Jun 09

THE POLICE – “Every Breath You Take”

FT + Popular51 comments • 5,514 views

#522, 4th June 1983, video

I guess the mid-paced slog of a rhythm which dominates “Every Breath You Take” is meant to suggest its narrator’s implacability – the unresting patience of a stalker. Rock is a generally lively medium though and it takes some craft to build a “classic song” out of stony resolution, so credit to Sting and crew for that much at least. It must have been quickly obvious that “Every Breath” was going to be with us for a lifetime, a grey new fixture in the hall of fame.

A shame, though, because I’ve always found it a horrible chore to listen to. It’s cold, unsympathetic, the simplicity of its lyric and clockwork guitar picking has a water torture effect, and even when it rouses from its torpor for the “Can’t you seeeee” segment there’s Sting’s flattened-out moan to contend with. The only part that works for me is the barked anger of “Since you’ve gone…” and that’s not worth hearing the rest for. Yes, the song elegantly achieves the intensity and menace it’s going for, but at the expense of most of what I normally appreciate in pop music.



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  1. 31
    Alan Connor on 23 Jun 2009 #

    The idea that Sting was imbuing this misanthropic dirge with a political subtext is plain daft.

    Hey, any Resurrection Watch worth its salt has to mention the “aaaah”/”not ah” Spitting Image re-recording, where The Very Sting Himself deigned to sing for the programme but it was all like Every Bomb You Make, like gosh.

    One other Resurrection which the Bunny do allow is, then, the outro of Sting’s Love Is The Seventh Wave (“Every cake you bake, every leg you break”) – haha look I can even very self-consciously laugh at myself!!

    Did anyone else see the programme about the recording of Dream Of The Blue Turtles, incl footage of Sting “winning” a game of inter-rehearsal chess. “Check mate”. Huh.

  2. 32
    Rory on 23 Jun 2009 #

    I’m sitting here, looking at a 7″ single picture sleeve identical to the one pictured (a little scratched from being jostled during so many moves), and noting that the vinyl inside looks pretty clean after all these years; if only I’d bothered to get my old turntable repaired, I would be listening to it right now. Unlike some key singles from 1983, this is one I never sold or swapped.

    When this first came over the radio, it stopped me cold; I’d never heard anything like that progression of classical bass notes in a pop song. This was undoubtedly because I’d paid next to no attention to musical history in my decade and a half on the planet, but so what – it sounded new to me, and I wanted to hear it again and again. I phoned in a request to the station, as a lot of others must have, because they played it four or five times that afternoon. I remember this being the first time I knew, knew that a song was going to number one. (Which again shows how much I knew; in Australia it peaked at number two.) I bought the “limited edition” picture-sleeve single the very next time I was up in town.

    I was too new to popular music to be bothered by contrived or convoluted lyrics (not that I pay them too much mind today), and too naive in love to realise how creepy their theme was. At fifteen, I was three years into an unrequited obsession with the prettiest girl in my grade, who had done nothing to deserve it other than be pretty. She was way out of my league, even though it was a small-town league, and I really should have known better, but at that age the mind doesn’t have much say in such matters. In hindsight, it was probably an unconscious defence mechanism, removing any need to deal with the possibilities offered by other girls at school who might have been interested; I had been the class brain on the margins for too long to notice any signs of interest, or to know how to deal with the complicated romantic manoeuvring that other kids seemed to take in their stride. (Seemed. You always assume you’re the only one.)

    After years of keeping the secret between me and my friends, who were doubtless sick of hearing about it, I was starting to test my boundaries in the most painfully tentative manner by letting the girl know that I liked her (where “liked” meant the unthinking infatuation that only a flood of teenage hormones can unleash). She was a good sport, choosing not to turn me into a school-wide laughing stock. No, that was left to me, because I didn’t stop with letting her know.

    Everyone in school listened to the AM station where I first heard “Every Breath You Take”, and every night kids from all over the south phoned in their requests to Bill the DJ. Getting on air was a rare coup in the days before mobiles and speed dial: it meant monopolizing the family phone (fortunately in an empty hallway in our house) and dialling the numbers repeatedly on a rotary dial – bad luck if it had a lot of 9’s and 0’s. Nineteen times out of twenty you’d get the engaged signal, and I gave up for the night more than once; but eventually I got through.

    A friend and I had a plan for when we did. We were our grade’s biggest Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans, and were going to speak to Bill in character: him as Marvin, me as Zaphod. (The irony being that I was definitely a Marvin at that age, and never a Zaphod.) The challenge was that the station had a ban on silly nicknames for their phone-ins; my friend could plausibly claim that Marvin was his actual name, but Zaphod was going to be tricky.

