Zenyatta Mondatta. The Police.
1980, A&M. Producer: The Police and Nigel Gray
Purchased: circa 1981.
IN A NUTSHELL – Ska/Reggae/Punk rock played by guys who really know how to play! Catchy melodies and bouncy rhythms are laid on top of performances that get more impressive the more you listen.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – The songs were more diverse. I like that “Police Sound,” but it can get repetitive.
In 1974 the TV program Happy Days hit the American airwaves. Happy Days was a situation comedy set in 1950s, dawn of rock n’ roll Milwaukee, about a teenager, Richie Cunningham, and his family and friends. It was a typical sit-com of the day, featuring gentle humor and everyday story lines that made it popular with both kids and adults. It rarely, if ever, pushed boundaries or courted controversy, and until it “jumped the shark,” in an episode that spawned the phrase “jumping the shark,” it was a funny family TV program of the type rarely seen these days on network TV.1
According to wikipedia, the program began as a mid-season replacement show. I was in first grade, and I don’t remember watching it then. But by 4th grade it was my favorite show. My favorite character was the cool tough guy, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, aka “The Fonz.” On my bedroom wall I had a Fonzie poster that I selected as a prize for selling boxes of PTA fundraiser candy. 2 My favorite t-shirt stated “I’m the Fonz.”
I begged for a Happy Days lunch box, prominently featuring The Fonz, but I already had a “Yankee Doodles” lunchbox that celebrated the Bicentennial with clever cartoons, so I couldn’t get one. Like most of America at the time, I was battling a huge case of Fonzie Fever. How bad were the national symptoms of this malady? Consider that in the 1976 US Presidential race, incumbent Gerald Ford’s campaign included a picture of an uncomfortable-because-my-undershirt-is-showing Ford dressed as a leather-jacketed “Fordzie” character. (Try to imagine the 2012 Obama campaign doing something similar. “Barack-y Stinson,” from How I Met Your Mother? Eew.)
The Fonz introduced to me, and to most Americans, a concrete version of the concept of “Cool.” The Fonz proclaimed himself cool, and he did “cool” things – like choose to not comb his hair because he was already perfect, or start broken juke boxes with a simple punch (or a snap of the fingers, when necessary3), or show up to parties with a bevy of women with a group name (e.g. The Aloha Pussycats, The Hooper Triplets.)
He changed how we talked, as well. Fonzie established the term “cool” in its current usage. Before The Fonz, there were “Cool Cats” playing jazz, or tightrope walkers who were “Cool as a Cucumber.” But after The Fonz appeared, your new jeans could be “cool,” your plans to go to the mall could be “cool,” you kid’s art project could be “cool.” Fonzie made “Cool” so very cool.
Of course, Happy Days and The Fonz didn’t invent the concept of “Cool.” According to the interwebs, “cool” originated in the 1930s with jazz musicians, and was popularized in the 40s and 50s. The excellent Miles Davis album Birth of the Cool featured recordings of the Miles Davis Nonet from 1949 and 1950. The title refers to “Cool Jazz,” a style of music that sounded relaxed and in control, as opposed to the furious pace and excess displayed in Bebop. In 60s sit-coms, “cool” was usually among the terms used in dialogue to quickly identify characters as beatniks or jazz enthusiasts.
In popular culture, the term gradually moved away from shorthand for jazz into a concept that non-beatniks could embody, as well. The Peanuts comic strip introduced Snoopy as the character “Joe Cool” in the early 70s. But there remained a negative association to the term, a sense that anyone who was “cool” was arrogant or a fool. The humor of Snoopy’s Joe Cool character comes from the fact that he’s unaware of how wrong-headed his “cool” choices are. (Asked by Linus how his chemistry test went, Snoopy replies “Joe Cool can’t worry about chemistry when he’s busy hanging around the student union.”)
But Fonzie was the first pop culture figure to present “Cool” as a positive characteristic, as something to aspire to. Sure, he was a goofy caricature – with his thumbs-up salute, his “Aaayyy” and his “Whoa,” his leather jacket and superhuman abilities4. But there was something about being Fonzie that connected with people. He revealed an underlying desire among people to be “The Man,” or “The Woman.” To be – in a word – cool.
