The Police – Ghost In The Machine | 1981 – 3
1981 saw The Police issue their first album from a position of superstardom. The listener immediately knew that sweeping changes were in store for the band as they careened over the rock landscape. Right after the initial drumroll, the synths and saxophones kick in as “Spirits In The Material World” moves toward a Prog-reggae hybrid. The days of bashing it out for a few thousand Pounds are a speck in their rear view mirror as the posh surroundings of Le Studio in Montreal and Sir George Martin’s Air Studios in Monserrat were now the band’s preferred climes. After three albums with Nigel Grey, the band had moved on to Hugh Padgham, fresh from Phil Collins’ “Face Value” solo album.
The leadoff single in America was the surprisingly ebullient “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” which sported three things that make it unique in The Police’s canon. First, it is an exceptionally accomplished and complex arrangement. There is a lot of music packed into that hit that bears careful listening to. The use of eight track Surrey Sound studios is left in the dust for a state-of-the-art sound that still holds its own as one of the most complex songs The Police ever recorded. Secondly, the tune’s distinctive keyboards were the work of Jean Roussel, the only non-member of The Police to play on one of their albums up to this point. Sting enlisted Roussel to play on his demo and reportedly, the band couldn’t top the “magic” he brought to the demo and ended up using the demo as the framework for the final song. Roussel managed to pocket mechanical royalties for a demo gig. Sweet for him… and us. Because thirdly, the song is the only Sting track that managed to approach something resembling emotional euphoria. The normally morose Sting, was not given to his work reflecting bouts of bliss, and though the middle eight is shaded as ever with portents of gloom and doom, the overall feel of the track is unusually upbeat for this band as the middle eight rises out of a minor key with an ascending synth run by Roussel.
As if to atone for this positivity, the next track is the UK single “Invisible Sun;” compassionately referencing the lives of those in war torn or impoverished circumstances*. The six count by Sting in the intro manages to break my heart each time I listen to this track more than any words can say. The throbbing synths prominently announced that The Police had been listening to their Gary Numan records as many of us listening in 1981 thought at the time.
Another first for the group was reflected in song lengths as “Demolition Man” nearly skirted the six minute mark for this band that in the past, assiduously stuck to three minute song lengths. The cut was strong enough to be a single but The Police were probably beaten to the punch by Grace Jones, when her definitive cover appeared on her “Nightclubbing” album in advance of “Ghost In The Machine’s” Christmas rush appearance. I still say that there’s a killer 7″ edit hiding in that track that would have sounded great on the radio without disappointing anyone. Then the LP long version has a furious 2:30 instrumental coda where Summers gets to really jam.
“Too Much Information” was long my favorite Police track due to its thrilling intro. I absolutely love how the listener gets thrown into the intro with the guitar solo already in progress. Like if Captain Kirk beamed into a rock concert that was already underway. No sooner does the listener get their bearings than the solo is snuffed out for the trancy sax riffs that underpin the suitably frantic song.
“Rehumanize Yourself” is the first [and last] Sting/Copeland co-write since the heady days of “Reggatta De Blanc.” Savor this cut since the “third mind” of the band will no longer manifest itself moving forward. Not by a long shot! After this track, the album begins to falter somewhat. “One World [Not Three]” is an interminable reggae loop that lasts five minutes but seems longer. Side two got another bright spot with Andy Summers’ excellent “Omegaman.” Poor Summers. Word has it that this track was picked by A+M to be the prestigious lead-off single from the album but Sting threw a hissy fit. Too bad. It’s the best song here with a vibrant pace and a pleasing lack of Sting’s saxophones.