    Bill must not have been Hobart’s biggest Hitchhiker’s fan, or else he took pity on me, because when I swore to him off-air that Zaphod really was what everyone called me, he put me on.

    “And on the line we’ve got… Zaphod. How’s it going, Zaphod?”

    “Heyyyyyyy, BILL baby!”

    Of course, my best Zaphod voice was still instantly recognisable to everyone in my grade, especially when it slipped once or twice during my improvised Hitchhiker’s-themed banter, as were the names of all my friends, duly name-checked in the traditional roll-call before my request played; and as was the name of the girl I dedicated it to.

    I pray that the song I requested wasn’t this one. But it could well have been. If not on that first call, then on one of the subsequent calls where I kept up the shtick and kept the same dedication. (My friend got through as Marvin, too, and for a while we were a regular feature of the phone-in. The no-nicknames policy pretty much collapsed after that, which can only have been a good thing.) The themes of “Every Breath You Take”, in all their unhealthy glory, hold too much obvious appeal to timid teenagers in the throes of unrequited love. Which is a lot of teenagers.

    Although I had guaranteed myself instant notoriety in the classroom, the fall-out actually wasn’t as embarrassing as I’d feared; I still had No Chance, but my peers weren’t going to think less of me for fancying someone half of them did as well. What the girl concerned made of it, I can only speculate, and cringe over.

    Given that the song was such a personal milestone (millstone?), it’s odd that I never bought Synchronicity; I guess I was burning through too much cash with my new record-buying habit, and there was a 3-in-1 stereo to save for as well. I resisted the urge even when Fopp was knocking it out recently for three quid, because I couldn’t see it being what I’d once imagined it must be (a Masterpiece! Five Stars! Breathtaking!); not after a quarter-century more of exposure to comfy ol’ Sting. (Not a fan, really, but a copy of The Soul Cages moulders away on my CD shelves.) Some things are better left in isolation, and “Every Breath You Take” feels like one of them. Funny, that.

    Back in the day I would have given this an 8 without hesitation, but age has wearied it to a six or seven; even if the memories it invokes are embarrassing, they’re intense, and that’s got to count for something. As for those lyrics and the message they send to hapless dedicatees, at least it wasn’t the b-side, “Murder by Numbers”.

  3. 33
    lonepilgrim on 24 Jun 2009 #

    I’m in two minds about this song: 1: because it’s Sting; 2: because it sounds so smugly superior (see 1); and 3: because, despite that, I still find it quite compelling.
    I don’t mind the lyrics too much – I think they come across as deliberately generic and it is the performance that makes a more sinister interpretation of them. Perhaps his experience of singing ‘Spread a little happiness’ for ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ had suggested the idea. Another performance, another arrangement could make this sound quite anodyne.
    The pace and sound of this performance reminds me of Libertango from Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, which, given she covered Sting’s Demolition Man on that album, I’m sure he would have been aware of.

  4. 34
    wichitalineman on 24 Jun 2009 #

    I’m not really sure that the rather literal Sting has the smarts to do “deliberately generic” – this is a man who had a dream in which he looked out of his window to see three turtles on their backs, turning blue, dying, in his garden. It was a dream about The Police, you see, Sting soon told us while promoting his first solo album. I wonder if Fish had a dream in which he was keeping a vigil in a wilderness of mirrors? I think he probably did.

  5. 35
    peter goodlaws on 11 Jul 2009 #

    Like Rosie, I too have been in my bunker lately – emerging from it to win a nice little packet on Roger and Serena, as advised by friend Waldo, and doing other bits and bobs to no financial reward at all.

    I like EBYT now much more than I did back in the day when I considered it more than a little trite, something which Sting had knocked out in about five minutes for his own delectation rather than for those simpletons who would worship at his shrine however poor the output. I can recall being more impressed with the version delivered for “Spittin’ Image”, which was far more evocative than the original. I now look more kindly upon it once I have dismissed the “stalker” aspect, which seems to bother some commentators. If Sting was indeed trying to be mysterious, it doesn’t really matter, especially all these years later and especially since Sting has become such a righteous knob in the interim.

    Erithian – I remember seeing an interview with Dean Friedman, who mentioned that he was something of a hate figure at college amongst the boys as he began his “career” as a songster. This, Dean opined, had everything to do with his corresponding popularity with the girls on campus and nothing whatsoever to do with his totally punchable face and his femmy, whiny little voice, which made Neil Sadaka sound like Scott Walker. Certainly “Lucky Stars” was a capital offence, especially when Friedman asks the uncredited female singer to “slide over here”, and his other two offerings I can think of – “Ariel” and “Lydia, Lydia” were similarly annoying.

