My senior year in high school was the 1980-81 school year, which coincided with Saturday Night Live going through its very first cast change, which is quite normal today. No matter the time period in modern post-World War II history, youth have the pulse of popular culture. Back then, even though the new cast of SNL was much maligned, and Fridays may have been briefly the better sketch comedy variety show, we all knew Eddie Murphy, a little used SNL cast member was destined for greatness. So, no one was surprised when this brilliant comedian stole the movie in his big screen debut in 1982’s 48 Hours. And, who can forget the iconic scene where Murphy’s character, the immortal Reggie Hammond, is introduced to us. He is in his jail cell, off screen, yet we can hear him singing “Roxanne” by The Police in a high-pitched off-key falsetto. It was a great moment in Eighties film history.
To many of us older Gen Xers, that moment was when our favorite actor was singing the music of our generation. No longer will movies continue to run Baby Boomer retreads into the ground, as our age group was beginning to wield its power over pop culture. Unfortunately, the song “Roxanne” was not much of a hit here in the States when it was first released in 1978, nor was the album from which it came Outlandos d’Amour. Of course, the band’s record company gave “Roxanne” one more chance to break in early 1979, as Blondie, The Cars and a few other new wave bands were scoring some hits. Unfortunately, “Roxanne” peaked at number 32 in Billboard‘s Top 40 Singles, while the album topped out at a respectable number 23.
In all of the new wave era, no band had the individual musical experience that The Police had. Each member had played in bands which required mastery levels of instrument playing, whether the band played progressive rock, experimental rock or jazz. Plus, lyricist/bassist Sting, nee Gordon Sumner, was a former English teacher before joining The Police. What the band did was play an influential mix of this new Caribbean sound called reggae, which was making commercial inroads in the band’s native, England with some punk attitude and energy and literary, nearly poetic, lyrics. This became the sound of the early-Eighties, as the Twin Tone ska bands like Madness and The Specials scored hits in the wake of The Police, as did a watered-down version popularized by Men at Work.
Of course, Boomers were NOT ready for this burgeoning sound of what was once known as world music. But, my age group WAS ready for the cross cultural pollination of sounds that came forth as the punk and new wave bands actually learned how to play their instruments but wanted to remain on the vanguard of art rock. So, our music also experienced touches of music from Africa, calypso and Latin sources that only made the world seem smaller.
And, in many ways, Outlandos d’Amour cleared the way for this new listening experience. The album kicks off with the heavily punk-influenced “Next to You,” which eschewed the usual lyrical punk venom and created a love anthem, complete with a guitar solo worthy of a Genesis album. The three-piece power of The Police is all in place on this song, which ends up, in retrospect, setting the tone for the new path of new wave, and subsequently, rock to follow.
The second song is “So Lonely,” which brings forth the band’s signature mix of reggae, punk and prog rock in a three-minute pop song. As the band became more and more popular, this song would play a poignant moment in the band’s live set as Sting would sing about being “So Lonely” in front of crowds numbering at least 20,000 attendees. How does a man still feel that pain surrounded by so many people who worship the man? Only in rock can these conflicting themes be dealt with head on.
Finally, with the third song, we get to hear the now iconic “Roxanne.” There is nothing I can say that has not been said before about this little love song to a prostitute. I don’t know if Roxanne exists, but regardless, this person has been immortalized . “Hole in My Life,” which in the earlier days of the band, could be used for a little crowd sing along, but was later dropped from the setlist during the band’s Synchronicity Tour. And, this leaves “Peanuts,” a punky song of little substance, to close out Side 1 of the album.
But, flip the album over, and once again, The Police have given us another timeless song, “Can’t Stand Losing You”. This song is a sentiment that any young adult experienced during a break up, more in a more poetic manner. And, if the truth be told, this is the last truly innovative song on this debut album.
Although The Police will reach greater commercial heights within five years of this album’s release, Outlandos d’Amour is a great mission statement for a band to carry around its legacy. Looking back, The Police’s growth as a band and songwriters so great that it is difficult to imagine one of today’s bands or artists getting the time to grow as artists. Today, the music artists have got to hit immediately, or else they will be dropped by their label. That is why music of today’s music is simply product, designed to make a quick impression with no artistic integrity involved. Only those artists who played the game while they were younger are the ones who get to security to seek out their artistry, but only for a song or two per album, not the whole thing.
This album is NOT The Police’s best. Fortunately for the band, Outlandos d’Amour may very well be The Police’s weakest album, but when compared with their other albums. Yet, it remains a solid debut, as well as one of the best releases of 1978. Now, just go back and give the album another listen. It remains a great album to this day.