Desert Island Discs? Pah. How about a single musical morsel for sustenance, one solitary assemblage of crotchets and quavers with which to maintain contact with the life you crave, fuelling longing while somehow preserving optimism? If you’re a devotee of this site, you don’t need me to tell you that asks don’t get much stiffer.
I was sorely tempted to stick to wordless recordings. Without them, we listeners can be more flexible in where we allow the melody, rhythm and instruments to take us, and thus be less prone to permitting explicit sentiments to dictate our response. For me, Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No1, Keith Jarrett’s My Song, Santana’s Song of the Wind, Weather Report’s Birdland, Pat Metheny’s It’s For You, Todd Rundgren’s A Treatise On Cosmic Fire and The Allman Brothers’ inspired live expansion of In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed all fit the bill admirably.
But without words, and the flesh and feelings they add to the music, the impact can never be quite the same. The composer seeks to capture the mood and bottle it, as do the players, largely under instruction. Even then, the words, as Steely Dan and Randy Newman have illustrated most saltily, winkingly and winningly, may be at diametric spiritual odds to the jauntiness, even the funkiness, of the music.
Setting that last caveat aside (speaking of asides, can anyone truly imagine Randy or The Dan having remotely the success today, or ever again, that they enjoyed in their heyday?), I narrowed down my candidates to recordings where music and words harmonise and merge to form a third entity, the song. The emotion-bending intention is as plain as the sand on that accursed deserted beach.
Let’s face it: the last thing you’d want, or need, is something that sounds sad or sombre, so that rules out the compelling likes of Carole King’s So Far Away, Rickie Lee Jones’ We Belong Together and Tom Waits’ inexpressibly melancholic take on West Side Story’s Somewhere. Out there in the slough of despond that solitude would bring, unbridled enthusiasm, skyscraper-vaulting positivism and a relentlessly upbeat musical core would be my essentials.
Yet over the first few days of this newborn decade, as I’ve sucked and savoured this juiciest of inessential questions, and despite considerable opposition from The Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, XTC, Van Morrison and countless other joybringers, one song has soared most frequently and irresistibly into my internal ear (enhanced by the timelessly jubilant video): Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.
Forget Messrs McCartney, Lennon, Jackson and Plant. Has any member of a bank-breaking band ever transcended collectivism with such verve and inventiveness as Sting? For every one of my most precious Police gems (Walking On The Moon, The Bed’s Too Big Without You, Tea in the Sahara, Spirits In The Material World, Darkness) I could counter-offer a solo Sting jewel of equal if not greater lustre (Fragile, I Was Brought To My Senses, Brand New Day, The Last Ship, Seven Days).
If The Police’s innovative bouillabaisse of reggae, jazz, punk, pop and rock represented a step forward that could never be emulated, Sting’s solo oeuvre has marched further still, ladling on the jazz and seasoning liberally with the touchstones: Memphis meets Nashville meets Motown on the banks of the Tyne, if we must get all geographical on our bottoms.
Aided by the stellar gifts of guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist David Sancious, drummers Omar Hakim and Vinnie Colaiuta, and horny siblings Wynton and Branford Marsalis, the upshot has been modern vocal music at its most luxuriant and ungenrefiable, sleek and slick yet profoundly moving. For sheer joie de vivre, though, nothing Gordon Sumner has done on his tod can quite compare with Every Little Thing.
It is easy to forget how popular The Police were in the early 1980s. After all, they released only five studio albums, in rapid succession at that. They were huge on both sides of the Atlantic, and far beyond. Given that so many more people had ready access to music by then, there is a case to be made for their having matched Liverpool’s moptoppiest for ears reached and hearts penetrated, however briefly.
In November 1981, Every Little Thing reached No1 in the UK, Canada, Holland and Ireland, No2 in Australia, No3 in Belgium and the US, No5 in Norway, No7 in New Zealand, No12 in South Africa and No15 in Finland. That it was kept off the summit Stateside by Foreigner’s Waiting For A Girl Like You and Dame Olivia’s Physical sends the soul hellwards. That covers have been waxed by artists as diverse as Chaka Demus and Pliers, Petula Clark, The Shadows and Shawn Colvin offers further proof of the universality of the lyric.
