EML’s Favorite Songs – THE POLICE: “Every Breath You Take”


My favorite song of the 1980s, and one of my top 10 favorite songs of all time, is “Every Breath You Take” by English rock band The Police. It was the lead single from their hugely popular and critically acclaimed masterpiece and fifth and final album Synchronicity. The song was a massive hit, spending 8 weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, 4 weeks at #1 on the UK singles charts, and also reaching #1 in Canada, Ireland, Israel and South Africa. It was the best-selling single and #1 song of 1983, and the fifth best-selling single of the 1980’s in the U.S. Rolling Stone named it the 84th best song on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and it won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group. In addition, Sting received the 1983 Ivor Norvello award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.

It’s interesting to learn the back stories behind many of our favorite songs, and the one for “Every Breath You Take” was fraught with tension, both in terms of it’s creation and during its recording sessions. Sting wrote the song in 1982 after his split from his first wife Frances Tomelty and early in his relationship with Trudie Styler, with whom he began having an affair while still married to Frances. He and Frances had been next-door neighbors to Trudie, who also happened to be Frances’ best friend! The affair was widely condemned, and Sting retreated to the Caribbean to escape the tabloids.

He wrote the song while staying at Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate in Jamaica (Wikipedia), and the lyrics are essentially from Frances’ perspective; they’re the words of a possessive and jealous lover who’s watching “every breath you take; every move you make” of their partner. In a 1993 interview for The Independent, Sting recalled: “I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realise at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.” Ironically, many interpreted “Every Breath You Take” as a love song, which amused Sting to no end.

The recording process for the song was also fraught with difficulties, as personal tensions that had been simmering between the band members, especially Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland, came to a head. In a 2004 article written by Richard Buskin for Sound on Sound webzine, Synchronicity music producer Hugh Padgham claimed that by the time of the recording sessions, Sting and Copeland hated each other, and verbal and physical fights between them were a frequent occurrence. The tensions almost led to the recording sessions being cancelled, but fortunately for us, band manager Miles Copeland (Stewart’s brother) intervened and calmed tempers enough for them all to continue. You can read that fascinating Sound On Sound article here.

One of the amazing aspects of the song is how minimalist the instruments really are for such a magnificent track. Sting wanted fairly simple, straightforward instrumentals for the track that would basically consist of his bass, Andy Summers’ guitar parts and Copeland’s drums keeping a very straight rhythm with no fills. Tensions arose when Copeland wanted his drums to have a greater impact. Padgham recalled, “Stewart would say, ‘I want to fucking put my drum part on it!’ and Sting would say, ‘I don’t want you to put your fucking drum part on it! I want you to put what I want you to put on it!‘” Thankfully, Padgham convinced Sting to let Copeland add more drum parts, along with keyboard synthesizers and the single-note piano keys that give the song it’s signature hypnotic melody. Sting overdubbed his bass, as he often did, plus he added sounds from his Dutch upright electric double bass (which he nicknamed Brian) to achieve a fuller sound.

For his part, Stewart Copeland was never satisfied with the final product, and later commented: “In my humble opinion, this is Sting’s best song with the worst arrangement. I think Sting could have had any other group do this song and it would have been better than our version—except for Andy’s brilliant guitar part. Basically, there’s an utter lack of groove. It’s a totally wasted opportunity for our band, even though we made gazillions off of it, and it’s the biggest hit we ever had.”

Well, I strongly disagree, and so apparently did millions of others who loved the song enough make it a massive worldwide hit. I think it’s brilliant, and as close to perfect as a song could possibly be. I had it on repeat while I wrote this piece, and found it utterly captivating every single time. From the moment I hear that opening drum blast, the song thrills me as much today as it did in 1983.

Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you
Every single day, every word you say
Every game you play, every night you stay, I’ll be watching you

Oh can’t you see, you belong to me
How my poor heart aches with every step you take

Every move you make and every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you

Since you’ve gone I’ve been lost without a trace
I dream at night I can only see your face
I look around, but it’s you I can’t replace
I feel so cold and I long for your embrace
I keep crying baby, baby, please

Oh can’t you see, you belong to me
How my poor heart aches with every step you take

Every move you make and every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you
Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you

The music video, filmed in black and white and directed by British rock band Godley & Creme, won the Best Cinematography award at the 1983 MTV Video Music Awards.

7 thoughts on “EML’s Favorite Songs – THE POLICE: “Every Breath You Take”

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