  6. 36
    Tooncgull on 21 Oct 2009 #

    Erm, unlike most, I really liked it in 1983, and I still do. I think its the bass line that hooks, and the veneer of menace in the song… I am surprised to see this being panned as remorselessly as it is.

  7. 37
    pink champale on 12 Nov 2009 #

    #31 “Did anyone else see the programme about the recording of Dream Of The Blue Turtles, incl footage of Sting “winning” a game of inter-rehearsal chess. “Check mate”.

    i missed this gem the first time round but can imagine this EXACTLY. i just bet he was barefoot at the time too.

  8. 38
    DV on 28 Dec 2009 #

    This is one of those songs I loved back then and do not like so much now. That said, it is one of the great creepy stalker anthems.

  9. 39
    Brooksie on 2 Mar 2010 #

    I’m with Tooncgull # 36: I liked it then and I like it now. I love it in fact. Unlike him the dislike on here really doesn’t surprise me. Million and millions of people bought it, but the ‘musos’ just wanted to hate Sting. The lyrics are simple? Who cares. The tempo is ‘plodding’? Who cares. Seriously, there has been some utter tosh go through here with people giving it thumbs up. This is a 4 – like ‘Aneka’?!?!

    Yes, I know; this is one of those songs that was everywhere then and hasn’t gone away and Sting is a lunkhead. But regardless of that; this song is everything a great pop sing should be; unforgettable, and with a hook that most musicians would cut off a finger for. ‘4’ my arse. Whatever I was going to give it I’m now giving it a 10 just to spit at every single threadbare criticism of what is one of the most famous songs of all time. Oh, and Puff Daddy’s mediocre rhyme would have gotten nowhere without using that selfsame irresistible riff, thus the song generated two of the biggest hits of all time. I call the ‘Spandau’ defence; two huge songs from one riff make the song critic-proof. You know that you can throw all the rocks you want; they’ll just bounce off.

    There are times when it feels like people criticise things just for being too popular with the masses. This feels like one of those times. I posit a hypothesis; if this song had been the same but done by a different band, 50% of the criticisms here would simply disappear. Is it really the song you dislike, or is ‘Sting’ + ‘Popularity’ that bothers you?

    As for people using this for their wedding and not “getting it”; first of all, ‘stalker’ is a term that has been popularised post-internet (like many others). Second, maybe the people that chose it for their wedding can hear what the song is about, but like it anyway? The song is about obsessive love, which is no different to obsessive devotion; whether it is a good or bad thing depends on whether it’s reciprocated. At a wedding people are presumably dedicating themselves to each other for life (in theory) so the sentiment of the song would be an appropriate sentiment of devotion, rather than simply a threat of potential murder.

  10. 40
    thefatgit on 21 Sep 2011 #

    I think the perception of “stalker” and “menace” in relation to EBYT is down to the key it’s played in. I’m no musicologist but I’d imagine a more jolly rendition of this on the piano-forte in the style of Noel Coward would render it a stately and reserved declaration of undying admiration without a single line of the lyric being altered. Alternatively, playing EBYT on the ukelele with your finest attempt at George Formby’s perma-chirpy-cheeky-chappy delivery would unearth previously hitherto buried double-entendres (my poor heart aches *WINK* with every step you take). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bill Bailey hasn’t explored the potential in EBYT. It’s a simple song with a killer hook, whichever way you wish to play it. Deserves much more than a 4 IMO.

  11. 41
    MarkG on 21 Sep 2011 #

    Frank Sidebottom has done exactly that. “With every step my aching feet are taking…”

  12. 42
    Wheedly on 21 Sep 2011 #

    There’s a lot of factors at play. If the listener gets a sense that there is a least an emotional ambiguity in the song, part of the credit has to be given to Sting for delivering a vocal that conveys the ambiguity, even before the listener has heard all the song and knows the words. That ambiguity is of course present in the lyrics, simply because of the constant repetition of ‘every’ and ‘I’ll be watching you’. For all the stories of people using it as a first-dance song at weddings and hearing no sinister undertones in EBYT, I can’t help feeling that most listeners got it (particularly if they saw the video).
    But you could take it further and suggest (OK, I would take it further and suggest) that every element in the production (Summers’s repetitive delayed arpeggios, the one-note piano in the middle, the spare drumming largely without cymbals) work to project that sense of menace.
    The video, if anything, plays its hand too strongly and lessens the emotional ambiguity.

