Such is the strength and depth of Sting’s body of work, picking a “signature” hit is a complex business. However, the fact the BMI recently recognised ‘Every Breath You Take’ as the most played hit in radio history (with 15 million plays and counting) reinforces many fans’ opinion that this sublime song is the one, if push comes to shove.
It’s an understatement to say that ‘Every Breath You Take’’s reputation precedes it. The Police’s original recording became the biggest US and UK hit of 1983, with the track topping the US Billboard chart for eight weeks and heading up the UK Top 40 for a month. This deceptively pretty song concerning obsessive love has since yielded a plethora of industry awards and it even famously provided the bedrock for Puff Daddy’s multi-platinum 1997 smash ‘I’ll Be Missing You’.
“I had written it in half an hour”
Acknowledging that such an iconic song needn’t be be tampered with, Sting affords ‘Every Breath You Take’ the respect it deserves on his My Songs collection. Highly engaging in its own right, his reimagining of the song ensures that the melody, arrangement and nuances are preserved, while his emotive vocal shows exactly why he remains one of music’s most dynamic performers.
Indeed, such is the calibre of this widely-celebrated track that it’s almost impossible to believe it was conceived in a matter of minutes. The bulk of it came to Sting out of the blue one night when he was on retreat in the Caribbean. As has been well documented elsewhere, The Police’s frontman was enduring a turbulent time in his personal life and had retreated to Jamaica during 1982. He was staying at James Bond author Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate, on the island’s north shore, when inspiration suddenly struck.
“I woke up in the middle of the night with that line – ‘Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you’ – in my head,” Sting recalled in a 1993 interview. “I sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour.”
The Police’s version: “We knew we had something special”
Returning to England, Sting demoed the song on an eight-track at North London’s Utopia Studios, cutting it solo and singing while playing Hammond organ. He then took this embryonic version to Montserrat to work on when The Police convened to cut their fifth album, Synchronicity, with producer Hugh Padgham late in 1982.
However, while Sting wrote the bulk of ‘Every Breath You Take’ in a flash, realising the song’s fully-fledged arrangement proved more of a challenge. Fortunately for The Police, Andy Summers came up with a memorable guitar figure influenced by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók which eventually provided the missing piece of the puzzle.
“I’d been making an album with Robert Fripp and I was kind of experimenting with playing Bartók violin duets and had worked up a new riff,” Summers said. “When Sting said, ‘Go and make it your own,’ I went and stuck that lick on, and immediately we knew we had something special.”
“I didn’t realise how sinister it is”
The band’s instincts proved sound. Released on 20 May 1983, ‘Every Breath You Take’’s runaway success set the tone for Synchronicity, which moved over eight million copies in the US and yielded three Grammy Awards as it turned The Police into the biggest band on the planet. These days, it’s hard to imagine the history of popular music without its singular presence, though Sting is still a little taken aback when listeners assume the song’s Orwellian lyric is romantically inclined.
“The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting,” he said in an interview with The Independent in 1993. “It sounds like a comforting love song, but I didn’t realise how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.”
My Songs is out now and can be bought here.