One Special Album Made all the Difference: Reflections on The Police's 1983 "Synchronicity" album
by J. Albert Barr
"I have only come here seeking knowledge, things they would not teach me of in college."
- The Police: "Wrapped Around Your Finger" (lyrics by Sting)
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the final studio album by The Police, "Synchronicity". As anniversaries go this one is pretty significant to me personally. I had only turned fifteen years old about two weeks before this monumentally important album's official release on June 1, 1983. In the month prior to the album's ubiquitous appearance in music shops and retail stores, like Zellers, where I purchased my copy for $6.99 plus tax, the album's first single came out. It was entitled "Every Breath You Take". I can still remember how utterly blown away I was when I first heard it; that classic commencing bang from Stewart Copeland's drum that immediately set the dark tone of this incredible song, followed by Andy Summers' arresting guitar melody suffusing the song with an ominous, billowing fog, which, coupled with Sting's steady bass-line, I feel completely warranted the memorable black and white video that accompanied it, giving it a film noir quality, especially as it featured a lit cigarette at the beginning and end. Kevin Godley and Lol Crème of 10cc fame directed the "Every Breath You Take" video (along with the videos for "Synchronicity II" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" as well), and MTV incessantly aired it from then on that May and throughout the rest of the year pretty much. It also dominated radio airplay and 45-single sales by spending 8 consecutive weeks at #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in July and August of '83.
Sting's vocals on the track were uncharacteristically in a low-register, which lent a menacing vibe, given the stalker-theme elicited in the fairly simple lyrics that begin with: "Every breath you take/ Every move you make/ Every bond you break/Every step you take/ I'll be watching you". Many people, particularly unwitting brides and grooms, misinterpreted "Every Breath You Take" as a love-song in the traditional sense, but it's anything but. The song seems to be about a jilted man who's the unfortunate recipient of unrequited love, and has become obsessed with his distant "object of desire". However, Sting has intriguingly claimed in a recent interview that the smash-hit song is about the Reagan administration and the conservative political climate of the 80s, with the notion of Big Brother "watching you, and watching us all": "1984", after all, was the title of George Orwell's nightmarish 1949 novel, fittingly enough, so perhaps Sting was, consciously or unconsciously, channelling that novel, as well as his marriage break-up with his first wife, Frances Tomelty, when he composed "Every Breath You Take". Was there possibly a synchronous relationship between said political climate of that time and the deep, personal romantic turmoil Sting was going through concurrently?
Regardless, I bought the 45-single of it in May of '83, and fervently played it to death, if for no other reason than because I absolutely loved its seductive melody and hook and overall mood, while still being intrigued by its sinister overtones. Even as a young teenage boy, I was readily drawn to the strange, mysterious and dark under-currents of the world around me. No wonder David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" is one of my all-time favorite films! There's a definite part of me that profoundly relates to the film's small-town protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont, and his irrepressible sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness, whatever the risks and dangers such investigating may entail. Ironically, I seemed to have had cultivated a Faustian taste for "forbidden knowledge" and the truth, however unsettling, about the real state of things.
When June came around, and I saw "Synchronicity" displayed, with all the other new records out at the time, I snatched up a precious copy with my own money that I had earned delivering newspapers with my brother, Jeff. Excitedly bringing the album home, without having heard any of the other tracks, besides "Every Breath You Take", I seem to recall just knowing beforehand, in my mind, that the album was going to be amazing, and IT WAS! The music (side one is the rockier, up-tempo half, and side two is the more subdued, slow-tempo half), melodies, hooks, vocals, production, and each band member's respective instrumental contribution captivated and enchanted my every faculty and sense, which, for a freshly pubescent fifteen year-old boy, were hyper-sensitive and sharply attuned. It was a watershed moment for me when I first heard "Synchronicity" in its entirety. I had never heard anything like it before. It was so different to what I was used to hearing on the radio, despite its accessibility. However, the lyrics were a different story altogether, at least on a conscious, and naïve, level.
