Playing God
The Police – Synchronized Machinery



even though they've sold a combined 11 million copies in the US alone, and regularly appear on all sorts of Best Albums of the 80s lists, I doubt there are too many people that could honestly say that Ghost in the Machine or Synchronicity are perfect albums. The Police only made one really solid album in their lifetime, and it wasn't either of these—1980's Zenyatta Mondatta runs at about a steady 8 ½, a markedly consistent effort in both sound and quality. Consistency is far from the name of the game with Ghost and Synchronicity, albums that match gorgeous pop songs with frenzied post-punk workouts, proggy head-scratchers, and, at least in the case of Synchronicity, the most egregious filler to ever occupy space on an album that actually outsold Thriller for fifteen weeks.

So I'm taking some sandpaper and a hot glue gun to the two albums, combining them at the points where they best complement each other. And in my opinion, that involves taking out the albums' megahits. Ghost's "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" is jettisoned, as is Synchronicity's "King of Pain," and of course, 1983's #1 single, "Every Breath You Take." Despite going through long phases of wanting to destroy the radio whenever I heard them played, these three songs are somewhat indisputable in their classic status, and they've rightfully become part of our pop cultural DNA. Nonetheless, their sort of pop perfection tends to distract from what I really like about the Police's last two albums—my favorite Police songs tend to be their most jarringly hybridized, ones that combine their disparate influences into somewhat perplexing, but thrillingly unique early-80s music. Part Clash, part Yes, part Byrne & Eno, but all Police.

And in the interest of keeping it strictly a Police effort, I've kept off a couple songs that sound more like Sting starting his solo career, including Synchronicity's bullpen tracks "Tea in the Sahara" and "Murder By Numbers," as well as the quality b-side "Once Upon a Daydream." I wanted to keep Synchronized Machinery to roughly the length of a regular Police album anyway, so they aren't much missed.

01. "Synchornicity I" (from Synchronicity)
I generally hate doing this, but I ended up keeping the Synchronicity opener in place, since really, I can't picture it anywhere else in the running order. It's an odd introduction to one of the best-selling albums of the 80s, but it's the perfect introduction to my punkprogwave Frankenstein album. It's one of Syncrhonicity's weirdest and most frenetic tracks, a keyboard-heavy 6/4 groove played with the energy of the band's punk-y early singles, matched with one of Sting's most obscure pseudo-intellectual lyrics ("We know you, they know me / Extrasensory / Synchronicity"). Regardless of how little sense they make (and maybe they make perfect sense, I don't know enough Jung to judge), the words sound great, and that's all anyone ever asked of a man who thinks "Their logic ties me up and rapes me" is an acceptable line to introduce a hit chorus.

02. "Spirits in the Material World" (from Ghost in the Machine)
And of course, I hit right back with the Ghost opener. Possibly the least obviously commercial single the 5-0ers ever released, "Spirits" pits reggae'd-out synths against Sting's bubbliest bass line and possibly the least satisfying chorus of the 80s, and somehow comes out with both a top 20 hit and one of Ghost’s coolest, if most enigmatic songs. There's just so much weirdness contained in this song—the random sax gargles in the second verse, the pogoing synth-line that appears randomly in the song's bridge and disappears almost as quickly, the chorus's attempt to cram one beat too many into its titular hook—and hey, it all kind of works anyway. Don't think Diddy'll be sampling it any time soon, though.

03. "Miss Gradenko" (from Synchronicity)
In the interest of democracy, seems only fair to have one of drummer Stewart Copeland's contributions in here. Even if "Gradenko" hardly registers as one of the Police's most memorable song—I had completely forgotten how it went before prepping this article—it's a pleasant enough slice of strangeness, and with three verses, two choruses and a guitar solo in two minutes, it's one of Synchronized Machinery's most efficient tracks. Anyone know what the hell the lyrics are about?

04. "Too Much Information" (from Ghost in the Machine)
One of the better horn-infused post-punk dance party numbers that makes up Ghost's bread & butter. One of the band's simplest choruses ("Too much information / Running through my brain / Too much information / Driving me insane"), and that chorus makes up about 80% of the song's lyrics, but it's played with enough enthusiasm that it's hard to mind too much. Plus, it's fun to wonder if those mid-song "SHIAH!"s were the inspiration for the similar shouts in Big Country's "In a Big Country."

05. "Invisible Sun" (from Ghost in the Machine)
Quickly on its way to becoming my favorite Police song ever. The Police really knew how to introduce a single—that creepy chuckle at the beginning of "Roxanne," that far creepier bass rumble that opens "Don't Stand So Close to Me," even just that little cymbal fill that kicks off "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"—and on those terms, the first 45 seconds of "Invisible Sun" is surely their masterwork. A chillingly undulating synth pattern fades in to introduce Sting's extremely patient count off, shortly joined by Summers's sublimely subtle guitar line and Copeland's heartbeat-approximating drum thump. Sting doesn't get to a full eight count, instead stopping short at six, creating a tension gloriously relieved by the introduction of the song's "woah-oh-ah-oh-woah-oh" hook, spooky and yet strangely anthemic—the best tone-setter the song could've asked for.

