In this review: The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M, 1980).
I spent the summer of 1992 in Cyprus with my father, who was working there at the time. The tourist town of Pafos was awash with really cheap cassette tapes, all pirated. We bought loads to listen to on the endless car journeys that he had to do. The really low quality tapes weren’t what you wanted to put into a real stereo, but we were driving ex-United Nations Mazda 323s, so it didn’t really matter.
One of these tapes was a compilation of Police hits. I cant remember if it was a proper album or not, but there was something of the catchy post-reggae beats and throught provoking lyrics that matched the hot and scratchy, almost unfinished, Cypriote landscape. Much later, in the depths of Canadian winters, I would put the Police on and recaptured a little of the warmth and sense of speed from that summer.
When I came across Zenyatta Mondatta in the used record shop near me, though, I realised that I didn’t know much about their albums. ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ and ‘De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da’ — unsurprisingly both on that sticky cassette from Cyprus — are two of my all time favourites, so I decided to take a punt.
I was not disappointed.
Of course those two bangers are amazing. The rest of the album really holds together, though. Listening to it through I was stuck by just how tight the whole thing is. For all its flair and bounce, there is no wasted effort at all. Each component, each note, each track does exactly what it is supposed to. But that doesn’t mean it’s simple. As has been said often, simplicity isn’t simple. What this demonstrates is a band working as real unit.
Looking at the narrative behind the recording, this is even more amazing. According to legend, this was laid down, in a hurry, in the few weeks leading up to a major world tour. Apparently, it was only completed in the we hours of the day the tour started. Being a master at all sorts of last minute work, I know the perils implicit in this kind of strategy; it can go so wrong so quickly and with no time to react. And yet, there is no hurry in this album (although, admittedly, they did re-record the two singles later because of perceived poor production). It sets its pace and sticks to it, unfolding a sound that shows the edgy, angry future of the band whilst still cradling their reggae roots.
The b side is particularly entrancing. ‘Man in a Suitcase’ and ‘Shadows in the Rain’ are both hypnotic gems, drawing you in and not letting you down. The control of the vocal mix is really staggering , turning the paired down lyrics into nearly another instrumental line and giving the impression of not so much actively hearing the words but just ending up with them inside your head.
It’s more than just the sound on this one for me, though. Even though this disc plays like it was pressed yesterday, the sleeve is well loved. I know that whomever bought this rarely played it, but they kept it. It’s been handled, moved, taken with. I think that’s not always the case with music so it makes me doubly happy.