Wow In Music - Roxanne
Editor | On 12, Jan 2018
When Sting first played it to the band, they knew it was a hit. When the band first played it to their management, they too knew it was a hit. And today it is still The Police’s signature tune and a widely revered ‘all time classic’.
The first thing you notice when you hear “Roxanne” is that it doesn’t have a tempo or musical style that’s typical of most rock n’ roll. From Sting’s growling, throaty “ROOOOXXX-ANNE,” sounding more like reggae than rock, to his high-pitched falsettos, you can tell right away that this is a different kind of song. There’s something repetitive and rigid about the beat—it never wavers, and it moves along quickly but carefully, as if the musicians are anxious to get somewhere, but want to do it right. It is, in fact, a tango.
As you probably know, ballroom dancing and rock n’ roll make something of a (Principle 37) odd couple. While one coheres to strict beats, which in turn inspire intricate steps, the other makes itself known through screaming guitar solos, hard-driven chords, and crashing percussion. Yet, given the topic of the song, the fact that Sting chose a beat for “Roxanne” that lends itself to partner dancing is oddly perfect, and gives the song a unique quality that has kept it a crowd favorite for years.
“Roxanne” starts with a jarring (Principle 22) off-color piano chord followed by laughing, and then launches into the main chords of the song. Like many legendary recording studio mishaps, the piano lead-in happened by accident (Principle 22 again). While the band was recording the song, Sting tripped and fell onto a piano in the studio and then started laughing, all of which got caught on tape and the band decided to keep it. The rest of the song is a simple interchange of chords within a minor key that adheres strictly to the tango style, despite the fact that it’s all performed on a guitar, a bass, and the drums.
In his autobiography Broken Music, Sting describes how the groove for what would become the Police’s trademark song first came together:
“While originally written as a jazz-tinged bossa nova, the song will evolve into a hybrid tango through the trial-and-error of the band process. It is Stewart who suggests stressing the (Principle 10) second beat of each bar on the bass and bass drum, giving the song its lopsided Argentinian gait.
Andy Summers, however, has a slightly different take on the evolution of the “Roxanne” groove:
At the moment, it’s a bossa nova. . . . So, how should we play it? We have to heavy it up and give it an edge. We decide to try it with a (Principle 5) reggae rhythm, at which point Stewart starts to play a sort of (Principle 13) backward hi-hat and tells Sting where to put the bass hits. Once the bass and drums are in place, the right counterpoint for me to play is the four in the bar rhythm part.
So is the groove for “Roxanne” a “hybrid tango,” as Sting describes it, or in a “reggae rhythm,” as Summers asserts? Many would argue that the groove underscoring the verses of “Roxanne” is most definitely reggae in style, but it is by no means a typical reggae rhythm. For one thing, the guitar is playing staccato chords that fall on rather than off the beat, effectively displacing the typical skank pattern by one eighth note.
Second, there is no rolling bass. Instead the bass plays a jabbing repeated-note riff that accents the second beat of the bar, in tandem with the bass drum, effectively displacing the typical “one-drop” accent on beat 3 by one quarter note (Principle 10 again, or 16?). Above all this, Sting’s soaring and angular “blue-eyed soul” tenor implores his beloved Roxanne to abandon her career in the world’s oldest profession. The apex of Sting’s vocal line is the top Dflat he sings on the word “sell” in measure seven: this is the flattened fifth scale degree, a fitting melodic nod to the blues that seems entirely appropriate for the subject matter at hand. The composite texture created by the guitar and bass here is very clever, evoking the style of a so-called bubble organ—another stereotypical reggae topic—without having to use a keyboard.