But being “Cool” is very hard to accomplish in real life. The words “Cool” and “Fool” share 75% of their letters, but there is certainly a better than 95% chance that any individual trying to be “Cool” will instead look like a Fool. And this is why the concept of “Cool” – as embodied by The Fonz – is so elusive. What feels “Cool” to you, on the inside, while you’re “in the moment,” can easily appear silly (or worse) to those around you; and so you make sure you’re not discovered trying to be cool. This self-censoring creates a cool-restrictive feedback loop. You spend time monitoring yourself, and how you’ll look, and now you’ve ensured you’ll never be cool. No one so self-conscious ever can be. The fictional world of Happy Days solved this problem by telling you Fonzie was cool, and having the characters all go along with it, finding his silly phrases and hair and superheroic thumb cool, too. We were allowed to watch a cool guy be cool – with no one giggling behind his back – and we loved it. Milwaukee loved it so much, they erected a statue of The Fonz.5
Personally, I believe we should stop monitoring ourselves and gauging our cool against potential goofiness. It feels good to feel cool, despite what others think. Here are a few instances in my life where I felt cool – even when those around me disagreed.
The time in first grade when I folded a paper airplane and tossed it repeatedly into the air, coolly reflecting on how I’d finally made it out of the kindergarten wing, and was now in all-day school and riding the bus both ways with kids as old as ten and eleven. (Mrs. Hower did not seem to care about my inner reflections, and yelled and made me stand up and throw away my airplane, and my tearful walk to and from the wastebasket did not feel cool.)
The time in 8th grade when I got the part in the school play I wanted, a sidekick character who got a lot of laughs. I felt so cool to be recognized for my Bill Murray-esque talent. (Even though my friend, C., pointed out before the first show that the casting notes at the beginning of the script called for the role’s ideal actor to be “overweight and loud.”)
The time the coach of my son’s 7th grade basketball team asked me if I wanted to help coach the team – a role I’d served in for some of his other teams. However, this team was a “select” team, so I felt very cool to be asked to help in a way that would mean more than babysitting and yelling at kids to stop playing on the pile of mats. (An invitation my son insisted I turn down, lest he have to deal, once again, with the sight of me wearing “those BLUE SWEATPANTS!!”)
The time in 11th grade when I got a knockoff version of a SONY walkman and I blasted my eardrums with Zenyatta Mondatta in the backseat of the car while my parents got lost in Philadelphia driving to visit a prospective college. (Causing my dad to eventually scream, “Take those stupid things off your head!!!”)
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
There is something about The Police that I have always found extremely cool. It probably sounds ludicrous today to think of The Police as “Cool,” (as this Onion.com spoof points out) but in my world they still are. Maybe it’s because of my age when they emerged on the scene (about 12 years old). I was aware enough of the world in 1979 to know what “punk rock” was. Punk was supposed to be the new, cool music. However depictions of the genre – such as the MAD Magazine send up of punk rock6, or news pieces about crazy punk rock teen-agers which were frequently on TV – frightened me, and kept me from buying albums I saw by bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash and The Ramones. However, The Police – who were often lumped in with the punks – were different. They seemed safer, somehow. They were odd and British and snotty enough to mildly annoy and worry my parents, but they weren’t going to start a war in my household.
When their first US single “Roxanne” hit the airwaves in 1979, it sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard. Sting’s voice was whiny and high pitched, and the way he sang the word “Roxanne” didn’t really sound like singing at all. It was a repetitive song, but super catchy. I liked it because I thought it sounded cool. And I thought I was really cool for liking it. Of course, when I told the coolest kid in our neighborhood, Dominic, how cool I thought the song was, he mocked me for days.
But I remained a secret fan. And when I was finally able to convince my mom, during my freshman year of high school, to let me join the Columbia House Record Club (a pretty cool club for music loving teens in the 70s and 80s that didn’t rip me off because I ALWAYS sent back my monthly selection on time!) one of the first 12 cassettes I ordered for a penny was Zenyatta Mondatta.
The Police Sound is a sound of contradictions – perhaps borne of the band’s notorious intraband discord. It sounds punk-y and basic at first, but closer listening reveals it’s full of excellent musicianship. It sounds spare and open, but those spaces are filled with complex playing. It sounds bouncy and fun, but the lyrics can be very serious. Zenyatta Mondatta is the band’s third album, and it follows the template of the first two, Outlandos d’Amour and Regatta de Blanc, with reggae-influenced, driving rock songs featuring Sting’s multi-tracked vocals and close harmonies, and the jazzy guitar and intricate drumming of Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, respectively.
