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The Story Behind the Song: How Police created their "nasty little song" 'Every Breath You Take'

Released on this day in 1983, ‘Every Breath You Take‘ is the hit single by English rockers the Police. Written by frontman Sting, the song became the trio’s biggest hit, and it is estimated that alone it accounts for nearly a third of Sting’s income. It was the biggest North American hit of the year and became so ubiquitous it eventually won two Grammy’s. The universal acclaim was so mammoth; the ballad even earned Sting a prestigious Ivor Novello award in 1983. 

Not only did ‘Every Breath You Take’ eventually become the song most closely associated with the Police and Sting, but it was also cemented in popular culture when Puff Daddy sampled it in his 1997 hit ‘I’ll Be Missing You’. Featuring Faith Evans, Puff Daddy’s track topped the charts globally. Released as a memorial to Evans’ late husband Biggie Smalls, who was murdered in March that year, it touched the hearts of swathes worldwide. 

The impact of ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ was so much that it made people revisit the original. A big question on the minds of listeners since its release has been wondering what the song is actually about. Featuring lyrics that seem so clear, the true meaning of the song is actually opaque. There were a variety of darker factors that coloured the song’s composition, and when revisiting the lyrics, this is made clear. Sting has also weighed in on the debate offering a revisionist perspective on the song that people widely believe to be a ballad: “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck.'” 

Retrospectively, it is clear three key factors influenced the song. Firstly, the break-up of Sting’s first marriage. The frontman penned the first iteration of the music in 1982 after the well-publicised divorce from his first wife, Frances Tomelty. The split was controversial, to say the least. It marred by the fact Sting had had an affair with Trudie Styler. The thing about this particular dalliance was that Styler was Tomelty’s best friend and the couple’s next-door neighbour in Bayswater, London. It is not crazy to think that the fallout from such a well-publicised and disastrous split influenced the sinister lyrics. Did anyone believe that Sting was truly an angel anyway?

The song’s central lyric, “every breath you take; every move you make”, can be viewed from a variety of perspectives. At inception, there are the arguments that ‘Every Breath You Take’ is directly influenced by the Gene Pitney song ‘Every Breath I Take’. Whilst the titles are very similar, and Pitney’s is a love song, the argument falls flat. Then there is the Led Zeppelin song ‘D’yer Mak’er’ from 1973. Again, the idea for the two song’s similarities is highly circumstantial. Yes, Led Zeppelin’s piece features the words “every breath I take; every move I make”. This line may have influenced Sting to repurpose it; however, when noting the differences in the provenance of both songs, that has to be the extent of it. Zeppelin’s is widely renowned for having been written as a joke, and given the emotional fallout from Sting’s affair, they couldn’t be more different. 

In 1993, Sting dispelled all rumours that ‘Every Breath You Take’ is a love song. “I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour,” he said. “The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realise at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.”

Interestingly, Sting wrote the song at Ian Fleming’s desk at the Goldeneye estate in Jamaica. The frontman had found himself at the real-life James Bond’s desk in the Caribbean after fleeing London to escape the furore. Picking Bond’s job apart for a second, beneath all the misogyny et al., the actual position of espionage is a very sinister one. Privacy has no place, and a spy or government agent is the agent of a state used to subvert other state actors in a bid for control.

Sting was on to something when he told BBC Radio 2, “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.”

Who’d have thought that such a massive hit, widely regarded as a ballad of love, and written by Sting, would actually hold revisionist values denoting control and Michel Foucault? It seems that Quadrophenia’s Ace Face was an unaware disciple of the lauded French philosopher and had heeded his claim that society had shifted from discipline to control. Although he thought the song was a boring hit, Sting has more recently accepted its meaning when held up to the political light.

In short, the song was written in 1982 amidst a couple of significant historical events. Ronald Reagan had become the US President in 1981, and Margaret Thatcher had become UK Prime Minister in 1979. In addition to these staunch neoliberal proponents coming to the fore, the decade was a series of momentous upheavals, and technology had come to the fore. The advent of deregulated economics and the computer culminated in what Foucault saw as society shifting from the paradigm of discipline to control. Gone were the days of kings, whereby the sovereign would display its power over subjects by executing them in the town square. 

Now the sovereign was technology and economics, ruling through a series of intertwined and globalised networks keeping tabs on the population through 24hrs surveillance and data farming. This last point was only in its infancy when written, but now we see it in full bloom.

Coming back to Sting’s point, “I didn’t realise at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.” Californian sociologist Gary T. Marx has argued that “every breath you take” is indicative of breath analysers, “every step you take” of ankle monitors and “every vow you break” of voice stress analysis.

Sting offered his retrospective take on the hit, adding: “I thought I was just writing a hit song, and indeed it became one of the songs that defined the ’80s, and by accident the perfect soundtrack for Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy of control and seduction.”

Musically, the song is anchored by that classic Andy Summers riff. Inspired by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, it became Summers and the song’s trademark lick. During recording sessions for the band’s fifth and final album, Synchronicity, Summers was given a simple ghost track of the bass, drums and a single vocal, and was told by Sting to “make it your own.” 

In 1999 the guitarist recalled: “This was a difficult one to get, because Sting wrote a very good song, but there was no guitar on it. He had this Hammond organ thing that sounded like Billy Preston. It certainly didn’t sound like the Police, with that big, rolling synthesiser part. We spent about six weeks recording just the snare drums and the bass. It was a simple, classic chord sequence, but we couldn’t agree how to do it. I’d been making an album with Robert Fripp, and I was kind of experimenting with playing Bartok violin duets and had worked up a new riff. When Sting said ‘go and make it your own’, I went and stuck that lick on it, and immediately we knew we had something special.”

At this point, ‘Every Breath You Take’ the song we knew as a simple, lovey-dovey ballad that had creepy lyrics, has proven itself to be politically and intellectually charged on both the lyrical and musical fronts. Who knew that such a hit could have roots and similarities with the intellectual? After all, 1983 spawned non-topical hits like Culture Club’s ‘Karma Chameleon’ and UB-40’s ‘Red Red Wine’.

Given that the Police are hailed as one of the best rock bands of the ’70s and ’80s, what final album and smash hit would be complete without tensions and in-fighting? The song and the album’s recording was overshadowed by difficulties and interpersonal spats. The long built-up tension between Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland finally spilt over. Producer Hugh Padgham has claimed that Sting and Copeland “hated each other” and that verbal and physical fights in the studio were by this point, commonplace. ‘Every Breath You Take’ and Synchronicity topped the charts, but by 1984 the Police were no more.

‘Every Breath You Take’ is the Police‘s most enduring hit, and there can be no surprise given the song’s density when you pick it apart. Spawned from a fractured personal life, politics and outright musical talent, ‘Every Breath You Take’ is rightly regarded as one of the Police and Sting’s most enduring works. Who knows what new perspective the song will throw up in ten years?

Watch the video for ‘Every Breath You Take’, below.