Jamaican singer Junior Murvin died yesterday at the age of 69. The falsetto specialist was by far most well known for the timeless song “Police & Thieves,” which he co-composed in 1976 with visionary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, then at the height of his powers (as other tracks from later in this period such as The Congos’ “Fisherman” and Twin Roots’ “Know Love” can further attest). The ethereally beautiful music of “Police & Thieves” emerged out of a jam session at Perry’s Black Ark Studios with his mid-seventies version of the Upsetters band (which included future reggae stars such as Sly Dunbar, Earl ‘Chynna’ Smith,Boris Gardiner and Keith Sterling), with Murvin improvising his enigmatic political preacher lyrics (although another version of the song with different vocals would also be recorded, titled “Bad Weed”). “Police & Thieves” was a hit in Jamaica, but made a much bigger splash amongst the ex-pat Jamaican communities in England, and rippled out from there, touching a nerve in a nation suffering through a period of economic and social strife. The Punk explosion was in full-effect, and the song did not go unnoticed, especially by ex-hippies such as Joe Strummer.
The first time I heard “Police & Thieves,” on a clock radio in California, it was The Clash’s cover version from their first album. I did not know for a few years that it wasn’t even their composition (I also thought Strummer was singing “when Jimmy says” instead of “In Genesis”, so I thought he was talking about Jamaican pop star Jimmy Cliff (The Harder They Come), or perhaps the late Jimi Hendrix, preaching “revolution”. Yet despite their hopped-up, almost ska version, its guitar interplay is in many ways more in debt to the New York band Television than to Perry or Murvin (who would state the Clash’s version “ruined Jah’s work”), the unequivocal beauty of the underlying music comes through – and of course, it is this contrasting juxtaposition that puts the song over the top. Murvin could preach a cosmic warning against escalation, while Strummer could play the ‘peace warrior’, but the song remains the same – a classic.
I would highly recommend checking out the documentary Viva Joe Strummer: The Clash and Beyond (2005), an insightful look at the late singer-songwriter-icon with great archive footage (including a performance of “Police & Thieves”) and reminiscences/analysis from ex-Clash bandmates Mick Jones and Topper Headon as well as collaborators such as Tymon Dogg, and contemporaries such as the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock.
Also, try listening to the House of Reggae’s podcast dealing with favorite dubs from the ‘70s, which features much Lee Perry, as well as his occasional collaborator King Tubby.
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