The Police blow their cover...
Crowd warmup: (The Police's hit single, 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da'! A crash course in the science of songwriting!) Waddya mean, avant?
Intro: (Offbeat starts it. A two-bar sonic phrase, repeated; a two-bar dominant phrase, repeated: QQAA. Four times.) The avant-sneak - maybe the Beatles brought it to rock, slipping those fancy harmonies under the screams. That was fun, until musicians started to confuse "arty" and "artful", and songs got stretched way out of shape. The next bunch of avant-sneaks, like Paul Simon and Steely Dan, hid their tricks deeper inside simple forms. That was fun, until pop hacks latched onto "sophistication". This drove the next set of avant-sneaks - from Talking Heads to XTX to the Police - towards minimalism, as filtered down from punk, funk, and reggae along with LaMonte Young. Their mission: to hide hyper-simplicity behind seeming simplicity. And have some fun.
Verse, part one: (Four bars, four times, including an unchanging guitar lick in every bar; static harmony). The link between avants and popsters is repetition to clarify form and cue memory. The Police aren't the first to a combination, but with 'Zenyatta Mondatta' hitting the top 10 at Christmastime, followed by the quick sellout of Saturday's Madison Square Garden show, they may be the most successful. That's probably because they don't act avant. Onstage, they're speedy and clownish - bassist Sting and guitarist Andy Summers strut and bounce while drummer Stewart Copeland splinters an endless supply of sticks - and their hits are about being lonely and lovelorn, nothing obscure. They also swing like bad.
Verse, part two: (Four bars, twice, sub-dominant-dominant harmony pushes toward the tonic, but waits for the repetition.) To propel them through static harmonies, and on general principles, the Police use plenty of syncopation and nested rhythms; at this spot in 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da', Summers's guitar pattern double and quadruple-times Sting's vocal. The Police may be the only power trio that knows how to second-line, an effect they can get with phrase patterns (as in 'Reggatta de Blanc's' 'Deathwish') that make Steve Reich sound hopelessly unfunky. Of course, the Police have different priorities: they're more interested in minimalism's stick-to-the-ears economy than in its trance-out potential.
Chorus: (Exactly the same as the intro, plus two-bar vocal phrases; the lyrics turn out to distrust "eloquence" as opposed to "innocent... meaningless" sounds.) Until 'Zenyatta Mondatta', the Police's lyrics were either their sneakiest move or the best they could do; most of them were about love and related teen ailments. 'Zenyatta Mondatta' just might blow their cover, though - it tries for significance. 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' (marvelous textbook minimalism, complete with augmentation a la Reich for the chorus vocal) is about a Lolita and her school teacher; 'Man In A Suitcase' carps about on-the-road depersonalisation; 'Driven To Tears' is a heartfelt reaction to seeing poverty first hand; 'Shadows In The Rain' makes the most of paranoia; 'When the World Is Running Down You Make The Best Of What's Still Around' chronicles a World War III survivor who'll while away the time watching 'The TAMI Show' and 'Deep Throat' on the VCR until his car battery conks out. Not a love song in the bunch (and surprisingly few in the Garden set), although 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' might be (mis)construed that way. The weightier subject matter doesn't quite work, though; 'Driven To Tears' comes down to the level of 'Man In A Suitcase', just one more complaint. They're right not to trust words - everything they have to say is in their music.
Second verse and chorus: (Exactly like the first except for the lyrics, which switch like the first except for the lyrics, which switch from personal to general). 'Zenyatta Mondatta's' music is more openly avant than earlier Police efforts. They're not hiding behind reggae - a perfect cover for repetition - as much, although they can't resist the occasional skank. Similarly, they've backed away from frenetic punk (too claustrophobic?) in favour of funk, and they've upped the dissonances (Summer's solo in 'Driven To Tears', and his fills in 'Shadows In The Rain') and overtly static passages ('Voices Inside My Head'). I'd guess that 'Zenyatta Mondatta's' breakthrough success in America is the result of times-release reaction to 'Reggatta de Blanc' but it may also have something to do with decreasing AOR resistance to "reggae". Apparently no one minds a little obvious academicism; Sting even wore his graduation gown onstage.
Bridge: (14 bars of crescendo, ending with four bars of subdominant-dominant repetition; the momentum of a guitar figure fudges through an implausible progression.) Most new wave bands, eager to display their hooks, rule out improvisation, but the Police force it on themselves. They overdub more parts on their albums than they can possibly play in concert, which means they have to run joyfully amok live. Sting's bass patterns still provide the skeletons of the songs, though he occasionally jabs a sustaining synthesizer (more static harmony), while Summers floats peculiar cloud-chords around the vocals; in 'Bring On The Night', Summers somehow changed the chord on every beat while fingerpicking single notes to accent the offbeats. The revelation is Copeland, who subdivides the beat like a loftlord unchecked. The songs are carefully, scientifically assembled so they can be torn apart every night - and the Police do it so well that they ought to make a live album.
Chorus (same as the first): Which is to say that this is a players' band.
Fade/stretch (same as verse, part one - i.e. static). Right now, too much of a players' band, a little too theoretical; they extend songs with minimal repetitions (new vocal lines) and dub-like instruments that lost the Garden audience. And when the Police get too musicianly, there'll be new avant-sneaks waiting.
© Voice by Jon Pareles