20th Favorite: Ghost in the Machine, by The Police

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Ghost in the Machine. The Police.
1981, A&M Records. Producer: The Police and Hugh Padgham.
Bootleg Cassette, 1982.

IN A NUTSHELL: Ghost in the Machine, by The Police, is a fun record full of infectious rhythms and catchy melodies played by three musicians who are among the best. Stewart Copeland’s drums shine, as always, Sting’s bass and vocals are top-notch, and Andy Summers’s guitar is subtle and joyful. The songs are repetitive but never tiresome, creating a bouncing, hypnotic feeling that makes them enjoyable again and again.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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There was a time when teens enthusiastically used the telephone, so much so that they would call each other up and sing songs about the day’s events, as the following documentary from the 1950s shows.

After World War II, the percentage of US households with a telephone finally reached above 50%, and from that time until the end of the 20th century it is hard to conjure an image in one’s mind of the daily life of a typical American teen-ager that does not include the use of the telephone.

Whether it was to call to make definite plans, or just to shoot the shit, speaking on the telephone was a teenage necessity. Up until the mid-80s, most families only had one phone in their home; a few families had “an extension,” a second phone typically in the master bedroom, but multiple phones, even on the same phone number, was seen as a luxury. This meant anyone could answer the phone when you called, so teenagers who wished to speak to their friends on the phone had to be comfortable with the phrase, “Hello, Mrs. (Name), is Johnny there?” They also had to be prepared for the dreaded “chatty mom1” who would ask you questions about your day, your family, or your schoolwork, when you just wanted to find out if Johnny knew where the party was. And what girls were going.

Of course there was something more than mere camaraderie and friendship that made phones super-duper important to teens: sex. Or, more likely for most teens, not sex but just dating. Or, more likely for dorky teens like, well, some folks I know, calling people with whom you hoped to go on a date. Or, actually, most likely for – again – some people I know who, there’s no reason to name names, or to comment on hobbies they may have nowadays as 50+-year-olds, like writing blogs about records they like – but anyway … for some people, just thinking about the possibility of maybe calling somebody with whom they hoped to go on a date was an important reason to have a phone.

But teens in the 21st century have a much different relationship with phones than past generations. Teens of the past dreamed of having their own telephone line in their room. Teens in the 80s loved phone conversations so much that they’d call party lines just to talk to strangers. But teens today rarely talk on the phone. In fact, many say they dread talking on the phone. This is despite the fact that most teens carry a telephone2 with them so frequently that it’s become a national health crisis.

Some people look on this drop off in phone use as a bad thing, but let me tell you: teens aren’t missing out on anything by abandoning the telephone. Phone conversations as a teen were horrible, particularly conversations with someone you wished to date. Most people were not as cool as The Fonz on the phone.

First of all, there was the issue of who was going to answer the number you’d called. As mentioned above, moms could be a minefield of questions, but even worse – if you were a boy calling a girl3 – would be the brother, who, depending on whether he was older or younger, could hassle you either by intimidation or mockery. (My sole high school girlfriend had both an older and younger brother, so I was very accustomed to the brother situation.) There was also the issue of possibly getting an answering machine. How much information would you leave for random family members to hear? If you’d never spoken with the girl before (often times you didn’t have to ask girls for phone numbers, as their friends could be the conduit for phone numbers), how much information would be enough for them to know who you were? Answering machines had great potential for snipping the stem of any budding romance.

But believe it or not, worse than all that was the actual conversation! Once you say “hello,” what do you say? Do you go right in for the date-ask? Or do you suavely make small-talk first? If so, what do you ask? What if she gives one-word answers – do you have follow-up questions prepared? Some people would actually write out a script, or at least a bulleted list, before making a phone call. I recall in all my teenage phone calls with girls (granted, again, a small sample size) that there was typically a lot of breathing, throat-clearing, “um”s, and repetition of meaningless, mild interjections uttered purely to break the silence: “Okay …” “So …” “Well, anyway …” It was a situation fraught with anxiety, and I can’t think of a reason why phones were any better than using text, Snap-Chat, Kik or InstaGram to blunder through adolescence.

There have been phone call songs for nearly as long as there have been phones, with the first such song thought to be “Hello! Ma Baby,” made famous for most Americans by a high-stepping cartoon frog. In the 40s, through the 50s, the 60s, from both Motown and the British Invasion, through 70s mellow men and superstars and punks, and 80s MTV hits and boy bands and college bands and fake bands, through the 90s and 00s and even through the 2010s, phone songs have been produced. And even though phone usage among young people is fading, songs about the phone continue to be popular.

A song that most people may not associate with phones, but that I consider a “phone song” because it always makes me think of my trepidation and anxiety about phone calls, is the hit song from Ghost in the Machine, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”

This album came out right around the time I was first starting to think seriously about going on dates with girls, and as a kid with little self-confidence the following lyrics pretty much summed up my thoughts about possibly calling a girl: “I resolve to call her up/A thousand times a day/And ask her if she’ll marry me/In some old-fashioned way/But my silent fears have gripped me/Long before I reach the phone/Long before my tongue has tripped me/Must I always be alone.” The song seemed to play on MTV just about every hour in 1981-82, and I identified with it immediately. Stewart Copeland’s drums are always fantastic on any Police song, and this one is no different. The piano and synthesizer is used to great effect, and Sting’s bass provides a bit of a reggae feel that makes the song bounce along.