The album opens with one of the most famous rock tracks of all time, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
It may be hard to believe now, but when this song came out I had no idea it was about a teacher and a student having a … thing. I was thirteen, not really aware of song lyrics other than the chorus, and not really paying attention to what the words were saying. I was on a baseball team with some older kids – 14 and 15 year olds – and at practice, during a discussion of contemporary music (at which time the song “Funky Town” was officially declared excellent) some 15 year old (Joey Smetana? Mark Allwein?) mentioned, casually (as 15 year olds will) “‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ is about some teacher fucking his student.” I felt a little queasy hearing this, but also happy to be part of the club who knew this (apparently) hidden detail. The song also enhanced my knowledge of literature, as I eventually read “that book by Nabokov.”
The song opens with a low, held bass note and some distant, simple guitar notes. Then that bass note just hangs there for several seconds – it’s a very compelling, spooky opening – until it modulates, and the cymbals and kick drum begin. When the lyrics begin, it’s hard to believe I hadn’t noticed the story being told, but let’s just say I wasn’t the most “with it” thirteen year old. The song displays all the standard Police bits that define their unique style, particularly in the chorus (first at ~0:57). Stewart Copeland’s syncopated drumming (check out what the cymbal is doing) and Andy Summers’s sparse, moody guitar behind Sting’s high pitched shout. One of the things I like most about the song is the countermelody that the bass plays during the “Don’t stand so, Don’t stand so …” It’s a bouncing line that goes up in pitch when the vocal pitch drops – the type of little choice that makes songs interesting. After the first chorus (about 1:13), Sting’s bass line and Copeland’s drums become frantically syncopated and it’s really Summers’s guitar7 that holds the song together rhythmically through the verse.
It’s a really great song that has been played so much over the years, it’s easy to forget how great it is. It’s famous for having been illegally used in a UK deodorant commercial and for a video8 featuring the beautiful young men of the band jumping around in a school.
What “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” demonstrates in The Police sound is that there is always a lot more happening in their songs than what you hear the first time through. Sting writes such catchy melodies, and the band’s arrangements sound so good, that the details are often lost on first listen.
An excellent example is the second song on the album, and my favorite, “Driven to Tears.”
The song opens with a snare drum, which is perfect for this song because the drumming on it is amazing. Stewart Copeland is widely recognized as one of the top drummers in the rock era and his work on “Driven to Tears” exemplifies why. Pay attention to the drums, and imagine your own hands trying to hit all those drums and (especially) cymbals with sticks the same way. Sting’s bass line is simple and – once again – bouncy, and Summers is as ethereal as ever in the spaces. The lyrics consider the responsibilities of Western, wealthy people towards Earth’s less-fortunate people, and is one of Sting’s first directly socially conscious songs, presaging his later extensive work with social action charities. Andy Summers also plays one of the weirdest guitar solos in pop music on this song, as well. It starts behind the vocals, at around 1:35, and only takes another 15 – 18 seconds, but it’s as memorable a 15 second guitar solo as I’ve heard. “Driven to Tears” is repetitive, which is usually a characteristic that causes me to skip a song, but The Police do so much within the repetitive framework they build that I never get tired of the song. Here’s them playing it live, back in the day.
The Police are clearly influenced by reggae, which can be a somewhat repetitive, meditative musical style. The song “When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” is one of the more repetitive songs you’ll hear on my list of 100 favorite albums9, but it just sounds so cool to me!
I often complain to my teenage son that much of the hip-hop music he likes sounds too repetitive to me. He tells me my music is the same way. Maybe he’s right. In this song, Sting’s melody saves the day. It makes the chorus a sing-along favorite. The lyrics explain to a sweetheart (or friend) how they brighten an otherwise tiresome, worn-out world. The verses cram lots of words into a little bit of space, which is another facet of the typical Police sound.
This wordiness is also on display in “Canary In a Coalmine”
It’s another short, punchy song about a person extremely faint of heart. The rhymes are funny, and Summers plays a nice lead guitar line throughout the song. I think of this song and “When the World is Running Down …” as two halves of the same song, maybe because they are next to each other on the record.
