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Snapsongs: “Spirits in the Material World” by the Police

Saturday 5 January 2013 - Filed under Snapsongs

The word that comes to mind when I think of my first reaction to this song is: unearthly. Why? I’m not sure. I was in fifth grade. On first thought one could say, What would a fifth-grader know about unearthly? But it’s not like nine-year-olds never hear music. By that age I’d had a long and fruitful relationship with radio technology, scanning my favorites in Toledo and wondering whether my personal radio station (which I would enjoy running) should have call letters selected after my initials or after my name. Until that time, however, WMHE had the lite pop, WOHO had the hits, and CKLW out of Windsor had rock, if I was in the mood to jam. I had an extensive collection of greatest hits tapes for my airplay catalog, captured off the air by breathlessly shoving my Radio Shack tape recorder against the nearest speaker when I heard the intro bars and squeezing the little orange “Record” tab down along with the dark gray “Play” button. Moving to Austin was merely an exercise of mapping out a new spectrum of experience, at least as far as radio was concerned.

Moving across the Mississippi meant that I needed to substitute K for W, of course. KHFI was the station I frequented the most in my new home, and from an adult’s remove it was a decent choice for the early part of the 80s. It mixed New Wave, rock, soul, and teenybopper pop, although I could have wished my early self had heard more punk. But there was more than enough variety for me to have heard all sorts of things, including other songs by the Police. But, for some reason, this one was different.

My stereo is an integral part of the memory. It was a hand-me-down, given to me when my parents got the brushed-steel component stereo set from Fisher that they still use today. Mine was a typical 70s model, possibly a Panasonic, with a wooden chassis, chromed front frame and a green-glowing frequency band with a brilliant red indicator needle. It included a separate automatic turntable with integrated 8-track tape player. I loved it, because it was mine, and I already knew how to set it up better than my father did. When I was propped up in my bed under a little red reading lamp, the receiver sat in dimness in a far corner, surrounded by its speakers on navy metal shelves, softly illuminating the closet doors as it played. That’s the scene I remember, on a cold winter evening in early 1982. And then the DJ (this was before Clear Channel turned DJs into personalities, of course) spun “Spirits”.

I don’t recall if I was reading The White Mountains by John Christopher at the moment, but I know I was reading The Tripods Trilogy that year. The post-apocalyptic feel of that young-adult novel fits right in with the anomie of the New Wave scene and its attendant music. And the cover of the book, showing three stylized figures running frantic from arcing tripedal silhouettes appearing through murky watercolored clouds, almost becomes the perfect dust sleeve for the 45 single tucked into my brain. Unearthly? Well, the connections and connotations I remember certainly were. Perhaps an instrumental version of the song would probably work well as the soundtrack to an alien-invasion movie.

Using my childhood memory and my musician’s ear, some of the sonic unearthliness can be explained. “Spirits” hits with a drum fill that hangs for a moment before the music bed starts. The synth patch is a fuzzy simple oscillator that sounds vaguely space-age, vaguely string-section. It follows the scratchy guitar riff, so the two blend together into something not-quite-right. The bassline starts busy, smooths out, then stops, leaving a breath of rest that accentuates the synth/guitar mix. All of this is wrapped into a crypto-ska beat that, to an untutored ear, would sound off-kilter. (My ear, at the time, was not yet versed in reggae.) The vocals, a multiple of voice tracks that have been pushed back into the soundscape, have the feeling of a solemn liturgy, something of a churchy recitation. They’re also not terribly understandable, which deepens the mystery, at least for my nine-year-old self. (In fact, it took me a long time to actually scan the song’s title from Sting’s lurching phrasing. There doesn’t seem to be enough time allocated for anyone to really be singing all of the syllables required.) The guitar break in the bridge does nothing but add to the oddity, since it’s not a typical flash of guitar virtuosity, and simply adds another layer to the repetitive pulse driving forward. And, finally, at the final chorus and fadeout, another synth voice adds odd beepings to the goings-on.

Of course, there were other songs of the time that could be described in similar vein. Some of the “unearthliness” can be attributed to the sparse, spacious, open mix that many New Wave acts used in their songs. “Show Me the Meaning” by the Pretenders gave me twinges of the same feeling, although that particular song owes more of that interpretation to the lyrics than does “Spirits”. And for whatever reason “Spirits” stuck out for me, it also made the Police stand out as well. That was one of the first acts that I would start to seek out, and I actually felt a twinge of jealousy when a friend of mine came to school with a T-shirt from the Ghost in the Machine tour that his brother had gotten him. And, much later, I began to appreciate that busy, abrupt bassline in my own experience as a player.

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2013-01-05  »  Edward Semblance