This is one of the most misinterpreted songs ever. It is about an obsessive stalker, but it sounds like a love song. Some people even used it as their wedding song. The Police frontman Sting wrote it after separating from his first wife, Frances Tomelty.
In a 1983 interview with the New Musical Express, Sting explained: "I think it's a nasty little song, really rather evil. It's about jealousy and surveillance and ownership." Regarding the common misinterpretation of the song, he added: "I think the ambiguity is intrinsic in the song however you treat it because the words are so sadistic. On one level, it's a nice long song with the classic relative minor chords, and underneath there's this distasteful character talking about watching every move. I enjoy that ambiguity. I watched Andy Gibb singing it with some girl on TV a couple of weeks ago, very loving, and totally misinterpreting it. (Laughter) I could still hear the words, which aren't about love at all. I pissed myself laughing."
In America, this was the biggest hit of 1983, according to Billboard's year-end chart. It stayed at #1 for eight weeks, longer than any other song that year (Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean
" was #2, with a seven-week stay).
Sting wrote this at the same desk in Jamaica where Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels. By this time, the band was at the peak of their popularity and often traveled to exotic locales so they could work more effectively. Sting was also exerting more control, taking less input from his bandmates when it came time to record his songs. Synchronicity ended up being the fifth and final Police studio album, as it was clear they could no longer work together. "Every Breath You Take" was the first single from the album.
Police guitarist Andy Summers
made a significant contribution to the arrangement of this song. He explained in a Record Collector
interview: "Without that guitar part there's no song. That's what sealed it. My guitar completely made it classic and put the modern edge on it. I actually came up with it in one take, but that's because Sting's demo left a lot of space for me to do what I did. There was no way I was just gonna strum barre chords through a song like that."
Drummer Stewart Copeland concurs. "'Every Breath You Take,' Sting brought it in as a Hammond organ thing but we agreed that we are a guitar band, so Andy figured out that arpeggiated figure with which we are all so familiar," he told Songfacts
The middle of the song was finished last. They didn't know what to do with it until Sting sat at a piano and started hitting the same key over and over. That became the basis for the missing section.
Sting knew this would be the band's biggest hit when he wrote it, even if he didn't think he was breaking new ground. In Rolling Stone
magazine, he said: "'Every Breath You Take' is an archetypal song. If you have a major chord followed by a relative minor, you're not original."
Bertrand - Paris, France
This won Grammys in 1984 for Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance By Duo Or Group With Vocal.
At the first MTV Video Music Awards in 1983, this won for Best Cinematography. Featuring black-and-white layered visuals, it was directed by Lol Creme and Kevin Godley of the duo Godley & Creme, who used a similar look in their 1985 video for "Cry
According to Andy Summers, an executive at their record company named Jeff Ayeroff showed the band, along with Godley and Creme, a 1944 short film called Jammin' The Blues
, which contained elegant black-and-white footage of famous jazz musicians performing in a smoky club. Andy Summers of The Police stated that their video was just a "watered down version" of this film.
Godley and Creme also borrowed the location and the cinematographer (Daniel Pearl) from the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers video for "A Woman in Love (It's Not Me)
," which has a very similar look.
Diddy (known as Puff Daddy at the time), sampled this on "I'll Be Missing You
," his 1997 tribute to rapper Notorious B.I.G. Sting didn't know about the sample until after the song was released. He ended up making lots of money from it, claiming he put some of his kids through college with the proceeds. Sting performed "I'll Be Missing You" with P. Diddy at the MTV Video Music Awards, and the two remain friends.
Other than the musicians, there is only one other character in the video: a guy washing the windows behind the band. What's he doing there? In a Songfacts interview with co-director Kevin Godley
, he explained: "The window washer felt right for that kind of noir feel. But, it also may be somebody who you don't expect to be watching the process, which refers to that sense of surveillance that the song is really about. We specifically did not want to know his story. That's something I've held fast to all the years I've been doing this: I hate telling the story of the song, because it's either show or tell, it's not both. If the song is saying something, you don't want to be showing what the song is saying. You want to be putting the performance of the song, something about the song, in a place, a frame if you like, that enhances the experience. Don't do the obvious. But, in this case, I think the window cleaner is perhaps a suggestion of somebody watching."
