Tea in the Sahara: The Police’s Synchronicity at 40

Looking back on the trio’s final studio album

WH Smith Synchronicity ad (Image: Reddit)

In the ocean of sound that was late-‘70s and early-‘80s rock, The Police were riding a wave that just seemed to get bigger and bigger with every release.

Outlandos d’Amour (1978) was a solid debut that put the band on the map with “Roxanne.” Their 1979 follow-up, Regatta de Blanc, dodged the dreaded sophomore jinx and upped the ante: “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon” kept the attention of FM and college radio. The album went to number one in the United Kingdom.

Zenyatta Mondatta blew it wide open in 1980: It reached number one in the UK. and number five on the U.S. Billboard chart, packed a radio wallop with “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” and enabled the trio to pick up a pair of Grammy awards.

Might their fourth album stumble? Nope: 1981’s Ghost in the Machine kicked it even higher, reaching number one in the U.K., number two in the U.S. and dominating the airwaves with “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” which spent 19 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at number three. “Spirits in the Material World” didn’t perform too shabbily either, finding its way to number 11.

The Police had worldwide fame. Sting was getting a lot of attention from music fans and the press, and Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland weren’t. As is so often the case with successful bands, it creates tension, anger, resentment – all that good stuff. The wave might have broken before it crested, but it didn’t. They soldiered on.


VIDEO: The Police “Every Breath You Take”

On May 20, 1983, the band released “Every Breath You Take,” the first single from their forthcoming album. It was a monster. It became the band’s only number-one hit in the U.S. and topped the charts in both the U.K. and Canada. As of this writing, the song has more than 1.5 billion – yes, with a B – plays on Spotify.

As Ultimate Classic Rock noted in 2013, Sting considers the tune “the real song of the Reagan years. … It’s a song about falling asleep and letting Big Daddy, John Wayne look after us, even though we know he’s an idiot. It’s about surveillance, about being protected and controlled and not really thinking, not really struggling with the concept.”

“Sting wouldn’t explain his lyrics,” Copeland told Music Radar in 2022, “he would just sing them. Sitting next to him doing interviews, they’d ask him: ‘What’s that song about?’ We’d hear him and say, ‘Really?’ A classic example is ‘Every Breath You Take.’ It’s a sick, twisted song. I thought it was a love song. Just like all those people that get married to it not realizing it’s a dark, demented track.”

The Police Synchronicity, A&M Records 1983

Dark and demented notwithstanding, it was a hell of a way to prime the pump for the album’s release nearly a month later, on June 17. Rolling Stone was effusive, awarding the album 4-1/2 stars and calling it “a work of dazzling surfaces and glacial shadows. Sunny pop melodies echo with ominous sound effects. Pithy verses deal with doomsday. [It’s an album] about things ending — the world in peril, the failure of personal relationships and marriage, the death of God.”

And boy howdy, did it rock. From the moment the needle drops on side one, “Synchronicity I” grabs the listener by the ears and sets the stage for the album as a whole. Carl Jung’s concept gets a sequencer-heavy treatment as Sting lays it out: “A connecting principle / Linked to the invisible / Almost imperceptible / Something inexpressible / Science insusceptible / Logic so inflexible / Causally connectable / Nothing is invincible.”

From there, “Walking in Your Footsteps” causes us to look back – way back – in history to the dinosaurs, in whose footsteps we may be walking as we contemplate nuclear armageddon.

“O My God” is a plea for the Creator to take a stronger hand in his creation, but for my money it’s a legitimate reaction to “Mother,” the lone Summers-penned track that should have been left on the mixing room floor. I just can’t. Maybe in another album’s context, but not this one.

Copeland gets his one songwriting nod next, faring better with “Miss Gradenko.” The “nobody but us” refrain is catchy enough, but like the track before, it feels apart from the main.


VIDEO: The Police “Synchronicity II”

The second version of the title track, “Synchronicity II,” closes side one, coming to the musical rescue with a dark tale of domestic Scottish depression. If the first title track lays out the cosmic picture, this second one illustrates how that picture is reflected in an individual life story. It was the third single from the album.

But flip the vinyl and say hello to arguably one of rock’s all-time perfect sides: Those opening three songs: “Every Breath You Take,” “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” Iconic Police, each and every one. Just an astounding trio of tunes.

The side and the album end with “Tea in the Sahara,” inspired by Paul Bowles’ novel, The Sheltering Sky. It’s a tale of three sisters whose desire is to enjoy tea in the desert with a prince. He agrees, but fails to show up. It’s a song about disappointment and broken promises.


VIDEO: The Police “Wrapped Around Your Finger”

It’s a probably unintentional and arguably appropriate way to end the album: After The Police took the Synchronicity tour to Shea Stadium on August 18, 1983, Sting decided to pursue a solo career. Meanwhile, Synchronicity went on to receive five Grammy nominations, winning three including Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for “Every Breath You Take.”

The Police would get together for a few Amnesty for Hope concerts in 1986, a year after Sting’s solo debut, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, was released. An attempt to record a sixth Police album would be cut short due to Copeland having broken his collarbone by falling from a horse. The prince wasn’t showing up for tea.

Five albums in six years, each one better than the one before. It was a hell of a run, but The Police’s wave had crested and broken — magnificently.


Craig Peters

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Craig Peters

Craig Peters has been writing about music, pro wrestling, pop culture and lots of other things since the Jimmy Carter administration. He shook Bruce Springsteen’s hand in 2013, once had Belinda Carlisle record the outgoing message on his answering machine, and wishes he hadn’t been so ignorant about the blues when he interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983.

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