On this day in 1978, A&M Records signed a bunch of blonde guys masquerading as punk rockers to their label. That doesn't sound like a blueprint for success, but those guys - vocalist-bassist Gordon Sumner (better known as Sting), guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland - were well on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, then one of the most lamented and celebrated after their messy breakup (and inevitable reunion).
The Police were like few others, blending pop, rock, New Wave and worldbeat genres together before U2 ever thought to, and turning out some of the most radio-friendly earworms of all time. They achieved all their success in a ridiculously short time - from 1977 to 1986, give or take a reunion tour a few years ago - and remain a staple of pop/rock music the world over. In honor of that historic signing, today's Back Tracks takes us through the release history of the band, including every compilation and video release you can stand. The catalogue's been remastered twice - once in 1995 and once in 2003, just as the group celebrated its 25th anniversary and an induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - but there are still a few goodies to be found here and there beyond the studio albums.
We'll be watching you after the jump.
Outlandos d'Amour (A&M, 1978 - reissued 1995/2003)
Recorded by novice producer Nigel Gray in a small, 16-track studio in Surrey, Outlandos shows the band with much to grow on, but hardcore fans have gravitated heavily towards this album, thanks to great tracks like "Roxanne," "So Lonely," "Can't Stand Losing You" and "Hole in My Life." It's nowhere near punk, as early critics and the band halfheartedly sought to label it, but it's the energetic first work of a band that would take the world by storm in a few short years.
There's not much to say about the remasters for much of The Police's catalogue, but some fans are particularly wrapped in debate over the fidelity of "Can't Stand Losing You." Every now and then, the accusation is thrown that part of the master tape is damaged, and must be replaced by a needle-drop taken from an LP copy. Are they right? Will we ever know, really?
Reggatta de Blanc (A&M, 1979 - reissued 1995/2003)
Far from the sophomore slump, The Police honed their sound and songcraft with Gray in the same studio, and churned out some of their best songs, including classic-rock staples "Message in a Bottle" and "Walking on the Moon," both of which topped the U.K. charts, and great pieces like "Bring on the Night," the dub-heavy "The Bed's Too Big Without You" and some hysterical Copeland-penned songs, including the first-date-gone-wrong lament "Does Everyone Stare" and the darkly comedic "On Any Other Day," which boasts one of the funniest musical twist endings in rock legend.
Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M, 1980 - reissued 1995/2003)
Recorded the quickest, over a few weeks in Holland with Gray right before another tour was about to begin, the band has often decried the off-the-cuff nature of the record. But fans find it one of the most endearing - namely because for most Americans, it was their first great exposure to The Police. Bolstered by their first Top 10 singles in the country, "Don't Stand So Close to Me" and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da," Zenyatta cracked the Top 5 in America. It is a pretty fascinating album on the whole, delving into political territory and more international sounds (which Sting and Stewart would greatly become familiar with in their future solo careers) and featuring some great groove songs (including "Voices Inside My Head," "When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around" and the Grammy-winning instrumental "Behind My Camel," written by Andy and loathed by Sting, who attempted to bury the master tape in a garden.)
Ghost in the Machine (A&M, 1981 - reissued 1995/2003)
Reconvening in Montserrat at George Martin's AIR Studios, the band embraced the emerging New Wave sound - adding keyboards, synths and horns and the iconic production of Hugh Padgham - and toed the line even further between the worldbeat/ska and pop/rock sounds they'd embraced so early on. The singles were bigger than ever, including reggae jam "Spirits in the Material World," political riff "Invisible Sun" and immortal love song "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." ("Invisible Sun" was not released as a single in the U.S.; instead, the third 7" was underrated gem "Secret Journey.")
The Police Around the World (IRS, 1982)
Arguably the last holy grail for Police fans, this fantastic documentary chronicles life on the Zenyatta Mondatta tour, as the band was aggressively marketed to far-off places, including Asia and eastern Europe, to set the stage for an American breakthrough. Great sketches and candid backstage footage combine with live performances for one of the best looks at The Police on video. Amazingly, this has never been released on DVD, and bootleg copies are highly sought-after.
Synchronicity (A&M, 1983 - reissued 1995/2003)
How odd that the album that sounded the least like the band, with the most tension behind it, was the most successful. Sting, Andy and Stewart barely got along when recording this final album, and it was largely stripped of the classic, raw, rock-reggae feel of previous albums. But the hits were huge, including chart-topping, Grammy-winning "Every Breath You Take," one of the most-played songs of the century, along with "King of Pain," "Wrapped Around Your Finger" and the hard-driving "Synchronicity II." Even though it boasts one of the worst songs in the band's history (the Summers-penned freak-out "Mother"), it's as golden as any of their other efforts. CD copies added a track: the B-side "Murder by Numbers," which throws off the groove set by original album closer "Tea in the Sahara."
