The Police: Legendary Synchronicity

My friend Gil called me up and invited me to lunch. I was a marketing person and he was president of A&M Records (and my boss) so I immediately knew three things: Lunch would be delicious, Gil would be paying, and I would learn something. From my earliest days in the music business and having been taught a few things by a master of promotion, Augie Blume, I was always interested in learning from anyone I worked with or worked for. And that day in 1983 was one of those “holy shit” moments. In a very good way.

The pace of change in recording technology was poised to accelerate in the 1980s, exciting and confounding us all at the same time. But that didn’t matter that day. We were already accustomed to hearing what a record sounded like in the car. After all, as radio remained the primary driver of new music in the ’80s, and commuter traffic was just beginning to feel unbearable, generations of music lovers had been trained to listen in the car.

Gil drove us to the restaurant in West Hollywood but the conversation would come later. The good news, as it turns out, was that he couldn’t wait to put a tape in his cassette player. He turned to me and said – with a shit-eating grin on his face – “I’d like your opinion of this.”

I didn’t pay attention to the mechanical sounds of the cassette or the player, and I ignored any hiss from the tape or the sound of Gil’s voice, if he was talking. From the opening rimshot through the first 16 seconds (about 6-8 bars) the style suggested he could have been playing a song from 1962, constructed with a simple four-chord progression. But the quality of the production, the precision of the players and the voice singing the opening line confirmed this was no 2-track golden oldie. Eighteen seconds into the tape the voice of Sting confirmed I was listening to a new track by Police. “It was “Every Breath You Take,” the first track I heard from the forthcoming “Synchronicity” album. Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, and Sting would not again achieve this level of recording as a group. The trajectory of their recordings had hit their zenith at this moment. We all expected future recordings but this was their real parting shot. And it was a shot heard round the world.

As the playback finished Gil asked, “What do you think?”

My answer was to ask him to play it again. And he did. His next question was simply: “Well?”

My thoughts went something like this. The song was musically simple, lyrically dark, and absolutely Police. Its simplicity made it instantly familiar. As we walked into the restaurant I couldn’t figure out if the single was simply an entree to a spectacular album, or if Police had run out of true creativity.  But I knew it was a hit. Gil smiled, agreed, and we proceeded to have lunch. On the way back I asked him about the rest of the album. He only said “Don’t worry. It’s all there.” A few days later I received my own advance cassette of the complete album. The collection of songs reinforced my opinion that this band was hitting on all cylinders.

To their credit, the “Synchronicity” album was not a collection of songs in the vein of “Every Breath You Take.” They covered the Police spectrum. “Synchronicity I” could have been a track from an early album. Yet “Synchronicity II” was clearly the band mixing their patented power-playing and power-vocalizing with lyrics that were not part of every day songwriting, as the lyrics lament the worst parts of a white-collar or factory worker’s labor, i.e. receiving “a humiliating kick in the crotch.” Or when the lyrics draw a comparison (through recurring passages) of being something that“crawls from the slime at the bottom of a dark Scottish lake.” More imagery emerged with “crossing picket lines” and seeing “factory belching filth” into the air. By the end of the song it’s the employee returning home to his cottage at the shore of the Scottish lake that suggests it is he who rises from the slime.

Consider next who is actually in control in the song “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” Sting makes references to fringe ideas and characters to make his point. No generic demon will suffice, so he calls on a name from Faust, “Mephistopheles.” Similarly, he evokes the names of sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis from Greek Mythology. The names provide perfect rhythm and mystery and can be interpreted as Sting digging deep into lyricism or trying to prove he’s an intellectual. While it can be read either way, I’d lean to the former. The tracks “Tea In The Sahara” and “Murder By Numbers” were strong signals as to where Sting’s songwriting was heading, signals borne out with the release of “Dream Of The Blue Turtles” in 1985.

“Outlandos d’Amour (1979); “Reggatta de Blanc” (1980); Zenyatta Mondatta (1981); “Ghost in the Machine” (1982),  and “Synchronicity” (1983). (Yes, I’m ignoring “Brimstone & Treacle.”) They didn’t say it in 1983 but it became apparent that Police, as a band, was history. A gigantic world tour delighted fans around the world. There was a moment in September ’83, standing and watching the concert at Hollywood Park in Inglewood that I finally had a feel for what it must have been like to see The Beatles at Shea. Amplification and adoring fans. But it was an event.

For the next year the venues filled with masses of fans, the ticket prices helped maximize everyone’s profit (not a bad thing), and we (A&M Records) continued to sell hundreds of thousands, and then millions of albums (the last I heard Synchronicity sold 8 million in North America). And then, inevitably, the band’s dissolution began. It was one wildly successful artist I was involved with from first album to last. What each of them did later is important, and each found measures of critical and financial success. But those “Synchronicity” days were amazing days.

2019-04-02T08:58:41-05:00Music|

About the Author:

David Steffen is a long-time music biz veteran, getting his start in FM radio before spending 20+ years in the record industry, working at A&M Records , BMG and BMG Video as senior executive in marketing and head of A&R. He then spent two years successfully revitalizing jazz label, GRP Records. He holds a Master’s degree in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University and spent time teaching at the collegiate level before relocating to the Mendocino Coast (wine country!). Today, David is a writer and independent publicist, as well as editor of the monthly newspaper, The Lighthouse Peddler. He can be reached for comment at Jazzdavid@aol.com.