Classic Concert Reviews: The Police (Synchronicity Tour), Reunion Arena, Dallas, 1983
“Synchronicity is the sound of a band coming together, while dissolving apart.”
On July 23, 1983, the pop-rock trio known as The Police embarked on a punishing nine-month world tour. It would be among the most successful and lucrative of the entire decade. Yet, it would also lead to friction and resentment among the three band members stemming from bitter personality clashes that had been brewing for years, ultimately fracturing into the band’s unceremonious break-up. Synchronicity thus became The Police’s last album, final tour, and for loyal fans, the perfect swan song — effectively saying a long goodbye while on top.
The Police played 105 shows across three continents, consistently selling out every arena and stadium where they performed. This was a staggering workload to undertake, especially given the group’s inner disharmony, which was certain to gradually grind down and eventually wear out even the most experienced and energetic musicians. Many cities included on the tour even added second shows because tickets were in such high demand. Given the group’s tireless work ethic and ceaseless striving for perfection, the trio initially insisted on playing every instrument and singing every note of each show, virtually all of the high-pitched lyrics falling onto the already-strained vocal cords of Sting (a.k.a. Gordon Sumner).
Given the eclectic 21-song setlist, which on most nights resulted in a non-stop, high-energy, two-hour show, The Police realized help was needed, especially with backing vocals. If Sting’s voice cracked and shows were postponed or canceled, the entire tour might end in disaster. So, for the first time since their formation, The Police agreed to bring on three female backup singers to take the heavy load off of Sting, the band’s charismatic frontman. Nonetheless, Sting (on bass), Andy Summers (on lead guitar), and Stewart Copeland (on drums) insisted on maintaining the group’s reputation for authenticity by playing all the music themselves, with no recordings or electronic enhancements.
The Synchronicity album and tour marked a quantum leap forward from the early days of struggling in near obscurity. Just six years earlier, The Police launched their first North American tour schedule in which the band drove themselves and their equipment around the country in a rented Ford Econoline van. On one humiliating night on that 1978 tour in Poughkeepsie, NY, The Police played to six people. Only three paid. Although the venue looked empty, The Police reportedly were said to have played the show as if they were playing to thousands, true professionals that they were.
By mid-1983, The Police were rock royalty, even though their roots were firmly grounded in alternative sounds of funk, reggae, and jazz. Their videos were a constant mainstay played on MTV. They released a string of catchy pop songs, typically with simple but universal themes — one reason why The Police was also widely popular not only in North America and the U.K. but also in non-English speaking countries. However, critics were in near-unanimous agreement that each of their five successive albums was progressively more ambitious than the next, starting with Outlandos d’Amour (1978), then Reggatta de Blanc (1979), Zenyatta Mondatta (1980), and Ghost in the Machine (1982).
When released, Synchronicity, the band’s fifth album, quickly rocketed to #1 in both the U.S. and the U.K. It sold 8 million copies in the United States alone, stayed atop the Billboard charts for a stunning 17 straight weeks, and included the group’s most successful hit single, “Every Breath You Take.” The song would become one of the most widely-played hits in pop music history. Sting reportedly earned $2,000 per day from the song just from radio royalties alone, an astronomical sum for any songwriter-musician in the early ’80s. Yet Copeland, instrumental in the composition as the group’s drummer, hated the final arrangement, especially the percussion, which he described as “all wrong” for the song.
The record-buying public disagreed.
Making the album — later ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 of all time — took a heavy toll on the group’s cohesiveness. Recorded in Montserrat, a Caribbean island known for active volcanoes, the studio sessions were hardly unifying, and like the rumbling ground beneath them, at times even explosive. Sting and Copeland even came to blows at one point. The producer walked out in the middle of rehearsals. The band didn’t even record together as “a band” in the usual sense:
An interesting set-up saw each member stationed in individual rooms, with Stewart Copeland and his drums in the dining room, Andy Summers in the studio itself, and Sting in the control room with them all connected via video link.
Even though co-producer Hugh Padgham claimed this was for social reasons, this approach didn’t help dispel rumours that the trio were increasingly sick of each other.
