I was a perverse child. And, yes, I was still a child in 1979, even if I didn’t particularly believe that at the time. Just take the existence of this album in my collection – the entire reason I owned it was that I was determined not to like The Police.
The first Police album, Outlandos d’Amour hade made an appearance on the old record player in the drama theatre dressing room, and neither I nor anyone else knew quite what to make of it. I should explain: towards the end of my fifth year I more or less stopped going to classes and spent all my spare time in the drama theatre. This is not quite as rebellious as it sounds, of course – exams were over, the only meaningful classes were the ones relating to next year’s courses, and June of 1979 was spent putting on plays.
There’s another album coming up which will poke around at that particular time in my life, so I’m going to restrict my thoughts this time out to the regular flow of albums which were played on that record player (and how I wish I could remember what it looked like – I can picture the albums themselves lying on the shelf in front of the mirrors, but the machine we played them on draws a complete blank).
That dressing room is where I first heard the early Jam albums, the Damned, all those Bowie albums which required more careful listening than we were giving them (especially Lodger, which I didn’t understand at all at the time), a couple of late Seventies Rolling Stones albums (which I didn’t pay particular attention to, to the point where I still confuse Black and Blue and Some Girls), and this Police album, which kept coming back to the top of the pile, and still didn’t add up.
The thing was, I suppose, that we were (certainly I was) heavily influenced by what we read in the music press, which had generally been unimpressed by the whole Police thing. I could hear what the critics meant; they were trying to be punk but failing to convince; they were using reggae stylings but in a strangely unmoving way; they were way more accomplished musicians than they were letting on, and one of them was a straight-up hippy who had been in Curved Air.
I decided I didn’t like them (I softened towards them much later, when I finally accepted that they were just a pop-rock band like all the others), and aside from joining in the general sniggering whenever the song about the blow-up doll came on, tried my best to ignore them.
Then I read about this album by some German composer and early practitioner of electronic music, which featured all three members of The Police to greater or lesser degree, and which sounded obscure enough to pique my interest, and just about perverse enough to make it worth investing in. I think my intended line, if questioned, was that while I didn’t like The Police, I did have a lot of time for their earlier stuff, which most people hadn’t heard.
I don’t remember ever being questioned, however.
What I do remember is going down to The Other Record Shop on Union Street specifically to look for this album. Ok, even that is not quite true; I remember going to look for an album called Video-Magic, which I’d read the review of. After a little head scratching, I discovered this one called Video-Flashback and decided that something must have been lost in translation, as this one did feature all three members of The police, and the songs I’d remembered the names of.
What I’ve since discovered, while trying to find this album to add it to this list, is that this is actually a re-released version of Video-Magic with a couple of tracks from an earlier album called Flashback added on. It didn’t bother me back then, as I had – pretty much – secured the album I’d been looking for; it threw me completely when compiling this, because what I remembered and what was true were some distance apart, but still obviously related.
To give you an idea of the confusion, the front covers of Video-Magic and Video-Flashback are different, but the back covers are the same. Both are on the Harvest label (with that lovely bright yellow and green colour scheme), but the track listings are subtly different. I struggled for ages to make my memory and reality match up, but I think I finally got there.
So, in outright defiance of one of the rules I set out for myself at the start, this is a compilation album. I should really have taken it off the list because of that, but I’d sunk a lot of time and effort into it (just pulling together the playlist up there took a lot of time), and I do remember that I wasn’t that keen on it after all the fuss, so I’m looking forward to a re-evaluation.
The first thing I’m going to say is that I’ve heard all of these tracks during the whole ‘building a playlist’ operation, and I clearly remember all of them, so I must have given it more than just a cursory play at the time. And on first impression, it’s…. Well, let’s find out, shall we?
The first track is Trans-Am and the opening fanfare is immediately familiar; I almost feel that this must have been used somewhere else, although that seems unlikely. I can’t tell (the recording isn’t exactly crystal clear) if Sting is just yelling gibberish at the beginning, but it does turn in to recogniseable English words in the middle, and you have to say, the mixture of classical instruments and futuristic-for-the-time electronica works pretty well.
Only the Wind sounds like it comes in halfway through, with the chorus right up front and seemingly at the end of a long development which we haven’t heard. It’s immediately replaced by a reprise of the swirly electronic sound effect from the first track, then an entirely different song takes over, all ambient electronics and wide soundscapes. Maybe we’re meant to have been swept up in the wind; I can’t be sure. It feels like this is actually the music which Schoener was interested in, but he shrugs and ushers Sting and Andy Summers back in at the end – the singer in full high-pitched growl mode as we go out the way we came in.
Speech Behind Speech is much more interestingly mournful; a better analyst than me would be able to identify which mode this is written in, but I really like the wide open spaces of it, and Summers’ guitar howling over the sparse melody in a way which must have heavily appealed to the Prog part of my brain. I’m not sure who wrote the lyrics for this, but they also fit the prog mould – they sound profound, but don’t really mean anything very much. As much as I enjoyed being re-acquainted with the first two, this is the first track I feel I’ll come back to.
