If It's Only Half-Broke, Don't Fix It?
In their tumultuous career, the Police managed to bridge the experimental new wave scene and the world of ‘80s corporate rock. Their work, as a result, features adventurous and unconventional approaches standing side-by-side with middle-of-the-road pop banalities, often within the same song. Could any other band create a strange and undulating stalker anthem that doubles as a wedding song? The Police’s mixture of the offbeat and the easily accessible, however, makes the band strangely anthology-resistant. A mere compilation of the Police’s greatest hits can only trivialize the band by turning them into the arena rock outfit that they never quite were.
This is the third version of Every Breath You Take. The first edition was, apparently, supposed to be the Police’s final album, but the band broke up after a hideous, self-sabotaged re-recording of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”. This slight collection contained all of the massive hits, with the exception of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” which was replaced by the ill-advised ‘86 remake. As a stopgap attempt to squeeze a dead band for one last wad of big cash, Every Breath You Take—The Singles was an unqualified success. As a satisfying retrospective of the band’s career, it was lacking. Although all the biggest of the biggest hits were represented, in fact coming one after another, the band’s lesser successes were left behind. Even “Synchronicity II”, a pretty massive radio hit, was left off the album, presumably because unlike all the other songs on the collection, its title wasn’t in the song’s chorus and none of the executives remembered how it went. The result was, like Bob Marley’s Legend, a collection of music for people who only had a passing interest in music. It was ample proof of Bruce McCullough’s now-legendary declaration that “greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls”.
In the nineties, the album was reissued as Every Breath You Take—The Classics. Unfortunately, few of the original collections’ mistakes were revised. The original version of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” finally took its rightful place on the album, but the remake inexplicably remained. Beyond that, the only difference between Classics and Singles was the inclusion of a “new classic rock mix” of “Message in a Bottle” that was probably an attempt to get Police completists to shell out money on what was essentially a reissue. Neither move improved the overall skimpy nature of the collection. Even a subsequent bargain bin Greatest Hits album had a more thorough tracklist and delved deeper into the Police’s catalogue.
On this third try, the producers do little more than remaster the Classics album, so apparently this is now the official canonical Police anthology. In defense of the album, the remastering job does actually improve the collection. The improved sound does a lot to highlight the subtleties of Andy Summers’s guitar work. His “white reggae” rhythm guitar work, not to mention his almost subliminal dub-inspired sound effects did much to make even straightforward pop songs such as “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” or “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” sound radically different from other hits of the era. The rhythm section also gets its due; I had never even noticed how Sting incorporated a subtle funk line in the middle of “King of Pain”. The remastering does much to highlight what made the Police interesting. However, any fan who would want a no-surprises collection from the Police would probably not care enough to notice the superior sound.
Song-for-song, Every Breath You Take is a great collection. Beyond the two “bonus” tracks, every song on this collection is a certifiable classic. That might be the problem. These songs are such a part of the public consciousness that listening to them back to back becomes quite a chore. The little iconoclastic tricks that make the Police interesting are smoothed over by the greatest hits format. With only “Walking on the Moon” and “Invisible Sun” as dark-horse choices for “classics”, the rest of the album gives the false impression that the band were actually tailoring their music for the car ads and movie trailers the songs would eventually be used in.
If someone at A&M had a little imagination and was willing to overhaul the tracklist even slightly, Every Breath You Take could have really been the canonical anthology that the label is trying to label it. If the “bonus tracks” were taken away, and a few album sides or English singles were included (I would make a strong case for “Canary in a Coalmine”, but I know that it’s a hopeless cause), Every Breath You Take could have been a comprehensive portrait of an adventurous band that never left behind a definitive album. As it is, it sounds like just more product from the band that gave birth to Sting’s listless solo career. The band deserves more.