Nov 08

THE POLICE – “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”

FT + Popular42 comments • 5,342 views

#467, 27th September 1980

A cold, claustrophobic record, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” picks meticulously over a grim situation – the interest of a young teacher in a much younger pupil. Sting’s director’s eye takes in staffroom dynamics, teen social hierarchies and the teacher’s own self-consciousness as he reaches in horror for the inevitable literary reference. Unlike many of Sting’s clunkers, the “Nabokov” lyric is in-character, and quite clever: the teacher’s avoidance of the fatal L-word is an attempt to duck the self-condemnation he knows is his due. Sting still sounds a little pleased with himself but it’s hardly a deal-breaker.

“Don’t Stand” is structured like a death ballad – fate hustling its characters towards the inevitable tragedy. Its build up is cruelly slow – that long intro the work of a band who know perfectly well that anything they produce will get playlisted. Its chorus is a spasm of irritable energy. But the song then turns away – we expect an end but don’t get one: instead we get a too-languid breakdown, the stuttering chorus again, and the record’s baleful energy drains away. It’s not that “Don’t Stand” needs to resolve its story – in fact it works better for not doing so – but it doesn’t need to hang around either.



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  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 29 Nov 2008 #

    there seemed to be a few school based songs around at this time – I don’t like Mondays – Baggy Trousers – Another Brick in the Wall. The latter also stimulated a long post which was mildly offensive, but also impassioned, erudite and sincere. #1 doesn’t manage the first quality let alone the rest. so much effort to so little effect

    Probably their weakest number 1, cold is about the best description of DSSCTM and much else by the Police by this stage; smug would be another. Sting must qualify as one of the most narcissistic performers in pop – which given it’s probably an essential quality for the job is saying something. You feel you can never admire Sting’s work as much as he does – even when it deserves admiration.

  2. 2
    Billy Smart on 29 Nov 2008 #

    Eight-year old Billy couldn’t really follow the story, liked the way that the choruses seemed to step up the tempo and burst into life, but found the rest of it unaccountably slow and morose.

    My grown up self likes the shading and dynamics of the music, but likes a lot of other Police songs a lot more. Perhaps its because it makes me think a lot more about Sting as a songwriter and singer than it does about the song that he’s singing.

    ‘Invisible Sun’ was good, though.

  3. 3
    Conrad on 29 Nov 2008 #

    Straight in at Number 1. The second record to do so in 1980, after “Going Underground.”

    It was also the best selling single of the year, which given the record is nowhere near the best record in this week’s chart, is a bit of a disappointment. I don’t care much for this, although I like the intro – the atmosphere it generates promises much more than the song itself delivers.

    “Baggy Trousers” was THE record of Autumn 1980 at school, the arrival of DSSCTM at Number 1 provoking derision from my friends. The Police also had the nerve to keep the magnificent “Masterblaster” from claiming its rightful position at the top.

  4. 4
    Tommy Mack on 29 Nov 2008 #

    Wasn’t the young Sting a PRIMARY school teacher? If this is based on his own experiences, it casts him in an all together darker shade…

  5. 5
    RichardC on 29 Nov 2008 #

    Long time lurker and enthusiastic follower of Popular emerging to give it one of these:

    5 sounds about right to me. A part of me wishes my birthday number one was something I felt a bit more strongly about, one way or the other, but oh well.

  6. 6
    Steve Ison on 29 Nov 2008 #

    1 and 6…Woh the whiff of ultra-PC witchhunting strikes deep!
    The record certainly isn’t one of their best-but hardly warrants full-on accusations of Sting-the-peadophile lol

  7. 7
    LondonLee on 29 Nov 2008 #

    Another one of those “top of the world, ma!” singles from a newly-super group that didn’t live up to what they’d done before. It’s also where Sting became STING in all his annoying glory. The scene in the video where he takes his shirt off may have been some very meta- and post-modern commentary on the pop sex/commerce nexus (as I think Paul Morley claimed in the NME) but it just made me want to slap him. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

  8. 8
    Tom on 29 Nov 2008 #

    Welcome aboard RichardC!