The Synchronicity Concert (A&M Video, 1984 - reissued A&M, 2005)
The Police were no stranger to big tours, but their biggest album necessitated their biggest tour yet. Armed with synthesizers, backing vocalists and a light show that would give the biggest rock traditionalist a seizure, The Police took Synchronicity on the road unlike any of their prior albums. Iconic video makers Godley and Creme shot two shows at the Omni in Atlanta in November of 1983 for an MTV special; that footage was released on video in 1984 and made its bow on DVD in 2005. Though it's far from their best show, the DVD is stuffed with extras, including multi-angle shots of certain songs and some hidden bonuses.)
Every Breath You Take: The Singles (A&M, 1986) / The Classics (A&M, 1995 - reissued 2003)
It's not entirely sure how much this was supposed to be the band's swan song. The writing seemed on the wall by the end of the Synchronicity tour in 1984, and Sting would release his first solo album a year later. But the summer of 1986 saw The Police join the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope Tour for several dates, much to fans' excitement, and discussions were initiated to do something different for a greatest hits set: a batch of re-recorded versions of the songs, intended to mark their growth as musicians.
That was the plan right up to a few days before the sessions were to begin; Stewart broke his collarbone and was unable to drum, opting instead to program a Fairlight CMI for drum patterns on an updated "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Over the next three weeks, Sting and Stewart began recording over each other's parts, Sting armed with his beloved Synclavier and Stewart (one-)armed with the Fairlight. Eventually, everything was finally settled - and the band went off into the sunset - but "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86," a cold, harsh version of the original, was all that was recorded for an otherwise straightforward compilation.
In 1995, to commemorate the first batch of CD remasters for The Police, A&M repressed the set as Every Breath You Take: The Classics, adding both versions of "Don't Stand" to the playlist and adding an inessential, barely different "New Classic Rock Mix" of "Message in a Bottle" to the end of the playlist. This set was reissued on hybrid SACD in 2003, but a bizarre mistake on the DTS 5.1 version of the reissue revealed a heretofore unheard Police tune: "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da '86," which was never known to have existed before this disc was pressed. Unfortunately, it's worse than the other '86 re-recording, sounding like Sting singing over a MIDI file.
Every Breath You Take: The Videos (Polygram, 1986) / Greatest Hits (Polygram, 1992) / Every Breath You Take: The DVD (A&M, 2003)
An accompanying VHS was released alongside the EBYT compilation, succinctly collecting most of the band's music videos (notably omitted were the U.S. versions of "Roxanne" and "Can't Stand Losing You," which were videotaped lip-synched performances against a red background). Most of the early clips were directed by Derek Burbidge, who would later direct clips for Joe Jackson, Squeeze and AC/DC; the iconic Synchronicity-era videos, recorded as MTV began to grow in prominence among American households, were directed by Godley & Creme. The Greatest Hits video added a compilation clip for "Tea in the Sahara" and the "King of Pain" performance from the Synchronicity concert, but the DVD version is essential, including all the U.K. videos (still no sign of the early U.S. clips) - all newly remixed in Dolby and DTS 5.1 surround sound - plus a performance of "Roxanne" on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a great overview of the Ghost in the Machine sessions, intercut with interviews conducted by Squeeze's Jools Holland, and a vintage promo for Synchronicity. All in all, it's one of the gold standards for an artists' videos on DVD, in terms of both content and presentation.
Greatest Hits (A&M, 1992)
One of the more inessential Police compilations, this set almost replicates EBYT: The Singles, dropping the '86 re-take for the original and adding "The Bed's Too Big Without You" (from Regatta) and "Synchronicity II" and "Tea in the Sahara" (from Synchronicity). If you have nothing and can find this for cheap, it's worth it, but time has since led to greater, more thorough sets.
Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings (A&M, 1993)
This career-spanning box, billed as "The Complete Recordings," is almost correct. All five albums are reproduced, along with nearly every B-side and non-LP appearance (including the band's only single with original guitarist Henry Padovani, "Fall Out" b/w "Nothing Achieving," live tracks released on New Wave compilations like Propaganda and Urgh! A Music War), on four discs. But there are some missing tracks that have never made it to CD that don't feature here. Most notably omitted are Japanese and Spanish versions of "De Do Do Do" released on an international single, a re-recording of "Truth Hits Everybody" from a rare "Every Breath You Take" double-7" single and all the B-sides to "Don't Stand '86," including a live take and a 12" remix. (Bizarrely, the 12" remix has shown up, in place of the original, no less, on foreign pressings of this very box.)
That said, the box (packed with great liner notes and photographs) is the definitive take on The Police, and an essential part of any fan's collection as well as the canon of great box sets.
Live! (A&M, 1995 - reissued 2003)
Believe it or not, The Police never released a live album during their tenure; this 1995 set (produced by Andy Summers) rectified that by presenting two concerts - one from Boston's Orpheum Theater in 1979, and one taken from the same sets as The Synchronicity Concert video. The first is clearly the better show, with a raw energy and jam-heavy run-throughs on tunes. The Synchronicity show is notable in that it's not the exact same presentation and takes as what's heard on the video, and while that show is still more spectacle than substance (those backup singers! those synths!), having the CD arranged differently than the video adds slightly to the replay value.
