The Meaning and Story Behind “Message in a Bottle” by The Police, a Song Sting Still Considers One of His Best

The Police managed to hit the sweet spot between commercial success and critical love better than most bands of their era. “Message in a Bottle,” one of their earliest successes, still stands out as one of the best songs they recorded in their short but illustrious time together.

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What is the song about? How did it help The Police avoid the sophomore slump? And why does Sting feel it’s one of the finest songs that he’s ever written? Let’s get that cork out of there and find out all we can about The Police’s “Message in a Bottle.”

Sting’s Song Backlog

The Police’s 1978 debut album Outlandos d’Amour immediately emerged from the New Wave pack thanks to the variety of its musical influences, the sharp songwriting, and the potency the three-piece instrumental attack could muster. It was natural that some doubters wondered if the band could duplicate this success going forward.

But The Police had a secret weapon in lead singer/bassist Sting. He was a prolific writer even before he joined up with guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland to form The Police. As a result, he could always go back to his backlog of lyrics and musical ideas when the band needed it most.

That backlog might have been a tad depleted when The Police settled in to write the songs for their second album Reggatta de Blanc in 1979. Copeland actually earned several writing credits on that record, likely due to this lack of songs. But Sting had a big ace up his sleeve in “Message in a Bottle,” which would go on to be the album’s opening track and lead single.

Getting the “Message”

Sting wrote the guitar riff and handed it off to Summers to replicate. To his credit, Summers took that framework and added cool colors in the open spaces in “Message in a Bottle.” Sting’s throbbing bass stays largely in the background, instead letting Copeland do most of the rhythmic work with his furious rat-a-tat. This song is Exhibit A for the kind of controlled ferocity The Police could achieve.

Sting’s lyrics took a scenario with which we’re familiar and imbued it with surprising feeling. Even many years down the road, he told Q in an interview how he was particularly proud of the song:

“‘Message in a Bottle’ is a good song—that can move me. I like the idea that while it’s about loneliness and alienation it’s also about finding solace and other people going through the same thing. The guy’s on a desert island and throws a bottle out to sea saying he’s alone and all these millions of bottles come back saying, ‘So what, so am I!’ I like the fact that the whole deal is clinched by the third verse. It makes a journey.”

“Message in a Bottle” was a breakthrough single for the band, as it became their first UK No. 1. The band hadn’t yet made a dent in the U.S., at least not at radio, as the song didn’t get to the Top 40. But it has since become one of the most beloved songs in the band’s impressive catalog.

What is the Meaning Behind “Message in a Bottle?”

The story of “Message in a Bottle” isn’t hard to parse. A guy gets lost on a desert island, throws a bottle out to sea with a note hoping for a rescue, only to realize a year later that many others are stranded as well. It’s how he turns the song into a metaphor for how we can get wrapped up in our personal isolation and miss the bigger picture.

It’s laid out there in the final lines: Seems I’m not alone in being alone / Hundred billion castaways looking for a home. Before we get to that point, he adds some clever touches to the lyrics. For example, think about the line, Just a castaway, an island lost at sea. You could take it literally and interpret it as him saying he’s on an island. Or it could be Sting’s subtle rebuttal to the poet John Donne, saying that, yes, one man can be an island if he’s bereft enough.

Love can mend your life or love can break your heart, Sting insists, and that’s the core moral of “Message in a Bottle.” The Police suggest that you’re only as alone as you declare yourself to be. Which is ironic because, with singles like these, this band separated itself from the pack.

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Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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