“Every breath I take/Every move I make...”
-Led Zeppelin, “D’yer Mak’er”
At least once a week during the summer of 1983, I rode a city bus to downtown Toledo to visit the Abbey Road record store. At 17, I was at the zenith of my love for record collecting, but I would walk past the new releases to check the torn-out Billboard pages tacked over the singles bin.
I had been raised on Country-Western music; other than my mom’s Beatles LPs, I did not know much about Pop. During a swim party at a friend’s in the spring of 1979, I heard the slashing guitars and hysterical pleadings of “Roxanne,” and I never again settled for steel guitars and Nashville slickness. I followed The Police through their exponentially successful rise of “Message in a Bottle,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.”
When “Every Breath You Take” exploded in the summer of 1983, I followed its chart progress like a sports fan rooting for a team’s pennant chase. I still remember the numbers: A debut at #36, a jump to #24, a leap to #12, a move to #5, then an 8-week run at #1 that made me feel as triumphant as if I had written the song myself.
No song dominates the memory like a summer song, and to this day, hearing the pistol-shot opening of “Every Breath You Take” takes me back to the summer of 1983.
Perfect Pop Song
If there is such a thing as a perfect Pop song, this is it. As critic Dave Marsh wrote, “‘Every Breath You Take’ belongs in that category of singles that announce themselves as classics from the first time you hear them.”
Guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland were as tight a rhythm section as any rock band of their time, but on this single (which echoes the chord progression of the band’s “Invisible Sun”), their playing transcends their individual efforts and gels with Sting’s bass to create a liquid, rolling setting for the cool, obsessive vocal.
And it is an obsessive statement, not a love song. “People tell me they use it as their wedding song, and I back away slowly,” Sting told Rolling Stone. “It’s not about healthy love. It’s about obsession, possession and desperation.”
The record exposed The Police to its widest possible audience. It charted on Urban and Black stations, and ignited sales of its parent album, Synchronicity, which remained #1 for 17 weeks. During its 17-week reign, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was #2.
The song’s stylish black-and-white video, directed by Godley and Creme, became an MTV staple and racked up a number of MTV Video Award Nominations, unfortunate timing in the era of “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.”
During the Synchronicity sessions, the band intentionally retreated from the overdubs and ornamentation of its previous record, Ghost in the Machine. Stewart Copeland told Rolling Stone, “We had a synth line over the bridge that telegraphed an added urgency and became its own hook. We decided to keep it simple and erased it, but it probably would have resulted in more weeks at #1.”
That discarded synth line was resurrected for Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” re-write “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” but Sting wasn’t the first to copy the song’s style. “Every Breath You Take” has many acknowledged imitators, including “The One I Love,” by REM, “I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You” by frequent concept borrower Ray Parker, Jr., “Hysteria” by Def Leppard, and the #1-for-11-weeks re-make sampling by Puff Daddy, “I’ll Be Missing You.”
Sting has revisited the song several times, lyrically on “Love is the Seventh Wave” and “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” and on recordings on acoustic and live versions. He also recorded a version with Robert Downey, Jr., for an “Ally McBeal” soundtrack album in the late 1990s.
At the loftier end of the television spectrum, “The Sopranos” began its third season with FBI agents monitoring Tony Soprano’s every step. A seamless and inspired editing of “Every Breath You Take” and the Henry Mancini twang-fest “Theme from Peter Gunn” graced the soundtrack when the agents appeared. That mix, by “Mr. Ruggerio,” is featured on the Sopranos Soundtrack Peppers and Eggs.
In ranking the song at #71 in his book, The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, Dave Marsh writes, “It’s a permanent fixture in the Pop pantheon. The rolling bass line, Sting’s dry vocal, Andy Summers’ precisely plucked guitar part, and the remorseless clop of Stewart Copeland’s drums create an atmosphere in which the song’s metaphors assume a dimension just this side of terrifying. And the way the song pulls back, rejecting the heated rage that such betrayal seemingly deserves and instead serving revenge as it’s meant to be consumed, with a cold, cold heart, is the most frightening facet of all.”
As long as people listen to radios, The Police will surface with this song, always watching you.