The Perfectly Joyful Loneliness of “So Lonely”

The Police were a trio, but not a power trio like Cream or Rush. They made a little less noise than those other monster groups, and they took up a little bit less space. At least in their early years, The Police thought of themselves as somewhat of an angry and scrappy punk band, but their artistry and musicianship set them far apart from contemporaries like The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. And while The Police were definitely inspired by the reggae and ska music coming from Jamaica, they would never become a bona fide reggae band with all that blonde hair and those NASA inspired outfits.

The Police were something different. They were wiry and lean, sharp and precise. Stewart Copeland, the single American in the band, is often referred to as one of the greatest rock and roll drummers of all time, exacting and innovative. Andy Summers on guitar carried the dual responsibility of rhythm and lead guitar with a jangly, fluid ease. Vocalist and bassist Sting’s (Gordon Sumner) alto voice soared high above while he kept everything grounded with his jazz influenced bass. One American. Two Brits. Punk. Reggae. Hints of a killer power trio.

But the fact that they didn’t like each other very much, combined with an almost immediate and massive level of success, meant they were never going to last very long. They released their first album in 1978 and their last album in 1983, but along the way they sold millions of albums and performed in football and soccer stadiums around the world. Over time their sound became a bit more lush and the music became a bit more complicated, but on their debut album Outlandos D’amour, they were direct and dangerous, even while managing to be a little funny, light hearted and joyful.

“Roxanne” was the lead single off the album, and went all the way to Number 12 on the UK music charts. “Next to You,” the second release was a big hit as well. The third release, “So Lonely,” was a flop, and only made the charts after it was re-released in 1980. Too bad, because “So Lonely” is a great example of the magic this tiny group of spacey, reggae punk misfits was able create.

The song begins as if the drums are breaking down the door, and Summer’s guitar comes in right away to set the tone. There is no massive wall of sound, just a light series of syncopated of chords and subtle lead notes accentuated by Sting’s floating bass.

“Well someone told me yesterday
That when you throw your love away
You act as if you just don’t care
You look as if you’re going somewhere”

“People tell me.”
“It’s been said through the years.”
“I heard it through the grapevine.”

The history of rock and roll music is riddled with lyrical wisdom gleaned from great unknown sources. In this case, it seems that, just yesterday, somebody told Sting that when you leave love behind, you should just move on with your life.

Sting’s voice is high, just on the acceptable side of whiny-ness. Sting sings with a tone of sincere curiosity, almost like a little boy tugging on your jacket sleeve asking for the answers to life’s big questions.

“But I just can’t convince myself
I couldn’t live with no one else
And I can only play that part
And sit and nurse my broken heart”

Whatever this person told him yesterday doesn’t make much sense today. He can’t live alone. He must sit and wallow in his sorrow. But his sorrow is not quiet. His loneliness and sadness summons a cacophony of drums and guitar. The full band kicks in to high gear as, together, they acknowledge their loneliness…in perfect harmony.

“So lonely
So lonely
So lonely
So lonely
So lonely
So lonely
So lonely”

Then all of a sudden the loud music stops, and we are back with the simple syncopated rhythm section. The guitar, lightly picking out chords and lead notes. We are back where we began, and we are still alone.

Now no one’s knocked upon my door
For a thousand years or more
All made up and nowhere to go
Welcome to this one man show
Just take a seat they’re always free
No surprise, no mystery
In this theater that I call my soul
I always play the starring role

Nobody is coming by to say hello. Nobody is checking in to see if all is going OK. There are no knocks on the door, and there is no resolution to the sadness. There is no end to the suffocatingly quiet loneliness.

After another wailing repetitive refrain of “So Lonely” Andy Summers slows things down again, but this time with a beautifully oily and slippery guitar solo rather than another chorus.

The song picks up in pace and color, a harmonica is heard in the mix and then another chorus of “So Lonely” with all three members singing.

The music slows down again, and Sting then sings these words:

I feel lonely
I’m so lonely
I feel so low
I feel low
I feel so, I feel so low
I feel low, low
I feel low, low, low
I feel low, low, low
I feel low, low, low
I feel low, low, low
I feel low, low, low
Low! I feel low!
I feel low
I feel low
I feel so lonely
I feel so lonely
I feel so lonely, lonely, lonely low
Lonely, low
I feel so lonely!

“So Lonely” is an elegy to loneliness. It is a tribute. The glass is raised, the fist is in the air, the flag is waving. The loneliness is embraced and damned. Loneliness is celebrated and cursed. We are awash in the bleak loneliness and it feels like there is no escape. In a way, it feels good.

If I had to select one song to share with someone who had never heard The Police before, I think I would choose “So Lonely.” It shows the band when they were hungry and innovating within the punk/reggae framework. There would be other innovation to come on albums like Ghost in the Machine (1981) and Synchronicity (1983), but something really interesting and creative was lost when they became more symphonic and bombastic. Pick your innovation, I suppose, but for me I always return to those early songs that had a hunger and edginess that I think the later songs lost.

For just a taste of their humorous, sometimes silly approach to music, enjoy the original video for “So Lonely” below, showing them performing the song on walkie talkies as they wander through the streets of Hong Kong.

“So Lonely”
Written by Sting
Performed by The Police
Released November 3, 1978

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