Seldom have four notes been so recognisable. But with Sting’s moody ascending and descending pseudo-jazzy bassline at its heart, The Police’s Walking On The Moon is conclusive proof that sometimes simplicity is best.
Taken from the band’s second album Reggatta De Blanc (1979), Walking On The Moon would give the trio – completed by drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers – their second UK No 1 single just a couple of weeks prior to the dawn of the 1980s.
While Sting may have written the song, it’s the sparse meeting of the Police-men that make it so memorable. Even the title was apt, Walking On The Moon sounded positively extra-terrestrial at the time of its release. It was extraordinarily spare.
The meat on Sting’s bass bones, however, is the gently chorused, chord stabs steeped in delicate delay from guitarist Summers (who used a Strat in the song's video but likely played his trusty '63 modded Telecaster in the studio). With a background in jazz, Summers’ intriguing chord choices and inversions coupled with a reluctance to play showboating solos differentiated The Police from their counterparts in both new wave and punk. They were more musically literate than most, but they didn’t shove it down your throat.
“The Police was a synthesis of many different kinds of music. I was able to use my jazz and classical abilities to create that harmonic approach to playing pop tunes,” the guitarist explained in 2006. “It wasn’t really the sort of music that benefited from additional players, it was a locked unit with the brilliant interplay between the three of us. There was absolutely no need for anyone else. It would have messed the whole thing up.”
From February through late summer of 1979, Sting, Summers and Copeland decamped to Leatherhead to Surrey Sound Studios, the domain of producer Nigel Gray, with whom they had worked on their debut Outlandos d’Amour. Since the recording of Outlandos, Gray had upgraded the studio from a 16-track setup to a 24-track one, complete with Sony MCI desk. But even though the band had more tracks to play with, they still kept things relatively straightforward.
“As a three-piece, what was intelligent about us was, instead of trying to pretend we were a bigger band, we used that limitation to our advantage: less is more,” Sting told Q over a decade after Reggatta’s release and subsequent success. “There were some big black holes in Walking On The Moon and you get those on the radio and people are immediately sucked in. Same with Roxanne. That guitar chord Andy came up with for Walking On The Moon was just mind-blowing.”
While much of The Police’s raw success has been credited to no small amount of personal friction and chemistry between the players, the glory of the power trio setup was still a sentiment echoed by Summers.
“I think what made The Police were the arrangements,” he said, “There was a three-way effort to come up with that sound, it wasn’t just Sting. It was born of the chemistry between the three of us.”
The syncopated rhythm and chord structure of Walking On The Moon has a definite reggae feel to it, something the band willfully strove for. “I like the rhythm section in reggae,” Copeland told Rolling Stone. “But you’d never actually find the licks that people have called reggae on our records, on any record out of Jamaica. It’s our own concoction; call it ‘honky reggae’ if you like.” And that’s exactly what they did, the album title Reggatta De Blanc literally translating to ‘white reggae’.
Sting may have written the lion’s share of the songs and thus the hit singles, but that didn’t seem to unduly bother the rest of the band. “The thing is,” Summers admitted to NME, “Sting writes really good songs. He writes for his own voice and obviously has an advantage over Stewart and myself there. We have to write a song and hope that Sting will sing it,” he smiles. “In fact, the main thing for Stewart and myself is to give it a go. That’s one of the really good things about this group: we’ve never compromised ourselves – we’ve only ever played what we feel we could enjoy playing.”
Surprisingly, considering the spacey (forgive the pun) sound of Walking On The Moon, Summers maintains that he’s “not a ‘gearhead’ or a pedal junkie at all. I can talk about gear, but I’m not a guy who buys the guitar magazines and reads about the latest little pedal – maybe because I have a studio that’s packed to the rafters with gear!”
Of course, were some effects used in Walking On The Moon, though, as engineer Chris Gray told Chris Campion for his book that shares the track’s name. “We had this thing called a Scamp rack.
It’s modules of processors. You get different ones that fit into the racks (echoes and flangers) and there was one in particular that was a sort of phaser/chorus/flanger/close echo/ double-tracking module. When those guitar chords come in on Walking On The Moon, that is purely the sound of that Scamp rack. They used that one a lot.”
Ultimately, as John Pidgeon said in Melody Maker during his review of Reggatta De Blanc, “The point about The Police is that there’s only so much to be said about what they do and the way they do it, because critical analysis sells them inevitably short. So don’t read – listen.”