  9. 9
    Taylor on 29 Nov 2008 #

    So hard to de-program yourself. When you know the driving force of this record is pop’s least appealing ego, and you’ve seen the poison flower in full bloom, it’s not easy (and it makes me uneasy) to give this music the benefit of the doubt. I can stomach the previous Police no.1s, up to a point, because the words are simple and silly enough to be inoffensive, and the music has a certain curiosity value at least (almost like an infantile Talk Talk, diluted/polluted by The Boomtown Rats, dressed up in what we’re told is reggae, like a mum tells her son that the clothes she’s bought him are trendy). This though, as Lee pointed out above, is Sting as Sting, the irritant, the very worst thing.

    I did try – played it four times. After all, as I said on the comments page for “Start!”, I can enjoy a lot of The Jam’s music, despite its fundamentally farcical nature, and despite the spectre of Paul Weller as he would become (and to an extent Paul Weller as he was then – I read about someone’s dream the other day, in which the Paul Wellers of 1978 and 1996 were beating up the Paul Weller of 1985, and it made a lot of sense to me). Weller has never been as outrageous an embarrassment as Sting, of course, but on the other hand Sting has always had an edge on him technically, if not in terms of inspiration, so perhaps there would be something to admire in here, if not something to love. Strawclutcher me.

    In fact, not only is it as cold as Tom suggests, and in no way endearing, DSSCTM is a bit of a pig’s ear. It’s a very poorly balanced song in terms of its construction, and the flatness of its sound deflates what I imagine were supposed to be dynamics (the clickety, building riffs in the instrumental break, and the spin back from the break to the final chorus). Incredible to think that people were still digging The Police in 1980 in conscious opposition to someone like Fleetwood Mac, whose records are so sharp and vivacious by comparison.

    The lyrics bother me a lot – even before Sting’s mix of pomposity and clumsy inarticulacy swelled to the size of “Russians”, he had a certain arrogance in his lyric writing. I’m ALL for songwriters tackling difficult, interesting subjects, even if they don’t have the skills of a Joni Mitchell or even a Momus, but there’s something about Sting’s self-importance that makes me sick: he’s enough of a piece of work to think this is a Piece Of Work. What do we actually learn about this teacher and this jailbait? What does this song tell us about discomfort, or inappropriate desire? All we get is sketchy cliche, but worse, delivered with this looming seriousness – as though by writing anything other than pledges of love or exhortations to dance, Sting has blown our minds, and we are in the palm of his hand… look, he doesn’t even have to try. Even Morrissey, long after his lyrics had slumped into self-satisfaction, took on a similar scenario and managed the far-more-interesting “Alsation Cousin”.

    Anyway, this became a deodorant advert, didn’t it?

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 29 Nov 2008 #

    #2 Watch: Not only a week of Stevie Wonder’s superior ‘Masterblaster’, but a lengthy three week reign for Ottowan’s ‘D-I-S-C-O’, much derided by all correspondants here recently, and a song which I have to sheepishly admiit that I really like, ludicrous ‘C’ acronyms and all… Certainly more than ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’, anyway.

  11. 11
    The Intl on 1 Dec 2008 #

    I hate Andy Summers’ guitar sound. What is that, a stereo smooth-jazz effects pedal, or is that how that guitar sounds everyday? After their first couple singles pulled reggae into the scene for a lot of people, Why couldn’t they have just gone away? I so despise them smug bastards.

  12. 12
    lonepilgrim on 1 Dec 2008 #

    there seems to have been a bit of pruning going on which means the original #1 post has disappeared – making some of my comments in the new #1 post and the comments at #6 seem a bit obscure

  13. 13
    wichita lineman on 1 Dec 2008 #

    Re: clunker. In search of a rhyme, it forces the song’s best line from Sting: “It’s no use, he sees her, he starts to shake and cough” would be a moment of sweaty, obsessive realism if you didn’t know where it was heading.

    Sting, and “yes we’re playing reggae” issues aside, my problem with this song – also with Invisible Sun – is that the chorus is so weak. The song’s poor dynamics have already been pointed out, but the chorus melody is the same as the verse melody, only desiccated. All that droning tension thrown away. What would a James Last/BBC Radio Orchestra version of DSSCTM sound like? Not as good as D-I-S-C-O or Masterblaster.

  14. 14
    Tom on 1 Dec 2008 #

    Yes by the time I checked it I assumed that anyone who cared would have seen the original #1 post (a long parody of Marcello) and it was getting in the way of actual discussion so I canned it.

  15. 15
    vinylscot on 1 Dec 2008 #

    Sting’s enunciation is also less than clear on this one. I had a slightly younger friend, not familiar with the literary influences of this, who argued that the line referred to a book by “Neville Carr” and he wondered what the book was.

    Another unfortunate incidence of a song being massive purely because it came along at the time when the band were going to have an enormous hit, no matter what they released. It was a mediocre single from a (very) mediocre album… and the follow-up was significantly worse.

    To their credit, although they remained pretentious after this, I think they must have realised how poor “Zenyatta” was, as they did produce some better work on their remaining albums.

    Many bands who made only five albums leave you wanting more, but I think there was a general sigh of relief that the Police called it a day after five. If they could have left out that third album, and made it only four, it would have been much better.

  16. 16
    Erithian on 1 Dec 2008 #

    And yet it started so well.

    “Young teacher, the subject of schoolgirl fantasy” is as good an exposition line as you could wish for, and you’d imagine that Sting knew whereof he wrote (he was mainly a primary school teacher, but handled older classes during his teacher training as I understand it). And as Conrad remarks, the intro is dark and atmospheric. But after sketching out the story (even “strong words in the staffroom” sounds authentic) it does indeed fall away into the clunker to end them all.

    Were any of you familiar with that sort of scenario? There was a news story when I was about 15-16 about a female teacher who’d had a thing going with a boy about my age (I remember her name to this day), and I was thinking how he’d spoiled the chances of those like me by boasting about it! I’ve already mentioned how a teacher at my school, Miss Haley, was one of the triumvirate of fantasy figures of my youth alongside Agnetha and Deborah Harry. I never got the chance to show how maturely I’d have handled the relationship, but did get to give her a farewell kiss the summer I left school and she got married. Sigh…

    A few years later and the scenario is reversed: I’m an English language assistant at a school in Brittany, not yet 21, and the girls in some of the classes are 17 or so and very chic. The language assistant is closer to the pupils than the teachers are (in Manchester I’d taken both of ours to United matches) and friendships can develop easily – especially in a small town where I’d often bump into the kids at weekends. It never got dangerous, partly because I didn’t exactly look like Sting, but I was popular – when I came back after Christmas a couple of them jumped on me to give me the “bisous”. The kiss on either cheek was a perfectly natural morning greeting, and I rather enjoyed myself that year!

  17. 17
    mike on 1 Dec 2008 #

    Like vinylscot at #15, I agree that Zenyatta Mondatta marked a creative slump for The Police, after which they recovered and produced much of their best work. Sting’s arrogance had really started to grate on me by now, and this single’s horrendous follow-up “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” made me want to chuck things at the telly. All the boring people in residence hall loved them, and I was still enough of a snob to factor that into my dismissal.

    Objectively speaking, we’ve had far worse Number Ones than “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” this year – but this is the one that gets my goat more than any other (OK, except for “Coward Of The County”, but it’s close). I’d go into more detail, but that would involve listening to the damned thing again of my own volition… no thanks!

  18. 18
    lonepilgrim on 1 Dec 2008 #

    re 16
    One of the highlights of studying Drama in the 6th form at my school was going away each Autumn to the Dagenham Drama festival with Norman, our very liberal teacher. The first year we took a detour to pick up an ex pupil who he gave ‘special attention’ to most of the weekend. The following year he focused his attentions on one of the Lower 6th girls – we came back one night to find the school minibus rocking from side to side.
    We didn’t condemn this at the time. We thought he was cool – although in retrospect it seems creepy.

    When I first started working as a teacher there were a few leery male staff who would look back fondly to an earlier age where they could almost exercise ‘droit de seigneur’ over the 6th form girls. I’m sure that it still goes on, but perhaps less overtly.

  19. 19
    LondonLee on 1 Dec 2008 #

    For a supposed educated man like Sting the Nabokov name-drop seems annoyingly autodidatic. I’m all for literary allusions in pop songs as long as they’re done smartly, this one just seems like blatant showing off – look, I’ve read a book! I’m too smart for this pop song nonsense! Which he went on to show in his earnest solo work. Look, real jazz musicians!

    Our Head Boy slept with one of our English teachers. She was very young and new and in the Sixth Form she used to invite us round her flat to smoke and listen to Beatles records.

  20. 20

    re the clunkerline: there’s two different issues, aren’t there? if a bad actor plays a murderer, it’s the quality of the acting we should be getting cross rather than the “fact” of the murder

    this is a line delivered in character, so it’s not entirely fair to say it’s sting that’s smugly showing off (any more than it’s fair call him a perve on the strength of this song); the question should really be, might a character have said a line like this (give or take the conventions of distortion re said lines when sung)? has sting realised this character well?

    (obviously even with actors we sometimes use the misbehaviour of characters they play as a useful shorthand for the flaws in their craft as an actor — and popstars of course build up their own aura out of an amalgam of the characters they play… but to me it’s one of sting’s good points that he casts himself sometimes in ugly roles, as obsessives or outcasts — so it seems a bit mean to transfer our dislike of these characters, which is surely something he’s aiming for, as cast-iron proof of his failure)

  21. 21
    Tom on 1 Dec 2008 #

    I don’t think the character is delivering the lines exactly (so they’re not designed to be said/sung), but the line – its pretension and clumsiness – is coming from the character rather than the singer.

  22. 22

    that said, i DO think it’s a clumsy line — but its clumsiness is at a kind of meta-level: you can imagine it being fashioned (or delivered) so as to ensure we’re more convinced it ISN’T sting showing off but an unself-aware english teacher casting round for a way to describe a tricky situation which appears to aggrandize it (as “the stuff of great novels”) while in fact avoiding the moral issue (or if not more convinced, then more forcefully torn in our doubts)

    of course the novel in question also apparently evades the moral issue (but to much more powerful and unnerving effect); as invocations often do, this feels as if sting’s simply helping himself to someone else’s achievement, giving us the sign of the thing instead of the thing itself, which is distracting for people who have read the book, and alienating and annoying for people who haven’t — i think he’s trying for something subtler and more interesting than that (but it’s not so well crafted that it gets him off the hook of the lamer error)

    obviously everyone who’s saying “hate his voice”, “lame tune”, etc etc, is left unscathed by all this

  23. 23
    LondonLee on 1 Dec 2008 #

    Point taken, but Sting has the sort of personality that’s hard to separate from his songs. He seems to be there a lot of the time.

  24. 24

    rosie’s a fan, isn’t she? i’m quite keen to read a robust defence of sting — even of dreams of blue turtles! — simply because he seems so well set up for a non-stop drubbing, within all the established norms of music writing (various variants thereof)

  25. 25
    Taylor on 1 Dec 2008 #

    The heart-throb teacher at my school was the deputy head of music, a bland-faced man with a short, fluffy centre-parting, who wore grey shirts and big baggy M&S cords. He had less raw sex appeal than anyone I’ve ever seen, I think, and it troubled us boys greatly, as we’d spent a year or two watching “Rebel Without A Cause” and listening to The Birthday Party, thinking the (heartfelt) moody rebel pose was foolproof. No – this was the mid-to-late 1980s, when 16 year old girls dressed like Washington Wives, anyone who wore a leather jacket or listened to non-chart music was “weird”, and the number one sex symbol was this young Conservative dick. I still remember a painful night at a party, standing in the cold with my dream girl, having it explained to me that she couldn’t kiss me because she was in love with Mr ******. Dear God. Another great memory: two girls choosing a certain 1985 number one by Elaine and Barbara (dodges bunny to avoid double-pronged bite-mark) as their Music GCSE performance piece, sung with REAL EMOTION right into the fool’s face. Of course, nowadays I find this rather touching. At the time, their rendition was followed with much guffawing from those of us behind the door, and a gruff run-through of “Like A Virgin” as the blushing teens emerged into the corridor. Rotten days.

