I seem to get some good ideas in the wee hours of the morning when my sleep is a complete stupid mess. Since my sleep is a complete stupid mess about 50% of the time, you can imagine how these ideas tend to build up until they form a long, wobbly pile that keeps swaying and threatening to fall over. But it never quite collapses. Good ideas…nice ideas…stay…
During one of the more recent vampire phases, I started playing around with an acoustic fingerpicked take on “Walking on the Moon” by the Police. A lot of the music I listened to as a kid causes me physical pain today (I don’t even have to hear it — just thinking about some of it makes my brain hurt), but a few things have endured, and the music Sting made before he turned into a pompous windbag and disappeared up his own ass is one of those things. There isn’t a Police album I don’t like, though I prefer the first three when the band interplay was at its tightest and most stripped-down.
It’s easy to forget how good Sting could be when he kept his ego in check to some extent. And while he came up with some pretty wicked bass lines and wrote some great songs, it helped that he had a beast of a drummer in the shape of Stewart Copeland (who started the band in the first place, as so many forget), and the genius fingers of Andy Summers coaxing some truly original and unique sounds out of his guitar without much more than an Echoplex unit and an amplifier.
Andy wrote a fascinating musical memoir not too long ago called One Train Later. He does such a vivid job of describing the exciting early days of the band, with the three members of the Police jamming and shaping their sound, you almost feel like you’re there watching it happen. I think the somewhat unusual decision to write the whole thing in the present tense helps to capture that feeling of eavesdropping.
Maybe this is why I’ve always written out my dreams that way. It seems to bring back so many more details when you shun the past tense. Almost like you’re stepping back into the dream again.
Of course there are the hit songs everyone knows, like “Every Breath You Take” (still one of the most effectively uneasy love/obsession songs ever written, as overplayed as it is), “Message in a Bottle”, “Walking on the Moon”, “Roxanne”, and all the rest. But some of my favourites have always been deep album cuts you never, ever hear on the radio. Early Stewart Copeland-penned songs like “Contact” and “Does Everyone Stare”, and the total lunacy of “Any Other Day”. “Canary in a Coal Mine”, which is giddy and somehow almost a little creepy in its infectiousness. “Driven to Tears” — one of the earliest examples of Sting trying to write something politically charged, made that much better by being a little bit vague and open-ended.
“So Lonely” manages the neat trick of alternating between being a reggae and doo-wop-influenced ballad during the verses and a full-throttle melodic punk song during the choruses, with Sting hitting some notes full-voice that have to be heard to be believed. It also turned up in a dream of mine not long ago and was very evocative in that setting — always the true test of any song if you ask me.
“Tea in the Sahara”, the final song on the final studio album, has always haunted me, with the story of three sisters deceived by a prince and left to die in the desert married to the ominous, spacious atmosphere the music conjures with nothing more than bass, drums, some alien-sounding atmospheric guitar, and a little bit of oboe from Sting.
Even a lot of the B-sides that didn’t make it onto proper albums are pretty interesting, and they can all be found on the Message in a Box set, which contains just about every single song the band ever recorded in one convenient place. “Once upon a Daydream” may be the bleakest, most disturbing thing Sting ever wrote. It really should have been an album track. It’s that compelling. But the song’s descent into pitch-black madness probably would have scared the shit out of most Police fans. It still creeps me out a little, and there isn’t much music by anyone capable of doing that. Top prize still goes to “Frankie Teardrop” on the first Suicide album, with Alan Vega delivering one of the most terrifying vocal performances of all time.
Even the recent CD remasters of all the original studio albums are surprisingly well done. They’re louder and clearer than before, but not smashed to hell with compression or harsh to listen to. That’s a bit of a surprise in our current musical climate, with the “louder is better” mentality continuing to destroy the musicality of quite a few albums both new and old.
This isn’t going to drift into one of those long-winded think pieces about someone else’s music, though.
I was talking about my idea to take “Walking on the Moon” to a bit of a different place. I don’t even know why I chose this song. I’ve always liked it, but it isn’t my favourite Police track of all time or anything. It just kind of fell under my fingers.
I thought I might as well record it. Here’s a rough mix (I’ll do a better mix one of these days). There’s a long fade-in at the beginning, in case you find yourself wondering if the song isn’t really there at first.
The triple-tracked lead vocal/double-tracked harmony vocal thing that was so ubiquitous on my albums a few years ago reappears here. It isn’t something I plan on making a habit of bringing back in any substantial way just yet. It was just the sound that felt appropriate here. The sexy Telecaster Travis was kind enough to let me borrow for an extended period of time is in there doing some textural stuff, and all the acoustic guitar tracks are the 1945 Martin 00-17. That thing continues to be one of the most inspiring stringed-things I’ve ever laid hands on.
I’m glad I took a gamble on the Martin when it was in pieces in 2009, with no clue how it would sound or feel once it was put back together, or even how it sounded or felt before it was in pieces. The next time I’m at Folkway, I need to remember to ask if I can see the pictures of the state it was in before Mark brought it back to life.
I probably would have tucked away a few more little things in the mix (maybe some shaker and a little additional acoustic guitar during the last chorus), but I ate up a lot of tracks with those vocal overdubs, and I think it’s good enough as it is. What’s funny to me is how much the whole thing ends up sounding like a Johnny West song. Ha!
As it happens, Dan is also a big fan of the Police — particularly the early stuff. So I’m thinking it’s worth taking a crack at playing this tune with him and Liam for the Shores of Erie Wine Fest gig in September. It won’t sound a whole lot like this, because I’ll be playing it on piano instead of guitar, and the more we play together the more languid and jazzy things seem to get. But I like that.
I’m still toying with the idea of recording a covers album. I have some ideas I think could be pretty interesting to tackle, like a piano waltz version of “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs, with the marimba part played on glockenspiel. It’s an album I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to putting together. It would be expensive and time-consuming to get the mechanical rights squared away for all the songs, and a short ten-song album isn’t something that interests me much, even when the songs aren’t my own.
But if I did make an album of songs I didn’t write myself, I think this song would probably be on it. And maybe something by the Backstreet Boys, for good measure.