In example b) above, author, Mark Spicer (Reference 1) wrote out a hypothetical bubble organ accompaniment for the opening measures of the verse. In a typical bubble pattern, the left hand plays staccato chords in the low register on the “and” of every beat in “fast” skank fashion, while the right hand plays “slow” skank chords in the middle register on beats 2 and 4; the two parts combine to produce the characteristic “oom-chacka” bubble rhythm, as illustrated in parentheses below the staff. Similarly, Spicer illustrated in parentheses below the actual verse groove in example a) the composite rhythm suggested by the interaction between the guitar and bass, showing the bubble rhythm to be pushed forward by one eighth note (one has to imagine the bass riff sounding also in the second half of each measure, but the groove is strongly implied). In the chorus, the plea to Roxanne becomes more urgent: the modality abruptly shifts to the relative major, and Sting’s high tenor repeats the lyric “put on the red light” again and again, set to a variant of the vocal motive that had ended the verse (with the top Dflat adjusted to become Dsharp); joining in the plea are two background vocals in close harmony, picking up the syncopated guitar and bass rhythmic figure that ends the verse as a vehicle for chanting Roxanne’s name over and over. But what is most striking about the chorus is the abrupt (Principle 37) shift in style: the Police have left planet Reggae behind and entered the neighboring musical world of punk. What identifies the punk style most strongly is a topic that Spicer whimsically labeled in example c) as the “safety-pin” riff:
a driving accompaniment figure played by the bass (and essentially doubled by the guitar, not shown in the example), consisting of constant eighth notes grouped in fours with three repeated pitches preceded each time by their chromatic lower neighbor. This stock accompaniment figure is, of course, a throwback to early rock and roll and was adopted by the punk rockers as something of a cliché, no doubt because it sounds best when played loud and fast and, perhaps most important, because it is easy to play (one listen to the Sex Pistols’ iconic 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks . . . will testify to the prevalence of the safety-pin riff in punk). In “Roxanne,” the abrupt shift from reggae in the verses to punk in the choruses is masterful and entirely appropriate, serving only to intensify the song’s message by adding an increased sense of urgency to the lyric. Needless to say, this juxtaposition of reggae and punk would become a hallmark of the Police sound on their early hit singles, ensuring that the group was just punk enough for punk fans to like them. (The Police would follow this same basic formal template of reggae verses starkly juxtaposed against punk choruses on their two other singles from Outlandos d’Amour, “So Lonely” and “Can’t Stand Losing You.”) With respect to harmonic vocabulary, the verse and chorus of “Roxanne” are also markedly different from one another. The punk chorus, as we might expect, features only plain triads and thirdless power-chord sounding out pop
voicings, while the reggae verse is peppered with seventh and “sus” chords. This harmonic style of reggae tends to favor simple triads over a more extended chord vocabulary, and yet we recall Sting’s comment that he saw reggae as a means of “bridg[ing] a gap between interesting chords and harmonic variations” and the “wild energy” of punk. Indeed, it is in the realm of harmony that the Police’s jazz and progressive-rock pedigrees can be felt most strongly. In a recent interview for Guitar Player magazine, Andy Summers elaborated:
“I wanted to exploit the openness of the band’s arrangements, so I couldn’t play Steve Jones-style, punk power chords… I’d seldom play full chords that had a major or minor third in them—which I considered old-fashioned harmony. Instead, I explored a much (Principle 17) cooler, sort of disinterested chord style that utilized stacked fifths or an added ninth to get the harmony moving without the obvious sentimental association of major and minor thirds.
As the Police’s primary songwriter, Sting’s working method was quite typical of the era with regard to the way in which he would introduce songs to his fellow band members. By 1979 the Police were touring almost constantly, and so Sting reportedly wrote most of his new songs during snatches of downtime as the band traveled from gig to gig, aided by a four-track Sony tape recorder with a built-in drum machine (which he nicknamed “Dennis”). He would build up a song section by section, recording all of the parts himself, until he had a demo four-track version of the song to present to Stewart and Andy, at which point the full band would begin the process of working out their distinctive “policed” arrangement. While Sting received sole songwriting credit for the majority of the Police’s songs, the contributions of Copeland and Summers to the finished arrangements can hardly be overstated. One might even go so far as to say they were the world’s last mega-band. All thanks, one might argue, to the breakthrough provided by Roxanne.