Recently, Liz Mason of Quimby’s asked me to do a reading at a performance by the Blue Ribbon Glee Club, an adorable punk rock singing ensemble she belongs to, whom you must see the next time they perform. Pure joy.
The band sang three songs, and two other writers and I delivered essays inspired by the tunes. Mine was “X-Offender” by Blondie, which, honestly, I’d never heard before. It sparked my imagination though, and I wrote and read the following piece. Hope you like it. Note: this is not anti-cop. I was the son of a small-town mayor, and I was brought up to believe the policeman was our friend and protector. Unpleasantly, however, it seems many need to be reminded of that fact and about the importance of the public’s trust. I’ll quote every authority figure ever: “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about, right?”
“X-Offender” by Blondie: A Researched Rumination
by Dan Kelly
“My vision in blue
I call you from inside my cell
And in the trial, you were there
With your badge and rubber boots
I think all the time how
I’m going to perpetrate love with you
And when I get out
There’s no doubt I’ll be sex offensive to you.”
It was 1976, and two years before Sting and the Police asked Roxanne not to turn on her red light, Debbie Harry and Blondie recorded “X Offender,” a tune about a prostitute and an officer she found arresting in more ways than one.
According to noted rock music historian Dr. Wikipedia, “X-Offender” was originally titled “Sex Offender.” Written by Blondie bassist Gary Valentine, “Sex Offender” told the tale of an 18-year-old boy being nicked for knocking boots with his underage girlfriend. The 70s weren’t as freewheeling as we’ve heard, and Ms. Harry wrote new lyrics describing a strumpet’s crush on the cop busting her for solicitation—a MUCH more family friendly storyline.
Furthermore, to calm their skittish label, they changed the title. “Sex Offender” became “X-Offender.” A meaningless term, but adding the letter X before or after any word—ray, men, brand, or Malcolm, for example—always makes it sound cooler.
Ms. Harry barely tries to describe the cop. We’re told he’s “big and fine,” and that he wears a badge and regulation rubber boots. According to photographs of 1970s NYPD cops, it is 65 percent likely he had sideburns, and 93 percent likely a mustache. Ms. Harry’s surrogate sexual surrogate’s reasons for the infatuation are unclear. The song can be read different ways. A kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome, where the perp comes to empathize with and even love her captor. As a disturbing tale of a nascent stalker. Or perhaps a cynical bit of Machiavellianism by the hooker who hopes she can get off by helping the cop, well, get off.
But let’s assume it IS a tale of a lady of the evening’s unrequited infatuation. A boy (in blue) meets (working) girl story, if you will. If it is, it is anomalous. You can search for songs about police officers, but you’ll find few that are pro-cop, and almost none that are fuzz-sexual.
Early cop songs by 78 rpm record era white performers tended toward the gently comic, and were delivered in a bogus brogue. In 1922’s “The Laughing Policeman” we learn of an obese constable who endlessly chortles on the corner. In “He’s on the Police Force Now,” we discover the innate hilarity of corrupt Irish cops.
Early blues recordings about the Force, however, are far more numerous, and usually about sheriffs, deputies, railroad bulls, and other lawmen busting the song’s subject for public drinking or killing a man for screwing his wife or, even worse, touching his hat. At no time, however, do we hear bluesmen Blind Blake, Robert Wilkins, or Peetie Wheatstraw, warbling about pitching woo at the man with the keys to his cell…and his heart?
By the 50s and 60s, cops were showing up in rock ‘n roll tunes like “Hot Rod Lincoln,” busting the juvenile delinquent singers for drag-racin’, hubcap stealin’, switch-bladin’, and similar hell-raisin’ antics. What nerds. Later on, in 1966, Bobby Fuller sang his regrets about foolishness of robbin’ people with a six-gun, for when he fought the law…the law won. Sadly, Bobby died at 23, not long after the song shot up the charts. He was found dead in a car in his Hollywood apartment building’s parking lot, stiff and drenched with gasoline (but not set afire). The LAPD coroner declared Fuller a suicide. Conspiracy fans think it was murder. Whatever the truth, Fuller didn’t win that one either.
The 60s and early 70s brought protest songs powered by the rampant misbehavior of the nation’s finest. In Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs’ tunes, cops show up as by the book stiffs; nightstick-wielding goons and hicks; and shadowy Feds, ever looming and swooping in to pummel, jail, and do far worse to the songs’ protagonists. Ochs, never one to mince words, took an extra dig at Mississippi cops, singing “Behind their broken badges there are murderers and more.” Ouch.
