Deconstructing Ghost in the Machine by Rob Collier… Ghost in the Machine, the fourth studio album by the Police, marks a departure from their first three albums, all of which exhibit them as a raw, energetic band. This 1981 effort is a more elaborate studio creation; while the earlier albums featured few overdubs, most of the songs on Ghost in the Machine have layers of horns, synthesizers, and backing vocals.
The album is also unusual from a songwriting perspective. Half of the songs on the album are structured around bassist Sting’s short, repetitive grooves that often repeat through the entire song. One could play six or seven of the record’s songs by learning just a few measures of music.
The eleven songs on Ghost in the Machine can be divided into four groups. Group 1 is made up of songs that have one bass pattern that is two to four measures long. This pattern repeats virtually unchanged through the whole song. The structure of the song (verse, chorus, etc.) is created soley by other musical elements changing on top of this repetitious groove.
The songs in Group 2 have two distinct bass patterns, usually one for the verse and one for the chorus. They are slightly less straightforward in form than songs in Group 1, but are still based largely on repeated bass grooves.
Group 3 songs are a bit more complex than songs in Group 2. These have three distinct sections, usually a verse and chorus, plus a contrasting bridge or interlude. These songs are the most closely aligned with more traditional songwriting.
There is only one song on the album that has more than three formal sections. Though there may be some debate about how songs best fit within each of the first three groups, there is only one song that does not easily fit into one of these categories. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” has a longer, more complex song form than every other track on the album, and clearly stands alone in Group 4.
Group 1: Songs that have one bass pattern
Three songs on Ghost in the Machine have two- or four-measure bass lines that repeat through the entire song with few or no embellishments.
This is basically a four-measure groove repeated with very little variation. Measures one and three are essentially the same, but notice how Sting alters the rhythm on beat one. This slight change makes measure three a little bouncier than measure one and gives the overall phrase a nice shape.
“Too Much Information”
Sting plays a two-measure groove for this whole song. It is almost identical to the horn riff, but is offset by two beats. The bass line is very simple, but it effectively holds down the groove while everything else changes around it.
Drummer Stewart Copeland continually, and often abruptly, changes the feel from cut time to 4/4, but Sting just hangs on this two-measure groove for the entirety of the song (aside from some subtle rhythmic variations). The eighth notes are swung, giving it an extra lift.
Group 2: Songs that have one pattern for the verse and one for the chorus
These songs are also very simple structurally. They feature only two distinct bass patterns (or two sections, i.e., verse and chorus) and the form of the song is very straightforward.
For the majority of this song, the bass is simply providing a straight eighth note pulse. (The intro, outro, and interludes are just Eb – Cm vamps, the same as the first two measures of the verse.) All in all, this is not Sting’s most inspired work, but the bass line supports the song well. (And the chorus is fun to play!)
“Hungry For You”
Sting plays basically the same groove through this entire song, and just moves it around when the chords change. The verses are a two-measure vamp from D to G while the chorus has a four-measure C-G-D progression. Rhythmically, Sting’s bass line is exactly the same in each measure of the song. In fact, if you aren’t paying attention, you might assume the whole song is a two-measure vamp.
This song could almost be put in Group 1. The bass line is two measures repeated, then two more measures repeated. So, if you learn four measures—or three, since the first pattern could be thought of as the same measure repeated four times—you’ve got the whole song. The two patterns are fairly distinct, though; thus it resides in Group 2.
Group 3: Simple chorus pattern for verse, chorus, plus bridge
Songs in Group 3 have at least three distinct sections and feature slightly more irregular song structure.
“Spirits in the Material World”
Sting’s bass line on the verse of “Spirits in the Material World” is one of his most exciting. In the first measure he leaves a lot of space and accents the off-beats, and then plays so simply in the second measure. The line feels like it is continually tumbling into the second measure, where it regains its balance. Sting reverses this in the chorus. In the first measure, he plays a simple line accenting beats one and three. Then in the next measure, he again accents the off-beats, doubling the rhythm of the vocal melody.
This song really just has a couple of different bass patterns, but the form of the song isn’t entirely straightforward. During the intro and interludes, Sting plays the same one-measure bass groove, but moves it up and down the neck with the chord changes. The verse/chorus bass line also features the most improvisation Sting does on the record. The basic structure of this groove is always the same, but Sting embellishes it regularly, often on beat four of measures two and four.
“Omegaman” is Andy Summers’ lone songwriting contribution to Ghost in the Machine. This is Sting’s least imaginative bass line on the record. He had a reputation for refusing to play on Summers’ songs, so it is not surprising he would not have put much thought into this line.
Sting plays another simple, driving eighth note line for much of this song, which makes the arrival of the verse and chorus grooves that much more satisfying.
Group 4: Longer song form
Only one song on the album has more than three distinct formal sections. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” has a verse, chorus, bridge, and outro, each with distinct bass lines.
“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”
This is the most unusual song in the context of the album, largely because it is the most “normal” pop song of the collection. It sounds out of place, and in fact, it was written about four years before the other songs. It is more of a typical pop song, whereas the rest of the album seems somewhat experimental. Not that it’s a bad song—it was the biggest hit on the record. Sting plays sparsely on the verses and interludes, and then infuses the chorus with a terrific bouncing line.
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