ninja gaiden, ninja scroll, the police’s ‘ghost in the machine’, and their impact on my early 20’s.

i should be vacuuming right now but i couldn’t bring myself to stop listening to the the police’s ‘ghost in the machine’. i love it too much. so i thought i should write about it. i have a history with it.

when i was a kid, my mom lived in victoria. my brother andrew and i would go visit her every second weekend. we always had a great time and i have very fond memories of driving in her hyundia excel to mattick’s farm for mini golf, various swimming pools, parks to throw a baseball around, BMX bike tracks, frozen flooded farm fields to skate on, and the like. one of the tapes she had in that crappy import was a greatest hits collection of the police. i loved every song on that tape.

fast forward to the year 2000. i was still living with my dad and working part time at the salvation army. i have always been an over achiever. anyway, i had amassed a great many cool things while working at the SA. among these things was a fisher price record player with a built-in tiny speaker, my own TV, a strong 8-bit NES video game collection that included ninja gaiden, the police’s discography on vinyl, and a borrowed copy of ninja scroll on VHS.

now, for the uninitiated, ninja gaiden was a long, hard, dark game. i still haven’t beat it. the story centers around supernatural demonic forces, and not in a silly super mario happy kiddies video game kind of way. it’s more like a video game of an anime thriller film created for an adult audience.

first dark component, check.

ninja gaiden screenshot

next, i borrowed ninja scroll from my pal who worked at SA with me, sarah. it’s a disturbingly violent flick about a ninja for hire whose old arch nemesis has returned from the grave using (surprise!) supernatural demonic forces. i watched it and felt awful for about a week afterward due to the graphic, absurd violence. i liked it but was really affected by it. to this day, i still think about some of the brutality in the final battle and get bothered.

second dark component, check.

what ninja scroll is about, in a nutshell.

during the same period that i was getting deep into the dark asian worlds of ninja gaiden and ninja scroll, i was also getting deep into the police’s discography. i loved all the records but ‘ghost in the machine’ particularly resonated with me, and it meshed perfectly with the way ninja gaiden and ninja scroll were making me feel. the majority of ghost in the machine is straight up blade runner-ish, futuristic and bleak. somehow, even the happiest moments feel tense and foreboding. the album title is creepy. the production of the album has an otherworldly, weird vibe too: saxophones bleat out atonal screams, synthesizers sound suspiciously like space ships, andy summer’s guitar tone is airy and phantom-like. the artwork is nightmarish. the red digital characters on the cover are so stark on the plain black background. it feels like a computer preparing to kill its master, indifferent to human life. the inner sleeve shows circuit boards glowing red and flesh-like with the faces of andy, sting, and stewart blended in. it almost suggests some kind of cronenberg-style body horror, a frightening man/machine hybrid.

ghost in the machine cover

ghost in the machine sleeve artwork

and i love every song on the album. “why?” you ask. here’s why.

  • spirits in the material world – super interesting, sort of disorienting reggae feel during the verse. great, catchy chorus. eerie imagery, bleak view of the world.
  • every little thing… – beautiful. one of my fave police songs. i can’t put my finger on what makes this one so dark despite all the outward appearances of being a pleasant, upbeat love song but it’s in there. the snare fill near the end is a wicked climax.
  • invisible sun – i remember being scared of this one when i was a kid. “i face the day with head caved in” really freaked me out. i thought of a guy actually having massive head trauma but going on anyway, like “what’s wrong with this guy? he needs to go to hospital.” all of the drum parts are really interesting.
  • hungry for you – my least fave on the album but still succeeds in having a great, rock solid groove that makes me want to shake my ass.
  • demolition man – i have no idea what this song is supposed to be about but the slightly out of tune horns add a strange and disconcerting touch. meanwhile, stewart’s drumming is thrilling. i have a hard time finding the first beat in this song because it sounds to me like stewart is starting each drum phrase on the 3rd beat of the riff. it sounds off from the riff and the vocals, but the tail end of the riff drags over into the start of it so it’s tough to know for sure what’s what. it doesn’t matter though because the whole band just run with whatever feel they like and it gives it a really crazy, unique feel. the cool hi hat thing stewart keeps doing towards the end of the song totally blew my mind when first heard it. i was like “wtf is he doing? whoah, why is he still doing it? omg it keeps going, this is so neat”
  • too much information – really plays well into the nightmarish computer vibe of the album. groovy as all hell, yet again. stewart plays a very steady beat with little variation yet somehow, he makes it fucking exciting to listen to. i am convinced that he has an uncanny ability to communicate his sheer love of drumming through his playing so that no matter what he’s doing, whether it’s nuts or subdued or minimal or whatever else, it’s always full of pure joy. he’s my favourite musician of all time, hands down.
  • rehumanize yourself –  yet another dismal picture painted against a rollicking up-tempo reggae background. more super weird saxophone stuff going on in this one. i love that sting says ‘cunt’ in this song. how many pop artists have ever had the nuts to do that? sure, he’s a fucking asshole wank, but there is no denying that sting has done a few exceptionally cool things in his life.
  • one world (not three) – a dim take on a world in crisis set to perhaps the most ass-shakingly awesome reggae grooves ever created. stewart has a heyday in this one. over-the-top fills abound, and they are fantastic.
  • omegaman – i think andy summers wrote this one, and it’s a standout. it’s more rock than reggae. the lyrical imagery is more depressing blade runner/sci fi/dim future stuff. “the sky’s alive with turned-on television sets,” “i’m so tired, i’m so tired, i’m so tired”.
  • secret journey – i think this song really helped me connect the album to ninja gaiden and ninja scroll through its vague references to eastern mysticism. it sounds like the struggle of someone trapped in a very dark time. once again, the drumming is super interesting throughout.
  • darkness – written by copeland but hardly any drums in it. the most depressing track, for sure. “i wish i never woke up this morning/life was easy when it was boring.” the weird background sounds of random horns sounds like muddled confusion, and then there’s some sort of thunder/lightning type sounds that add to the ‘dark night of the soul’ feel.

thinking more about it now, i guess i associated the 80’s technology aspect of the album artwork to japan since they seemed to be the forerunner of the 80’s tech world. then the eastern vibe in the lyrics of secret journey fit the japanese angle well. from there, the tense, brooding tone of the rest of the album was enough of a link to make me to see the whole thing as an extension of that frightening, depressing eastern world i was already spending so much time contemplating.

i spent a lot of time in my room at my dad’s house, playing ninja gaiden, contemplating the violence of ninja scroll, and listening to ghost in the machine. i was profoundly affected by all of them. it was a strange time in my life. i was really immersed in the feelings associated with those things, like some kind of depression or affliction that was not my own but had still somehow made it inside of me. i guess it was the fact that all these things with similar aesthetic and emotional values happened to impact me at the same time, and by virtue of their similarities and timing, emotionally knocked me on my ass. it’s really quite amazing and beautiful that it all happened as it did, even if the result was largely a frightening, awful feeling, and it’s amazing that these things all managed to connect with a person on such an intense level. i hope people involved in creating ninja gaiden, ninja scroll, and ghost in the machine all read this post one day and think “fucking eh. mission accomplished.”

and that’s why i love ghost in the machine.

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