The Story Behind The Story Behind The Song: “Every Breath You Take,” by The Police, Written by Sting

Is the purported story behind this beloved song true? Or it it an instance of intentional revionism?

The story behind this song is one often told. But it never seemed entirely genuine, and smacked of a kind of songwriter revisionism, when a songwriter changes the facts about the original intention or meaning of a song. 

It wouldn’t be the first time that a songwriter fudged the facts about the meaning of a famous song. A potential example is Paul McCartney’s beautiful “Blackbird,” which several writers suggested it not about birds, but about racism. Though he never mentioned that interpretation for decades, he started using it often. In 2002, talking to the great L.A. radio host Chris Douridas, McCartney said that only recently did he remember why he’d written it. And then confirmed that, yes, it is about racism. 

That one smacks of revisionism, though there is no proof. Is there?

The story behind the story behind “Every Breath You Take,” however, is more clearly defined. It seemed like revisionism at first, and now, after some investigation, we know the truth. Which is that the story behind this song as commonly told now is erroneous.

It is the most popular song Sting has ever written, as it’s one of the biggest hits ever. Yet it’s also one of his simplest songs, with a common chord sequence, simple melody and fairly basic words. Of course, simplicity is a virtue in songwriting; that fundamental folk song tune has the same changes as “Stand By Me” and so many other songs. With these simple words of love, all neatly rhymed, and a lovely melody, it’s extemely appealing.

Also Andy Summers’ arpeggiated guitar part punctuates it perfectly, as does Stewart Copeland’s drums. Unlike other fairly heavyweight subjects on the same album, such as the title song Synchronicity, it seemed surprisingly sunny and romantic. It became the signature song of The Police, and one of the biggest radio hits of all time. It won the Grammy in 1983 for Best Song of the Year.

Yet Sting has always seemed a little ashamed of its simplicity, as if that disqualifies it to be so much more loved and popular than those songs which offered more overt evidence of his brilliance. Rather than celebrate his ability to create a song so pure that the masses loved it more than any of his songs, he would disparage its simplicity. 

“The song has the standard structure of a pop ballad,” he said, “but there is no harmonic development after the middle eight, no release of emotions.” 

He then started embellishing the story to tell us there was more to this song than we knew. 

“The song is very, very sinister,” Sting said to the BBC, “and ugly. And people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.”

This is the story which everyone now accepts as truth: although it seems sunny, it’s dark. Scary, stalkerish dark. It was a story which caught on immediately. Evidently people love the idea of a song meaning something other than what it seems to be. Proof of this are the endless online stories which state this as the official meaning of this famous song. Who knew?

Yet a little research confirmed that which we long suspected. Revisionism.

In 1991, to UK’s The Independent, Sting spoke of the origins of the song, admitting  his own revisionism:

“I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head,” he said, “sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour. The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song.”

Then he said:

I didn’t realise at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, of surveillance and control.”

There is the admission:

I didn’t realize at the time.” And “.. I think I was thinking…”

In another interview from 1991, he was open about this shift, saying the song offers “no release of emotions or change in the point of view of the protagonist. He is trapped in his circular obsessions.”

Yes. Then comes the key admission:
Of course,” he says, “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.”

There is confirmation that the sinister reading of this lyric was never part of the songwriter’s intention. So it does not qualify as the true story behind the song. It is a revised story. It was, as he said, not intended as sinister while writing it; that darkness was only added to it later. Which, though it might work, is simply false.

“Of course,” said Sting, “I wasn’t aware of any of this. I just thought I was just writing a hit song!”

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[embedded content]

The Police, “Every Breath You Take.”

“Every Breath You Take”
By Sting

Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you

Every single day and every word you say
Every game you play, every night you stay, I’ll be watching you

Oh, can’t you see you belong to me
How my poor heart aches with every step you take

Every move you make, and every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you

Since you’ve gone I’ve been lost without a trace
I dream at night, I can only see your face
I look around but it’s you I can’t replace
I feel so cold and I long for your embrace
I keep crying, “Baby, baby, please”

Oh, can’t you see you belong to me
How my poor heart aches with every step you take

Every move you make and every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you
Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you
I’ll be watching you


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