First of all, I thought to myself back then, while going to junior high school at the time, "what did synchronicity mean exactly"? And as I eagerly followed along with the lyrics printed on the album sleeve, I also asked myself what did "Spiritus Mundi" mean? And what did Sting mean when he sang "Take this space between us and fill it up someway"? What the hell was Andy ranting and raving on about his mother? Who was "Miss Gradenko"? What did the Loch Ness Monster have to do with suburban families and city life? Why all the vivid negative imagery to express that you're in pain? What was the Scylla and Charibdes? Who was Mephistopheles? And, finally, who were these strange sisters wandering in the Sahara Desert looking for tea? Some of the answers to these teeming questions were thankfully provided by The Police members themselves in the many interviews I came across in the rock music magazines I started to buy in conjunction with my burgeoning love and obsession with pop-music and Top 40 radio circa '82-'83.
For such a dark and dour, intelligent and literary album, "Synchronicity" became a huge commercial hit, spending 17 non-consecutive weeks at #1 on Billboard's Top 200, even keeping Michael Jackson's juggernaut hit album, "Thriller", off the top-spot for most of the summer and fall, as it went on to achieve multi-platinum status with staggering sales of over 8 million copies in the U.S. alone. It also scored three more hit singles: "King of Pain" (#3 chart placing), "Wrapped Around Your Finger" (#8), and "Synchronicity II" (#16). Clearly, the album struck a lot more chords than just mine in 1983.
Eventually, I learned that synchronicity was a concept developed by famed psychologist, Carl Jung, which meant the profound connection between two seemingly unrelated things; and that Spiritus Mundi meant "World spirit, or spirit of man"; the "space between us" is apparently the widening gap within a humanity that has distanced itself from its former god, or gods, and are collectively feeling spiritually empty for it; the rocky relationship between Andy's character and his mother is clearly a depiction of Freud's well-known "Oedipus complex"; "Miss Gradenko" alluded to foreign relations with the Soviet Union during a time when nuclear devastation was on everyone's mind; the Loch Ness Monster was used as a metaphor for the darkness humanity had apparently unleashed from within itself, because of the increasing inhumanity brought on by an alienated modernity (there was also an allusion to William Butler Yeats' famous 1920 poem "The Second Coming"); the hyperbolic, yet poetic imagery, Sting described in "King of Pain" were all analogies to the monumental "pain and turmoil" (which he admitted in interviews around that time in '83 produced his best work) he had seemingly been enduring exclusively; the Scylla is a massive rock formation resembling a many-headed sea-beast, while the Charibdes is a gigantic whirlpool, and both were featured in Homer's "The Odyssey"; Mephistopheles is the personification of the devil that appeared in Goethe's early 19th century masterpiece, "Faust"; and, finally, the sisters in the Sahara Desert appeared as a symbolic anecdote in Paul Bowles' marvelous 1949 novel, "The Sheltering Sky", which Sting had read and was obviously inspired to write "Tea in the Sahara", the mesmerizing album closer on the vinyl version of "Synchronicity", where as the politically-acerbic "Murder by Numbers" is/was the featured album closer on the compact disc and tape cassette.
It's funny though, despite not being privy to all the literary and philosophical references peppered throughout "Synchronicity's" lyrics, and not fully comprehending the underlying themes therein, during that initial time, I felt, on a subconscious, gut-level, what Sting, predominately, was trying to communicate to his audience, to me. And it was ultimately this internal drive and curiosity to understand and to learn that I believe "the seeds to my intellectual being" were originally sown, as pretentious as that may sound. The world was then beginning to really open up to me, to my individual purview, and I wanted to absorb and understand as much of it as I could stand to take in without feeling overwhelmed and frightened by it all, and so the irrepressible urge to express myself, artistically, emerged. Consequently, I became an avid reader, socially-conscious, and started writing my own songs, which showed, quite obviously, the immediate influence of Sting and The Police. By February of 1984, I had all five of The Police's proper albums in my possession, and they undoubtedly became my favorite band, and top musical artist in general. They've remained a beloved, and continuously enriching, favorite of mine for the past thirty years. And "Synchronicity" has become the single most important and impactful album on my life.