— Ian Wade (Classic Pop)
So, going straight out on a world tour soon thereafter was clearly a huge mistake, but also marked the band’s apex of global popularity, culminating in three Grammys. Years later, Sting shared a much clearer perspective of the tour and the imminent end of the group that came afterward. Just a few weeks into their North American schedule, The Police played in front of 67,000 at New York’s Shea Stadium, which looking back, Sting noted was the peak of their career:
“I realized that you can’t get better than this, you can’t climb a mountain higher than this. This is Everest. I made the decision on stage that ok, this is it, this is where this thing stops, right now.”
The problem was — after the group’s Shea Stadium pinnacle, The Police still had another 90, or so, tour dates ahead. They were expected to bring music and energy to every show. Every night. For the once tight-knit group, the repetitive routine of performing and traveling together constantly with few breaks became like living under the same roof when divorce is imminent.
Then again, singing and performing the insufferable “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” 105 times would probably drive anyone over the edge.
Reunion Arena, awkwardly cross-blocked on the western edge of downtown Dallas, seemed obsolete from the first day it opened. It housed the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks for 25 inglorious years. But Reunion Arena, even with its drab demur and impersonal lack of character, was an excellent venue for live concerts. I saw at least a dozen shows there. Reunion Arena didn’t have a bad seat in the house.
By the Fall of ’83, Synchronicity had already been out for five months. The album spawned three Top-10 hits. Every American FM radio station, including Dallas’ two premier rock stations, KZEW (the Zoo) and Q-102 wore out the vinyl, even playing the album’s non-hits. Locally, tickets to the first show were snapped up within a few hours. So, a second show was added. Their Texas swing of the North American tour included six shows in eight nights — played in four different cities. Houston also included a second show, at the Summit. For the group, adding more shows meant fewer days off, less rest, and predictably, more tension.
The Police’s first of two dates in Dallas began on Sunday night, November 13th. UB40, the British reggae band was the opener. I have no recollection of UB40’s performance. Perhaps I arrived close to showtime and missed it. I can’t remember.
From the opening note when they took the stage, what I do remember from The Police was a stunning transformation of sight and sound. It was an overwhelming experience. The set began with the album’s title track, “Synchronicity,” a blistering wave of raw energy fueled by a thundering bass, amped to the gills by Sting. Indeed, it was synchronic. The opener established a hopelessly high bar that was nearly impossible to sustain over the next full 120 minutes, though The Police for the most part delivered with a tight, if time-clock-punching concert, which for all its audio and visual grandeur lacked spontaneity. But we didn’t come that night to see The Police jam or go off on Grateful Dead-like tangents. Well into the tour by this time, this was a well-oiled rock machine at the height of the influence. Like the tension on a tightly-strung Fender, everything was pushed nearly to a breaking point, but the strings somehow held. How could just three musicians put out a sound like that? They were a rock orchestra.
The pulsating light show and tricolor backdrop of bright blue, red, and yellow replicated the album’s attractive cover. Sting’s multi-colored jacket, bookended with giant shoulder pads that were then such a fad, made it clear who the star of this show was. Summers and Copeland, though superbly talented and accomplished musicians in their own right (while on tour, Copeland had been commissioned to do the soundtrack to the Francis Ford Coppola film, Rumblefish), seemed reduced to Sting’s session players and sidemen. Sting handled every vocal and led the wall of sound like a conductor. As for singing and small talk between numbers, Summers and Copeland stayed muted and glued to their instruments throughout.
The band played all their hits — including “Walking in Your Footsteps,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Demolition Man,” “Walking on the Moon,” “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “Spirits in the Material World,” “King of Pain,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” and “Every Breath You Take.” The 20-minute encore included songs from the band’s earlier days — including “Roxanne” and “Can’t Stand Losing You.” One interesting take from seeing The Police live is — their best songs in the studio are actually the least compelling inside a vast arena. High-energy songs like “Demolition Man” were the biggest crowd-pleasers.
The audience of 17,000 left happy and satisfied. I counted hundreds of unisex mullet haircuts.
By the duo of Dallas dates, each member of The Police was well aware that this was their final touring act, well, at least until the money and temptation to do it all over again simply became too great to resist. They would reunite nearly 25 years later for a “30th Anniversary Tour.” Incredibly, that brutal workload was even more of a strain than the Synchronicity tour, which included 151 shows in 2007-08. By the conclusion of that one-year reunion run, it became the (then) third highest-grossing tour of all time.
The Police were a combustible clash of headstrong personalities and perfectionists, who even in their dissolution, always delivered for their audiences — both inside the studio and onstage. As the song goes, every little thing they did was magic.
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