In 1973’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” Bob Marley wailed about being framed for deputycide, when he really only meant to shoot the deputy’s boss in self-defense. More gently, in 1967, Arlo Guthrie rattled on for 19 minutes about Thanksgiving littering, draft board travails, and interactions with Officer Obie in “Alice’s Restaurant.” But note at no time do Arlo, Bob, Bob, or Phil broach the subject of cop on criminal action. Thankfully.
Let us jump ahead to the Bicentennial again, and rejoin Ms. Harry singing about cop-boinking on CBGB’s stage.
While Ms. Harry sang about her forbidden po-po paramour, the disillusionment and righteous anger of 60s hippies for the cops was metastasizing into seething punk rock rage.
I plumbed the collective brains of my geriatric punk friends for songs about cops. A scabrous songbook of cop fear and loathing was quickly drafted. Contributions included Big Black’s “Big Money,” the Swans “Cop,” the UK Subs’ “Police State,” the Partisans’ “Bastards in Blue,” the Dicks’ “Hate the Police,” the Authorities “I Hate Cops,” and half the Clash’s back catalog, with “Police and Thieves,” “Guns of Brixton,” and “Police on My Back” as standouts. Consulting with Professor Google, I found Taboo Tunes, a book on music scares and censorship. Which added even more ditties to our glee club song folio. “Police Story,” by Black Flag, “Police Force” by Fartz, “Police Oppression” by Angelic Upstarts, “Fascist Pig” by Suicidal Tendencies, “Anticop” by TSOL, “Death to All the Pigs” by Naked Aggression, “Kill the Police” by G.G. Allin, “Cops for Fertilizer” by the Crucifucks, and “Police Truck” by the Dead Kennedys.
In light of “X-Offender,” it’s worth mentioning that “Police Truck,” an acid shower of contempt for bent cops, contains the lyrics:
It’s roundup time where the good whores meet
Gonna drag one screaming off the street
Here, Blondie’s courtly cop’s colleagues go on an offensive against the X-Offender’s peers.
Taboo Tunes further listed several punk, hardcore, and noise bands that go that extra mile to extend a finger to the police force. For example, Officer Down, Cop Shoot Cop, Pig Destroyer, and MDC—which is short for Millions of Dead Cops. Driving the back roads with one of those names scrawled on the side of your band’s van must have been exciting.
As a side note, and of local interest, what’s up with Chicago police jackets, a youthful punk fashion statement that started sometime in the eighties? I contacted the primary purveyors of CPD wear, the Alley, asking how and why the trend started. They replied with a link to an article about John Belushi’s funeral, when a melancholy Dan Aykroyd marked his friend’s hometown roots by wearing a Chicago cop jacket as he led the cortege. The look caught on, and the Alley met the demand. When you think about it, The Blues Brothers soundtrack was rhythm and blues, but it had a punk sensibility. Trivia: 60 cop cars were demolished during filming.
I have no idea how police reacted to the sudden sight of funny-haired kids wearing the CPD badge and Chicago flag. Probably not well. According to the CPD site, which offers rules on uniform wear and proper mustache length—no, I’m not making that up—hair guidelines are spelled out:
Head hair will not be adorned with any type of ornamentation nor be styled, sculpted or carved in radical fashions such as mohawk, dreadlocks, punk, new wave, etc.
Can’t we all get along?
If there’s a genre with a greater strain of police resentment than punk, it’s rap—a bigger subject than I can tackle tonight. Also, I’d have to mention Ms. Harry’s freestyle skills in Blondie’s “Rapture.” It should be mentioned though that unlike NWA, no punk bands have received letters from the FBI and Secret Service expressing their displeasure with an album, the way they did in 1989 for NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. The Feds, Secret Service, and media overlooked the album’s rage and frustration with American culture’s racism and deathly status quo, as documented in the seminal “Fuck tha Police”—a tune which appears to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days.
In short, as song subjects, the police rarely come off well. But it’s hardly accurate to say there’s NO love for the flatfoots—or would that be flatfeet? As in Ms. Harry’s ode, there are others who’d like a piece of a peace officer, or at least a platonic friendship.
Cops are people too, willing to “get down” with the young people. In 1986, all the cops in the donut shop (Oh Way Oh) willingly walked like E-gyp-shee-ans for the Bangles…but who wouldn’t if Susanna Hoffs asked them nicely?