Outlandos to Synchronicities: A History of The Police Live (Polygram, 1995)
This neat, rare tape features a myriad of live footage otherwise unavailable, including the professionally recorded shows at Hatfield Polytechnic in London in 1979, an infamous 1980 show in Frejus, France where Sting threatened violence on an unruly front-row audience member, and the 1982 show at Gateshead, across the river from Sting's Newcastle hometown. It's intercut with interviews with all the band members and Miles Copeland, as well as some of the footage Copeland shot from his trusty Super-8 camera, which would come to form a documentary of its own a decade later.
Strontium 90, Police Academy (Pangaea/ARK 21, 1997)
Before The Police officially welcomed Andy Summers into the fold, the guitarist did have a run-in with Sting and Stewart Copeland, playing with Gong bassist Mike Howlett in a quickly-created band called Strontium 90. The band didn't play much past a Gong reunion show in the late '70s, but it was a historic moment for Police fans to hear the classic trio they know and love start to gel. In 1997, Police manager Miles Copeland and Sting approved the release of the Strontium 90 recordings on their joint labels of ARK 21 and Pangaea. Most of the material was from Howlett's pen, but some, including an early studio version of B-side "Visions of the Night," a four-track demo of "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" and a song called "Three O'Clock Shot" (featuring a riff that would become part of "Be My Girl" and lyrics from Synchronicity's "O My God"), were Sting's. All in all, it's a fascinating early glimpse at this most beloved of bands.
The Very Best of Sting and The Police (A&M, 1997 - reissued 2002)
This is probably the least satisfying of all Police compilations, because it has to share half the space with Sting songs, which is a little disingenuous, as Sting's career is not entirely congruent to the music of The Police. (Plus, he's not the only member of the band, yet no solo material was included for Stewart or Andy.) The original pressing had a remix of "Roxanne" by Puff Daddy that might be the worst of many unnecessary latter-day Police remixes. It was eliminated from the disc for the 2002 reissue, which added the singles from Brand New Day and rearranged the running order.
Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out (Hip-O, 2006)
Sting may have been the face of The Police, but Stewart was its heart and soul, getting his family on board with the band from the very start (Miles managed the group and other brother Ian, who died not long after the documentary was assembled, booked their shows and took care of affairs on the road). The drummer enjoyed a multifaceted career after The Police, including solo stints, film scores and other side projects - but it was he who did the first great revisitation of the band in 2006 with Everyone Stares, a short documentary he crafted from countless amounts of Super-8 footage taken on the band's many tours. Some of it was hinted at in The Police Around the World and other documentaries, but here it takes center stage, providing an uncannily candid look at the band in their early years. The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, also boasts an impressive soundtrack of Copeland-produced "derangements" - mix-and-matched multitracks of dozens of Police songs reassembled into new creations. (Crafty DVD watchers can track down almost all of the derangements on the various menus of the DVD to listen to in full. There's also some nice features on the disc, including deleted scenes and commentary from all but one of the Police-men - guess which one?)
The Police (A&M/UMe, 2007)
In 2006, Sting put out his most alienating album yet, the lute-based classical record Songs from the Labyrinth. What could the guy possibly have to offer after something like this? Months later, as the Grammy Awards telecast began, the world had its answer. "Ladies and gentlemen," Sting announced the crowd, "We are The Police - and we're back!" The rip-roaring performance of "Roxanne" was the prelude to a mind-boggling reunion tour that proved that the band hadn't lost any of the fans they'd left behind some 20 years prior.
However, there wasn't much product offered by A&M/UMe in commemoration of the tour. The only piece of catalogue music sold was a self-titled, two-disc compilation that offered a fair amount of hits, singles and album tracks, but it was about half of what fans could get on Message in a Box for just a little bit more cash. Not even a special poster included with the liner notes can make this one worth it for hardcore fans.
Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires (A&M/Cherrytree, 2008)
After the tour had closed, Sting confirmed that The Police were firmly in the past. The postscript was a Best Buy-exclusive four-disc box (two CDs and two DVDs - a vinyl version was also pressed) of a Police show in Buenos Aires, Argentina during the first half of the tour. While it confirms what tour attendees know - that the sets were pretty tightly scripted and the songs, however still powerful, were often slowed or transposed a bit to accomodate Sting's changing voice and taste - it's probably the best Police show legally available on compact disc. The DVD features both the show and a candid (if too short) documentary by Stewart Copeland's son Jordan on the first leg of the tour. Arrangements are argued over, reminiscences are made and a lot of fun happens - particularly the acoustic rehearsal of the band's performance at Live Earth, done in a small circle backstage with Sting, Andy, Stewart, Kanye West and John Mayer almost nose to nose running through "Message in a Bottle."