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.