Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Police on my back – The Clash


It may seem like heresy (and a rip-off of a Chuck D. line), but the Clash didn’t mean shit to me when I was growing up. I was six years old in the summer of ’77, and by the mid eighties their punk revolution had already long-been mainstreamed , commercialised (some would argue also by the band themselves) and robbed of its political value.

The first Clash tune that I heard that really grabbed me was the Mick Jones’ sung should I stay or should I go, and I heard it not on the grapevine, but through a Levis commercial – oh the shame of it all.

Since then I’ve had a mild curiosity about the band, but never a fully fledged enthusiasm. To me,  there always seemed a little bit too much bluster and posturing about the Joe Strummer led band. A revolutionary zeal that, like Strummer’s voice, didn’t always sit well with the actual music. When it worked, like London Calling it was brilliant, but more often than not it didn’t. 

Not a popular opinion perhaps. Watching Julien Temple’s recent documentary on Joe Strummer, you’ll hear how important both the band and Strummer were to various artists including Bono, Anthony Kiedis, Jim Jarmusch, and Johnny Depp. It’s an opinion, though, that if anything was strengthened by watching Temple’s film – Strummer was an important artist on lots of levels, but chief amongst his attributes was a charisma and enthusiasm, and it was one that I’ve never really clicked into.

Jump forward to last year, though, and a friday night in a small bustling bar I sometimes frequent. It’s the sort of place where the guys behind the bar use judgement rather than measures, and are liable to drink into the profits of a night, whilst turning the music up. The bar men are clash fans, and most people are chatting away, almost absent-mindedly interacting with the music. Heads are nodding gently, fingers are tapping along to tunes like Police and Thieves,  Rock the Casbah, Train in Vain, and Bankrobber.

Nothing extraordinary.

Then, the opening riff of Police on my back comes out, and we instantly move from finger tapping to jumping in the air. The bar men trampoline in time to the song, which goes at breakneck speed. Every song has a standard speed, and an ideal speed which is often just a fraction faster – not too much, which would sound careless and clumsy; if done properly, that increase in speed is like a graceful accelaration, like someone tripping out of a tackle.  This song’s original authors, The Equals (a fine London band, including Eddy Grant) played the song at its standard speed. Not too fast, and not too slow. When the Clash took it on for the Sandinista! extravaganza they brought it up a level, to that ideal speed. No-one will ever be able now to play Police on my back faster or slower than the Clash’s version, or at least play it at a different speed and sound credible or good.


And that, my friends, is a long-winded way of saying why this is very much a monkeys’ tune.

Leave a Reply