Spare a thought for the self-esteem of the music-loving policeman. In song after song, the pop cop is a rapper-harassing, punk-whomping, innocent-arresting, donut-eating creep. As Black Flag yowled in Police Story: "They hate us, we hate them/ We can't win." Wait a minute, Fugazi's Great Cop sounds promising. But no: it's just someone informing his girlfriend that her bullying suspicion makes her the perfect candidate for a career in law enforcement.
What's interesting about plod-bashing pop is what it reveals about the times. Before punk, bands balked at openly slamming the police, but abuse of Britain's "sus" laws on stopping and searching provoked responses from the Clash, the Ruts and Linton Kwesi Johnson, while the corruption and brutality of the LAPD brought us NWA's Fuck tha Police and Body Count's Cop Killer. In one of hip-hop's stranger ironies, Body Count's Ice-T now plays an officer on Law & Order: SVU.
Trust Bruce Springsteen, at least, to see the working man behind the badge. The tense, Suicide-inspired State Trooper puts a sinister twist on his well-worn open-road motif by placing a desperate fugitive at the wheel, fearing for the fate of anyone unlucky enough to pull him over. "Maybe you got a kid," he mutters. "Maybe you got a pretty wife."
Unlike the furiously indignant NWA, Cypress Hill strike a note of mocking contempt on their infectious gangsta nursery rhyme: "Well this pig's standin' eatin' donuts/ While some motherfucker's out robbin' your home." Mudhoney uncork a gallon of bile on their cover of Hate the Police by Texas punks the Dicks.
The violence that engulfed Jamaica in the late 1970s inspired an epidemic of songs about police harassment. Notwithstanding the Clash's clenched-fist interpretation, Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves is less a cry of anger than a sigh of disappointment, sung in an airy falsetto that seems to float above the whole seething mess. Alex Turner also stands apart from the fray as the wry observer of closing-time aggro on Riot Van.
The Pet Shop Boys set the secret police to synth-pop on In the Night, but Abba got there first. On the title track from their swan-song album, a hunted eastern bloc dissident cowers from a knock on the door; paranoia never sounded so jaunty. McCarthy, described by Nicky Wire as "the great lost band of the 80s", thrived on the disconnect between Malcolm Eden's acidic leftwing critique and Tim Gane's toothsome melodies. This satirical manifesto for state violence is cloaked in sunny jingle-jangle. Humour of a broader variety comes from Bo Diddley, who was as much a comic storyteller as a rock'n'roll singer.
Neil Young taps into his inner Dylan on Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero, Pt 1), a cryptic meander through benighted streets where idealism withers, innocents suffer and the policemen become indistinguishable from the crooks. Finally, Mike Post's classic Hill Street Blues theme serves as a reminder that at least there's one place where the police are almost always right: TV. Right, Ice-T?
This week's playlist
1. State Trooper - Bruce Springsteen
2. Pigs - Cypress Hill
3. Hate the Police - Mudhoney
4. Police and Thieves - Junior Murvin
5. Riot Van - Arctic Monkeys
6. The Visitors (Crackin' Up) ABBA
7. The Home Secretary Briefs the Forces of Law and Order - McCarthy
8. Cops and Robbers - Bo Diddley
9. Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Pt 1) - Neil Young
10. Hill Street Blues - Mike Post & Larry Carlton
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