Confession: The Police aided and abetted my escape from hard rock

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ZENYATTA MONDATA

The Police
Released: October 1980
Label:   A&M
Cover Photography: Janette Beckman

Sworn statement from Matt Farr

In 1979 my family moved to Missouri and I started high school. While my previous home of Southern California had been in thrall to disco fever and polyester shirts, that was not the case in the small town of Eureka, Missouri. Bell bottoms were still in fashion. Wallets were secured to belt loops with chain. My new classmates wore Sammy Hagar concert jerseys and hiking boots with waffle soles, and their blue jeans showed a white ring in the back pocket where the Skoal® tobacco can lived. The music that was approved listening came from a short list of bands:

Rush
Led Zeppelin
Van Halen
Styx
REO Speedwagon
Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Who
Pink Floyd
Black Sabbath*
AC/DC
The Charlie Daniels Band
“Hold on Loosely” by 38 Special (just that one song)

*Of all of these, the hardest to swallow was Black Sabbath. My friend Joe played “Heaven and Hell” on 8-track and I thought, “Holy cow, people think this is good?” That was the first album with Dio rather than Ozzy. Later I discovered “Paranoid” and understood.

I quickly learned to shun all music that couldn’t be classified as hard rock. It wasn’t like there was much else to listen to anyway – if you weren’t listening to rock, the only other option was the radio station that played Air Supply, Firefall, and Ronnie Milsap.

And yet, there were a few small cracks in the wall.

I remember being in a friend’s basement listening to records, and he dropped an old Rod Stewart slab on the turntable. I reacted as the well-trained monkey I’d become: “Dude, that’s the ‘Do you think I’m sexy’ singer. Total disco. Automatic suck.” I was confused when I heard the spare rock that emerged from the speakers. For a moment, I thought maybe my friend’s older brother knew something I didn’t. Maybe the disco thing was just a recent affectation. I had always liked “Maggie May.” But the moment was quickly forgotten, and my hard rock stupor remained.

I started staying up late in 1979. I arrived a few years too late to have watched the first seasons of “SNL” as they aired live, but we still had most of the original cast plus Bill Murray, my favorite. I glimpsed serious musical innovation on “SNL,” like David Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold The World” in a plastic tuxedo shell in which his legs couldn’t move (he was carried out to the microphone by white-face kabuki guys). It was too weird for my world. I continued to listen to Styx.

After “SNL” ended, I’d stay up later to watch a show with new music videos (pre-MTV). One night, I saw a band called The Police in a video for “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.” They were three bottle-blond young men, singing silly nonsense words** while wearing matching red snow pants and acting goofy on a ski slope. I immediately dismissed them. The band seemed shallow and pop-ish — not interested in making real rock music. Still, they made enough of an impression that I remembered them.

**Of course, the lyrics to this song are actually brilliant and incisive, railing against the well-chosen words that preachers and politicians use to manipulate your loyalty, but they weren’t easily understandable in a late night TV video.

A year went by. More Rush albums were acquired.

In the second semester of my junior year (April 1982 for those keeping score), a note was passed to me with poetic lines of frustration:

Young teacher, the subject
Of schoolgirl fantasy
She wants him so badly
Knows what she wants to be
Inside him there’s longing
This girl’s an open page
Book marking, she’s so close now
This girl is half his age

Don’t stand
Don’t stand so
Don’t stand so close to me

Her friends are so jealous
You know how bad girls get
Sometimes it’s not so easy
To be the teacher’s pet
Temptation, frustration
So bad it makes him cry
Wet bus stop, she’s waiting
His car is warm and dry…

I asked my friend if he’d written it, and he said, “No dummy, that’s The Police.” A hatch in my brain creaked open, just a bit, never to be closed again. With my next paycheck from Charlotte’s Rib BBQ, I went to the Peaches Records on Manchester Road and purchased the Zenyatta Mondatta long player, the third album from The Police. I listened to it incessantly, memorizing melodies that were spare, intelligent, and occasionally reggae-tinged. The point of their songs wasn’t to build to an epic guitar solo – in fact, in songs like “Shadows in the Rain,” the bass and the drums carried the melody. Andy Summer’s guitar was there just to add ethereal texture.

New music also opened the door to new friends. I met another Police fan from my high school named Tony Sottoriva, and we went to see the Police play the Checkerdome in St. Louis on the Synchronicity tour. We used to argue the importance of Sting (Tony) vs. Stewart Copeland (me) in the band. It’s hard to remember the details of a concert that was 35 years ago, but I remember being blown away. We both thought it was one of the best shows we’d ever seen.

The Police opened a door that led to XTC and Violent Femmes and REM and Squeeze and the Talking Heads and Depeche Mode and Tom Waits and eventually Camper Van Beethoven and The Replacements and Pavement and Modest Mouse and Spoon and all the rest of the bands that you should listen to in order to be a worthwhile human. I never bought another Styx album.

The reputations of the Velvet Underground and The Replacements continue to swell far past the significance they had in their own time (as well they should, that shit is good). On the other hand, The Police have faded in importance. Perhaps that’s because Sting went solo and bought a lute. Sting’s songs are played with accompaniment by local symphonic string players in restored historic theatres with assigned velvet seating. The Police started out playing in hot basement bars full of sweaty people clutching long neck beers. They were hungry for success. They made great music. There are live bootleg albums out there that will confirm this. The band only made five official albums, but they were magic.

I don’t know which album critics rank as the best of The Police’s discography, but they seem to agree that Zenyatta Mondatta is dead last. The first two albums have cool early hits like “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” that are undeniably great. Ghost In The Machine*** is probably the band at its musical peak. Synchronicity was their biggest album, full of hits (it’s kind of like Sting’s first solo record without the suck).

***When Ghost In The Machine came out, even the DJs at KSHE-95 in St. Louis recognized the greatness of The Police. They played a few songs, sprinkled between the usual ELP and BTO. It didn’t seem to catch hold with the listener base, and soon the frequency faded to only an occasional airing. But I devoured that album.

Yet Zenyatta Mondatta remains my favorite. You’ll never be able to hear it for the first time with 16-year-old ears in 1981 the way that I did. Now it’s just background music in grocery stores. Back then, it was the escape route that led me to a lifelong love and hunger for something new and different that, thankfully, has left Black Sabbath in the dust.

Matt Farr is an advertising writer, lover of beer, fixer of faucets, and setter-upper of tents who lives in Centennial, Colo. 

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