The Police Sing “Message in a Bottle” for the First Time Live (1979)

The Police pulled off the most unlike­ly of musi­cal feats. While sev­er­al bands com­bined the rest­less, raw ener­gy of punk with the rhyth­mic, tune­ful urgency of reg­gae, these guys wrapped it all up in the accom­plished musi­cian­ship and off-kil­ter key changes and shift­ing time sig­na­tures of jazzy prog rock. This had nev­er been done before, and any­one who’s tried it since owes a tremen­dous debt to Sting, Andy Sum­mers, and Stew­art Copeland (no one comes to mind, though). The fact that they were able to retain rock cred­i­bil­i­ty while win­ning pop star­dom and a Gram­my for a rock instru­men­tal (1979’s krautrock-influ­enced “Regat­ta de Blanc”) are all fur­ther tes­ta­ments to the phe­nom­e­nal odd­i­ty that was this band. While I’ve nev­er been much of a fan of Sting’s solo work, The Police have always kind of aston­ished me with their brav­ery and vir­tu­os­i­ty.

And so we come to the act of brav­ery above: in a live appear­ance at Hat­field Poly­tech­nic (now the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hert­ford­shire) in Feb­ru­ary of 1979, the band decides to drop a new, untest­ed song on the enthu­si­as­tic crowd. The song? “Mes­sage in a Bot­tle” from the ’79 album Regat­ta de Blanc, the same record that pro­duced that Gram­my-win­ning title-track instru­men­tal. What’s so brave about that, you ask? There’s often no bet­ter way to try out new mate­r­i­al than in front of an already appre­cia­tive audi­ence. Well, this gig was record­ed for a BBC series called “Rock Goes to Col­lege.” Although The Police were skirt­ing star­dom with the sin­gle “Rox­anne” from their first album, they hadn’t quite made it yet, and their first TV appear­ance was a risky venue for demo­ing a new tune. But they pull it off. The crowd bounces in time and the three Police, who seem on the edge of a mis­take or dropped note some­where, give the song a flaw­less turn.

You can watch the full “Rock Goes to Col­lege” con­cert below, which also includes ear­ly hits like “Can’t Stand Los­ing You” (the open­er) and “Rox­anne” (at 29:45).

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pavarot­ti Sings with Lou Reed, Sting, James Brown and Oth­er Friends

The First Live Per­for­mance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” (1991)

Two Very Ear­ly Con­cert Films of R.E.M., Live in ‘81 and ‘82

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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