Saturday, 13 January 2018

Out On Blue Six: Smiley Culture

BBC4 launched their 1985 series of Top of the Pops repeats last night, which afforded me a real blast from the past in the shape of cheeky fast chat reggae artist Smiley Culture and his number 12 hit, Police Officer.

I had completely forgotten all about this song and Smiley himself, so it was quite the Proustian rush to see it on TV last night, taking me all the way back to my five year old self, who was - perhaps strangely - really rather keen on this track. I say perhaps strangely because, let's face it, a little white five year old boy wasn't really Smiley Culture's audience now was he? The song, allegedly based on a real-life incident for Smiley which saw him evade an arrest for cannabis possession when the arresting officer recognised him as the singer of Cockney Translation (his previous hit) and requested his autograph. It's a song whose subject matter was completely beyond my ken: the SUS laws which allowed police victimisation of the black community, and  cannabis (or 'ganga' and 'sinsemilla' as the song refers to the drug, terms that perhaps flew over the head of not only my infant self, but presumably the radio station bosses and DJ's who inadvertently pushed the song into the top 20) was definitely too mature a concept for a child to comprehend - I think I just liked the obvious humourous spirit of the song, how quickly Smiley spoke/sang and how he effortlessly dropped in and out of the Jamaican Patois and Estuary accents to play both himself and the song's titular police officer. I probably also liked the song because it gave me the opportunity on TOTP to see women dressed in police uniforms dancing around and looking like they were having fun as they played (or perhaps more correctly mimed) the song's brass section. I think there's something, perhaps unique to a child's enjoyment, in seeing grown ups and figures of authority behave in a way you might not expect to see them behave. 

Unfortunately fame was rather brief for Smiley Culture, real name David Emmanuel, and his story does not have a happy ending. Future releases never scaled the same heights of Police Officer and his last mainstream success was in the shape of fronting an advertising campaign for NatWest and a cameo in Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners, both in 1986. Away from the music scene, Emmanuel invested in diamond mining with concessions in several African countries, but he was arrested in July 2010 with conspiracy to supply cocaine and was set to appear for trial in March the following year. However, just one week before this court appearance, police raided Emmanuel's home and began conducting a search for class A drugs when 90 minutes into the search, Emmanuel stabbed himself in the heart. The Independent Police Complaints Commission and a subsequent inquest returned a verdict of suicide with no criminal culpability found against any of the officers conducting the search. Nevertheless a stink surrounding how Emmanuel met his death remains and, as a prominent case of potential police abuse, contributed to the riots that swept across the country in the summer of 2011.

End Transmission

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