The Police - Outlandos D’Amour
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
From the very first chords of “Fallout”, I had to wonder whether I had bought The Police’s box set or some obscure 1980’s punk band’s first studio recordings. The song is rough and tight at the same time. Sting yelps above the grinding guitars and the chorus comes all too quickly. Interestingly, there are vocal harmonies which owe much more to the Beach Boys than the Buzzcocks. It underlies the fact that The Police were never true punks, but closer to pretend punks- a corporate construct of their manager Miles Copeland.
The song is over in a little over two minutes and in those two minutes we have a blistering guitar solo, Sting railing against the education system, excited panting near the end of the song, and an echo effect at the end of the song. This single failed miserably, as it came out at a time when other second line punk bands came out with their renditions of “God Save The Queen”, trying to capitalize on the Sex Pistols’ success. “Fallout” pulls out all the stops on a “We don’t need no education” type of lyrical construction. With lyrics like ‘I saw my education/it was my indoctrination/just to be another parking machine” we see that Sting is almost willfully siphoning the Pistols’ attitude and lyrical mode of railing against anything and everything. It was, however, perhaps a bit more sophisticated than the almost self consciously stupidity exhibited by the Sex Pistols. Needless to say, the song failed commercially. But the Police weren’t to be denied. In fact, the only change to result out of “Fallout””s relatively lackluster reception was a change in the band lineup. Out was the original guitarist, Henry Padovani, and in came Andy Summers. Summers was a part of the second line up of The Animals and had played on some Neil Sedaka songs in the recent past, but came to The Police determined to bring his own musical ideas to the mix. These music ideas were mostly exhibited in an increased compositional ability, as opposed to the brutal riffage that Padovani had propagated.
The most immediate result of this addition is the song "Roxanne." It’s a change from the failed single "Fallout." There is more space between the notes. Instead of punk strumming filling every second of the song, there is a reggae tinged guitar on this track. The drumming is slower, more relaxed. Sting has the same odd voice, but it doesn’t sound out of place here. It’s allowed to flow over the notes, rather than straining over the quick and brash guitar strokes of Padovani. But he isn’t singing about his youth or “being bigger than his father now so he don’t need to take no crap from him no more’ type of whining as he did in ‘Nothing Achieving,’ the B side to ‘Fallout.’ Here we have something far more interesting, something far more sinister. As most people who have heard The Police know, “Roxanne” revolves around a narrator that is dating a prostitute.
The lyrics are confusing, however. First, the question must be where did he meet this prostitute? Obviously hookers have to get groceries at some point, but the suggestion of the song may believe that the narrator may be frequenting Roxanne’s place of work. In addition to this, the lyric “You don’t have to put on the red light” leads one to believe that Sting is perhaps attempting to bed this woman. She, for whatever reason, is hesitant to do so- but his pleading grows ever more insistent as we can tell from Sting’s increasing desperate tone. He doesn’t want to share her with other men, but the business appears to be too lucrative for her to give up- as the fade out to the song implies, Sting has not won over and his cries go unheeded into the night. His argument is based on the fact that he is better than all of the regular Joe’s that she has had in her life. She shouldn’t need to put on the stop sign to him. It appears, however, that she wins out; as Sting continues screaming for her to not put on the red light.
So, it seems that Sting has an unrequited love for a prostitute. Fair enough. As a single entity, it can be taken with a grain of salt. Risque, Mr. Sting! It was the sound of a band taking calculated risks to appear more in line with their modern peers than they actually were. And it didn’t matter, at first. No one was listening. Upon its release, “Roxanne” was a complete flop, much like “Fallout”.
So, what to do when the two genre experiments of punk and a pseudo reggae fail miserably on the charts, but your brother is the manager of your band and won’t let it fail (isn’t that the case with all bands, anyway)? The Police decided to see if they could find success in America. They weren’t just running away from musical failure, however. On the advice of Miles Copeland, their manager, the group decided to star as a bleached blond punk band in a gum commercial. Seemingly the nail in the coffin on the possibility of them ever going back to the punk of “Fallout”, The Police decided that America might be their next best bet. They toured more than twenty American venues, starting at CBGB in New York. The tour went as well as might be expected. They played rented equipment, barely made it across the country in a van, and played to small punk oriented crowds.
After this tour, The Police released the debut album and, oddly, it charted. It charted high. It was a slow climb to top 10 in England, but it made it there eventually and the re-released single of Roxanne made a bigger impact the second time, reaching up to No. 12. The album mixed punk rock, because it still seemed like Miles Copeland believed that it was the thing that was going to bring in the bucks to the group, and odd little reggae/punk/pop inflected tunes that fared much better at the time.