The next track is the album’s nadir as Sting’s imminent solo career manifests itself with the tragic “Secret Journey.” The cut unfolds in a diffuse manner with shapeless clouds of Summers’ guitar synth noodling for a third of the song’s length before the plodding tempo of the song begins to manifest itself. The lyrics are real howlers; the worst of Sting’s predilection for soft-headed mysticism that will come home to roost with a vengeance on their next album. I am flabbergasted that A+M picked this for the third single in the US over almost any of the other superior fare the album has to offer. Not surprisingly, it died a fitting death in the charts! Adding insult to injury, it was paired with the album’s final track, “Darkness,” as a B-side! That’s a song that I will assume is an attempt by Stewart Copeland to parody Sting most ridiculous tendencies. Namely his po-faced, depressive qualities – coupled with an increasingly pretentious predisposition. I can imagine that Sting might have been green with envy over lyrics like:
“But darkness makes me fumble…
For a key…
To a door…
That’s wide open”
They’re a far cry from the more typical Copeland fare that were previous highlights of Police albums. The only thing the cut offers me are the roto tom fills that crack like thunder on the increasingly gray landscape of the record.
In conclusion, one can get a solid glimpse of the beast that The Police were becoming that was in the process of slouching toward Gommorah as this album unfolds. The latent Sting jazzbo tendencies were becoming prevalent as the group inched further away from their rock/reggae roots with his rudimentary sax fills. The increased use of synthesizers also removed the group’s more distinctive coloration and made them more ordinary in the 1981 sonic landscape. Also, the band by this time had completely jettisoned any remaining sense of humor they once had as the material became emotionally astringent, with the exception of the dramatically atypical “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” This was the last Police album I ever bought in realtime, and though I enjoyed it much at the time. For a while, it was my favorite Police album, on returning to it for critical listening I find that it carries the seeds of the band’s doom, fully germinated and ready to sprout.
• Too bad he couldn’t reign in his harridan wife…
Thanks for doing these reviews! I’ve really appreciated your thoughts on The Police’s catalogue, as well as the Simple Minds compilations.
Steve – One day I need to do a Simple Minds Rock G.P.A. Oh the passion and heartache that will dredge up! Thanks for stopping in.
I’m not nearly as down on this album as you are, but it is clearly the last good one. The first four Police albums are about as near-perfect a rock canon as you can hope for. At least they had the grace (luck?) to bow out after just one kind of sucky record, unlike many other acts. I’d be interested in reading your take on Simple Minds too (to name one of those many other acts).
jsd – I’m not too down on “Ghost;” it did get a 3/4 grade, after all. It’s just that I can smell the rot just below the surface. But The Police were never one of my favorite acts. The difference for me was that Simple Minds are among my very favorite acts ever, from their salad days. That’s why I touched base throughout the “wilderness years” to see if they ever wised up. Eventually, they did. But a whole decade was a waste for them. Except if you were their accountant.
Appropriate grading here. Ghost is a reflection of the restlessness of the members of the The Police – mainly Sting. You’re very insightful to surmise that some of Copeland’s contributions to this album were a piss-take or fairly obvious attempt at pointing to Sting’s growing self-import. Listening to Ghost over the years I can hear the tension building.
Demolition Man is a classic Police track, even if it’s the length of two. I have to agree that Grace does own the song – as she does Iggy/Bowie’s Nightclubbing.
ELTSDIM is a song which I shouldn’t have liked, by nature, but you can’t get away from it’s infectiousness – there’s nothing wrong with a little bliss. I just wish I had never seen the video at the time – which was near impossible as it was ALL OVER.
Invisible Sun is a favorite of mine, and yes, it is thoroughly Replicas era Numan start to finish – with a reggae flavor and a guitar solo. The first time I heard Omegaman I thought – did they get Robert Fripp to guest on this track?
Trudy Styler is undoubtedly a, um, difficult person to work with — but I will always love her for her part in ripping the lid off Disney’s animation studios pre-Pixar with her only meaningful contribution to humanity, the documentary The Sweatbox. Track it down if you can, you will not believe that everyone involved hasn’t been killed over it.
As for Ghost, I will have to give this album a re-listen when I get my Police box set out of storage, but kudos for making me want to do so. I remember thinking at the time that the cover was a little too close to Numan’s I Dream of Wires, and, like you, it was to be the last album of theirs I bought.
chasinvictoria – I stand by my rating of 3, but at the time of release, this was my favorite Police album.