Happy 35th Anniversary to The Police’s Ghost in the Machine, originally released October 2, 1981.
When I first heard The Police’s fourth album Ghost in the Machine as a sixteen year-old, I was not disappointed. But I heard something different in their sound. The music sounded like The Police, but they clearly tinkered with their signature reggae-rock sound. Instrumental in reconfiguring their sound was a change in producer. Hugh Padgham replaced Nigel Gray, who had produced the band’s previous three albums. Padgham had previously worked with Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and XTC. He would eventually go on to produce some of Sting’s solo work.
The Police decided to switch recording studios for Ghost in the Machine, opting for Air Studios in Montserrat in the Caribbean instead of the claustrophobic confines of Surrey Studios in the UK. This album also has the distinction of being the first in their catalog that has a title in English. Ghost in the Machine is chock full of many firsts and subtle changes, most notably the use of keyboards and overdubs in addition to the album’s cover art not featuring the band.
Listening to Ghost in the Machine in its entirety for the first time in many years was a joyful exercise in reexamining my favorite Police LP. The opening track “Spirits In The Material World” briefly opens with a quick snippet of Stewart Copeland’s drums followed by a somewhat repetitive but essential synthesizer part that plays throughout the song. Buried underneath are Andy Summers’ familiar guitar licks.
The next track “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is the single that catapulted the band into a different stratosphere. The song landed in the Top 3 of the singles charts in the UK and US, cementing the band’s status as legitimate pop stars. The great feat that The Police managed to pull off with this album is that they were able to slightly shift their focus toward Sting’s pop sensibilities without alienating those of us who were there three years earlier blasting Outlandos d’Amour, their debut LP released in 1978. Its bounciness could easily seem out of place with the rest of the album, but the band makes it work.
“Invisible Sun” best exemplifies the dark, brooding undertones of the album, which Rolling Stone scribe Debra Rae Cohen referred to in her album review, writing “They're still not the Clash. But The Police display more commitment, more real anger, on Ghost in the Machine than ever before.” The video had the distinct honor of being banned by the BBC because it featured a collection of video clips of the conflict in Northern Ireland. In an interview from 2000, Sting said of the song "I actually wrote the song in Ireland, where I was living at the time. It was during the hunger strikes in Belfast. I wanted to write about that but I wanted to show some light at the end of the tunnel. I do think there has to be an “Invisible Sun.” You can't always see it, but there has to be something radiating light into our lives.”
The one misstep on Ghost in the Machine is “Hungry For You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim de Toil), which foreshadows Sting’s occasional forays into the land of pretentiousness during his solo career. Even when I first heard it in 1981, I thought that there was absolutely no need to hear Sting sing in French.
This little hiccup does not derail the album one bit because the fifth track, which closes out side one, is the stellar “Demolition Man.” Sting wrote the song while staying in actor Peter O’Toole’s cottage. He wound up giving the song to Grace Jones to record for her Nightclubbing album, and her interpretation was vastly different from the one Sting had envisioned.
“[Demolition Man] was the song we recorded first,” Summers recalled during a 1982 Creem interview. “You have to break the ice with something, and that was an easy one to do. It's a very simple song. We all listened to the Grace Jones version and thought, 'Shit, we can do it much better than that.' It was a one-take job. To me, our version is much more ballsy, which is what you'd expect from Grace Jones.”
Side two opens up with the uptempo "Too Much Information" followed by "Rehumanize Yourself" and "One World(Not Three).” Although these are vastly different songs, they each prominently feature overdubbed saxophone playing by Sting. "Rehumanize Yourself” was originally written by Stewart Copeland, but the lyrics were rejected by Sting. It is the only song on the album co-written by Sting and Copeland.
Rounding out the album is “Omega Man,” “Secret Journey,” and the somber “Darkness”, written by Summers, Sting and Copeland, respectively.
When I listened to Ghost in the Machine again, it dawned on me that this is the work of three voices each competing for their own space. They were a band, but Sting was clearly its face. Because of the constant touring and recording, they were clearly showing signs of wear and tear. The Police went from playing small venues like The Bottom Line in New York City to selling out stadiums in a very short span of time.
"Very horrible,” is how Sting described the state of the band to Q Magazine in 1993. “Very dark. Miserable. Our marriages were breaking up, our marriage was breaking up and yet we had to make another record. Nightmare. Then it hit us that this is how we're going to have to make our living for the rest of our careers. I started looking for a way out. It was too much of a shock because I said from the beginning The Police will last three albums and well, we did really."
Ghost in the Machine to The Police was what The White Album was to The Beatles. The band members were moving in three different directions musically. The solo projects of Sting, Copeland and Summers bared very little resemblance to the work they did with The Police.
So why then is Ghost in the Machine their best album? The most obvious answer is because they strayed from the formula of their previous album Zenyatta Mondatta. Where most bands would have taken the easy way out and did Zenyatta Mondatta Part 2, The Police pushed themselves creatively and by some accounts, literally pushed each other. But the results were solid.
As a fan of the band from day one, I was relieved that they were not just one trick ponies. I also knew that this was the end. Synchronicity, their fifth and final album released in 1983, did not move me. I didn’t hate it, but the album left me cold unlike its precursor. So in closing, if we are all being honest with ourselves, then I’m sure we would readily admit that Ghost in the Machine is the finest album within its creators' catalog.