Whether you loved it or hated it, there’s no talking about 1983 without talking about the Police’s mega-smash Synchronicity, released 38 years ago last Thursday. The album even knocked Michael Jackson’s mighty Thriller off the top of the Billboard charts, a position it reached no less than 17 times.
Did I mention it was released on the 17th? Do I need to?
The album also fed into the 1983 zeitgeist by seeding the concept of synchronicity into the mass mind, even if the two songs sharing the name failed to demonstrate that Sting had even a rudimentary grasp of the concept. But that’s OK. Baby steps, right?
Synchronicity would be the last studio album the band would ever make as Sting would embark on a solo career as soon as the long and grueling tour supporting the album was over. They would later reform for an extremely lucrative victory lap in 2007, but would never record together again. Mostly because the band famously hated each other, which was mostly a function of Sting being an insufferable narcissist and Stewart Copeland having one of the most irritating personalities in show business.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Police were one of those bands that rose up in the wake of the Punk explosion, made up of journeymen musicians who were cast adrift when most of the big clubs in Britain stopped booking prog and fusion acts. They were Copeland’s project (don’t worry, we’ll get into it soon enough) as he was needing a gig after Curved Air -- the prog band he was playing for at the time -- got dropped from their label.
He teamed up with Gordon “Sting” Sumner, a former schoolteacher who was also finding himself with nowhere to play when clubs stopped booking fusion bands. The pair then enlisted a non-English-speaking guitarist with an intensely limited musical skillset named Henry Padovani, and went about writing and recording some very good fake punk songs.
Sadly, real punks sniffed them out as bandwagon jumpers as soon as they stepped onstage. Sting started going wobbly on the project and was enlisted to play in Mike Howlett’s (another newly-unemployed prog-rocker who later became a top producer) stab at New Wave. They make some very good fake New Wave together, but couldn’t get any label interest.
But they got Andy Summers -- a middle-aged guitar ace who'd played with a late-period version of The Animals -- out of the deal and from there it was off to the races.
Pure punk was losing favor by this point anyway and the major bands were starting to branch out into New Wave and Post-Punk. The Clash, the punk standard-bearers following the collapse of The Sex Pistols, were beginning to experiment more with reggae and ska, mixing the off-kilter beats with punk guitar. Stewart Copeland smelled gold underneath all the pot smoke.
Reggae never really made it in the US but was adopted by British skinheads as their music-of-choice. Skins back then were raw-knuckled working-class kids who hated psychedelia and prog and enjoyed beating up hippies to the rough and raunchy sounds of early Ska and rocksteady. They hated the punks too, until a Cockney yob named Jimmy Pursey came along with a gnarly band called Sham 69 and inspired a skinhead-dominated sub-genre of Punk called Oi.
In any event, Stewart Copeland was paying very close attention to what The Clash were doing and figured if a bunch of guys who could barely play their instruments could find success with that hybrid, what might a bunch of top-rank pros like The Police do with it?
The answer came rather quickly with “Roxanne,” which entered The Police into the 1979 New Wave gold rush that made stars of Blondie, The Cars, The B-52s, Devo and The Knack.
“Roxanne” and “Can’t Stand Losing You” got some US airplay so the band loaded up an old station wagon and toured the States the hard way. But their shows became legendary, with the band famously playing just as hard to three people as three hundred. WBCN in Boston, which would later break The Clash, U2 and other bands in America, took The Police on as their pet project, which resulted in a well-circulated live set from the Orpheum later in the year (the band would later officially release it along with a 1983 concert as a live boxset).
I was only casually interested in The Police until the release of Regatta De Blanc, which moved the sound from frantic pop-punk to spacey, druggy post-punk, drenched into the new generation of electronic effects streaming in from the US and Japan. Then I was smitten.
