So, they’re at it again. In the aftermath of Ohio State’s (unexpected) victory over Oregon in the first-ever College Football Playoff Championship Game – is that what it’s called? There have been so many iterations of the college football championship it’s hard to know what’s what – students at OSU’s campus in Columbus, Ohio, were…
Forty years ago, a young Jimmy Cliff played the leading role in Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, a film about a struggling musician in Kingston, Jamaica, battling street crime and record industry corruption, and thus a generation of hip white suburban kids was introduced to reggae. The movie and its soundtrack – arguably the best in the history of motion picture soundtracks – had a huge impact on the music scene in American cities like Chicago and New York, which had well established Jamaican and Caribbean communities to begin with. But it had, perhaps, an even larger impact on the music scene in in the UK, which, thanks to its colonial past, is home to one of the largest Jamaican diaspora populations on earth.
While suburban teenagers in America fell in love with the reggae sound, across the pond the social activism inherent in 1970s reggae was melding with the next great musical revolution: Punk rock. And standing at the intersection of reggae and British punk was an unlikely musical hero named Junior Murvin, who died earlier this week at his home in Jamaica. “Murvin’s age,” according to the Los Angeles Times, “has been listed as 64 and 67 in varying reports.”
In any event, Junior Murvin’s 1976 hit, “Police and Thieves,” is one of the most recognizable reggae tunes of the 1970s, thanks in large part to the Clash’s epic six-minute cover on their debut album, The Clash, released in the UK in 1977. As The Guardian’s Dotun Adebayo explains:
[Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”] was the soundtrack to the Notting Hill carnival in the summer it was released, 1976. The perfect groove for a hot and sticky August bank holiday on the streets of west London. Eerily, the record had been pumping out of sound systems and shebeens in London W10 and W11 postcodes in the days and hours before the community tensions of the time erupted in an all-out battle between (predominantly) black youth and the (predominantly) white police on the streets of Ladbroke Grove. Everywhere you went for the following few weeks – parties, blues dances and even university student unions – the tune was being rinsed out like it was the pick of the pops.
Every young rebel seemed to have a copy. Joe Strummer and his bandmates included. Even though John Peel had been playing Murvin for months, it was the Clash’s version on their debut album that would turn the song into a punk anthem. Strummer told me he preferred Murvin’s original. It was one of his favourite records.
It’s no coincidence that the Clash chose to cover “Police and Thieves” on their first record, because the Notting Hill riots influenced much of the band’s early music. Bassist Paul Simonon recently said in an interview recorded on Spotify (“I Wanna Riot”) that he and Joe Strummer, the band’s frontman, were living in the vicinity of Notting Hill at the time and, out of a combination of boredom and curiosity, actually went down to and briefly participated in the riots that summer. That is, until they had an encounter with a man whom Simonon described as a “Rasta General”: “And that’s when we realized,” Simonon said, “that, actually, it’s not really our fight” – meaning that they were just a couple of white kids pretending to be involved in the struggles of Black people in the UK, when, in fact, they didn’t really understand what that community was going through.
Nonetheless, Strummer and the Clash found common ground in the plight of Notting Hill’s residents, even if that fight wasn’t their fight, and that connection – the connection between angry white punks and angry “Rasta Generals” in the UK – led to some of the greatest and most socially conscious music ever to come out of the British Isles. As Joe Strummer would later write in “White Man in Hammersmith Palias”:
White youth, black youth
Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood
And ask him for some wealth distribution …
That revolutionary spirit is all but gone in pop music today, but for a brief time in the mid-to-late 1970s, the brilliant convergence of punk and reggae breathed life into a record industry that seemed to be long past its sell-by date. And it was inspired, in no small part, by Junior Murvin’s reggae anthem:
Police and thieves in the streets
Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition
Police and thieves in the street
Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition
Here’s the Clash’s version of “Police and Thieves” from their UK debut: