Sep 08

THE POLICE – “Message In A Bottle”

FT + Popular87 comments • 5,824 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. 61
    Erithian on 2 Oct 2008 #

    After all, “Popular” is a forum not just for analysis but for our personal associations with number one records, and if you had such a landmark linked with a particular record, it’s likely to be a strong association. Let’s just go easy on the detail…

  2. 62
    mike on 2 Oct 2008 #

    Nah, it just wouldn’t make for very interesting reading in this particular case. No great earth-shattering revelations or nothing! My attachment to “Dreaming” is primarily a sentimental one which can’t readily be put into words, but I guess it also stands as a personal emblem/reminder of everything which great pop music can be.

    Some things in life are too precious to be picked to bits, and this is one of them.

  3. 63
    Erithian on 2 Oct 2008 #

    Fine, hope you didn’t think I was prying or being impertinent. Whatever the association is, what a glorious rush of a record.

    I’ve got a couple of years to decide whether to reminisce about that particular landmark : )

  4. 64
    mike on 2 Oct 2008 #

    Not at all! And yes, it’s basically one great big glorious, relentless, surging, rushing, tumbling, dizzying blur of optimism and energy and general lust for life and stuff.

    With great drumming.

  5. 65
    Lena on 2 Oct 2008 #

    “Dreaming” would have been my pick for #1 at this time too, though I don’t mind MIAB, esp. when Kanye takes over, as he does here:


  6. 66
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  7. 67
    Taleffern on 8 Jul 2009 #

    Hey, I’m online! ). And Bye bye.

  8. 68
    thefatgit on 9 Nov 2009 #

    The Police seemed like the kind of band to shake things up as it were, to my 13 year old ears. This rock/reggae fusion band dressed in Post Punk combats were strikingly good looking and the songs were well crafted, hooky and immediate. The first album was a *wannabe* punk/reggae noisefest which at first was quite enjoyable, but after a few plays, I soon grew tired of. But the second album had more depth. The dubby, bass-heavy sound has aged badly I know, but then I was quite taken with it. I liked Copeland’s leftfield drumbreaks, and Summers’ unusual guitar playing style, with it’s ringing chords and that damping effect he used.
    By the time MIAB was released, it felt as though the whole world was turning bleach-blond/e as most of the girls (and some of the boys) reached for the peroxide. Of course we had Debbie to lust after, while the girls would plant their kisses on pics of Sting. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to own up to that now!
    This then represents a time when music mattered most, when so much was going on! The 2 lads in my class who I counted on as best friends hated The Police for some reason, but then one had an almost complete collection of Genesis albums(including bootlegs)as well as Yes and Camel, and the other was a big fan of Status Quo and Rainbow. They both fell big time for Numan, though.

  9. 69
    swanstep on 1 Feb 2010 #

    This is a stunning record I reckon. It seems to get faster and faster, and like the Who’s best records you have a sense of stuff being played with real authority. Thus, you know for sure that even if you and your pals *could* pick out all the notes and beats yourself it wouldn’t sound half as good. Scoring it an average record just seems silly to me when the songwriting’s fab (you just *know* Elvis C. for all his talent heard this and felt a twinge of envy and wished he’d written it) and the playing’s great. Both major dimensions here as clearly superior as they are on Chic tracks of the period. Notwithstanding the cynicism that Sting has always rightly provoked, then, this one is a real credit to him. Cracking stuff:

  10. 70
    thefatgit on 1 Feb 2010 #

    @55 the chap who Andy Summers replaced was called Henri Padovani. Rumour has it he only knew one chord and was only recruited into the band, because he “knew people”. A kind of post-punk Stuart Sutcliffe, if you like.

  11. 71
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 1 Feb 2010 #

    i totally recall* the name henry padovani in reference to one of the classic punk bands — ie NOT the police :p — but he’s not mentioned in respect of this on wikipedia: except haha that he once auditioned for the band london…

    was he briefly in the damned? it’s something like this — he stood in for someone famous (“famous”) at some point

    *across c.32 years of not having given a it second’s thought mind you

  12. 72
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 1 Feb 2010 #

    in act he’s on one of the pete frame family trees, though i have misplaced the punkrawk one i had up in my bedroom when a postury student

  13. 73
    thefatgit on 1 Feb 2010 #

    Just checked his Wiki page (no citations I notice) seems he left The Police in August ’77. Then went on to join Wayne Country & The Electric Chairs.

  14. 74
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 1 Feb 2010 #

    Yes I read that too, but I’m (sort of) sure it wasn’t the Electric Chairs — it was London-based punk… though actually I think WC was London-based for a while.

  15. 75
    Billy Smart on 14 Feb 2010 #

    TOTPWatch CONTEXT SPECIAL: Get this, the edition of Top of the Pops when this was number one, on the 11th of October 1979 was watched by 19.7 million people! Admittedly, this was during the ITV strike, but that’s still an extraordinary reach.

    In the studio were; The Dooleys, The Headboys, Chic, Errol Dunkley, Cats UK, Dana and Viola Willis, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’. Andy Peebles was the host.

  16. 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.

  17. 77
    thefatgit on 14 Feb 2010 #

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

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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.”

  23. 83
    iconoclast on 14 Oct 2013 #

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

  24. 84
    swanstep on 15 Oct 2013 #

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

  25. 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

  26. 86
    Gareth Parker on 5 May 2021 #

    I’m in agreement with Tom here. 5/10 would be my score. The repetition and Sting’s vocal stylings put me off from going any higher.

  27. 87
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