Story of the Ghost: Celebrating 40 Years of a Classic Police Album

1981’s Ghost in the Machine underscores the trio’s fast ascent to superstar success

1981 WPLJ ad for The Police at the Meadowlands Arena (Image: Reddit)

The Police were well established as bonafide hitmakers by the time their fourth album, Ghost in the Machine, appeared in October, 1981.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Prior to its release, they had already accumulated several songs that had become well entrenched within the top 40, both at home in the U.K. and here in the U.S. Indeed, songs such as “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” and “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” had made them bankable commodities, and their challenge, if anything at that point, was to simply sustain the momentum.

Ghost in the Machine Tour 81-82 Program (Image: eBay)

The tact worked well. Propelled by another string of successful singles — “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,”  “Invisible Sun” and “Spirits in the Material World” — Ghost in the Machine quickly soared to the top of the charts, debuting at number one in Britain and reaching number two on the Billboard Top 200. That success not only sustained their presence and prominence on MTV, but also ensured their status as top box office draws as a touring act. 

 

VIDEO: The Police “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”

Their efforts succeeded at least in part due to the fact that for once, the band was allowed to proceed at their own pace. There had been immense pressure to deliver their previous effort, Zenyatta Mondatta, within a confined time limit in order to keep the music coming. But now, with a new album in their sights, they allowed themselves six weeks of rehearsal and recording while encamped at Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat.

Finally able to create some distance between themselves and their record label, it enabled the trio not only to relax, but to experiment with their sound in ways that hadn’t been practical before. Synthesizers, horns and keyboards played a prominent role in the recording process, transforming the group’s reggae flourish to a more progressive stance. With producer Hugh Padgham now at the helm — assuming the same role he had for earlier recordings by Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel — Sting, Summers and Copeland were able to create a new sonic experience while still maintaining their credible commercial appeal. 

The Police Ghost in the Machine, A&M Records 1981

Named for Arthur Koestler’s 1967 treatise  on the relationship between philosophy and psychology — a favorite book of Sting’s during his teenage years — Ghost in the Machine was not without its difficulties. Sting asserted himself in ways he had never done before, often rewriting lyrics originally penned by his bandmates and insisting imbuing tones and textures that muted the original intents. Guitarist Andy Summers was particularly vocal after the record was released, complaining that the additional instrumentation mooted the rawer representation of their music, a sound that had been a key element in their music early on. So too, the choice of the song that was originally designated to be the album’s first single, “Omegaman,” was vetoed by Sting, much to Summer’s further consternation.

 

VIDEO: The Police “Spirits in the Material World”

In retrospect, Summer’s complaints became a moot point. Opening track “Spirits in the Material World” retains the group’s trademark reggae-influenced rhythms.The jubilant and infectious “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” shares a tropical vibe, and while it does contain a keyboard flourish, the infectious approach remains the same. “Demolition Man”  is solidly assured, a rocker that finds the band decidedly determined and solidly straight forward. ”Invisible Sun” ranked as one of the group’s most adventurous outings to date, showing that the Police weren’t willing to simply to fall back on any patented approach.

 

VIDEO: The Police “Invisible Sun”

Notably, the video accompanying “Invisible Sun” was banned by the BBC, due to the fact that it referenced the conflict in Northern Ireland.

So too, several tracks — ”Omegaman”, “Secret Journey” and “Darkness,” add a foreboding feel to the album overall. 

There would be further successes to come, especially when it came to their follow-up, Synchronicity and the massive hits it spawned (“Every Breath You Take, “King of Pain,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger” et. al.). However, it would be the band’s last studio set, as it culminated in their break-up in 1986. It was a good run, and Ghost in the Machine can be credited with helping to underscore those efforts. 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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