The Police were something special. Three talents with egos and love/hate relationships to match, the trio seemed to effortlessly create better and more literate pop with each record—even as internal tensions grew wider. Then it was over; at the height of their powers and fame, the group disbanded and walked off like conquering heroes. Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers found their own little pockets where they could follow their music as they pleased. As for Sting, well, we all know about Sting. An aborted reunion in 1986 yielded the forgettable “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ‘86”, seeming to confirm that the Police no longer cared to make music together. A rare joint interview a few years back showed they hadn’t lost a step in the personality wars, though. Summers complained that he never received proper writing credit on “Every Breath You Take”, Sting taunted Summers with an invitation to his chalet, Copeland claimed Sting should have been drowned at birth, and then Summers and Sting set in on Copeland’s drumming skills. It’s one of the funniest reads ever.
So it was a real pleasure to see the band reunite at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. They eased through a tight, amazing version of “Roxanne”, although a cheesy run-through of “Every Breath You Take” (complete with unnecessary contributions by Gwen Stefani and John Mayer on backing vocals) blemished the performance beyond repair. In the space of two songs, Copeland’s fierce drumming managed to tear one of his drum heads. In the backstage glimpses, the band seemed pretty much as we remembered them: Sting looked dour and inconvenienced, while Summers and Copeland goofily reveled in the moment.
Conveniently, it’s also time for the band’s 25th anniversary, with the requisite remasterings, remixings, and re-releases that accompany such auspicious occasions. The albums are packaged all shiny and new (with remixing and 5.1 Surround to boot—more on that in a bit), and 1986’s satisfying video collection Every Breath You Take sees DVD release. Compiling all the band’s officially released videos, a couple of TV spots, and a 45-minute documentary filmed while the band recorded 1981’s Ghost in the Machine, the DVD isn’t a bad package.
The videos are your typical, innocent artifacts of the early ‘80s. Pretty much all of them feature loosely lip-synched performance clips, with the band goofing off in totally charming ways. Conceptually, the early clips never strive past nerdy glasses on Sting (“Can’t Stand Losing You”), playing in front of a rocket (“Walking on the Moon”), or an all-too brief glimpse of lonely kids (“Message in a Bottle”). The Synchronicity-era videos (“Every Breath You Take”, “King of Pain”, and “Synchronicity II”), however, are still infinitely cool (disclaimer: that said through the lenses of the 14-year-old who, at the time, thought nothing could be cooler than seeing Bono’s breath billow on the Under a Blood Red Sky video). An unexpected treat in the early videos, though, is watching the kit-less Copeland find ways to look busy—either by spastically dancing or pretending to drum on any available surface.
Two early TV clips from Old Grey Whistle Test show the band in early punkish gear (Sting wouldn’t resemble Billy Idol this much again until the “Synchronicity II” video), tearing through “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Next to You”. The real treat, though, is the “Police in Montserrat” documentary. Amiably narrated by Jools Holland, it captures glimpses of the band as they record Ghost in the Machine. Four lip-synched performances (“Demolition Man”, “One World (Not Three)”, “Spirits in the Material World”, and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”) round things out, but Holland’s brief interviews with the individual band members make the piece work. Andy Summers is genuinely interesting as he discusses his effects pedals and his influences, finally sitting down for some slide-guitar boogie woogie with Holland on piano. Sting is energetic and bubbly, having just written “Invisible Sun”, and walks Holland through his songwriting process (as opposed to his pedantic turn on VH1 Storytellers a few years back). Copeland gives a crash course in drum history, very succinctly showing the difference between the traditional Western backbeat and Jamaican rhythms. It’s fascinating, and even though you don’t witness any legendary Police squabbles or fistfights, you’re struck by the intelligence and fire of all three members. “If these three had stayed together,” you think to yourself, “Copeland and Summers would never have let Sting descend into pop mediocrity.”
That said, the only real problem with the collection lies in the remixing that accompanies the videos. In many cases, greatly improved sound adds richness and lustre. In others, well-known drum, guitar, and vocal levels seem wildly out of whack. Most heinously, however, familiar parts of some songs are gone completely. I’m sure subtle changes exist throughout the clips that I missed completely (there are definitely some missing guitar parts), but the two most obvious omissions concern the background vocals that now fail to close out “Every Breath You Take” and the descending melody that no longer winds down “King of Pain”. They’re gone completely. These are two of the band’s most iconic songs, and such omissions make the case that these are alternate mixes as opposed to remixes. The whole thing opens up an aesthetic can of worms concerning the rights of the artist to refine his material versus the rights of the listener to have changes this significant marked accordingly (“Every Breath You Take ‘03”? “Less Ethereal and Less Satisfying Every Breath You Take”?). As these mixes apparently appear on the newly remastered versions of the band’s catalog albums, I think I’ll just hold on to my tattered Message in a Box collection (probably no stranger to tweaking itself, but surely more subtle). This writer isn’t equipped to comment on Dolby 5.1 Surround aspects, but as far as the regular stereo mix goes, things could be better. It’s a shame. Not every remix offers a new way of hearing a song; sometimes they’re just bothersome.
All in all, though, Every Breath You Take: The DVD is pretty satisfying, questionable remixes or not. An additional piece, “Studies in Synchronicity”, is a vaguely abstract promo short for the Synchronicity album that’s interesting to watch once or twice, but hardly compelling. However, the Montserrat documentary is an entertaining glimpse into the band’s world just before they became really huge. Likewise, the Old Grey Whistle Test spot is a brief, fun reminder of the band’s roots. Still, if you’re reasonably familiar with the Police, those remixes might weigh on you . . .