I don’t ever want to play the part
of a statistic on a government chart
The first record I ever bought with my own money was Ghost in the Machine by The Police. I say “record”, of course, in the broad sense, because by the time I had money to buy records, they were passe — passed over by pre-teens with money to spend in favor of cassette tapes. So, “first tape”, then. Regardless, it had a profound impact on me as a young listener, which has only deepened over time.
Nowadays, the ritual of trying out a new record involves decent speakers, isolation from various forms of 21st-century distraction for long enough to get in at least one full listen, and, if I’m lucky enough to score it on vinyl, a turntable. However, I was nine years old when I purchased Ghost in the Machine, and had none of these luxuries available to me.
What I had was a skateboard, a fabulously-period-appropriate Panasonic boom box that was small enough to carry around without getting tired too quickly, and a crush on a girl who shall remain mercifully anonymous. The summer that I picked up Ghost in the Machine, as near as I can remember it, involved a lot of soundtracked meandering around the sleepy town in which I grew up, punctuated by rewinding to listen to Every Little Thing She Does is Magic again. And again. And again. It’s a wonder I ever got to side two.
Fortunately for my fledgling sense of music appreciation, Sting & Co. didn’t completely front-load Ghost, and I ended up hearing at least snippets of Spirits in the Material World as often as I obsessively replayed the more popular second track, owing to the inexact nature of pre-random-access rewinding. Quite the contrary, Every little thing is on the album, and placed towards the front, in what feels almost like a perfunctory nod to record company management I can picture saying “I don’t hear a single” upon being presented with the dark, beautiful, hitless expanse that Ghost would be without track 2. Sailing on past Every little thing into the rest of the album is quite impossible. Invisible Sun resets the clock in such a complete and utterly forceful way that I’m sure I wasn’t the only young pop listener thrown off by the transition.
But I was nine, so I latched onto Every little thing. In retrospect, it seems like a fitting theme song for a pre-teen preparing for a headlong dive into a rocky and alienated adolescence: the protagonist, too scared to call, stalks his would-be mate in secret, private, gnawing pain. I’m sure I wasn’t the only pre-teen who thought they knew a thing or two about what Sting was describing. My youthful underestimation of the full potential of scorned, lonely, brooding angst would reveal itself by turns throughout my actual adolescence, and this track would prove a welcome, familiar harbor for many years (until the cassette, tape stretched, wheels worn and plastic warped from too many spins in too many cheap decks on too many hot days, finally cried “uncle” and ground to a halt early in my freshman year in college).
Eventually, I managed to listen to the rest of the album, and it shares a spot (along with The Beatles “white album”, which I discovered in my parents’ record collection right around the time I bought myself Ghost) as the longest-running album with which I have not yet grown tired.
If the first third of the album is part warning, part warmup, and part perfunctory nod to the charts, the middle third of the album is all gut and gristle. Pumping, thumping, honking, and steeped in the musical culture of the island setting in which it was recorded, the horn-driven tracks at the center of this album are, I now realize, what kept me coming back. Kind of alt-rock, kind of ska, kind of punk, kind of funk (the horn break after the second verse of Too Much Information just might be the funkiest thing recorded in the eighties). But oddly cohesive. In the hands of a lesser producer than Hugh Padgham, it might have turned out a mish-mash. But it just rocks.
The closing third of the album — Omegaman, Secret Journey, and Darkness — provide a nice, expansive, brooding falling action to bring the listener down from the peak at the album’s midpoint. Like a futuristic train coming gradually to a halt in a deserted, post-apocalyptic station, the album strides, glides, and gently slides to a close. The pacing is perfect.
When Phish first announced this weekend’s Halloween festival, complete with a full-album “musical costume” as in years past, this was one of the first possibilities to spring to my mind. I quickly called it as my pick, and my friend Emily backed me up (after I convinced her I wasn’t crazy), playing a few tracks from the album on her radio show. Honestly, given a horn section, I think this could have been a huge crowd-pleaser. It even made the big list of possibilities on the Phish website. But alas, it was not to be — “ghost” got the axe the other day, and whatever they play tonight — whether it’s Bowie, Prince, the Stones, Jimi, or something else — “Ghost” will have to wait.