See, I was a 13 year-old stoner and the band’s scratchy, percussive soundscapes were almost alchemically engineered to sync up with my stoned adolescent brain. I’d never heard anyone play guitar the way Andy Summers did, on account of no one on the planet ever had. In many ways his guitar was the minimalist counterpoint to Eddie Van Halen, exploring some of the same futuristic territory but doing so with space and interval in place of fat, arpeggiated chords and blizzards of hammer-ons.
I was a little less impressed with Zenyatta Mondatta (1980), which was an obviously-rushed companion set. But it garnered gold for the band, thanks to the bouncy “Da Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and Sting’s perverted-pedo fantasy-fest “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
I played the shit out of Ghost in the Machine (1981), which served up a dizzying array of rhythms and textures without reverting to pastiche. But Ghost would also deepen the band’s connection to the Chatham House-concocted One-Worldism that would draw in a lot of rock’s upper-crust throughout the 80s as an alleged ameliorative to the allegedly imminent “nuclear threat” of the Cold War.
“World Music” was the soundtrack to One-Worldism, coming as it did out of the same think-tanks and intelligence agencies. Musicians with extensive familial ties to the military, intelligence and the aristocracy— The Police, The Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and The Clash, among others — would be enlisted to sell the concept, and massive concerts would be organized to allegedly benefit various Foreign Office/Mi6 cut-outs such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Amnesty International and Live Aid.
Even if the acts enlisted to help out scored some very big hits, World Music never really took hold. It was very much a top-down affair trading primarily in cultural appropriation, and was mainly consumed by the upper-middle class cosmopolitans already sold on the imperial concept.
Worse, oceans of blood were bubbling under the surface, since the same agencies pushing One-Worldism were the same agencies violently overthrowing Third World governments and impoverishing hundreds of millions of people. And all of this was very much inspired by the philosophies of CIA co-founder Miles Copeland, father of Stewart and Police manager Miles Copeland the Third.
Even so, The Police were clearly moving away from the World Music concept with Synchronicity. Sting had demoed most of the songs by himself and expected the band to follow his marching orders. This led to an enormous amount of in-fighting, both verbal and physical. Desperate, producer Hugh Pagdham called in Miles Copeland (the Third, mind you) to smooth things over, later saying the album was just one meeting away from never happening.
The resulting album was essentially Diet Police, offering a very slick simulacrum of ideas they’d already thoroughly explored. The two “Synchronicity’s” were straight-forward 80s New Wave rock, you had a pair of obligatory moody set-pieces (“Walking in Your Footsteps” and “Tea in the Sahara”), as well as the big hits and a 1-2-3 TKO of substandard filler: Summer’s unlistenable “Mother,” Sting’s half-baked “Oh My God” and Copeland’s “Bombs Away” rewrite, “Miss Gradenko.”
It was all well-played and well-produced, but it had all been done better before.
It didn’t matter, though: the record industry was set on following in the post-Jaws Hollywood model and releasing blockbusters that could be sold and then resold to the public, seven inches at a time. The four big singles from Synchronicity would get played to death; anyone paying attention to the radio never wanted to ever hear “Every Breath You Take” again by the Fourth of July of that year. In this, Synchronicity was very much a trailblazer for the template the industry would follow for the next several decades.
I remember "Every Breath You Take" was first played on WBCN around the end of my junior year, which is ironic given the album has kind of that last day of school feel. I think every Police fan got the feeling this was the end of the line, and some friends who saw one of the last dates of the tour said the vibe was very weird and depressing. All of which is to say that no one on Earth was surprised when Sting eventually announced the band was on “hiatus” and that he was working on a solo album.
Of course Sting's solo album and its follow-ups killed any interest I had left in Sting, and saw my Police LPs gather dust for very many years. (I’m always surprised by how bands I was passionate about in the early Eighties just died for me by decade’s end). Sting’s solo music was not all that conceptually different than his Police music, but the presentation got very yacht-club cocktail-hour and his ego grew in proportion to the production costs and day-player salaries.
THE UNDERSTUDIES GET THEIR BREAK
The biggest beneficiary of The Police’s breakup were U2.