    He never went near any of them, though (had a thing going on with the PE mistress). In the sixth form another chap showed up, fresh from TTC, who tried to get on “our” side by talking about Tim Buckley and Nick Drake, feigning astonishment that I’d heard of The Crucial Three (actually, that may not have been feigned, as in retrospect it amazes me too). Sadly he was never the friend of the friendless, as we sneered at his Ben Elton appearance and highlighted mullet. He did, however, hoover up the affections of the girls in the year below – i.e. the only ones we ever had a chance with. He was even weak enough to go out for a drink with one of them, although she told me later in a moment of drunken honesty that he’d refused her kind offer of sex, being all too professional.

    I look at kids now, with their cocaine orgies captured for posterity on £300 mobile phones, and I know this is paradise everyone old has dreamed of all their lives. I start shaking and barking, just like that old man in that poem by Larkin.

  26. 26
    Taylor on 1 Dec 2008 #

    #24 – I agree wholeheartedly. The only “serious” pro-Sting piece I can recall is that thing by Morley in India. The only good thing I can find to say about that is that it’s… unexpected, placed at the end of “Ask”, as if the whole of New Pop has been leading up to Sting’s bare chest, furrowed brow and dog-eared library card. I’d love to read a proper defence of this seemingly indefensible man, so long as it doesn’t follow the same early-Q pattern: he’s clever, he’s serious about what he does, all that irrelevant claptrap.

  27. 27
    wichita lineman on 1 Dec 2008 #

    Q-style, or the Feb ’95 Mojo cover story, “The Fugitive: is it time Sting was forgiven?”

    (Answer has to be “No”, dunnit?)

    Sting aside, The Police have had an astonishingly easy ride on Popular til now. Taylor, have you checked the Walking On The Moon thread? “I hope my legs don’t break”: I was on my ownsome.

    I remember a Behind The Music-style doc on Sting from the early 90s in which he said something along the lines of “I’d hate it if people thought I was preaching and patronising about the future of the rainforest…” It then cut straight to a shot of him, in a lecture room, stick in hand, pointing to a map of the Amazon.

    And then there’s Quadrophenia. Where do you start?

  28. 28
    Mark G on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Well, to anyone still asking “Does Billy kill himself at the end?” you say “Play the first minute of the film again!”

    Anyroad, there is another POV:

    The Boomtown Rats’ “Mary of the fourth form” was the usual ‘teenbait’ fantasy figure a’la every rockband passim, whereas this was more studied, and seemingly more real for the reactions of the minor characters of the staff in the staffroom, and the friends of the girl, and so on. The story doesn’t end, maybe because in the majority of cases, the story fades out into nothing anyway.

  29. 29
    Doctor Casino on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Just wanted to chime in and note for interested parties that we got rather well into the Nabokov discussion way back on “Baby Jump”. (I am staggered and amazed to realize that this was two years ago.) Sukrat in particular gets some good observations in!

    Another line of this song that improves greatly if read as “in character” is “Her friends are / So jealous / You know how bad girls get,” which is a banal filler line on its face, but maybe works if it’s intended as something the teacher offers as an explanation in the staff room. “Your students have been saying WHAT? Oh, those kids! You know how girls get…”

    It’s a reach, though. I think the song is okay, maybe not as pretentious and cold as it’s being read here, but certainly a bit dull. It also exposes one of the worst tendencies of The Police: the chorus is just one line repeated over and over. When it’s done with some energy I forgive it (“Canary in a Coal Mine”) but even so, for a guy apparently overflowing with impressions of himself as a writer, Sting really couldn’t be bothered when it came to hooks!

  30. 30
    Doctor Casino on 2 Dec 2008 #

    I also suspect that you could transfer almost all the lyrics of “Baby Jump” into this song and it would basically work…

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