under ‘dull’.

I admitted in my first Police post that they were a band I struggled with, and this record is not doing much to change my mind. As I listen, I have one eye on the ‘Meh’ award in my upcoming recap… But. I think this is a bit of a false start to the Police’s chart-topping career. 1979 might have been their most prolific year, in terms of #1s; however, there is better to come from their eighties hits. I just know it.

The last minute is one giant fade out, with Sting chanting Keep it up… for far longer than he needs to. You begin to wish they hadn’t kept it up, or had at least considered a radio-edit. (One does exist, but pretty much every version around nowadays is the full-length album track.) ‘Walking on the Moon’ would sound pleasant at a beach bar around sunset, but you wonder how this managed to become a best-selling single. Of course, that might be an indicator of how big The Police were at this stage of their career – their second album – and that they were well on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world…