In 1980, the Police scored a massive hit with “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” But was the song, which reached the Top 10 in 12 different countries, inspired by true events?
The question is understandable, given the situation. The lyrics of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” detailed the romantic affair between a teacher and his pupil, and the controversy their tryst created. The song was penned by Sting, who just happened to have a former career as a teacher before rock stardom came calling.
“I wanted to write a song about sexuality in the classroom,” the rocker explained in the 1981 book L’Historia Bandido. Sting then admitted his previous profession influenced the song. “I’d done teaching practice at secondary schools and been through the business of having 15-year-old girls fancying me – and me really fancying them! How I kept my hands off them I don’t know.”
Still, the singer has made it clear on multiple occasions that he remained completely professional while teaching. “I never had a relationship with any of my pupils – I wouldn’t want to,” he declared to Q in 1993. “You have to remember we were blond bombshells at the time and most of our fans were young girls, so I started role playing a bit. Let’s exploit that.”
Watch the Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ Video
A literary reference would provide further inspiration for “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” “Then there was my love for Lolita, which I think is a brilliant novel,” the singer noted. “That opened the gates, and out it came: the teacher, the open page, the virgin, the rape in the car, getting the sack, Nabakov, all that.”
Sting further explained in a 1993 interview with The Independent that “this idea of a teacher, a Humbert Humbert character, appealed to me because I’d been a teacher before the Police. Also, to be frank, it was right in our market – a lot of teenage girls were buying our records. So the idea was let’s write a Lolita story.”
Sting knew that directly referencing Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov in the song’s lyrics would draw the ire of many. Indeed, the line “Just like the old man in that famous book by Nabakov,” has been scrutinized numerous times over the years, partially due to its liberal rhyming technique. Still, the criticism never got to Sting. “You don’t normally get those type of rhymes in pop music, and I’m glad,” the rocker admitted. “There were a lot of people saying, ‘What a pretentious wanker, he’s mentioned Nabokov in a pop song.’ But by the same token, a lot of people wrote and said, ‘What’s a Nabokov?'”
While Sting’s experience as a teacher — coupled with Nabakov’s famous novel — provided lyrical inspiration, the rocker looked elsewhere for the song’s musical structure. “It was based on a guitar figure which I think I stole from a song called ‘Rock and Roll Woman,’” Sting confessed, referring to a 1967 track by Buffalo Springfield.
Listen to Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Rock and Roll Woman’
Despite the taboo nature of its lyrics, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” became one of the Police’s biggest hits. In the U.K., it was the bestselling single of 1980; in the U.S., it became their first Top 10 hit. The song also scored the band the second Grammy award of its career.
Equally as impressive as its initial success is the song’s longevity. The track continues to resonate with music fans and has appeared in a wide range of television shows, including Friends, Veronica Mars, Glee and The Office. In 2020, Sting joined late-night host Jimmy Fallon and his house band the Roots for a rendition of the tune inspired by the coronavirus pandemic’s social-distancing practice.
Watch Sting, Jimmy Fallon and the Roots Perform ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’