Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
The end of the seventies marked a changing of the guard for music in many ways. Post-disco and post-punk, New Wave offered promises of the future with a seemingly infinite vision of possibilities for what that future could sound like. Coming out of the UK in this vibrant moment, the Police developed their own signature sound, blending reggae influences with a punk spirit and jazz colors. Their first album, Outlander d’Amour (1978), introduced this sonic synthesis to the world and gave the band their first hits (“Roxanne” and “Can’t Stand Losing You”) on the UK charts. But it was “Message in a Bottle” – the band’s first single from their second album Regatta De Blanc (1979) – that gave the Police their first number one single in the UK and paved the way for the accompanying album to also hit number one in the UK and number 15 on the Billboard 200. “Message in the Bottle” solidified the Police’s sonic signature and kicked off the band’s career as one of the most commercially successful British bands of the 1980s. Rolling Stone included the song in its 2008 list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.”
Returning to the studio only three months after their debut album’s release, The Police set to work on their second album tightly insync with one another musically. Drummer Steward Copeland explained that recording the second album was a completely different experience than the first: “This time the material wasn’t rehearsed but the band was. We knew each other’s styles because we’d been playing together constantly for eight months, which we hadn’t been doing when we recorded the first album. Reggatta took us three weeks to record. We just went into the studio and said ‘right, who’s got the first song?”
“Message in a Bottle” was one of the songs presented by Sting, although the song’s captivating guitar riff was not entirely new to the band. They had heard him playing around with it with a different melody while on tour. Guitarist Andy Summers explained in 1981: “Sting had that riff for a while, but there was another tune with it originally. He’d been fiddling about with it during our first American tour. Finally, he rearranged the riff slightly and came up with the song.” After only a week in the studio, the Police premiered the song at a concert at Hatfield Polytechnic for the BBC’s “Rock Goes to College.”
The song’s hypnotic guitar riff kicks off the track with a captivating chord progression that repeatedly denies the harmonic resolution our ears expect it to provide. The constant sonic rejection parallels the longing in the lyrics, and fits nicely with the picture Sting painted of his dejected dog and the song’s origins in his book Lyrics:
“I used to play it over and over again to my dog in our basement flat in Bayswater…and he would stare at me with that look of hopeless resignation dogs can have when they’re waiting for their walk in the park. Was it that hopeless look that provoked the idea of the island castaway and his bottle? I don’t know, but the song sounded like a hit the first time we played it. The dog finally got his walk, and this song was our first number-one in the UK.”
The song’s lyrics, however, move beyond this image of the hopeless longing of an island castaway and paint a narrative arch in which the protagonist’s desperate gesture of the message in a bottle results in the unexpected solidarity of “hundred billion bottles” of similarly lonely individuals “washed up on the shore.” The story’s philosophical resolution is as unexpected as the underlying harmonic progression of the song’s guitar riff – never taking us exactly where we expect it to go, but by the time we get there, it feels just right.
Sting’s vocal melody similarly plays with our expectations. Over 40 years later, we have become accustomed to his creative melodic lines and vocal stylings. But in 1979, Sting’s vocals were strikingly singular. The frontman credits an unusual influence for these lines telling author Daniel Rachel, “I used to sing Gregorian chants and plainsong as an altar boy. A lot of my melodies might reflect that love and my early exposure to that stark, melodic narrative. ‘Message In A Bottle’ reflects that, too.” In this way, the “new” in Sting and the Police’s New Wave melodies was actually centuries old.
As with most of the band’s hits, “Message in the Bottle” was written by Sting. Over the decades he has earned a wide range of recognition for his songwriting including several Grammys, a Kennedy Honors Center Award in 2014 and entrance into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002. His bandmates marveled at his prolific songwriting, which he kept collected in a big notebook during their early days. Summers reminisced:
“What was interesting about Sting as a songwriter was he actually had a lot of
these songs [already]…and he had a whole book full of lyrics. He had this giant book – a big, thick, hardbound book – with pages that had lyrics all the way through it. He didn’t come into The Police and start writing songs – he had been writing them for years. And I think he would just keep going back into this giant book of lyrics and keep pulling them out. So we never really ran out of material. He’d go: ‘Well, I’ve got this other one.’ ‘Another one?!’”
With songs like “Message in Bottle,” the band had these fantastic new songs at their fingertips. Then, they could each add their own touches, creating their signature sound that doesn’t sound like anyone but themselves. Summers explained: “Really, the process was about: how could we take some of this basically raw material and ‘Police-ify’ it – make it sound like the way we sounded…Which was of course the unique chemistry between the guitar, the bass line, the high vocals that Sting had then, and Stewart’s unique drumming.”
Bringing together all these elements was producer Nigel Gray who worked with the band for all three of their first albums. The first two were recorded in his Surrey Sound Studios on a shoe-string budget. In addition to his innovative and skilled use of the studio, Gray created an environment for the members of the band to develop and refine their signature sound. Following Gray’s death in 2016, Summers reflected: “With and because of Nigel’s encouragement and patience and the days and nights at his studio, Surrey Sound, we were able to find our style -almost against the prevailing rage of the London punk scene in those days.”
Reflecting on how three talented but individual musicians were able to create such a unified and unique sound, Summers referred to the Police as the “crucible where it all came together.” The band’s roots in the UK late seventies punk scene melted together with influences from rock, reggae and even gregorian chant to create a sonic signature unlike any other. “Message in a Bottle” bottled up all of these sounds and set the Police on their way to a career of hit singles and number one albums. Only a few years later, in 1983, Rolling Stone would call the Police “the first British New Wave act to break through in America on a grand scale, and possibly the biggest band in the world.” In 2003, the Police were inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame, honoring a legacy of singular songwriting paired with an iconic and original sound.