The Police released their third studio album Zenyatta Mondatta in 1980, preceded by the single, Don’t Stand So Close to Me. The single gave the band their third number one single, following Message in A Bottle and Walking on the Moon from their previous album Regatta de Blanc in 1979. Additionally, the song won the band the 1982 Grammy Award for the Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. It was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1980.
Don’t Stand So Close to Me concerns a schoolgirl’s crush on her young teacher which leads to an affair, which is then discovered. Sting, who worked as a teacher before the band became successful, has denied that the song is autobiographical. He qualified as a teacher in 1974, after attending Northern Counties College of Education for three years, before working as a teacher at St. Paul’s First School in Cramlington for two years. Of Don’t Stand So Close to Me, Sting said in the 1981 biography L’Historia Bandido:
“I wanted to write a song about sexuality in the classroom. 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 … Then there was my love for Lolita which I think is a brilliant novel. But I was looking for the key for eighteen months and suddenly there it was. 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”.
The lyrics and music of Don’t Stand So Close to Me were both written by Sting. Lyrically, the song deals with the lust, fear and guilt that a female student and a teacher have for one another. The female student’s feelings towards the teacher are found in lines such as “Young teacher, the subject, Of school girl fantasy, She wants him so badly, Knows what she wants to be”. Later in the song, we find the teacher’s feelings towards the student in lines such as “It’s no use, he sees her, He starts to shake and cough, Just like the old man in, That book by Nabokov”. The last line of the verse likens the affair between the song’s characters with the predicament of the characters in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita. In the novel, the male character, Humbert Humbert is obsessed with the 12 year old Delores Haze, whom he nicknames “Lolita” and becomes sexually involved with after becoming her stepfather. In Lolita, Humbert is described as “not quite an old man”.
Sting has often been criticised for rhyming “cough” with “Nabokov”. In an interview on sting.com, the singer said of the rhyme:
“I’ve used that terrible, terrible rhyme technique a few times. Technically, it’s called a feminine rhyme – where it’s so appalling, it’s almost humorous. You don’t normally get those types of rhymes in pop music and I’m glad”.
Don’t Stand So Close to Me features a guitar synthesiser in the middle of the song, played by Andy Summers. In an interview with sting.com, Summers said of the inclusion of the guitar synthesiser: “After Sting had put the vocals on Don’t Stand So Close to Me, we looked for something to lift the middle of the song. I came up with a guitar synthesiser. It was the first time we’d used it. I felt it worked really well”. The verses and choruses do not feature this effect. Don’t stand So Close to Me utilises a common effect in Police songs, that of the verses being quieter and more subdued whilst the chorus is bolder and bigger in sound.
A few years later, Sting was asked to perform on the Dire Straits song Money for Nothing (Brothers in Arms, 1985) due to being in Montserrat at the same time as the band were recording the song. Sting performs the “I want my MTV” line, which reuses the melody from Don’t Stand So Close to Me. After the likeness was mentioned to reporters during the promotions for Brothers in Arms, lawyers for Sting became involved and whilst early pressings of Brothers in Arms only credit Mark Knopfler with having written the song, later copies credit both Knopfler and Sting. It is one of only two shared songwriting credits on a Dire Straits album, the other being Tunnel of Love, from the 1980 album Making Movies, which includes an extract from The Carousel Waltz by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In 1986, Don’t Stand So Close to Me was re-recorded with a new, more brooding sounding arrangement, a different chorus and more opulent production. The new version, titled Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86, appeared on the album Every Breath You Take: The Singles and was released as a single, reaching number 24 on the British singles chart. The song’s tempo was decreased for the new version and features a slight lyric change in order to compensate for it, with the line “Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov” becoming “Just like the old man in that famous book by Nabokov. The Police had already split by the time the single was released and aside from the then-unreleased De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da ’86, it is the most recent studio recording released by the band. A new music video was produced for the reworked song by Godley and Creme. The video is notable for its early use of computer graphics.