Before U2 laid claim to being the biggest band in the world, that honor was shortly bestowed upon the legendary UK power trio, The Police. By the release of their fifth album, Synchronicity, the band had begun selling out stadiums around the world and selling four million copies of the album within a year of its release. That figure was doubled by 2001, making it among the top 200 best selling albums of all time. Yet the Police accomplished another rare feat with Synchronicity in that it was not only their most popular album, but also their best. Of course, this happens rarely, the most infamous other examples being Purple Rain, Led Zeppelin’s IV and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But the same cannot be said for most other artists, who often see their greatest hits albums far surpassing any studio album in sales. For The Police, however, they ended a great five-album run with the best of the bunch.
It’s no stretch to say that none of The Police’s albums were perfect, and Synchronicity was no exception. The second track, “Walking in Your Footsteps” was something of a throwaway, a pleasant if forgettable track with lyrics about dinosaurs. And “Mother,” with its Middle-Eastern flavored riffs written by Andy Summers, was abrasive and distracting from the rest of the material. A few awkward tracks aside, however, the album on the whole marked a new peak in songwriting for Sting, not to mention a few key inclusions from Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers as well.
Side one was bookended by “Synchronicity I” and “Synchronicity II,” each one a fantastic and rocking tune, possibly the most upbeat numbers on the album as a whole. The first was used as an opener on the ensuing tour after the release of the album, and it’s not hard to see why. Its hard-driving rhythms, frantic synth melody and powerful layering of vocal harmonies makes it an intense attention-grabber. Lyrically, it finds Sting taking on a more intellectual approach, describing the titular act with climactic lines such as “a connecting principle/linked to the invisible/almost imperceptible/science insusceptible.” Sting had been reading much of Carl Jung’s writings on the topic of synchronicity at the time, and thus split the ideas into two songs, the first being a more literal reading, and the second being a metaphorical one, as displayed in a family household. Over the most intense musical backing on the album, Sting paints a portrait of a “suburban family,” with a melodramatic, depressed mother and a working class father who’s existence is essentially meaningless:
The secretaries pout and preen like cheap tarts on a red-light street
But all he ever thinks to do is watch
Every single meeting with his so-called superior
Is a humiliating kick in the crotch
The rage inside the character of the father is then compared to the Loch Ness monster, as something is about to erupt, whether it’s in a Scottish small town or the family’s home, and the two are left ambiguously open, yet connected with the eerie repetition of the phrase, “many miles away.”
An often neglected highlight on the first half of the album is “O My God,” a funky song that finds Sting questioning the existence of God. The brief, Stewart Copeland-penned “Miss Gradenko” is also noteworthy, if for its parallel vocals and rock riffing chorus of “Is there anybody alive in here?/Nobody but us in here” As the LP is turned over and the listener comes to side two, they’ll be greeted with some of the best known songs from the album, as well as some of the best, beginning with “Every Breath You Take,” which was hands down one of the biggest songs of the decade. On the surface, a simple love song, with simple lyrics, Sting sings “every move you make/every vow you break/every smile you fake/every claim you stake/I’ll be watching you.” Yet, the song has darker undertones, one possibly of an obsessive stalking lover. And there has been talk that the song was even inspired by the Cold War. On a VH1 special, Sting spoke about how he’s been told that couples had gotten married to that song, to which he sinisterly snickered, “good luck.”
“King of Pain,” another amazing highlight, was, again, inspired by Jung, as well as Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler. It’s a comment on the insignificance of pain in the world, in spite of the human condition’s fixation on such concepts. Sting runs through a laundry list of bleak images, from a butterfly in a spider’s web to a “red fox torn by a huntsman’s pack,” as well as the opening imagery of “there’s a little black spot on the sun today,” which, metaphorically, seems to represent this anguish amidst daily life. The opening piano, with its minor key chord changes, finds a haunting accompaniment to such dark images, yet the song as a whole proves to be somewhat moving and profound.
The reggae flavor that marked many of the Police’s early hits returns in the ballad “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” which revolves around the story of a May-December romance, albeit a manipulative, cold one, which in the end finds the protagonist boasting of his gaining power over the once authoritative older woman. The video for the song is one of the more memorable of the ’80s, Sting running through a room of candles, ultimately knocking them all down like dominoes. Though the original LP pressing of the album ended with “Tea in the Sahara,” but the cassette and CD (which was brand new technology at the time) featured an eleventh track, “Murder by Numbers.” Though this track is a little out of place with some of the more philosophical and heavy concepts on the album, it is still quite dark, and for that matter, quite good. The song is essentially a “how-to” for first time killers, and features an unforgettable chorus of “murder by numbers/1-2-3/it’s as easy to learn/as your ABCs.”
The Police officially broke up in 1985, after touring Synchronicity, though it was called a “sabbatical,” as each member wanted to pursue solo projects before returning to new Police material. However, as history has dictated, the band never did reunite. They did play an Amnesty International concert in 1986, as well as re-record “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” for a hits compilation, but since then only Sting’s wedding has brought the trio back to the stage, and even then, as soon as the instruments were plugged in, the band started fighting. As careers go, The Police had a good run, never quite achieving that perfect record, instead releasing five really, really good ones, reaching their creative zenith with Synchronicity.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.