The second single from this album was called “Can’t Stand Losing You.” The story focuses on love lost, rather than the unattainable love of Roxanne. Sting attempts to get through the large number of friends and protectors (her brother) of his ex-girlfriend to win her love back. Alas, her brother is “six feet ten”- an imposing proposition, in the least- and the unnamed ex-girlfriend has made it known through her friends that she never wants to see him again. But, the fact is, there is no indication that Sting has ever truly had this girl for an extended period of time. In fact, no mention of time can be found in the song, allowing for an obvious interpretation that this relationship has been going on for a long time. But has it? Long relations most usually do not end up in large blowups, do they? Unless there is infidelity or psychosis is involved in some way, I find it hard to believe that this was a very long relationship. Obviously there was a large disagreement if the woman says, “I never want to talk to you again.” Possibilities would point to something that Sting had done or some viewpoint that he held. She is the one that can’t stand him and he is the one that wants her back. Without a doubt, he is the one that can’t stand losing her and not the other way around. So what does Sting do, in response to his ex’s words and unresponsiveness to his advances? He prepares to kill himself, of course. Nobody in the world can make him whole again, it seems. Only this girl will do. Sting readies himself for his suicide by saying that “all this guilt will be on your head,” turning the blame to the ex. He’s tried calling and he’s tried writing, but to no avail. It would seem that the relationship is effectively over and, after his anger management gains control, Sting will eventually return to normal. The narrator, at this point, moves from anger to self pity. He finds the perfect way to get back at his ex is by committing suicide. The last line of the song, however, seems to me to be ambiguous- “I’m too full to swallow my pride.” Does this mean that he is unable to swallow his pride and get on with his life as a normal person and that he has to make a huge drama out of the situation? Or does it merely mean that he is too full to swallow his pride and do the deed- to finally off himself after talking so loudly about it? No time for evaluation for pop audiences, however, as the group launches into the final chorus which features the almost stuttered unsure chorus of “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t stand losing you!” It ends assuredly, in a firm declaration that all he knows in the world can be boiled down to the fact that he can’t stand losing her. The song ends in a fadeout again, further obscuring whether he has actually gone through with it. Is he slowly drifting into unconsciousness and eventual death or is he forever unsure and vacillating in his will to die?
And what of the non-single tracks that make up the rest of the album? Outlandos D’Amour is an interesting album, in the way that it hops between genres so easily. There are the standard punk/pop ditties, such as “Next To You”, “Truth Hits Everybody”, and “Born in the 1950s”. These range from the surprisingly good, “Next To You”, to the shockingly horrible “Born in the 1950’s”. It becomes apparent, over successive albums, that Sting only has the ability to write well about romantic releationships. “Fallout” and “Born in the 1950’s” explore the themes of rebellion in family and politics and, frankly, they fall flat on their face lyrically. A certain sophisticated air about them, which is accentuated further on “Born in the 1950’s” by the songs around them on the album, makes them unable to tap into the unrestrained fury and nihilistic attitude that Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone were feeling. Instead, Sting was more worried about women- and it’s a subject at which he excels. It is within the slower, more reggae tinged songs, though, that Sting’s lyrics have the room to be examined more fully and are able to be appreciated without the excess baggage of the music. When taken with the music, in most cases, the beat is a sort of a herky jerky one, which does well to accentuate the bad luck that Sting has apparently had with women in the past. This would be developed further, in a more pop context, on later albums by the Police.
As with each Police album there are a few tracks that are oddballs among the bunch. In between their path to commercial success, it seems that the Police attempting to use a number of minutes to chart what might have been in their careers, if they had not been in a pop band. The two songs that exemplify this, most completely, are the final songs on the album. “Be My Girl/Sally” starts off normally, an upbeat pop number with Sting’s exhortations to a woman to “Be my girl” There is an abrupt cut after this lyric is repeated an absurd number of times, which almost sounds as if it is a mistake. A tinkling piano comes in and a spoken word piece begins in the middle of the song. It details a beautiful woman who has become the voice’s (Andy Summer’s, I believe) special person for affection. In a special magazine he finds an imported toy that is inflatable. It’s an altogether silly interlude that ends after a minute, underlying the fact that this three minute song is mainly a vehicle for this skit. The final song is an piece that sounds very eastern, almost reminiscent of a stripped down work off of the Talking Head’s Remain In Light. Besides being altogether confusing, within the context of the album, it is a definite interesting side note in the Police’s career that would be repeated on later albums, in smaller doses.
Either way, this is the sort of dichotomy of meaning that The Police thrived on. The idea that the audience should be unsure of what happens to the narrator is going to be a theme that Sting harps on in his lyrics. The most successful pop and musical ideas that The Police expressed were complex rather than the simple three chord, one idea train wrecks that characterized their punk phase. At best, The Police were pretend punks trying to cash in. With their second album, we begin to see them trying to pare down their punk image to sell the singles that did well from the previous album harder than the other ideas that didn’t. The manager, Miles Copeland, was no dummy. If The Police were going to make music on his record label they better make money, and if it wasn’t as complex as the “art” that they had created in their previous jazz and prog bands, then so be it. First and foremost, Copeland ran a business. And first and foremost, The Police wanted to have hits. This is the sound of The Police attempting to find the correct sound to win them these hits- a varied and hit and miss affair.