My sister had this record in her Big Bin of Albums, where I found several records I grew to love. It was one of the first albums I put onto cassette, and was one of the first albums I bought on CD. I’ve always liked The Police, and Ghost in the Machine has been in heavy rotation since I started listening to albums.

“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” was the song that first caught my ear, but it’s not representative of the album as a whole. While “Every Little Thing…” is a typically constructed (i.e. verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge) rock song, with the vocals carrying the song and the instrumentation supporting it, most of the rest of the album’s songs are riff-heavy, grooving, meditative, pieces that, while they retain a strong melody, can be rather hypnotic. They’re repetitive without being monotonous, as with the second single on the album, “Spirits in the Material World.”

It opens with a flourish of drums from the incomparable Stewart Copeland, then Sting begins a bass line that is slinky and mechanical and that never seems to fit the 4/4 time signature of the song. Synths warble and whiz and Sting sings a catchy melody of philosophical lyrics backed by his own harmonies. Copeland’s drumming is fantastic. I find myself just listening to his cymbal playing when I listen. It always makes me wonder how many arms he has. At about 1:40 a simple Casio-esque synth enters, repeating an 11-note riff. The song doesn’t change much throughout, apart from the chorus, but it has enough of a hook that I don’t find myself getting tired of the song. (Unless, that is, it’s on in the background – if I’m not focusing on it, it can be a distraction, like a distant car alarm.)

Andy Summers, guitarist for the band, doesn’t show up on that song – his guitar parts were all replaced by synthesizer for the final mix of the song, which may be why he brought along a ukulele when the band “played” the song on BBC TV in ’82. And he didn’t have much to do on “Every Little Thing…,” either. On the closing song “Darkness,” a slow meditation on depression featuring Sting’s self-harmonized vocals, his guitar also seems to be missing. On the track “Too Much Information,” another hypnotic groove about modern (ca. 1981) media, this time with Sting playing honking saxophones throughout, Summers’s guitar is really cool, but you have to strain to hear the weird chords and choppy figures he plays.

Summers does get a chance to shine, however, on “Demolition Man.”

The song begins with more Copeland flair, then the bass-guitar riff and background saxophones enter. Copeland’s drums are fantastic as always, and Sting sings first-person lyrics from a superhero of sorts. It’s a song that always makes me want to dance, even though it’s got a weird time-signature – or, more likely, just a measure of weird time-signature that I can’t place, and that gives the song an enjoyable off-kilter feeling. But the star of this song, one of my favorite Police songs ever, is Summers’s squeaking, squonking guitar solo throughout. He accents each line of the verses, and keeps of the work for the full 6-minutes of the song. Like most of the songs on the record, it’s repetitive, hypnotic, and enthralling.

Summers also wrote the song “Omegaman,” which has one of my favorite openings on the record. I like that opening riff, and I really like Sting’s vocals on this song, sung from the point of view of the last human on earth. It’s a quick song, with a nifty Summers solo at about 1:15. It was also going to be a single, but Sting refused to allow it, since it wasn’t one of his own songs. Another song that features Summers is the downbeat-yet-hopeful “Invisible Sun.”

It’s a song reflecting on desperate people keeping hope alive. The intro is really cool, with the vocals arising out of the background, and Sting’s vocals in the chorus, including harmonies, are great. Summers has some cool riffs and solos, which is always a treat. As good as the individual players are, Police songs rarely sound extravagant or self-indulgent (except for, at times, Copeland’s drumming, which I don’t mind!) For example “Secret Journey,” is a song about spiritual growth that on its surface sounds simple, but when you concentrate on what each player is doing, you hear how talented they really are.

And they can be extremely fun, too! One of their most infectious songs is the anti-White Power gem “Rehumanize Yourself.”

My mom used to love this song. When my sister would play it, my mom loved to hear her sing along. I don’t know how loudly my sister sang the line calling the Nazi a c**t, but I doubt if my mom noticed it if she did. It is definitely a fun sing-along song! The bass is fun, and all the weird sax sounds are cool, too. But I love listening to Summers’s odd chords played throughout the verses. Another fun one is the similarly-themed reggae number “One World (Not Three).” Earlier Police albums had more reggae songs than Ghost in the Machine, so this is a bit of a return to form. Copeland’s drums are the star in this one.

“Hungry For You” is a song that’s sung in French.

For years I’d heard that it was sung in French because the lyrics were so incredibly filthy that Sting didn’t want to sing them in English. They’re not really so filthy after all. It’s got a simple (single notes!), catchy guitar line, and it has the repetitive, hypnotic thing going on once again.

But the “filthiness” of the lyrics was overblown – just like the concern people have about telephone communication dying. The decline of telephone calls between teens is nothing to lament. The calls were stressful, often unproductive. Sting understood that. A better use of time than calling each other on the phone is to take some time and listen to Ghost in the Machine. Be entranced by the rhythms of Stewart Copeland, get caught up in Sting’s bass and vocals, listen closely for the strange chords and subtle phrasing of Andy Summers. Then text that girl or boy you’re thinking of – it’s so much easier than the phone.

Track Listing:
“Spirits in the Material World”
“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”
“Invisible Sun”
“Hungry for You (J’aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)”
“Demolition Man”
“Too Much Information”
“Rehumanize Yourself”
“One World (Not Three)”
“Omegaman”
“Secret Journey”
“Darkness”

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