The Dublin band were the pet project of Island Records head Chris Blackwell, who needed to patch the giant hole in his wallet left by Bob Marley’s passing. U2’s early singles are total amateur-hour trash by any objective standard, but Blackwell rightly thought they had superstar potential.
He enlisted up-and-coming producer Steve Lillywhite to conjure up some gold of the band’s lead and it seems like the first order of business was getting The Edge — whose style at the time was largely a fanboy take on Stuart Adamson’s playing with The Skids — to listen to a lot of Police records, because you started hearing a lot more pizzazz— and reverb — in U2’s sound. I recognized the Andy Summers’ influence— the harmonics, the arpeggiated chords, and of course, all the reverb— during my first spin of Boy, though I’m not certain how many others did.
Either way, U2 were slow-starters for Blackwell, so much so that his board wanted him to drop the band after October tanked. He didn’t, and instead sank a ton of money in selling the band’s third album War, which was essentially just “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” and a shit-ton of filler of varying degrees of quality (and lack-thereof).
But you can sell even the shittiest album if you have two strong singles, and War went gold. However, I doubt Blackwell was overjoyed with those sales, given the obvious investment he’d made in promoting the album. The band weren’t either, reportedly, and reports started coming in they were going to break up.
But Blackwell’s luck soon changed. The Police collapsed over the finish line after their back-breaking Synchronicity tour, leaving pretty much everyone certain they were calling it a day. Other labels were grooming bands such as INXS and The Fixx to fill that “safe and acceptable modern rock band” niche The Police had created and abandoned, but Blackwell continued to believe in U2, even after War’s underperformance, and even amid reports they were working up a bunch of weird and arty bullshit with Brian Eno in an old castle somewhere. It didn’t matter because Sting announced his solo project in the early autumn of 1984, clearing the lanes for U2.
Unfortunately, U2 repaid Blackwell’s undying faith with The Unforgettable Fire, which was every bit as filler-ridden as War but lacked a single with “Sunday’s” power. Still, everyone wanted a dose of that Synchronicity sunshine, so Island pushed “Pride (in the Name of Love)” with great gusto and gumption and squeaked it into the Top 40. Heavy airplay on rock radio eventually pushed the LP to platinum status the following year and set the stage for U2s big breakthrough in 1987 with The Joshua Tree.
But just what an inferior replacement Bono was for Sting was made painfully clear in 1986 when The Police reformed for an Amnesty International benefit at Giants Stadium. Bono — looking like the biggest fucking dork ever to walk the earth — wandered confusedly onstage to duet with Sting on “Invisible Sun,” I guess on account of Bono was the self-appointed King of Ireland and the song’s theme required his blessing.
Unfortunately, Bono just came across like the pasty kid picked last in gym class next to Sting’s lithesome alpha-ness. He was dressed like he was going to a Fields of the Nephilim LARP and flubbed the lyrics to the song, croaking a melange of random couplets Sting already delivered instead of the actual verses. A sneak preview of Bono cringe-monsoons to come, surely.
YES, YES BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SYNCHRONICITY?
Pfft; not much to talk about. Sting was a typical rock star in that he loved to namecheck all the latest intellectual accessories but he didn’t seem to understand them all that well.
“Synchronicity 1” is a peppy little toe-tapper and has some nice mystically-tinged couplets, but the second one’s lyrics are pure Spinal Tap. Sting never really explains what the Loch Ness monster has to do with Rice Krispies or horny secretaries, and his narrative comes across as silly, portentous and extremely tiresome. I’ve always found the song itself tiresome, actually. It’s like they were trying to do a 1983 take on their earlier, guitar-heavy material, but it just never takes flight.
Then again the “Scottish loch” thing connects us obliquely to the living avatar of Synchromysticism, so maybe Sting was sensing something he couldn’t quite understand or articulate.
No matter. Like I said, the point was to plant the seed for future synchronauts, so sometimes it’s best to spread those seeds as far and wide as you can. 1983, you see.
* Two weeks before my 17th birthday, incidentally.