For much of their career, the band were made up of Sting (real name Gordon Summer, lead vocals, bass), Andy Summers (guitar) and Stewart Copeland (drums). The band first met when Copeland, an American, was touring the north-east of England with his band Curved Air. During this time, he and Sting became friends and eventually formed The Police, with Henry Padovani on guitar. Touring the London pub-circuit, Sting was invited to join the band Strontium 90, and, inviting Copeland along, the two were introduced to Andy Summers (who had previously worked with Kevin Ayers and The Animals). The band released their first single in 1977, and, despite failing to chart, it proved popular with punk fans, mainly (according to Copeland) because of its cover art. Sting soon invited Summers to join the band, though the latter said he would only do so if he could replace Padovani. Though resistant to the idea at first, the others eventually persuaded Padovani to leave the band.
The group recorded their debut album Outlandos d’Amour (1978) without a manager or record deal, using money provided by Copeland’s older brother Miles (who would later manage the band and then went on to form I.R.S. records, releasing songs by the Buzzcocks, R.E.M. and The Bangles). Miles Copeland soon got the band a record deal with A&M, reportedly on the strength of Roxanne, the band’s second single. Again, the song failed to chart on its first release, and also did not make the BBC playlist. The band used this to their advantage and got a lot of promotion by claiming that the track had been banned. Once Roxanne proved a hit in America it was picked up by the BBC and finally received widespread recognition in the UK.
The band’s second album Regatta de Blanc (1979) went to number one in the UK, starting a trend which the band’s next five albums would follow. By 1982 the band took a break, mainly because Sting had become a big star in his own right; something which caused friction between him and Copeland. Disagreements continued during the recording of the band’s Synchronicity album (1983), though it was also during this time that the band reached the height of their fame and popularity. Sting once again decided to pursue a solo career in 1983 which, along with Copeland breaking his collarbone in a horse riding accident, meant the band were not able to record a sixth album. This effectively makes 1986 the year the band ended.
Each member pursued a solo career following the split, with Sting becoming particularly popular. Over twenty years later, the band took part in a successful reunion tour and, despite their differences, Summers confirmed in 2015 that they are all on good terms.
The band will always be remembered for their edgy and catchy pop/rock/new-wave/reggae blend, with all of The Police songs on this list representing the very best of the band’s output
# 10 – De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
The second that its chiming guitar kicks in, it’s obvious that this track could be by no one other than The Police. There’s something synonymous with the band and this lightly edgy guitar sound. This post-punk/new wave track comes from 1980 and originally appeared on Zenyatta Mondatta.
The song’s simplistic title might trick you into thinking this is a flippant and throwaway song with little to say, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many reviewers labeled the song as “baby talk” at the time, spectacularly missing the point of the track. Sting makes use of the “de do do do” hook to comment on the way that songs which use simple and nonsensical lyrics (such as The Crystals Da Doo Ron Ron) manage to become immensely popular, as if people are somehow attracted to the banality and essential meaningless of these lyrics. Rather than following this trend, the band use the song to discuss the pointlessness (and brilliance) of such lyrics.
The song’s rhythm guitar is perhaps the most notable part about its instrumental, with the pauses making the song an absolute wonder to dance to – something which was perhaps done intentionally to tie in with the song’s message. Similarly, this is one of few Police songs which has been recorded in multiple languages (Spanish and Japanese) showing how the point that the song is trying to make is a truly universal one.
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da is a clever and catchy song which, like all great music, can be appreciated on a number of different intellectual levels.
# 9 – Tea in the Sahara
Taken from Synchronicity (1983), Tea in the Sahara is a minimalist masterpiece. Inspired by the Paul Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky. The track vaguely follows the story of the first part of the book, which is about three sisters who arrange to meet a prince for a tea party in the Sahara desert. The prince leaves, promising to come back, but he never does.
The track’s instrumental is wonderfully restrained, consisting of Sting’s throbbing bass, some hi-hat-heavy percussion from Copeland and atmospheric – almost ambient – guitar from Summers. This stark, echoing soundscape fits perfectly with the song’s narrative, recalling the vast and empty desert. The guitar sounds somehow otherworldly and exotic, almost vaguely Arabic, which works really well with the image the song seeks to create; you can almost imagine the starred sky above the sister’s Bedouin tent. Summers used a special technique to create the track’s distinctive guitar sound, which he called his “wobbling cloud” effect, something which he used on many live renditions of songs by The Police.
The track contains numerous other references to highbrow authors, allowing Sting to display his impressive pool of knowledge. The bassist cites the song as one of his personal favorite tracks, though he apparently wishes they’d gone with a slower tempo. Still, it’s not hard to see why he has such affection for it.
# 8 – King of Pain
Another highlight from Synchronicity, it was released as the album’s second single in the US, but in the UK this song was the final single from the album and therefore the last original song the band ever released in their homeland.
