I first heard The Police’s third album at my uncle’s house, likely the day after my grandfather’s 1980 funeral in Peterborough, Ont. The first time I’d ever seen a dead body. My cousin Janice put the album on the console stereo in the living room while she cuddled with her boyfriend at the time. I sat on the brown-carpeted stairs out of sight and listened, captivated.
The album, and the cuddle session, opened with Don’t Stand So Close To Me, which I believe I was already somewhat familiar with — it, and De Do Do Do De Da Da Da were radio hits at the time. I was seven years old. So in the following days when I was back home in Pembroke, the album became the first to be purchased with my own money — it and Elton John’s eponymous second album. Got them both that day. from Woolworth’s.
I was a huge Elton John fan, but must admit, wasn’t really ready for the Paul Buckmaster-laden album. Well, apart from Border Song, Your Song, Take Me To The Pilot and Sixty Years On, which I was already familiar with. I never liked Your Song, and preferred the live versions of the other tracks from either 17-11-70 or Here And There. By contrast, Zenyatta Mondatta was a much cooler record.
For starters, just look at them. It’s hard not to — photos of the trio are all over the jacket and inner sleeve. There was even a Charlie’s Angels-like silhouette graphic on the label. Compared to the pudgy, balding pianist I adored — whose music seemed to be getting worse and worse — Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers were youthful, good-looking musicians at the peak of their powers. Zenyatta Mondatta is their best record. They won two Grammys for it. Zenyatta Mondatta are made-up words, by the way. They just wanted a title which was fun to say. It also fits with the first two: Outlandos D’Amour and Regatta de Blanc.
Don’t Stand So Close To Me fascinated me — it starts so quietly, eventually cued by the kick drum. Almost 40 seconds goes by before the sung melody ushers things in but the song doesn’t fully jump until the infectious, simple chorus. There’s no solo, just an instrumental break before the final chorus arrives — now with accompanying descending backing vocals.
Next it’s Driven To Tears, a song which was among the first to demonstrate that a song can be heavy without having distortion and bar chords. This is a showcase for drumming. Copeland is so explosive and has so much finesse. Even this little kid noticed. But how cool is the guitar solo? One of my favourites. Up there with Taxman. Soaring, furious, random and beautiful. The rock-out ending, for me, is akin to the ending of Bohemian Rhapsody.
There’s no break between Driven To Tears and When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around. The last chord of one just hangs in the air until the snare drum starts the next song — like a live show. This one is also catchy, instantly familiar. It’s probably also my first encounter with a song that has a comma in its title. Musically, the song’s verses and chorus are exactly the same — it’s just the melody which changes. Like blues. The only change comes with the bridge — another instrumental break like the opening track, though the bassline never changes.
Unlike almost all of my Elton albums, Zenyatta Mondatta had no printed lyrics. For the most part, I got the gist of what was being sung — except as a little kid I didn’t know what Canary In A Coalmine signified. I just thought it was a juxtaposition. That’s the next track, a much more uptempo song, with fun quick-delivery vocals. There’s no bridge apart from a quick piano lick (played by Summers) before the start of the last verse. Then there’s some random piano buried in the mix for a bit — almost like a mistake.
Voices In My Head is almost instrumental. The words — “Voices inside my head / echoes of things that you said” — are repeated. Very mantra-esque. Just a cool groove which is unmistakably Police. There’s a “Jump! Jump! Jump!” bit which then dissolves into a drum fill showcase.
The last song on the first side is the catchy Copeland-penned Bombs Away. With its two-note keyboard refrain (played by Sting) and references to Bombay (Mumbai since 1995), it might be the most dated song on Zenyatta Mondatta. It’s redeemed by yet another chaotically brilliant Summers guitar solo.
Side 2 kicks off with the other hit single De Do Do Do De Da Da Da. I always loved the guitar tone and chords in this song. For me, it’s the catchiest part. I don’t love the use of rape metaphors, however. The song has the second typical overused Police “yo yo yo” breakdown (the other is the “whoa whoa whoa” on Driven To Tears). But, we all know this one. It’s a hit.
Next up is the contentious Behind My Camel, one of two instrumentals on the album. The Summers-written song was a bit of filler. Sting didn’t have enough songs for a full record, and yet refused to play on this one. Instead, Summers did. Not only is the song weird and cool, but it won the band one of the two Grammys awarded to Zenyatta Mondatta (Best Rock Instrumental Performance). So, well done, Stu & Andy!
Man In A Suitcase is a reggae-flavoured catchy Sting pop song. Very similar to When The World Is Running Down and Bombs Away. It has yet another cool guitar breakdown bridge, with overdubs of ambient airport sounds placed in the background.
Shadows In The Rain is the penultimate track, a favourite of mine. The vocals are drenched in effects, there’s minimalist piano, dominant bass and drums with Summers’ guitar mostly flying around like a trapped mosquito or someone trying out pedals in the rehearsal space next door. It’s the longest song on the album by a full minute.
Last up is Copeland’s song — The Other Way Of Stopping, named after a Bob Newhart comedy bit. I never really got this one as a kid, but it made more sense when he did the theme for the 1980s Star Wars-based TV cartoon Droids.
What is very cool about all this is — if you believe there are filler songs on this album, at least the band set out to make them creative and slightly out of step with their hits. Here’s a band with one lead vocalist, successfully able to give varying voices to a set of new songs, incidentally recorded in under four weeks. Recording ended at 4 a.m. and a few hours later they began a world tour. Next stop: The biggest band in the world for a few years.
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.