The rest of the song is no slouch either, with one of Sting's most surprisingly coherent political lyrics, and one of rebel rock's great opening lines ("I don't want to spend the rest of my life / Looking down the barrel of an Armalite"). As with "Spirits," the song's relatively bland chorus mainly just serves to accentuate how awesome the rest of the song, but no matter, since the rest can certainly weather the hit. Bono may have written a few songs more fist-pump worthy than this, but certainly none as hypnotic or fascinating.

06. "How Stupid Mr. Bates" (from the Brimstone & Treacle soundtrack)
Summers and Copeland were nice enough to provide their support on the soundtrack to the 1982 film Brimstone & Treacle, only remembered today for featuring one of Sting's only lead acting performances. Along with two other tracks, the Police contributed this instrumental, a nice-enough low-key number that works beautifully as my side one closer. I've had several conversations with Stylus colleague Alfred Soto about the Police's similarity to Rush, another foreign (both literally and figuratively) rock trio of the early 80s with highly conflicting influences, occasionally over-reaching lyrics and a love-him-or-hate-him frontman. Here the similarity is writ large—basically, "How Stupid Mr. Bates" sounds exactly like Rush, and if I told you this was an album track from Moving Pictures, you'd probably believe me (unless you'd already heard the album, and if not, why the hell haven't you heard Moving Pictures yet???)

07. "Omegaman" (from Ghost in the Machine)
The album's secret weapon, "Omegaman" was regrettably buried in the second side of the original Ghost in the Machine, but here it's brought to the album's center, where it deserves to be. Honestly, why the band opted for "Spirits" and "Invisible Sun" (and even "Secret Journey," not found on this cut) over choosing this as a single is beyond me—with its chugging groove, heartbreaking bridge and simply stunning chorus riff, this is really about as classic as new wave guitar-rock gets. True, the song's super-ambiguous lyrics probably did it no favors commercially, and Sting probably wasn't too keen on the Summers-written song overshadowing his own material, but damn if this isn't a beaut. Essential even for non-Police fans.

08. "Demolition Man" (from Ghost in the Machine)
Sort of hard to listen to without getting flashes of Sylvester Stallone and Taco Bell-heavy dystopias, but nonetheless, "Demolition Man" is the Police at their most badass (which is to say, not very, but it certainly beats the hell out of "Walking in Your Footsteps"). Summers and Copeland might've been pissed off at the band's increasing reliance on horns, but fuck it, I think they sound tight on this, without making the band's sound any less "raw" or "urgent" or "good" or whatever. Get a life, you two.

09. "Wrapped Around Your Finger" (from Synchronicity)
All right, so I cheated a little bit. There's not too much punkprogwave about "Wrapped Around Your Finger," a relatively straightforward ballad that hit the top ten and featured a horrible video with the band poncing around a maze of tall candles in slow motion (which, truth told, is actually an incredibly awesome video, and at least Sting isn't wearing a stupid-looking hat for once). Still, I don't feel too bad including this—even the most punkprogwave of albums still has room for one crowd-pleaser, and "Wrapped" is still the most obscure of the Police's big ballads. Find me another ‘80s pop hit with the words "Mephistopheles" and "alabaster" in the lyrics and I'll gladly swap it out for that boring French song from Ghost.

10. "Rehumanize Yourself" (from Ghost in the Machine)
Not too much to talk about on this one, it's just another of the punkier, hornier (just in the one way, sorry) tracks from Ghost, with more of the political lyrics and such. It's just slightly above-average enough to land my concoction's much-coveted "buried-in-the-second-side" slot, so bully for that, I guess.

11. "Low Life" (b-side to "Spirits in the Material World")
On the whole, the Police weren't a great b-sides band—most of the stuff they left off was just a little too so-so to deserve inclusion on their full lengths, although considering some of the putrid shit that ended up on their full lengths, it's hard to give them too much credit for good editing. In any event, "Low Life" is probably my favorite of this era's b's, a fairly average ballad that takes on an impressively epic quality in its final minutes, Sting yelling the title against some surprisingly tolerable sax wonking. In any event, it serves its place well on this album, as a set-up for the album's closer…

12. "Synchronicity II" (from Synchronicity)
The only single to threaten "Invisible Sun" for my top-ranking Police tune. The introduction is almost as great—one note of piercing guitar distortion, leading into Copeland kicking off the band's most ass-kicking upbeat groove. Something about the way Sting's bass sounds when it's just doing its one-note low rumble thing—boring as hell to play in Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, but it sounds fucking great. If "Invisible Sun" beats U2 through subtlety and subversion, "Synchronicity II" beats them straight up at their own game, with Sting's mountaintop "YAAAAHHHHH-OHHHHHHHH-OHHHHHH"ing and Summers's unbearably tense riffing putting most of War to utter shame.

And unlike "Invisible Sun," the rest of the song is just as amazing. There's no chorus to let you down, because strictly speaking, the song doesn't have a chorus—just a very extended verse form and some extremely memorable bridges, with the righteous major-chording of the former providing sharp and stunning contrast to the creeping darkness of the latter, and vice versa. And as an album closer, it couldn't work more seamlessly. You've got the whole bookending thing with "Synch 1" going, as well as the whole "many miles away…" closing thing, permanently associated with the video's classic closing panning shot. And hell, I just like albums that save their strongest rocker for the finale. Fairly underrated practice.

13. "Mother" (from Synchronicity) (Hidden Track)
Nah, just kidding. Still the worst song ever written.


By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2007-09-26
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