October 2020 sees the 40th anniversary of what remains one of the 1980s’ most defining pop records. Zenyatta Mondatta was by no means The Police’s first assault on the transatlantic charts, but it remains one of their most enduring.
Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland have come back together in recent times, but the band’s pop culture weight was only felt for a relatively brief time. “Mondatta” was the third of four albums to stem from the trio’s studio efforts, and while it may not have been as heavy or as brusque as their earlier material, there is certainly the argument to be made that it’s the band at their most radio-friendly.
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Sting felt that “Mondatta” was more a labor of duty rather than one of creativity. “The entire industry was waiting for an album,” he muses in the liner notes. “While I was writing it, I was getting messages from the record company saying retailers were waiting for it.”
“I had this impression of thousands of people, cogs in a great system, waiting for this album – and I was sitting there, struggling. And I got caught up in it, frankly.”
“Mondatta” arrived during peak Police-mania, with the band having worked endlessly on the road on the back of Regatta de Blanc. How do you follow up something so big? It wasn’t so much that “difficult second album,” as much as it was that terrifying “third time’s a charm.”
As history tells us, the third record for the trio really was the charm. You only have to look at the sheer volume of hits across the LP to understand how much “Mondatta” affected airplay in the US and across the West. Sting claims that the LP was the band’s “most flawed record,” but if sales and airplay were anything to go by, this remains just Mr. Sumner’s earnest and very much entitled-to opinion.
Even the title alone has resonance. At least, that’s how Stewart Copeland sold it at the time. “It means everything,” he mused to Musicians Only upon the release of Zenyatta Mondatta. “It’s the same explanation that applies to the last two (albums). It doesn’t have a specific meaning (…) or anything predictable like that. Being vague, it says a lot more. You can interpret it in a lot of different ways.”
Despite the striking title and the hits that rolled off the record, Copeland echoes some of Sting’s sentiments with regard to the era in which it was written and recorded. “It’s not a bad record,” he reflected barely six months later. “I quite like it. But I knew at the time we could improve on it.”
“The relationship between ourselves was pretty heated under the condensed conditions (…) Whilst we were in the studio, our sales figures were being discussed by people from the record company – and we hadn’t even got the thing on tape, let alone on vinyl.”
“A lot of people use terms like ‘selling out’ as though that’s the easy route. But it isn’t it at all,” Copeland advised in conversation. “It’s very difficult to make an album that’s tailor-made to go to the top of the charts. It’s also not very emotionally inspiring.”
That said, the critical reception of the album still holds up well, 40 years on. While Rolling Stone may have snubbed it beneath their three other LPs in their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, you will be hard-pressed to find a critic who doesn’t have anything positive to say about it. The Police were a band built around electric chemistry. While Sting was the breakout star, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers are masters of their craft, and Copeland has been – on multiple occasions – a willing spokesperson. He only managed to scrape Rolling Stone’s top ten drummers of all time, but he’s nonetheless iconic.
So – the hits themselves. This is not an album to carry anything quite as menacing as “Every Breath You Take” or as dreamlike as “Walking On The Moon,” but what it does offer is solid craftsmanship, and that alone is worth the sales. “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” may seem like a stereotypical pop song on paper, but it’s one that the band seems to be fairly proud of and for good reason.
How many albums are there which can open with the likes of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” – a tale of slightly sinister schoolroom awkwardness – and still deliver peppy pop to close sides A and B? “Canary in a Coalmine” is a bouncy, slightly cautionary tune, but all the more typical of the band’s ability to blend thoughtful lyrics with abundant melodic hooks.
It’s hard to believe that Zenyatta Mondatta is 40 this year. It was never the critic’s darling, but it was a crucial step in the right direction – and their first platinum record in the US. Across the board, it was another smash for one of the most consistently listenable bands of the 1970s and 1980s, to the incredible extent that it was declared a hit before the cassettes were even out of the recorder. The Spotify generation needs to give this one another taste.
Photo: The Police (guitarist Andy Summers, bassist and singer Sting, and drummer Stewart Copeland), pose for a portrait, United Kingdom, circa 1979. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)