Sep 08

THE POLICE – “Message In A Bottle”

FT + Popular85 comments • 4,047 views

#443, 29th September 1979

The number ones of 1979 look from one angle like a beauty parade – a line-up of ambitious talents sniffing a chance at genuine, lasting superstardom. Whether punk rock had actually cleared any decks, or whether disco had changed the market, or whether simply the enormous surges in singles sales led smart operators to look again at the medium’s potential for making names, there’s a feeling in the air of a brass ring up for grabs – for the first time maybe since Bowie and Elton’s early-decade breakthroughs.

1979’s contenders faced inevitably mixed fortunes. Ian Dury was too singular and knotty a talent; Bob Geldof had the hunger and self-seriousness, but not often the songs; Gary Numan could carry his loyalists beyond his initial impact, but not the mass audience. Debbie Harry had what it took, though, and so it turned out did ’79’s next newbie. With Sting, though, you sense he saw his particular opportunity and moved confidently and calculatingly to realise it – which is why I saved this little digression for the Police’s first number one.

If I liked what Sting did more I’d be first to applaud the charisma and chutzpah of his self-creation: the look of The Police, even if accidental, is perfect – bleach blonde, wiry, weatherbeaten enough to be acceptable as rockers, cute enough (well, mostly) for pop hearts to flutter. Sting was the sort of pop star people crushed on – not just young girls: later, the two artists on DC Comics’ Swamp Thing were so obsessed by Sting that they begged writer Alan Moore to create a character who looked just like him, so they could draw him. (The result, street-level warlock John Constantine, has gone on to become a film property and the star of his own, 200-plus issue series: Sting’s midas touch working even indirectly.)

The music – choppy guitar pop, reggae-ish rhythms and inflections, thoughtful lyrics – is as well-thought-out as the image. Reggae had never been more internationally successful or well-regarded, and instead of – like some of the punks – using its sound and philosophy to try and radicalise rock, Sting used reggae to add rhythmic spice and edge to otherwise ordinary (though well-crafted) new wave pop. He also used it – and this is more of a sticking point – to create a distinctive vocal personality. On “Message In A Bottle” he’s half way between the music of the Caribbean and Pirates Of The Caribbean, all his “sea-o” and “me-o” stuff quickly wearing thin.

It wasn’t just the unique vocals that marked the Police out as Sting’s group – using reggae also put his bass playing front and centre, and the stuttering basslines on the chorus are the catchiest thing about this track, which otherwise leaves me a bit cold for all its vigour: the parable of loneliness shared seems trite and Sting hadn’t yet learned to tone his vocal shenanigans down. An obvious star, but even at this early stage easy to resent.



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  1. 76
    lonepilgrim on 14 Feb 2010 #

    re 73/74 my first encounter with (what was to become) The Police was when they featured as band members in an article on Cherry Vanilla in Zigzag magazine in 1977 (an edition which featured a particularly memorable cover image of her thrusting her crotch at the camera – based on the photo bottom right on this page http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/cherryvanillahistory2.htm).
    Cherry Vanilla and Wayne County had both appeared in Warhol’s ‘Pork’ and also had a connection through Miles Copeland who had arranged Sting & Stewart Copeland’s role in CV’s backing band and which may have explained Padovani working with both.

  2. 77
    thefatgit on 14 Feb 2010 #

    Thanks lonepilgrim, looks like he was quite a popular character back then.

  3. 78
    swanstep on 13 Oct 2013 #

    I bitched about the Tom-score for this track a few years ago, but I’m back to sing the track’s praises anew. I just yesterday got to hear Message In A Bottle as if for the first time, in a car with great bass audio, and it sounded *immense*. The first four bars of arpeggiating guitar and clicking, skittery drums are followed by what now strikes me as one of the great ‘bass drops’ (as the kids say these days): the first full dub bass-drum off-beat hits just after Sting’s driving, sinuous harmonics-rich bass, and we’re off! I’ve always loved the track’s paciness and seeming-accelerando before this, but I hadn’t quite grasped the explosiveness of the opening until now. (Maybe there’s some Zeppelin in this track as well as the Cream discussed up-thread?) Driving around I ended up resetting and playing the intro at least 10-12 times it sounded so great.

  4. 79
    Izzy on 13 Oct 2013 #

    Agreed. This is a tremendous record and there’s no hanging about – it’s exactly what a pop intro should be, get the big hook in at 0:00 and drop the others in fast but still keeping you guessing.

    The playing is fantastic of course, all three elements alternately driving forward or snaking around as the track requires; and the production has terrific clarity, with even the quieter guitars given proper space. The Smiths might have been trying for this sort of sound early on, had they had a better drummer. Only the ‘I hope that someone gets my…’ section snags at me, where the space evaporates and it all gets too claustrophobic for a short time.

    I can’t believe it’s almost five minutes long. Plenty of short songs drag; few long songs sound like they’re crammed into two-and-a-half minutes.

  5. 80
    iconoclast on 14 Oct 2013 #

    Perhaps not Sting’s best, but there’s an undeniable drive and awareness of space and dynamics here, not to mention a thoughtful lyric and attention to detail, which is a welcome reminder of a time when popular music was still mostly made by human beings interacting with each other while playing actual instruments. It’s just a bit of a shame the repeat and fade at the end is too long. SEVEN.

  6. 81

    “a reminder… of human beings interacting with each other”

    This is a seven hours of tantric sex on the kitchen table joke, isn’t it?

  7. 82
    punctum on 14 Oct 2013 #

    Almost Derek Dull, except he missed out the bit where he says: “and Andy Summers’ forthcoming solo outing should be interesting too.”

  8. 83
    iconoclast on 14 Oct 2013 #

    @81: It wasn’t, but in retrospect it certainly should have been.

  9. 84
    swanstep on 15 Oct 2013 #

    Seven hours of tantric sex….well, he did say he’d always be King of Pain.

  10. 85
    hectorthebat on 10 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Popdose (USA) – 100 (+21) Favorite Singles of the Last 50 Years (2008) 90
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 1970s (2012) 21
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 95
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 1
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 6
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 7

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