The Number Ones

The Number Ones: The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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The Police – “Every Breath You Take”

HIT #1: July 9, 1983

STAYED AT #1: 8 weeks

One week in July of 1983, six of the top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 came from UK acts — something that hadn’t happened since the high Beatlemania days of 1965. In a vaguely alarmist piece, Rolling Stone called this new phenomenon the “second British Invasion” and devoted serious space to the question of how this could’ve happened. The answer, of course, was staring them right in the face: MTV. Thanks to the cable-broadcast music-video revolution, kids all over America were exposed to the arty, theatrical British art-school acts who’d been quick to adapt to a relatively new art form. A whole new world had opened up on the pop charts, and the new wavers were suddenly a whole lot more exciting than the American studio-rock bands who’d been running things just a year or two before.

But in that one July week, the band at #1 really wasn’t too terribly different from those American studio-rock bands. The Police had ascended to the top of the new-wave heap by sounding stately and grand and sometimes bloated. They messed around with synths, but they were never synthpop. They rode the wave of punk, but they were never punk. They weren’t prog, either, but they’d been schooled in prog, and people who cared about such things could revel in their sophisticated musicianship. The Police were perfectly at home in arenas and stadiums, and they made big, echoing open-chord rock songs that resonated far and wide. They were new, but they weren’t too new.

The Police only ever managed one #1 hit in America, but it was a big one. In 1983, the year of Thriller, the Police managed to land the single biggest hit of the year. The song was so big, in fact, that it’ll be in this column more than once, thanks to an obvious sample that returned the “Every Breath You Take” melody and guitar line to the top spot 14 years later. In fact, if you combine “Every Breath You Take” with the song that interpolated it, then “Every Breath You Take” had a non-consecutive 19-week run at #1 — long enough to tie Lil Nas X’s 2019 smash “Old Town Road” as the longest-running #1 single of all time. (You shouldn’t count both of those versions of “Every Breath You Take” as the same thing, but if you did, that’s what would happen.)

Funny thing about “Every Breath You Take”: The Police had their big moment of total American commercial dominance when the band itself was just about out of gas. The Police had lived out virtually their entire career arc before “Every Breath You Take” hit #1. They’d released their final album. Eddie Murphy had sung “Roxanne” in 48 Hrs. Sting had acted in Quadrophenia and Radio On and Dune. Stewart Copeland had scored Rumble Fish. Sting and Copeland had stopped talking to each other. Within a year, the band would be basically broken up.

The Police had started their run seven years earlier in London. Drummer Stewart Copeland, the American son of a CIA agent, had been touring the UK with the prog-rock band Curved Air. Sting, a bassist and former teacher, had been playing in a jazz fusion band called Last Exit. The two came together in London shortly after Sting moved there, and they recruited the Corsican guitarist Henry Padovani.

Soon enough, the Police met Andy Summers, who was about a decade older than either Sting or Copeland. Summers had spent time in bands like the Soft Machine and a later version of the Animals, a former Number Ones group. Summers became the band’s second guitarist, and eventually, their only guitarist.

None of the members of the Police were punks. They’d all come from more genteel and chops-centric musical backgrounds. Early on, they dressed punk and played fast, but they were pretty clearly capitalizing on a trend. They also had the chops and the inclination to toy around with jazz and prog and the reggae that so many of their punk contemporaries loved. Copeland’s brother Miles, who would go on to form IRS Records and sign R.E.M., signed the Police to A&M after he heard “Roxanne.” The Police released Outlandos D’Amour, their debut album, in 1978.

The Police took a while to blow up in the US; early on, they toured small clubs in vans. In the UK, though, they took “Message In A Bottle” to #1 in 1979, and they quickly became one of the biggest bands in the land. In time, the Police caught on in the US. In 1980, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” peaked at #10, becoming the band’s first top-10 single. (It’s a 6.) The band’s third and fourth albums, 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta and 1981’s Ghost In The Machine, were big hits in the US, and the 1981 single “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” got as high as #3. (It’s a 7.)

By the time they got around to making 1983’s Synchronicity, then, the Police were big stars, and they were dealing with all the stresses that come along with being big stars. They totally hated each other by this point. The three guys in the band wouldn’t record in the same room, and Sting and Copeland would fight bitterly over things like which drum sound to use. Sting was in the process of leaving his wife, the Northern Irish actress Frances Tomelty, for Tomelty’s best friend Trudie Styler, and he was getting plenty of gossipy attention for it. (Sting and Styler are still married, and they would love to tell you about the benefits of tantric sex.)

Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” while on vacation in Jamaica, staying at Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate and using Fleming’s writing desk. He wrote the song about romantic possessiveness, about the creepy need to feel like you own someone. Talking to NME shortly after its release, Sting said that “Every Breath You Take” is “a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.” Sting’s narrator is a malicious and self-pitying stalker. His opening lines are a bit of a snarl: “Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.” By the time the song ends, he’s moved onto a wounded yowl: “Oh, can’t you see? You belong to me!”