In song, the Beatles had a pleasanter relationship with the cops. Paul had the hots for lovely Rita, meter maid. In real life, when the Beatles played their final public concert on the roof of 3 Savile Road for Let It Be, they cranked up “Get Back,” tying up traffic below. Promptly, the Metropolitan Police Service showed up and very Britishly asked them to kindly turn down the volume. In later interviews, Ringo Starr still wishes there’d been footage of big-helmeted Bobbies dragging him away from his drum kit. Alas, the Fab Four were too cuddly to arrest.
Like maids and librarians, cops inspire a crazy amount of fetishization. Ms. Harry sings as much in “X-Offender,” of course, but more recently, Fat Mike of NOFX united the worlds of Sex and Law Enforcement in the song “My Stepdad’s a Cop and My Stepmom’s a Domme,” telling us:
They both wear uniforms
They both have shiny boots
They both use unnecessary force
One whips one shoots
Despite the “sadistic tendencies” of both individuals, Fat Mike still thinks its pretty cool.
Other musical romantic liaisons with cops are brief and rife with perversion—especially if you make up stuff that likely never entered the minds of the performers. Though with David Bowie you never can tell.
In “Five Years,” Ziggy Bowie sings of the police officer who kneels and kisses the feet of a priest, inducing vomiting in a nearby homosexual. In “Life on Mars?”, Aladdin Bowie asks us to take a look at the lawman, beating up the wrong guy, and wonder if he’ll ever know he’s in the freakiest show—a freaky sex show, perhaps.
Earlier on, in Leiber and Stoller’s often covered and catchy as hell “Love Potion #9,” a young man is driven to insatiable sex cravings by Gypsy aphrodisiacs, and locks lips with a cop down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine. The officer smashes his supply of lust juice, but whether out of anger at the assault or in the throes of passion, I leave to the fanfic writers.
In “Straight Outta Compton” the song. Ice Cube rapped “Just ’cause I’m from the CPT, punk police are afraid of me.” Punk police? Can such a thing be possible?
As evolution shows, separate species can survive and grow stronger through reproduction and hybridization. Dirty Harry frequently railed against the scourge of “punks,” but who’s to say he didn’t encounter a young, tattooed, green-haired miss who was pleasing to his eye and vice versa.
“Are you feeling lucky, punk?”
“I think we both are, Inspector Callahan.”
Let us speculate that they bred a new spiky-haired, polyester-pants-wearing being, carrying a nightstick in one hand and a Minor Threat LP in the other.
Punk cops, like Republican punks do exist, but make slightly more sense. Errol Morris’ excellent documentary The Thin Blue Line draws its title from the expression that the police are the thin blue line standing between the public and anarchy. Not “Anarchy in the UK,” however. A search for “punk” and “police” brings up news stories of a hardcore member of the NYPD who was busted for taking sick days and collecting disability from an arm injury once it was discovered on YouTube that he could mosh, head bang, and fist pump on tour with his band quite well. Which is pretty punk rock, actually.
Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphy’s—perhaps culturally simpatico, since all us Irish have at least one cop relative—won’t have poseur punks arbitrarily trash-talking the police. As they sing in their song “John Law”:
Suburban anarchists who’ve never broke the law
Sing about police oppression, but they’ve never met John Law
He doesn’t fuck with young kids drinking in the Park
But he makes the city safe for women after dark
Finally, who better than Killdozer to extend an olive branch to the police with their cheerfully growled tale of the awesomest cop in town, “The Pig Was Cool.”
We were at the Journey show
The first three songs we were hanging low
Then the band played “Wheel in the Sky”
Me and my babe started getting high
The dude next to me said gimme a hit
So I passed him the joint I already lit
When I saw his badge
I thought this is it
But he just said to me, “man, this is good shit”
The pig was cool.
Indeed he was, Mr. Killdozer.
After September 11, cops were imbued with a glow hard won after the decade of LA riots, Amadou Diallo, telephone book beatings, and broken broom handles. This post-9/11 canonization was so pervasive, the Strokes willingly pulled the tune “New York City Cops” from their debut album, delaying its release from September 25 to October 9. A bare month after the towers went down, no one (including the band after watching footage of valiant, dust-covered cops picking people out of the rubble), was comfortable with lyrics like “New York City cops/They ain’t too smart.”
Sadly, the halos have tipped again in recent months. Which is a shame, considering that despite a few bad apples, corruption, systemic racism, use of excessive force, evidence tampering, enhanced interrogation techniques, and…this is getting depressing. Anyway, despite all this, there ARE good cops who deserve our admiration, support, and, dare I say it? Love?
In that spirit, let us consider “X-Offender” as a hopeful anthem for, as it were, establishing better relations with the cops.
Let us hope that one day “Fuck tha’ Police” becomes a slogan both sides can get behind.