Stewart Copeland recorded his drum part in separate takes, overdubbing each drum. Sting wanted to use an Oberheim drum machine for the hi-hat, but Copeland fought him on that and ended up playing it himself.
Sting performed this on a 2001 episode of Ally McBeal. In the show, he was sued by a couple who broke up after one of his sexually suggestive concerts.
Robert Downey Jr., who was on Ally McBeal at the time, recorded a duet of this song with Sting for an album from the show called For Once In My Life. Downey was arrested and sent back to drug rehab soon after it was released.
This appears on the soundtrack of the 1999 Julia Roberts movie Runaway Bride. It was also used in the movies Risky Business (1983), Speed 2: Cruise Control (1987), The Replacements (2000), 50 First Dates (2004), Young at Heart (2007), What Just Happened (2008), and Heartbeats (2010).
The Police performed this when they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. They were inducted by No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani, who showed a picture of her getting an autograph from Sting when she was a chubby 13 year old. It was the last performance of the night and the closest thing to the all-star jam that typically ends the ceremonies. The Police were joined by Stefani, Steven Tyler (who inducted AC/DC), and John Mayer, who had recently won a Grammy for his song "Your Body Is A Wonderland
Taking account of Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You
," as well, which spent 11 weeks at #1, the combined total of 19 weeks makes this the longest running #1 tune in the Hot 100. The longest run at the top for a single song is Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day
," which spent 16 weeks at #1.
Sting started off with the refrain "Every breath you take," then worked back. He recalled in Isle of Noises
by Daniel Rachel: "Once I'd written and performed it, I realized it was quite dark. My intention might have been to write a romantic song, seductive, enveloping and warm. Then I saw another side of my personality was involved, too, about control and jealousy, and that's its power. It was written at a difficult time."
Sting wrote in Lyrics By Sting
: "The song has the standard structure of a pop ballad, but there is no harmonic development after the middle eight, no release of emotions or change in the point of view of the protagonist. He is trapped in his circular obsessions. Of course, I wasn't aware of any of this. I thought I was just writing a hit song, and indeed it became one of the songs that defined the '80s, and by accident the perfect sound track for Reagan's Star Wars fantasy of control and seduction.
When I finally became aware of this symmetry, I was forced to write an antidote: 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free
Sting re-wrote the lyrics when he performed this in 2005 at Live 8, a set of concerts organized by Bob Geldof to increase activism and demand more aid for Africa. Sting included the line, "We'll be watching you" to mean the world would be keeping an eye on the politicians making critical decisions on the fate of Africa.
This was featured on several TV series:
Knight Rider ("Return to Cadiz" - 1983)
The Office (US) ("Phyllis' Wedding" - 2007) - performed by Kevin and his Police tribute band, Scrantonicity.
Eli Stone ("Happy Birthday, Nate" - 2008)
Parks and Recreation ("The Stakeout" - 2009)
South Park ("You're Getting Old" - 2011)
Glee ("Frenemies" - 2014)
Stranger Things ("Chapter Nine: The Gate" - 2017)
It was also used in the third episode of the 2018 Netflix series Maniac, where an odious character misinterprets the song and sings it to his fiancée as if it were a love song.
Denmark & Winter's version was used on the TV series Pretty Little Liars in 2014 (episode: "Miss Me x 100") during a love scene between Aria and Ezra. It was a fitting choice, considering that Ezra was outed as a stalker at the end of the previous season.
If you didn't catch the true meaning of this song, don't worry, Stewart Copeland didn't either. It wasn't until after the song was released that he realized it wasn't a love song. "Sting was a master of bait and switch," he said in a 2019 Songfacts interview. "I was with him a couple of weeks ago doing a documentary about music and I asked him, 'Why didn't you make 'Every Breath You Take' a nice song that people could get married to? What's the matter with you?,' and we laughed."
This song is a plot point on the 2015 Veep episode "Data." After a data breach at the White House, the Vice President uses the song as walk-on music at a campaign rally, which becomes bad news for the President, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), when the hashtag #everylittlethingshedoesistragic starts trending. Earlier in the episode, a functionary who chose the song explained why it was a good choice: "Law and order mixed with very mild reggae, I'd say a comforting balance."