The following article by Robert Palmer appeared in an October 1981 issue of The New York Times newspaper...
The Pop Life...
When a rock group creates a distinctive new sound that takes it to the top of the best-seller charts, the last thing anyone wants the group to do is change. But the Police, the English trio whose third and most recent album was a million-seller in the United States and a worldwide hit as well, have never had much faith in the conventional wisdom of the music business. In l978 they promoted their first album, 'Outlandos d'Amour',' by touring America on a shoestring budget, riding with all their equipment in a single van. Instead of accepting the usual advance against royalties from their record company, A&M, the Police negotiated a contract guaranteeing them a higher royalty rate than is customary. If their records had been unsuccessful, they would have received little or no money. But their unusual decision proved extremely profitable for them: their second album went gold and their third went platinum. Now the Police have done something even more unconventional: they have changed their sound. Their first three albums featured unadorned solo vocals by Sting, their bass player, and spare, atmospheric backing with a rhythmic flavor derived from Jamaican reggae. The albums had similar titles, too; 'Outlandos d'Amour' was followed by 'Reggatta de Blanc' and 'Zenyatta Mondatta'. The fourth Police album, which is being released this week, is called 'Ghost in the Machine', and it is as radical a departure from the band's original style as one could have imagined. Instead of Sting's solo vocals, there is rich harmony singing. The stark trio instrumentation of the earlier albums has been beefed up with multiple guitar and keyboard parts and, on several songs, a saxophone section.
"The album is a departure," Sting acknowledged this week, "but it had to be. There was no way we could have served up another dose of what we were doing before. I think the last album, 'Zenyatta Mondatta', was tainted by industry pressure on us. It wasn't coming from here so much as from Europe. We were one of a very few groups that sold a lot of records in Europe last year, and when we were making 'Zenyatta Mondatta', we were very aware of how many people were waiting for it - not only record buyers but also the record company, retailers, the music press. We became sort of obsessed with the idea of making marketable records.
"But by the time we got around to making the new album, we didn't need to sell that many more records. I have confidence that this one will sell as well as or better than the earlier albums, but we really did it to please ourselves."
A number of critics wondered in their reviews of 'Zenyatta Mondatta' how long the Police could continue to make fresh music within the relatively narrow confines of their original sound. But the album went platinum in Austria, Canada, England, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Japan as well as in the United States and gold in a number of other countries; clearly, the band's public was not tired of the standard Police sound. Thus the striking changes that are apparent in every selection on 'Ghost in the Machine' represent a gamble. According to Sting, it was a gamble worth taking.
"We can always return to our original sound," he argued. "There's no dogma in our group, no set of rules that we have to obey, and we can only hope that's true of the people who have listened to us and liked us in the past."
When successful rock bands tour, they usually concentrate on the lucrative American market first and then on Europe and England, but the Police have visited India, South America and other areas that have had little exposure to rock. Most bands would have sought out exotic rhythms in these countries; the Police, who borrowed their original rhythmic approach from reggae, use rhythms that are more varied than t he conventional rock backbeat but cannot be traced to any one count ry or ethnic group on 'Ghost in the Machine'.
"We started off borrowing," Sting noted, "as any child does, but we've synthesized a lot of influences by this time. I think we've matured. Our traveling did influence us, but not in the way you might think.
"What our world tours actually did was strengthen our belief in rock-and-roll as an interna tional language. Rock communicates feelingand energy better than almost anything. In No rth America and the West in general, rock-and-roll performances can be hollow rituals. Everybody knows just what to do at a rock con cert in, say, Detroit, and when you finish playing you often wonder, was that real, or was everybody just going through the motions? In Argentina, Venezuela, India, places that have never seen a rock ban d before, the elation inthe audience tends to be much more genuine. Playing in places like that just tended to confirm our belief in the rock medium."
And so, at a time when many rock groups are spicing their music with overt ethnic borrowings, the well-traveled Police have made a bright, tuneful pop-rock album. And in typical Police fashion, they have made it with a minimum of outside help. Hugh Padgham helped them produce it, but only one song, 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', features a guest musician, the keyboard player Jean Roussel.
All the other keyboard and guitar parts are handled by members of the group - Sting, the guitarist Andy Summers, and the drummer Stewart Copeland. And the saxophone section is only Sting, who recorded multiple saxophone parts that sound full and brassy despite the fact that he had been playing the instrument for all of six months. The Police like to do things their way. "But we don't intend to be unconventional," Sting insisted. "We just use good common sense."
© The New York Times