  13. 43
    punctum on 14 Jan 2014 #

    TPL does Synchronicity: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/the-police-synchronicity.html

  14. 44
    Tom on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Might as well bump this since “Related Posts” is convinced it and Puffy have zero relation to one another!

    I still dislike this song.

  15. 45
    hectorthebat on 17 Nov 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 315
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 71
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 24
    NBC-10 (USA) – The 30 Best Songs of the 80s (2006)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    PopMatters (USA) – The 100 Best Songs Since Johnny Rotten Roared (2003) 32
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 44
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 42
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 95
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 84
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 84
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 21-100
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 157
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 9
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 42
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 334
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 90
    BBC Radio2 (UK) – Sold on Song, a Celebration of Great Songs and Songwriting
    Colin Larkin (UK) – The All-Time Top 100 Singles (2000) 61
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 91
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 424
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 26
    The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock: Classic Recordings (2008)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Nerikes Allehanda (Sweden) – The 50 Best Rock Songs of All Time (1992) 24
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 29
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 14
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 80
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The 500 Best Songs of All Time (2004) 153
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 79
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee
    Rolling Stone (USA) – Singles of the Year
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 2
    Kerrang! (UK) – Singles of the Year 5
    Melody Maker (UK) – Singles of the Year 7
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 27

  16. 46
    mapman132 on 24 Nov 2014 #

    As touched on in a couple of above comments, “Every Breath You Take” was a massive hit in America: 8 weeks at #1, not only nudging out “Billie Jean” for top single of the year but also one of the biggest hits of the decade. In fact it was kind of the mythical benchmark by which a teenage chartwatcher like me circa 1990 judged hugeness of hits (even Bryan Adams couldn’t match it in the pre-Soundscan era).

    Notably it was also the Police’s biggest US hit by a wide margin: their next biggest hits were two #3’s, and they had a few more Top 10’s, but EBYT was clearly an anomaly. So the thing I have to wonder is: Why? The Police were certainly a hot group in the US in 1983: Synchronicity was the top US album for 17 weeks while in direct competition with Thriller. But some of that may have been spillover from EBYT itself. It seems doubtful that so many people were really that hungry for the perspective of a creepy stalker, while on the other hand, Americans will always fall for a good love song. So the obvious conclusion I must reach is EBYT was a huge hit because my silly countrymen didn’t actually understand it. Certainly wouldn’t be the only time, but perhaps the greatest example of an anti-love song with misaimed fandom.

    To be fair I was one of those misaimed fans myself, although in my defense I was just a kid who didn’t really listen to lyrics closely. And I certainly wasn’t the only one as evidenced by the number of junior high dances and high school proms this got played at. I don’t think I’ve actually heard it at a wedding but it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s hard for me to grade now with the dissonance between my teenage interpretation and its actual meaning. So I won’t grade it. But it’s certainly an interesting song – I’ll give it that.

  17. 47
    swanstep on 25 Nov 2014 #

    @mapman132. I’ve always wondered whether Americans’ particular susceptiblity to EBYT wasn’t traceable in part to the ‘O Can’t You See’ line and associated melody which has always reminded me of (and made me want to continue as) the ‘Star-spangled Banner”s ‘O say can you see/By the dawn’s early light’.

    Also, between the anthem and, especially, The Pledge of Allegiance said every day in school, all American kids have long experience with songs and texts they recited well before they knew what the words meant (but, hey, kids! – when my nieces were three and five their favorite couplet to sing around the house was ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme/a man after midnight’ much to my sister’s amusement and occasional horror). There’s no real counterpart of that elsewhere, and it might also make it slightly easier for US ears to just go with the flow of the track.

  18. 48
    Abzolute on 9 Jan 2017 #

    I was only 3 when this was out so I didn’t remember it from its initial release, but hearing it over the years it’s one that I do like. I like how it gently meanders with its simple melody and bass that has that lovely hook. It’s enough to pull me in and keep me there despite my lack of enthusiasm for Sting or anything he’s ever done.

    A solid 7 from me.

  19. 49

    I remember the intro being used as the soundtrack for an early 90s Amiga computer game, but I’m totally stumped as to the name of the game (hur hur hur.) Can any fans of the Monkey Island, Zool and Lotus Turbo Challenge golden age help?

  20. 50
    benson_79 on 26 Aug 2020 #

    There was a Best 80s Songs countdown show on ITV a few years back and rather improbably this came in at #1. Don’t think it was based on audience votes; presumably the Stinger and/or Trudie were on the production staff.

    4 is a little harsh for this, but only a little.

  21. 51
    Gareth Parker on 29 Apr 2021 #

    There is a brooding and atmospheric quality to the song, but it never really catches fire for me. 5/10.

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