”Every Breath You Take” is a song by English rock band The Police from their 1983 album Synchronicity. Written by Sting, the single was the biggest hit of 1983, topping the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for eight weeks (the band’s only number-one hit on that chart), and the UK Singles Chart for four weeks. It also topped the Billboard Top Tracks chart for nine weeks.
At the 26th Annual Grammy Awards the song was nominated for three Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, and Record of the Year, winning in the first two categories. For the song, Sting received the 1983 British Academy’s Ivor Novello award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically.
The song is considered to be both The Police’s and Sting’s signature song, and in 2010 was estimated to generate between a quarter and a third of Sting’s music publishing income. In the 1983 Rolling Stone critics and readers poll, it was voted “Song of the Year”. In the US, it was the best-selling single of 1983 and fifth-best-selling single of the decade. Billboard ranked it as the number-one song for 1983.
The song ranked number 84 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and is included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It also ranked number 25 on Billboard’s Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs. In 2015, the song was voted by the British public as the nation’s favourite 1980s number one in a poll for ITV.
Origins and songwriting
Sting wrote the song in 1982 in the aftermath of his separation from Frances Tomelty and the beginning of his relationship with Trudie Styler. Their split was controversial. As The Independent reported in 2006, “The problem was, he was already married – to actress Frances Tomelty, who just happened to be Trudie’s best friend (Sting and Frances lived next door to Trudie in Bayswater, west London, for several years before the two of them became lovers). The affair was widely condemned.” In order to escape from the public eye, Sting retreated in the Caribbean where he started writing the song. The lyrics are the words of a possessive lover who is watching “every breath you take; every move you make”.
I woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, 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. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.
Sting later said he was disconcerted by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He insists it is about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck.'” When asked why he appears angry in the music video Sting told BBC Radio 2, “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.”
According to the Back to Mono box-set book, “Every Breath You Take” is influenced by a Gene Pitney song titled “Every Breath I Take”. The song’s structure is a variation on the Classical rondo form with its AABACABA structure, a form rarely found in modern popular music.
The demo of the song was recorded in an eight-track suite in North London’s Utopia studios and featured Sting singing over a Hammond organ. A few months later he presented the song to the other band members when they reconvened at George Martin’s AIR Studios in Montserrat to work on the Synchronicity album. While recording, Summers came up with a guitar part inspired by Béla Bartók that would later become a trademark lick, and played it straight through in one take. He was asked to put guitar onto a simple backing track of bass, drums, and a single vocal, with Sting offering no directive beyond “make it your own.” Summers remembers:
This was a difficult one to get, because Sting wrote a very good song, but there was no guitar on it. He had this Hammond organ thing that sounded like Billy Preston. It certainly didn’t sound like the Police, with that big, rolling synthesiser part. We spent about six weeks recording just the snare drums and the bass. It was a simple, classic chord sequence, but we couldn’t agree how to do it. I’d been making an album with Robert Fripp, and I was kind of experimenting with playing Bartok violin duets and had worked up a new riff. When Sting said ‘go and make it your own’, I went and stuck that lick on it, and immediately we knew we had something special.
— Andy Summers
The recording process was fraught with difficulties as personal tensions between the band members, particularly Sting and Stewart Copeland, came to the fore. Producer Hugh Padgham claimed that by the time of the recording sessions, Sting and Copeland “hated each other”, with verbal and physical fights in the studio common. The tensions almost led to the recording sessions being cancelled until a meeting involving the band and the group’s manager, Miles Copeland (Stewart’s brother), resulted in an agreement to continue. Keyboard parts were added from Roland guitar synthesizers, a Prophet-5 and an Oberheim synthesiser. The single-note piano in the middle eight was recommended by Padgham, inspired by similar work that he had done with the group XTC. The drum track was largely created through separate overdubs of each percussive instrument, with the main backbeat created by simultaneously playing a snare and a gong drum. To give the song more liveliness, Padgham asked Copeland to record his drum part in the studio’s dining room in order to achieve some “special sound effects”. The room was so hot, that his drum sticks had to be taped to Copeland’s hands to make sure they didn’t fly off. According to Stewart Copeland:
In my humble opinion, this is Sting’s best song with the worst arrangement. I think Sting could have had any other group do this song and it would have been better than our version — except for Andy’s brilliant guitar part. Basically, there’s an utter lack of groove. It’s a totally wasted opportunity for our band. Even though we made gazillions off of it, and it’s the biggest hit we ever had.
— Stewart Copeland