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Music

The Police song inspired by Bob Marley

@TylerGolsen

The connection between punk and reggae was one of the strongest and most unlikely bonds in music history. As both genres saw a rise in popularity during the mid-1970s, fandoms and subcultures began to blend between the hard-edged aggressiveness of punk and the more laid-back ethos on reggae. Pretty soon, there were bands that were playing both styles, including acts who tentatively dipped their toes in the reggae waters like Blondie and The Clash, and acts that devoted whole swaths of their setlists to the form, like Bad Brains and The Police.

The Police were only a punk band by circumstance. Andy Summers was a well-known progressive rock guitarist who had played with everyone from Soft Machine to Mike Oldfield, while Stewart Copeland was an ex-pat American who was also cutting his teeth in a progressive rock by playing in a band called Curved Air. All the while, Sting was still Mr. Sumner, teaching English while playing in jazz bands at night.

As music scenes began to change in the mid-70s, the members of The Police recognised that punk was the flavour of the day. “The truth is that the band merely utilised the trappings of 1970s British punk: the bleached blond short hair, Sting in his jumpsuits or army jackets, Copeland and his near maniacal drumming style,” critic Christopher Gable notes in his book The Words and Music of Sting. “In fact, they were criticised by other punk bands for not being authentic and lacking ‘street cred’. What The Police did perhaps take from punk was a brand of nervous, energetic disillusion with 1970s Britain.”

That was where the strong bond came with reggae. With a large influx of Jamaican families moving to England during the 1960s and 1970s, disillusionment with institutions became a driving force for both punk and reggae. Bands like The Specials and Madness began to drop the overtly-punk roots of their playing and adopted ska as their genre of choice, creating 2-Tone revival in the process. The Police never went that far, but they did base one of their earliest songs on the reggae giant of the western world: Bob Marley.

That would be ‘So Lonely’, the third single from the band’s 1978 debut album Outlandos d’Amour. According to Sting, the song’s author, ‘So Lonely’ was more or less based on the progression of one of Marley’s seminal songs, ‘No Woman, No Cry’.

“People thrashing out three chords didn’t really interest us musically,” Sting told Revolver magazine in 2000. “Reggae was accepted in punk circles and musically more sophisticated, and we could play it, so we veered off in that direction. I mean let’s be honest here, ‘So Lonely’ was unabashedly culled from ‘No Woman No Cry’ by Bob Marley & The Wailers. Same chorus. What we invented was this thing of going back and forth between thrash punk and reggae. That was the little niche we created for ourselves.”

Mixing the more relaxed verses with the uptempo crunch of the song’s chorus, ‘So Lonely’ is one of the band’s earliest, and most effective, mixes of punk and reggae. As The Police would continue to evolve, pop and world music would begin to become more prominent than either the punk or reggae music that the group had initially established themselves in.

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