The song was written after Sting had separated from his first wife, so, as the title suggests, it contains many pained and personal lyrics. Interestingly, the writer was with his future wife, Trudy Styler, when the inspiration for the song struck him. He noticed a sunspot on the sun (an idea which recurs throughout the track) and compared it to his soul. Legend has it that this caused Styler to roll her eyes and jokingly describe Sting as “the king of pain.”
A slow marimba beat and moody piano riffs play throughout the song’s introduction, but these are replaced with a lush and more upbeat sound after the first chorus, with some jagged but approachable guitar eventually joining the mix. This guitar becomes increasingly involved as the track progresses, eventually peaking with a high pitched solo during the bridge. The track’s instrumental has a sparkly quality throughout the song, which nicely contrasts the dark and depressing things described by the lyrics.
The track was a huge success in the US, reaching number 3, but became one of the band’s lowest charting singles in the UK, peaking at just number 17. Still, King of Pain is one of the band’s best-known Police songs and thoroughly deserves its place on this list.
# 7 – Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
This 1981 hit comes from the band’s fourth album Ghost in the Machine. Whilst it wasn’t properly recorded until the early ‘80s, Sting wrote the song as far back as 1976, intending it for inclusion on a record by Strontium 90, an earlier incarnation of The Police which featured Mike Howlet (from The Affair and prog-rock group Gong).
The song is notable for its piano elements, which are surprisingly uncommon on songs by The Police. The piano is provided by session pianist Jean Roussel, who had worked with artists like Donovan and Cat Stevens. Roussel was invited onto the track by Sting, despite Summers and Copeland not approving of the inclusion. Even listening to the track once, it becomes clear that Sting knew exactly what he was doing, with Roussel’s piano and synthesizer giving the track a bright and glittering vibe which works extremely well with the band’s usual sound.
In many ways, the themes of the song are a predecessor to those of Every Breath You Take, with the song’s protagonist being a little too obsessed with the object of his affections. Whilst Every Breath… disguises itself as a moody love song, this track seems to be a joyous and innocent pop song on the surface, but examining the lyrics tells a different story.
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic is an upbeat new-wave number which is only improved by its controversial piano elements.
# 6 – So Lonely
This reggae rock classic was the final single to be released from the band’s debut album. The instrumental of So Lonely is an interesting blend between reggae and rock, alternating between a sound which Sting himself admits was shamelessly “borrowed” from Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry and a rousing punk-inspired guitar. There’s a part at the song’s halfway mark where a gnarly guitar solo is paired with the reggae beat (and even some harmonica) which manages to work extraordinarily well.
The lyrics of the song see its protagonist in the grips of heartbreak, with the chorus’ memorable and repetitive hook really drilling the song’s main themes into the listener’s head. Luckily, this is done in a way which is as catchy and rocking as you’d expect from the band, who have once again created an earworm which is impossible to escape.
The song’s music video sees the band wandering around Hong Kong and Tokyo whilst performing the song into walkie-talkies. One can only assume these locations were chosen to represent the song’s themes of loneliness and alienation, as the band are alone in a foreign country, although they seem to be having a good time rather than moping in loneliness. Humorously, British listeners are often bemused by the track, mishearing the hook of the chorus as “Sue Lawley,” and believing it to be an ode to a famous BBC broadcaster.
So Lonely is a genius blend of reggae and rock, which Sting believed was a niche created by the band. Certainly, it’s a brilliant mix of genres which few but The Police could do justice to.
# 5 – Message in a Bottle
The lead single from the band’s second album, Regatta de Blanc (1979), Message in a Bottle became the band’s first ever number one when it topped the British chart. The song is about a man stranded on a desert island, sending out messages in bottles to try and cure his loneliness. The song has a happy ending, with the castaway finding innumerable other bottles and realizing he’s not as alone as he thought he was.
Most Police songs contain ridiculously catchy choruses, and Message in a Bottle is no different, with the main hook being amongst the band’s most memorable. The guitar on the track is particularly worthy of note, with complicated fuzzy and chiming chords pulsing in the background throughout the song, complemented by a high-energy drum beat and some superlative bass lines.
The Police have performed live collaborations with a number of world-class artists over the years, but perhaps none was as outlandish and unlikely as the version of Message in a Bottle which the band performed at the 2007 Live Earth charity concert. This saw the band joined by Kanye West who performed a specially written rap verse over the song’s instrumental (which also featured John Mayer joining Summers on guitar).
Message in a Bottle is a simultaneously moody and joyous piece which (surprisingly) ends on a positive note. Summers has described it as his favorite Police song, and it’s obvious that the rest of the band are similarly proud of it.
