It seemed Sting could do no wrong in the 1980s. Whether it was singing with Phil Collins at Live Aid, or steering The Police into glory, Sting also wrote some of the most indelible tunes of the decade. Alongside all of that, he also created notes once thought impossible of a bass guitar.
If he holds a signature tune, it must be ‘Every Breath You Take’, and it must have galled him in later years when he realised that he gave it to The Police. But the song still makes him a tidy fortune, which guitarist Andy Summers discovered when the guitar hook he penned for the tune was sampled ‘I’ll Be Missing You.’
Drummer Stewart Copeland wasn’t crazy on the arrangement for the tune, stating: “In my humble opinion, this is Sting’s best song with the worst arrangement. I think Sting could have had any other group do this song and it would have been better than our version – except for Andy’s brilliant guitar part. Basically, there’s an utter lack of groove. It’s a totally wasted opportunity for our band. Even though we made gazillions off of it, and it’s the biggest hit we ever had, when I listen to this recording, I think ‘God, what a bunch of assholes we were!'”
Captivated by the lyric, directors Lol Creme and Kevin Godley put together an evocative silhouette, echoing the shady lines from which the narrator professes his love. Contrary to popular opinion, ‘Every Breath You Take’ isn’t a love song, but a tale of a man tormented by the shadow of his departed lover. Restraining himself from going to her, the lyricist chooses rejection over redemption, knowing that his memory will stick by her as cruelly as hers haunts him.
In many ways, the song held a European aesthetic, so it was fitting that Sting was rewarded with a performance of his beloved tune in Sweden. It’s just a shame about the performer. Attending the Polar Music Prize in 2017, the Police bassist was serenaded with a version of ‘Every Breath You Take’, sung by Puerto Rican-born guitarist José Monserrate.
To his credit, it’s not easy to sing an English lyric, and maybe nerves hindered some of the falsettos he might have otherwise hit. But Feliciano bursts over the music, drowning out the drums, strings, and guitars in the process. Whatever nuance that could be found in the music is lost, and Sting is caught pining for the groove (or, lack of) that cemented The Police’s original. By contrast, David Brent’s version of the song is rife with integrity, tunefulness and character.
Sting does everything he can to be polite, keenly aware that the camera is pointing at him, but there are some flashes of irritation visible behind the eyes. Some of the audience members are only moments away from laughing, and the whole spectacle hinges on farce. Who knows what Sting was thinking during the rendition, but if Feliciano expected a hug from the composer, it was definitely the wrong night to ask for one.
Graciously, Sting let this faux pas slide in his acceptance speech. “I’m standing alongside … Mr. José Feliciano, whose influence on my own music both as a singer and a guitarist has gone unsaid, until now.”
Sometimes, it’s better to stick to the original. The Police’s recording of ‘Every Breath You Take’ is laced with danger, risk, romance, and contradiction. And maybe Copeland was wrong to put the band’s arrangement down. Sting could have been served by much, much, much worse.