1. The Set-up
One of the main things I did over my two week sabbatical from writing was to visit friends and family down in DC. It was a lightning-quick weekend of a trip, but a much needed break from the usual. Reunions, good food, Nationals baseball, and a few notable musical moments as well. I got to see one of my new favorite bands (Poor Old Shine) play at a club I hadn’t been to before (The Iota in Arlington), and I took advantage of being home to dust off my dad’s old Yamaha record player, test it out, and bring it and his little assortment of vinyl back north with me.
I’d always known my dad to have a good, well-rounded palette where music was concerned. While he’s a big fan of the greats like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he’s also a devoted lover of the moody, folk-rock stylings of Buffalo Springfield and, by extension, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
But it wasn’t until that weekend that I fully realized the extent of his love for other sounds like the sweet talkin’ Lionel Richie, your frisky, Purple Rain-era Prince, or the easy-going sounds of Bread (that’s right– Bread).
What’s more, my dad was a huge fan of progressive rock. Or at least, the early progenitors of the craft. Your Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Your Styx. Your Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg Twin Sons of Different Mothers. And every single album that Yes ever recorded. Ever. Groovy stuff.
These are the influences on which my own rock & roll education was founded. I know I’d seen these records before, having thumbed through them at least a few times during my childhood, but I’d never really understood what– or who– I was looking at.
And it makes sense how these seemingly disparate sounds and textures could live together in my boyhood experience. How evenings could be spent listening to the melodic, tried-and-true voices James Taylor, Carole King, or Sade, while Sunday afternoons in the car were meant for the more far-out, heady, rocking sounds of latter years Beatles, Pink Floyd, or Peter Frampton.
(It’s not his taste alone, of course, that shaped my interests. I surveyed my mother on a host of albums in my father’s collection to get a sense of her influence as well: “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer? Your father. Lionel Richie? Both of us. Little Feat? Your father. Bruce Springsteen? That was me.” Go mom.)
2. The Police
It’s because of these influences that The Police are responsible for one of my earliest known, most-beloved pop song obsessions: “King of Pain” from their 1983 album Synchronicity. Of course I probably had no idea what album it was on at all when I first heard it, which most likely happened on one of those long, aforementioned Sunday car rides. Those days we’d head further and further away from the bustling ‘burbs around DC and closer and closer to the farmlands and rolling countryside of upper county Maryland and the wild Potomac valley.
I instantly loved the song for the colorful cast of characters it contained and the way it described them in simple terms that were made all the more wonderful and fantastic with just a little imagination. “A little black spot on the sun today… a black-winged gull with a broken back.” To my young ears it wasn’t the sparse, weary observations of a man tired of a monotonous life, but a whimsical, sing-song list of the rich, beautiful, and unique characters present in the world. It made as much sense to me as any other whimsical fairy tale.
If I liked this song, I reasoned, I probably would like their other stuff too. And to an extent I did, seeing as how I came to know their other hits as well. But I never actually listened to a whole Police album from beginning to end, not even Synchronicity. My dad’s turntable had been a part of the family longer than I had, and I know he had few of their albums in his collection, but I never actually sat down and listened to one.
And what do you know: it turns out The Police were great at turning out great records in addition to great hits, and Synchronicity is a great example of that. It’s much less a the collection 2.5 minute hot-blooded tunes about love affairs gone wrong that its predecessors were and much more an album of complex and introspective explorations of life in past, present, and future tenses.
That doesn’t mean it’s a wholly cohesive, masterful, or flawless piece of work, however. It definitely contains its own frenzied demons, particularly on the track “Mother,” which really seems more appropriate on a The Wall-era Pink Floyd album or as a Beatles White Album B-side than it does on this one. Critics and fans alike seem to be divided to this day on the merits of the song’s inclusion on the album. Some say it breaks up the monotony of the synth-infused, fairly run-of-the-mill Police hit-making machine and shows their true depth as songwriters and innovators. While I do appreciate that perspective and do honestly appreciate the track itself as a sort of “between-acts” diversion, I find it really breaks up the flow of the album as a whole, causing Side 2 to end up being the more balanced and universally more pleasing side (that Side 2 also happens to be the side with three of the four singles from the album– “King of Pain” as well as “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “Every Breath You Take”– only solidifies this feeling).
Aside from that one space oddity, the album is a treat. For me the real gem is “Walking In Your Footsteps,” an ode to one’s boyhood fascination with dinosaurs (and a happy resident of Side 1). Even as it speaks of the bygone past it also serves as a wonderful sonic sample of what’s to come in the future for these musicians as they go off into their own respective solo careers. Sting in particular has gone on to infuse his own endeavors with the sorts of world-beat rhythms and songwriting that this track provides.
There’s definitely something about the vinyl listening experience that you can’t get from listening to CDs or MP3s. Maybe it has to do with the fact that you really have to be present when listening to records, due to the obvious requirement of having to get up to change the record from side to side, but also due to the deeper, subtler sonic textures that only vinyl can afford.
At the very least, there’s nothing like hooking up an old turntable, dusting off a record, setting the needle down on Side 1, Track 1, and reminiscing about your favorite memories that happened while you were listening to Steely Dan’s Aja album.
I’m looking forward to exploring each side of this inherited collection, and to gradually adding my own pieces as well.
The Police – Synchronicity
A&M Records, 1983
Listen Now: Synchronicity II, Walking In Your Footsteps, Mother, King of Pain