“Every Breath You Take” pulls a classic pop-music okey-doke, convincing a whole lot of people that it’s really a love song while sneering in the general direction of love songs. Sting loves to chuckle about all the people who use “Every Breath You Take” as the first dance at weddings. (He probably also loves to chuckle about the song that sampled “Every Breath You Take” and transformed it into a song of forlorn devotion, thus presumably financing Sting’s Scrooge McDuck money tank.) But there is romanticism in “Every Breath You Take”; it’s just not in Sting’s words. Andy Summers’ fractured, echoing guitar line, supposedly inspired by Béla Bartók, lends the song a certain airy beauty that goes way beyond Sting’s words.

There must be something in that combination — the cold viciousness of the words and the prismatic prettiness of the music. Years later, Sting wrote that the song “became one of the songs that defined the ’80s, and by accident the perfect sound track for Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy of control and seduction.” “Every Breath You Take” is soft enough to be seduction. It’s chilly and layered new wave that still works as an adult-contemporary lullaby or a prom slow-dance soundtrack. In that NME interview, Sting said that he “pissed [himself] laughing” while watching past Number Ones artists Andy Gibb and Marilyn McCoo sing the song, missing its point completely. But maybe Gibb and McCoo just heard things in “Every Breath You Take” that Sting didn’t.

Part of the perfect-storm impact of “Every Breath You Take” is that it was the Police’s first song to hit in America during the MTV era. The Police had been making music videos for years, but American kids hadn’t been able to see them quite so easily. The “Every Breath You Take” video is truly special, a stately piece of black-and-white filmmaking that uses light and shadow to build entire worlds out of Sting’s whole cheekbone situation. Directors Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, former members of 10cc who’d become early-MTV auteurs, based the “Every Breath You Take” video on Jammin’ The Blues, a 1944 short film about jazz musicians. Even if they didn’t do anything original, Godley & Creme still found a way to translate that smoky atmosphere to an audience used to flashier things. (Godley & Creme’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Cry,” peaked at #16.)

So “Every Breath You Take” was both a monster smash and a sharp, layered piece of writing. But I’ve never loved it. Maybe it’s just the sheer neverending overexposure, but the song has always faded into the background for me. It’s a trudge, a clammy cold-fish murmur. I can’t deny its craft, and there are all kinds of little touches, like the tingly keyboards at the end, that I like. But my ears only really perk up when the song gets loud and Sting hits the big notes. 1983 was a year full of dazzling, exciting blockbuster-pop classics, songs that have maintained their energy over the decades. “Every Breath You Take” doesn’t have that energy. I’m never excited to hear it.

Synchronicity yielded a couple of other big hits after “Every Breath You Take” ended its run at #1. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” peaked at #8; it’s a 6. “King Of Pain” peaked at #3; it’s a 4. The Police spent much of the next year touring stadiums before getting so sick of each other that they needed a break. They reconvened in 1986, playing some big Amnesty International shows and yielding the stage to their big-rock heirs U2. (U2 will eventually be in this column.) But before the Police could get back into the studio to make a new album, Stewart Copeland fell off a horse and broke his collarbone, and the band broke up for good shortly thereafter.

The Police have occasionally reunited in the years since — for an impromptu performance at Sting’s wedding in 1992, for their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2003, for a big and presumably lucrative year-long reunion tour in 2008. All of them went on to do other things. Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers both released solo albums, wrote film scores, and started new bands like Oysterhead and Circa Zero. Sting had a huge solo career; he will be in this column again. And of course, “Every Breath You Take” will be back in this column, too, in a different form.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: The future Deadwood and John Wick star Ian McShane released an album called From Both Sides Now in 1992, and it included a genuinely inexplicable karaoke-style cover of “Every Breath You Take.” Heres McShane’s take on the song:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2001 Ally McBeal episode where Robert Downey Jr. and a guest-appearing Sting team up to sing “Every Breath You Take” to Calista Flockhart:

For reasons unknown, Downey and Sting also recorded their version of the song and contributed it to an Ally McBeal soundtrack album. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the spiky, rockabilly-ish “Every Breath You Take” cover that the Violent Femmes recorded sometime in the ’90s and released on the 2001 odds-and-ends compilation Something’s Wrong:

(It pains me to report that no Violent Femmes single has ever charted on the Hot 100.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2017 Stranger Things episode where all the kids slow-dance to “Every Breath You Take”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2018 Netflix miniseries Maniac where Billy Mangussen sings “Every Breath You Take to Jemima Kirke, as if it’s a sincere love song, while Gabriel Byrne plays piano:

THE 10S: Michael Jackson’s relentlessly itchy dance-funk odyssey “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” peaked at #5 behind “Every Breath You Take.” Lift your head up high and scream out to the world that it’s a 10.

Tags: Sting, The Police