Sting has been pilloried in the press over the years for his lyrics. And certainly publishing them in a collection called Lyrics by Sting10 might not have been a good way to tamp down this derision. Further, it couldn’t have helped his case to include statements like the following in the book’s foreword:
“Publishing my lyrics separately from their musical accompaniment is something that I’ve studiously avoided until now. The two, lyrics and music, have always been mutually dependent, in much the same way as a mannequin and a set of clothes are dependent on each other; separate them, and what remains is a naked dummy and a pile of cloth.”
Or even worse, this:
“My wares have neither been sorted nor dressed in clothes that do not belong to them; indeed, they have been shorn of the very garments that gave them their shape in the first place. No doubt some of them will perish in the cold cruelty of this new environment, and yet others may prove more resilient and become perhaps more beautiful in their naked state.”
(Wait … doesn’t the mannequin give shape to the clothes, not vice versa? Oh well.) And it probably doesn’t help my case for being considered “cool” to acknowledge that I’ve always sort of liked many of Sting’s lyrics.11 For example, I thought mentioning Nabokov in a pop song was kind of cool. And as someone who often finds himself tongue-tied in conversation, with thoughts in my head finding no clear path to my voice box and mouth, a song of Sting’s that has long been a favorite is “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.”
It’s all about how hard it is to find the right words. The bass, guitar and drums are all sounding good in this one, and the soft, gauzy verse coupled with the percussive chorus fit together nicely. The band’s two-note “Ba-Ba” before the (vocal) “De do do do …” are an example of how a tiny bit of music can become a signature of a song. I recall my sister, Liz, and I banging our heads to these two notes – just to gently antagonize my mom, who by 1980 was finding popular music far, far too crazy to even comment on any more. The song was also ripped off in a commercial for a classic turn-of-the-decade Designer Jeans brand, Baronelli.12
But if you aren’t a fan of Sting’s lyrics, the band includes some other songs for you to appreciate. There’s Andy Summers’s grammy award-winning instrumental “Behind My Camel.” According to Summers’s excellent autobiography, One Train Later, Sting hated this song and refused to play on it, and went so far as to bury the recording in the garden outside the studio in hopes of keeping it off the album. (Sting has confirmed the story.) It’s a vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding guitar solo that I like well enough, but that to my ears doesn’t really show off the best of Summers’s technique. There’s another instrumental, this one drummer Copeland’s composition, “The Other Way of Stopping.” Another near-instrumental is “Voices Inside My Head,” which features words written by Sting, but only 10 of them, so probably not enough to be hated. I actually like Summers’s guitar on this song more than on “Behind My Camel.”
If you want a non-instrumental, non-Sting-lyrics song, Zenyatta Mondatta has one of those, too, in the excellent Copeland piece “Bombs Away.”
This song has everything great about the band, and album, in one song. Sting’s bass line is funky, tricky and propels the song forward, as usual. He typically plays a fretless bass, which as an amateur electric bass player myself, I find pretty incredible. Copeland’s drumming, from his kick drum to his cymbals, is excellent and as melodic as a few drums can be. Summers again shows off his subtle genius by nicely doubling the chorus melody, and in his deft background picking, and in another weird, Middle Eastern solo (~1:34), this one stretching out for more than 15 seconds. He also stretches further on the outro solo, starting about 2:17. The Police weren’t a typical “guitar hero band,” like Van Halen or Queen or AC/DC, but Summers states his case here, playing this last solo like he’s finally been allowed off the leash.13
The remaining two songs are “Man in a Suitcase,” another frantic, sing-along ska song featuring cool double tracked harmony vocals by Sting, and more tight, intricate drumming. And “Shadows in the Rain,” a slow groove of a Police song. This one is very meditative and sparse.
The album doesn’t have a lot of diversity of sound – something that I typically look for in my favorite albums. But it does have a sound of its own … a cool sound. A sound that takes me back, makes me feel good, and makes me happy. For me, it’s a celebration of feeling “cool.”
And we SHOULD celebrate feeling cool! It’s a great feeling! Go ahead and toss a paper airplane, or act in a play. Go wear your blue sweatpants. Or listen to Zenyatta Mondatta. Who cares if you look like a doofus to others. You’re allowed to be Fonzie in your world. You must cherish your own version of a supernatural thumb.
Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Driven to Tears
When the World Is Running Down You Make the Best of What’s Still Around
Canary in a Coalmine
Voices Inside My Head
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
Behind My Camel
Man in a Suitcase
Shadows in the Rain
The Other Way of Stopping