Deep Music Criticism #11 – The Police – Born in the 50s

From their debut album Outlandos d’Amour, one of my top 5 favorite songs by The Police is Born in the 50s.

A couple reasons:

  1. It starts with the chorus. As Dave Grohl so succinctly explained, you must not only refrain from boring us by getting to the chorus fast – the best thing is to just cut the shit and start with the chorus.
  2. The arrangement, harmonic voicing and melody (and performance) in the verses are even better than the chorus. For me, the verse is what makes this song.

I actually ripped off the verse’s harmonic progression for my own song Speekie Engrish, starting about 0:10:

to
Its a simple sequence, which has a very subtle but fantastic “spice” in the form of an alternate bass. Its a IV (“four”, or subdominant) chord with the 3rd note of the chord in the lowest position (Sting’s bass in this case):

I-IV-V-VI (over-III)

Sting repeats the same trick with the only other major chord in the key of D – G – to provide this same minor 6th dissonance between bass and the rest of the chord on top. The complete progression for the verse is like this:

I-IV-V-VI (over-VI)-I (over III)-IV-V

Or, to name some notes:

D-G-A-G/B-D/F#-G-A

Now, whereas in my song, I have my guitars just jamming a repeated 8th-note “chug-chug” pattern, Andy Summers’ guitar varies the situation in Born in the 50s by joining Sting’s “and-2-and-3” riff in the 1st half of the verse. But then in the second half, he does his signature downbeat staccato strumming, while Sting continues his “and-2-and-3” riff. Its during this second half of the verse that the delicious dissonance of those alternate-bass chords come out, and join up with a new and interesting rhythmic syncopation. It only adds to the awesomeness that Andy omits the “3rds” in his chords, which makes the dissonance with Sting’s bass (consisting only of the 3rd) that much more awesome. So, its harmonic tension (the alternate bass chords) together with rhythmic tension (syncopation) that make this song what it is.

The rest of the song is great, too. Sting’s vocal performance is powerful, raw and angry in the verse. The chorus really is catchy, simple and the perfect “anthem” for cranky, disillusioned baby boomers in their 20s. The verse lyrics tell the story in a perfectly succinct way, touch all major points of growing up in the 60s and early 70s.

But that verse is just the greatest example of how a truly skillful composer can take simple musical idea – even one that’s the basis of thousands of popular folk songs (I-IV-V), and add the perfect harmonic, rhythmic and melodic twists to make a little masterpiece.