‘Police & Thieves’ is one of the most iconic reggae songs of all time. Written by heavyweights of the genre, Junior Murvin and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, it was released in 1976 and became a surprise hit in the UK, ultimately soundtracking the spirit of the era. Relations between the Afro-Caribbean community and the establishment, namely the police, were about to reach boiling point.
The story goes that it was Murvin who approached Perry in May ’76 and auditioned it at Perry’s legendary Black Ark Studio in Kingston, Jamaica. Perry loved it so much, that he decided to record it that afternoon, not before a few minor lyrical tweaks though.
Famously, the musicians that are featured on the track are some of the most revered in all of reggae. Boris Gardner provided the bassline, Ernest Raglin the guitar, Keith Sterling on the keyboard, Joe Cooper the organ and Sly Dunbar the drums. Barry Llewellyn and Earl Morgan of The Heptones assisted with backing vocals.
An instant reggae classic, the song was hailed upon release in both Jamaica and the UK, although arguably it had a much greater cultural impact in Britain. This is ironic, of course, as it was written specifically with the corrupt and violent incumbent Jamaican government in mind. The “police” and the “thieves” from the title were regarded as representatives of Jamaica’s oppressive system and were to be used interchangeably when addressing agents of the state.
Given the universal language used, and the fact that the British police were facing accusations of institutional racism at the time, the track quickly became an anthem for both black and white protestors against the status quo. It soundtracked the hazy summer of 1976 and could be heard reverberating around the streets of London. It would also soundtrack the violence that concluded that year’s Notting Hill Carnival.
It is said that the song could be heard just hours before the tensions between the community of west London’s Ladbroke Grove and the belligerent police boiled over. Notting Hill Carnival was supposed to be a celebration of Caribbean culture, but the way the day ended was the complete antithesis to its ethos. Things escalated quickly and an estimated 60 carnival-goers needed medical treatment at the end of the fracas, and over 66 arrests were made.
Two of the rioters were Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, who had not long since formed The Clash. After the rioting, they were inspired to cover the song in a style they labelled ‘punk reggae’ and not ‘white reggae’. The track made it onto their debut album, 1977’s The Clash, although at first it was not intended to. However, after a break in the recording sessions, the band rearranged it and liked the results. It is one of the first examples of a rock band fusing their sound with reggae, and at six minutes long, it nearly doubled the length of Murvin’s original.
It turns out, however, that Murvin and Perry weren’t fans of The Clash’s rework at all. Upon first hearing the track, Murvin denounced it, saying: “They have destroyed Jah work!”. Strangely, although Perry said that The Clash had “ruined” the song, he still agreed to produce their 1977 single ‘Complete Control’ that also featured on their debut album.
The song also had an effect on another reggae legend, Bob Marley. After hearing The Clash’s pumped up redux, Marley penned his 1977 B-side to ‘Jamming’, ‘Punky Reggae Party’. The lyrics of the track mentioned punk and reggae acts in the same breath: “The Wailers will be there, The Damned, The Jam, The Clash – Maytals will be there, Dr. Feelgood too”. After hearing The Clash’s track for the first time, Marley said: “It is different, but me like how him feel it”.
No matter which version you listen to, both are brilliant. The theme of the song is as pertinent today, regardless of composer, and it shows that as a society we’ve still got much work to do.
Listen to the original ‘Police and Thieves’ below.