Koan starts promisingly; the strings weaving around a synthesiser line which slowly dissolves into something more chaotic. This strongly reminds me of modern, minimalist classical music – it’s a long track, and it’s tempting (in the absence of any other evidence) to regard it as the heart of the album, the other songs with the soon-to-be-famous singer on them will draw the crowds in, but this is what the artist really wants them to hear. Again, the sound quality leaves a little to be desired, and I’d really like to see if I can track down a clean copy of it, because it’s got a lot if interesting stuff going on, including several moments when it really could turn into Kraftwerk, and others where it’s more Steve Reich or Terry Riley. It’s downright fascinating, and I’m definitely coming back to this one. The discography listing on Discogs gives this as 8 minutes long, while the video (taken from Video-Magic is over 12 minutes; I’m afraid I don’t remember it well enough to be able to pinpoint where the fade was. Or the edit, if that’s what happened.
I’m at the ‘turn disc over’ moment, and the thing I register most clearly is that I want to know more – I really want to dig deeper into this.
Octogon (sic) starts with some industrial beats, but quickly adds a loping bass with more intriguing synth sounds before turning into a fairly generic-sounding mid-seventies rock track – it could almost be Mike Oldfield, another Schoener collaborator, accompanying the very Prog-sounding middle section. Again, it’s quite a bit more than the sum of its parts here; I find myself staring off into space and trying to pick out all the inspirations. Assuming that is Andy Summers, it’s a long way from the work he was doing with The Police, which I guess was my point all those years ago.
Frame of Mind is not at all what I was expecting. It came back to me after hearing it, but the boys’ choir singing plainchant had me looking to see if I hadn’t picked the wrong video entirely. Fortunately, Sting’s fluid bass and the high register strings pull it back into the same idiom as most of the rest of the album, so I know it’s the right song, but it threw me for a moment. Now, having listened a few more times, it mostly fascinates me, the idea of melding soaring guitar solos and simple choral singing, surely recorded in a church, sounds like a terrible idea, but it really does work. I might go back and play with the mix a little, but then again, I’m not listening to it in optimal circumstances. Despite that, I love the ending when all the instruments drop out and the choir sings us gently to the end.
I can’t be sure that the video I found for Signs of Emotion is for the right version. It sounds right at the beginning, but it’s clearly been taken from another compilation, and I can’t help feeling that it’s a remixed or even re-recorded version of the song I remember. Something’s not quite right about it, although that may just be me over-analysing things. It’s a little self-indulgent, this one, but works in context, I think.
A very strange thing happens a couple of minutes into Code-Word Elvis. I listened to it all the way through while I was compiling the playlist, because I had remembered this song in particular, and I still really like the juxtaposition of Sting’s vocals and the solo violin, and the fact that it still sounds like it was recorded in the toilet. Exactly one minute and twenty seconds into the video, my head snapped up, as the record appeared to jump. Now, this wouldn’t be so surprising (many YouTube videos are taken from turntable recordings, after all), but here’s the thing – my copy jumped in exactly the same place! So, there are two possibilities here; either an entire run of pressings of this record all jumped at the same point, or this is actually taken from a recording of the record I used to own. Both are highly unlikely, I’m sure you’ll agree, so I’ve finally settled on the third option as being likely to be true – it’s not a jump at all; it’s deliberate, and I’ve misheard the lyric all along. I now am – almost – convinced that Sting doesn’t repeat the “d’you like my hero” line; he actually sings something like “d’you like rock ‘n’ roll”, which changes the rhythm of the words, and makes it sound like there’s a skip when there actually isn’t.
It definitely bugged me at the time – a brand new record shouldn’t jump like that – but to hear that jump again, exactly where I remembered it, brought me up short. As did the fact that I actually remembered the sequence of numbers which are probably meant to represent Elvis’ zip code or something (I checked; it’s not a real zip code) which lead into the sudden acceleration of the sax and guitar break. I think this is going to turn out to be my favourite of all the songs on here, partly because it helped me remember that I owned several albums which skipped in predictable places, and hearing songs from them on CD later in life just felt wrong.
Let’s wrap up with Video-Magic, which naturally starts with sound effects from the latest fad, the unthinkably cool video magic of Pong. Now that video games are mainstream culture, and incorporating sounds from them into music wouldn’t be seen as anything special, it makes me smile to hear the ‘brave new world’ implied by this. I also have to comment on Sting’s willingness to push his voice about as high as the human voice will go. Not entirely successfully, it has to be said, but it’s more arresting (did you see what I did there) than anything he did on Outlandos d’Amour.
How to sum that up, then? First of all, I was smarter than I realised in 1979. This is an interesting, eclectic album with many things I’ll want to come back to, and I will definitely continue my search for a vinyl copy, although I doubt many, if any, ever made it across the Atlantic. I also wonder at myself a bit – this really should have led me into more strange and intriguing music than it actually did. I teetered on the edge of the weird and obscure in 1979, but I have to admit that the properly odd music just slid by out of reach until some time later, when I went back to find all the things I’d been missing.
I did finally figure out Lodger, for example, and while a lot of the music my neighbours in university halls of residence were playing only became favourites later in life, I didn’t write it all off, perhaps partly because of this.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
This is the only one I’ve heard (at least, the only one I’ve knowingly heard). I intend to rectify that.
Compilations to consider?
Well, it turns out….
Probably, but not that I can recommend. Keep reading, though.
Yes! (told you it would be worth it). While researching for this post, I came across this, which is a virtual museum exhibit in Google Arts. I haven’t heard it all (and my German is a touch rusty now), but the musical excerpts are terrific, especially the stuff with the Balinese Gamelan orchestra. It’s taken more than 40 years, but I’m finally exploring more of Eberhard Schoener.
All thanks to the fact that I couldn’t stand The Police….