Song: Police and Thieves
Band: The Clash
The landmark punk act dropped its searing debut album in 1977, with a battery of hard-charging, intensely anthemic tracks. It was bristling with an emotionally raw, unrefined energy and was instrumental in defining the UK punk generation, with its roots in a strangled working class existence amidst race tensions, massive unemployment and a bottomless cynicism regarding authority.
This freshly inventive cover was only added as an afterthought, when the band realized the song list was too short for a full vinyl release. The original was written by Jamaican reggae artist Junior Murvin and produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry the year before; for a study in contrasts check out Murvin’s original version, with the singers’s graceful falsetto and the smooth, gentle melancholia of the arrangement. By contrast, the Clash’s version is a mercilessly stripped-down, rocked-up monster of a testimonial about a status quo indifferent to the plight of the besieged and overlooked in London’s gritty streets. Though their Police And Thieves is more rock than reggae, Its inclusion on their first album hints at future releases in which the band was to more faithfully experiment with reggae and dub sensibilities.
I don’t know what got to me more - Joe Strummers’s guttural, impassioned lead vocals emphatically cutting through the mix, or Mick Jones’s spare leads and incandescent finale. All I knew was that this commanding song, among many brilliant tracks on a startling debut album, was the one I couldn’t stop playing - and the one I couldn’t wait to hear again and again.