The Tuk Ten, Day 7: The Police – Synchronicity (1983)
Sometimes a band can become so commercially successful that their artistic merit vanishes underneath the fame. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the punk rock movement was sweeping across the UK and America in reaction to the psychedelic rock of the 1960s and the yacht rock that dominated radio in the early 1970s. Punk was simple and aggressive, and it didn’t care about airplay, or authority or convention.
The Police were a band that brought together several threads and wove them into radio friendly rock that was simply inescapable from their first album in 1977 onward. The Police were sui generis. There was no other band that sounded like them. From the first few notes or moments of a song, you could easily tell that it was a Police song.
Why were The Police different from every other rock band from the UK? That’s not an easy question to answer. Yes, they wrote and played rock tunes that were structurally simple. Yes, almost all of their songs, especially the hits (and there were many of them), were under 4 or 5 minutes in length.
Stylistically, the band incorporated many influences into their unmistakable sound: rock, punk and reggae. For all the accolades that Sting gets as a songwriter, which are all well deserved, this band had a compositional secret weapon that to this day is not discussed enough. That weapon was drummer Stewart Copeland. Copeland is an American, unlike bassist/singer Sting and guitarist Andy Summers, who are both British. Copeland, however, grew up in the Middle East, and his formative musical influences were from Arabic music.
Most rock music is in what’s called 4/4 time. That is, there are 4 beats in a measure, and the listener can tap their foot along and count in groups of four and the musical transitions will almost always occur on the first beat of the measure (or the “one” of a measure). For those non musicians reading this, hang in there. Rock music typically has a strong backbeat, that is the snare drum plays loudly on the “2” and “4” of every measure. Think of saying it out loud: one, TWO, three, FOUR, etc. In most of Copeland’s drumbeats he wrote on the Police material, the pulse is somewhere else. It was rarely on 2 and 4, and when it was, it was done with great purpose and intent.
In Copeland’s compositional style, his drumming displays a reggae influence, where the pulse is on beat three (one, two, THREE, four). Sometimes the pulse was on an upbeat. Without getting into too much music theory, Copeland would put the pulse where Western ears didn’t expect it, yet he could still make the music groove, which is a feat of massive proportions.
With that background, the Police first took the UK by storm starting in 1977. Like Hendrix, The Beatles and many other now legendary musical performers, the band’s recording career was very short and has had an outsized influence. The band released an album a year over a four year span: Outlandos d’Amour (1978), Reggatta de Blanc (1979), Zenyatta Mondatta (1980), Ghost in the Machine (1981). It was a prolific burst of creativity that brought us classics like Roxanne, Message in a Bottle, Can’t Stand Losing You, Don’t Stand so Close to Me, Spirits in the Material World, and Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, among many others. On the strength of their unique sound, and stellar songwriting and arranging, the Police were a hit machine.
This brings us to their fifth and final studio album, Synchronicity, which was released in 1983. This album spawned two Billboard Number One hits (Every Breath You Take and King of Pain), and two other Top 10 hits, Synchronicity II and Wrapped Around Your Finger. The album was Number One overall in the US for seventeen weeks.
Despite the commercial success, the artistic excellence of the material cannot be denied. From a writing and arranging standpoint, there is one of the finest examples of concision in all of rock music in Every Breath You Take. There is not one wasted verse or chorus. There is not one wasted note in the entire song. The song is minimalism exemplified, smartly written and executed.
It is true that the band’s reggae influence is not at the forefront of this record. Many of the songs on this record have a more straight thread rock feel, but my two favorite songs from Synchronicity are not the hits. There are two ethereal tracks at the end of the recording (on side two for you vinyl lovers out there) that to me are the pinnacle of what make the Police such a great band. Those two tracks are Tea in the Sahara and Wrapped Around Your Finger.
Both songs are cinematic. These songs could have been paired with an epic film and completely added to the experience. The defining characteristic about these two songs in particular is the use of space in each. To begin with, playing in a trio allows each musician to have quite a lot of room to work within. But both Tea in the Sahara and Wrapped Around Your Finger are sparsely arranged and atmospheric. The percussion parts that Copeland plays on both tracks leave a lot of room for Andy Summers’ atmospheric guitars and Sting’s very sparse bass lines. They are both works of art and beauty. These two tracks make the album worthwhile.
One footnote to the record is that on a later version of the CD, an apparently live recording of Murder By Numbers was included. This track is not on the original release of the album. For all of the high production that permeates Synchronicity throughout, this performance of Murder By Numbers has a much looser feel than the rest of the album’s tracks, which is a welcome punctuation to the end of the recording.
Some recordings do not age well. Critical listeners can survey the depth of the material quickly and repeated listenings do not yield any reward to the listener. Classic records have a depth of character and construction that with each repeated experience, the listener is rewarded anew with a realization of a previously undiscovered nuance or meaning. Synchronicity is a record that belongs in your collection, and a work of art that reveals itself more and more each time.
Walking in Your Footsteps
O My God
Every Breath You Take
King of Pain
Wrapped Around Your Finger
Tea in the Sahara
Murder by Numbers
Bryan Tuk is a author, attorney and musician. His recent book: risk, create, change: a survival guide for startups and creators, is available on Amazon. You can find out more about Bryan’s writings and music at http://riskcreatechange.com
His law practice represents clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey and focuses on arts & entertainment law matters, copyrights, trademarks, nonprofit organizations, startups and entrepreneurs. You can learn about Bryan’s law practice at http://tuklaw.com.