To these ears – Cream being an eradicable blind spot – Led Zeppelin, The Doors and The Who are the only bands to deploy three instrumentalists to such multifaceted and resounding effect as The Police, and only the last saddled the singer with extracurricular duties. Can anyone, even Rush fans mourning drummer Neil Peart, seriously doubt their divine right to be hailed as the ultimate power trio?
Whether wielding electric or acoustic, slapping, plucking or bowing, Sting is a bassist of invention and dexterity, but that was the least vital element he brought to The Police. As a tunesmith whose hits bridged five decades, he has few peers. As an English teacher turned lyricist he could be pretentious, granted, but the mastery of the tattoo-able line remains unquestionable. Then there’s that inimitable voice.
If Jim Morrison, Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey owned a goodly proportion of the few globally popular larynxes as instantly recognisable as Sting’s, the Coppers’ copper boasts greater range. Warm yet nuanced, clear but edgy, as convincing on ballads as rabble-rousers, never less than affecting. If The Last Ship’s lament for Newcastle’s shipbuilding yore and Fragile’s similarly soul-felt compassion for humankind remain the zenith of that voice’s achievements, it has never been more intoxicatingly exuberant than on Every Little Thing, nailing the transformative mood of the lyric, words that, for all their surface despair, send the spirits Sunward.
Stewart Copeland’s meaty, beaty, helter-skelter flourishes, heard at their most creative on his mould-breaking soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish, recall John Densmore in their versatility; if anything, he was even more adventurous than the Doors man. Never was he better than on Every Little Thing, turbo-charging the melody and sustaining the danceability, culminating in the climactic rat-tat-tatting that accompanies Sting’s Ee-ya-yo-ing, before suddenly decelerating for that unexpected, and delicious, coda.
Andy Summers’ guitar was always the unshowiest and most unsung cog, fundamental yet content to underpin Copeland’s manic energy and Sting’s rich, emotion-leaping tonsils. Here, even with the benefit of my brand new Bose external-noise-dispersing headphones, the extent of his contribution is virtually undetectable. Cascades of crisp rhythmic slashes, happily, are discernible. Every little helps.
Originally composed by Sting in 1976, the song was initially recorded as a demo, revolving around the piano motif played on the final version by Cat Stevens’ trusty palette-expander, Jean Roussel, whose twinkly tinkling had been so intrinsic to the hunky bedsit king’s 1973 piece de resistance, Foreigner Suite. Here he adds texture with some melodiously synthesised peeps and beeps – and perhaps even the steel drums (the credits are inconclusive). That duel with Copeland during the final furlongs is as thrilling as pop gets. And for all their genre-melding, The Police were catchy, and hence as pop as pop gets.
‘It seemed a bit soft for the band at first,’ Sting told The Independent in 1993. ‘But the demo was really great. It sounded like a No1 song to me. I took it to the band, who were reticent, still thinking it was soft. I was saying: “But listen, it’s a hit.” We tried to do it from scratch as The Police, but it didn’t have the same energy as the demo. After a degree of hair-pulling and torturing on my part, I got the band to play over the top of my demo.’
Hair-pulling and torturing? Coming out of the vast majority of mouths, that might sound like headline-grabbing hype, but it is easy to believe it of the Sting regime, undermined as it was by Copeland’s refusal to tug forelock. No wonder Gordy Boy ran out of challenges after that quintet of albums (plus an abortive sixth), resolving to call all the shots, all the time.
What he left behind was a canon seldom matched over such a brief timespan. Sixteen UK Top 50 hits, including five No1s, between October 1978 and January 1984, plus half a dozen US Top Tenners and five bucketload-selling 33-and-a-thirders. Music you could hum and tap and shake a tailfeather to, and even think to. Progressive and accessible. Of its moment yet timeless.
Every little thing they did was magic? Nobody can be that good that consistently, of course they can’t, but The Police came closer than most.
Rob Steen's 1994 book The Mavericks: English Football When Flair Wore Flares, is being reissued by Bloomsbury in April