# 4 – Can’t Stand Losing You
The band’s third single and the first to enter the charts (peaking at number 42) Can’t Stand Losing You is an example of the band causing controversy. The lyrics of the song tell a dark story, with its teenage protagonist contemplating suicide after his girlfriend splits up with him. As if this macabre storyline wasn’t enough, the single’s cover art featured Stuart Copeland stood on a melting block of ice with a noose around his neck. This (unsurprisingly) resulted in the song being banned by the BBC. In 2007, the British institution paid homage to this controversy by including a cover of the song, performed by Mika and Armand Van Helden, on a compilation celebrating forty years of BBC Radio One.
Despite the song’s subject matter, there is a certain amount of black humor detectable in the song, which makes it hard to know quite what message the band intended for the track to have. Still, Sting claims to have written the lyrics in about five minutes, so perhaps they don’t require in-depth analysis. Can’t Stand Losing You is another example of the band’s reggae-rock sound, with the guitar alternating between bouncy reggae flourishes on the verses and traditional rock-growls on the chorus.
Whilst there’s something uncomfortable about the song’s treatment of its serious subject matter, the reggae-rock contrast and catchy lyrics make this one of those Police songs which is impossible to forget.
# 3 – Don’t Stand So Close to Me
Before he was an international rock star, Sting worked as a teacher. This makes it particularly audacious of him to write a (not-autobiographical) song like Don’t Stand So Close to Me, which is about an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and one of their pupils. The track is taken from Zenyatta Mondatta and reached number one in the UK, becoming the best selling single of 1980. The song reached a whole new audience after being played during an episode of hit TV show Friends during the ‘90s.
The song begins with some deep and ominous synth chords, giving the track an appropriately unsettling atmosphere. The drumbeat and stop-and-start riffs soon join in, keeping the vibe stripped back until the light and addictive hook of the chorus begins, where Sting’s high-pitched vocals take center stage. The lyrics of the track discuss the feelings of lust and guilt the teacher experiences regarding the affair. By the song’s third verse (which references Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita) it seems the teacher has been outed, with other staff members throwing accusations around and him being unable to control his nervous emotions when in the presence of the school girl.
In the age of the Twitter campaign, releasing a song like this could be potentially career-ending, but, luckily for the band, the 80’s were a lot less politically correct. Don’t Stand So Close to Me is a catchy and controversial classic, and certainly one of the best-known songs by The Police.
# 2 – Roxanne
This first single from Outlandos d’Amour was originally released in the UK in April 1978 to little acclaim, but the song was re-released a year later, following a US release, and reached a far more respectable peak of 12.
Inspired by a stroll through Paris’ red light district, Roxanne is about a man falling in love with a prostitute and trying to convince her to give up her way of life. The chorus and pre-chorus are made up of pained and impassioned pleadings for the titular Roxanne to try something new. The track is another reggae rock/new wave classic, although Sting always seems to refer to its instrumental as being a tango. The song’s intro contains some random piano notes followed by laughter, which was allegedly caused by Sting accidentally sitting on the piano, thinking its lid was closed.
In many ways, the band’s entire career is down to the brilliance of this track, as it was Roxanne which peaked the interest of Miles Copeland, resulting in the band’s first record deal. If you mention songs by the Police, you can be sure that this (or number one on the list) will be the tracks that most people will think of. In fact, the track has become so utterly synonymous with the band’s brand that it was performed at the 2007 Grammys to launch their reunion tour.
Roxanne manages to perfectly encapsulate the image it seeks to create, with the slinky, understated instrumental being perfectly suited to the song’s seedy locations. This is classic Police, brilliant, moody and intense; there’s really nothing else quite like it.
# 1 – Every Breath You Take
This soft rock masterpiece comes from 1983’s Synchronicity and is thoroughly deserving of its status as the best known (and best-loved) song by the band. Famously, on first listen, the song sounds like a traditional love song, full of (seemingly) sweet and over the top expressions of affection. After a while you begin to realize the lyrics are a little too over the top, bordering on obsessive and creepy. Sting has described the song as ugly and sinister, referencing the control and surveillance of 1984’s Big Brother. As such, it must be weird and exasperating when he meets couples who tell him they used it as the first dance at their wedding.
The song has a subtle and minimalist instrumental, full of chugging guitar, soaring synths and tender backing vocals. There can be no doubt that its laid back soundscape helps forge the impression that it is a love song. A clever juxtaposition between instrumental and lyrical content is a recurring motif for The Police, but nowhere is it more effective than on this track.
At the beginning of the decade, it was estimated that over a quarter of Sting’s publishing income comes from this one track; an unbelievable demonstration of its intense popularity. Furthermore, the track has appeared on innumerable “greatest of all time” lists and remains the band’s only number one on the Billboard hot 100 (where it stayed for eight weeks).
There are no other Police songs which could possibly top this list. Every Breath You Take is a gutsy and intelligent track which has rightly earned its place in music history.
Over their epic career, The Police have received a number of accolades and awards, becoming one of the best-selling artists of all time. But even more than that, their back catalog is overflowing with hits, with the Police songs on this list representing just the tip of the iceberg. The band may have split up years ago, but, with songs like these, their legacy will live forever.