At the outset of a highly anticipated reunion tour and 30 years after the band’s formation, The Police means to assert itself as the ultimate collection of studio tracks recorded by the dynamic trio of guitarist Andy Summers, drummer Stewart Copeland, and bassist and singer Sting. To be sure, A&M has had a lot of practice at re-packaging the Police. Between 1986 and 1998, four single-disc compilations were issued, along with 1993’s Message in a Box, the four-CD cataloging of their complete studio recordings (with a few live b-sides). So, in attempting to capture the essential nature of the Police, the label has tried short but sweet (a lot!), and it’s served up the whole enchilada. Maybe two CDs, then, is a happy medium. Surely, with this assortment of choices, any kind of Police fan can now be satisfied? Well, maybe.
The Police offers 28 cuts, with every song but one taken straight from the band’s five excellent studio LPs. Track one is “Fall Out”, their first single, recorded before Summers joined the band and Henry Padovani was handling guitar duties. A good punk-pop tune, it reveals an unsophisticated early rendition of the group who were all too happy to simply be catching the wave of interest generated by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Buzzcocks. Although hardly groundbreaking, it’s a fun song and definitely worthy of inclusion. After that one fairly rare cut, the rest of the comp proceeds chronologically through the Police’s career, with a handful of entries lifted straight off of each album.
We’re treated to six of the ten tracks from their 1978 debut full-length, the ragged and ragga-tinged Outlandos d’Amour. In addition to the singles—“Roxanne”, “Can’t Stand Losing You”, and “So Lonely”—the set includes the better album cuts: the revved-up “Next to You”, the jazzy dub-rock of “Hole in My Life”, and the gritty “Truth Hits Everybody”. While individual tastes will always differ, these selections are hard to argue with.
The representation for the Police’s 1979 sophomore LP, Regatta de Blanc, however, is pretty skimpy. If cornered, I could see ranking this as their “worst” album. Then again, they produced one of the most consistent discographies ever. The Police at their weakest were nearly as great as the Police at their strongest. Again, the trio of singles are all included, as is mandatory. Even a single-disc comp should have “Message in a Bottle”, “Bring on the Night”, and “Walking on the Moon”. Regatta has plenty of other worthy entries, so the fourth and final one chosen for The Police is a little puzzling: “Regatta de Blanc”. This quasi-instrumental title cut (Sting chants “Oh-way-oh” a lot) is fine, but what about the super-fun pogo-pop of “It’s Alright for You”? And Copeland’s tale of mounting domestic injustices, “On Any Other Day”, is catchy and hilarious. Surely, the spare, slow-sweat dub groove of “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” is worthy of inclusion just for Sting’s contributions of a headily syncopative bass run and his sadly steamy “white reggae” vocals. The absence of that track is neglectful.
The selection committee were slightly more generous with their picks from Police album number three, 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta. This was the LP that catapulted the band into worldwide fame, yielding two Top 10 US hits with “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”. The record itself peaked at number five on the Billboard charts. We also get choice album cuts “Driven to Tears”, the R&B-meets-ska of “Canary in a Coalmine”, and the trippy “Voices Inside My Head”. Missing, though, are the two other tracks that comprise the LP’s incredible seven-song opening run of killer material: “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” and “Bombs Away”.
Okay, now I’m starting to feel a little cheated. I got everything I wanted from Outlandos, but was utterly shirked by the tiny taste of Regatta, and was left wanting more from Zenyatta.
Well, we’re now at track three on disc two of The Police and ready to voyage into the chillier and synth-heavier realm of the group’s fourth album, 1981’s Ghost in the Machine. This record is another contender for the Police’s least awesome studio LP, although I have a strong affinity for it, which grew even stronger with its 2003 remastering (an invaluable service provided to the other four albums, as well). Injecting some much-needed warmth into the mix, the remastering team “rehumanized” the record. Of course, “Spirits in the Material World” and “Every Little Things She Does Is Magic” have always sounded great, because they’re fantastic songs. Also included here is the hazy and foreboding “Invisible Sun” (though released as a single in the UK only, it hit number two) and “Demolition Man”, a charged-up cut covered by Grace Jones. All of side two, then, gets ignored. Sure, I can see the reasoning, but I couldn’t live without the horn-punched “Too Much Information”, “Omegaman”‘s driving double-time chorus, or the two pensive sleeper tracks that close the album, “Secret Journey” and “Darkness”.
Now I’m going to get grumpy again. In jumping straight from 1981’s Ghost to the band’s fifth and final album, 1983’s Synchronicity, The Police omits the group’s admittedly scant — but not undeserving — activity from 1982: They contributed three songs to the soundtrack for the film Brimstone & Treacle, in which Sting played a really creepy live-in nurse for a vegetative young woman. Of those songs, the heady and beautiful “I Burn for You” would have made a fantastic addition to this compilation, raising its value for connoisseurs and exposing others to a rare treat from an out-of-print record. Okay, I’ve said my peace. Maybe for the inevitable three-disc Police compilation, A&M will pick my brain.
Synchronicity. Wow. This baby shot the Police so far beyond the stratosphere, it was more like an oh-that-osphere to them. The mega-platinum album coughed up four Top 40 singles, including “Every Breath You Take”, which held down the number one slot on the Billboard chart for eight straight weeks. In 1983, “King of Pain”, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, and “Synchronicity II” were all over pop radio and MTV, as well. No one could argue those cuts off of any Police collection. Still, to include a total of eight of the 11 tracks from Synchronicity seems relatively excessive. Sure, it was their biggest selling album, but it’s really no better than any other Police LP, boasting mostly good tracks with a few we could probably survive without. A&M chose well which to leave off The Police, though: Andy’s awful “Mother”, Stewart’s just fine “Miss Gradenko”, and the likewise so-so “O My God”.
I can’t really complain about all the best songs from Synchronicity (and perhaps Outlandos d’Amour) being included here; that would be absurd. But why come up short on representing the other albums? With just over 110 minutes of music on the two discs, easily a dozen more tracks could have been added to The Police. Yes, I understand that more doesn’t necessarily equate to better. But, with the Police, it does. Although I would never trade in my copies of the band’s five studio albums, I could be convinced that two full CDs of the Police’s best studio tracks would be all most listeners could ever need. Maybe the label didn’t want to create a compilation so deeply satisfying that it would render the band’s whole back catalog redundant to all but the most hardcore fans (although they accomplished this with regards to Synchronicity). Or maybe they believed that any additional album cuts would dilute the impact of all the hits. With the Police, though, the album cuts have always enhanced the singles, making the latter seem cooler through their association with their more adventurous material.
Okay, I’ve firmly stated my position on the exclusion of certain tracks from this release. What these two CDs do well is celebrate (most of) the great music of a great band. During the punk and new wave era, few acts could rival the Police’s ability to cross-pollinate genres, their instrumental prowess, or, certainly, their popularity. They never issued a lame, cheesy ballad or an obvious concession to pop radio conformity; in fact, all their hit singles were pretty damn great. All of this could almost go without saying. Praising the Police is easy, as is liking this collection of uniformly excellent music. Still, I must ask: Could The Police have been a better compilation? Yes, definitely. In addition to the tracklisting being a little on the lean side, the packaging could’ve offered a beefier band bio and more pictures of the highly photogenic trio. Is it a great comp, anyway? Yeah, actually, it is. Such a project is almost assured of greatness, and A&M didn’t screw things up by including a mash-up or a dance remix or, thankfully, an abortion like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me (‘86)”. The label played it safe, but, for most listeners, that’ll be just fine. Although just short of being truly definitive, The Police represents well one of the best bands ever.