British punk band The Clash included a song called "Police and Thieves" on their self-titled debut album, released in 1977.
It was the cover version of a hit from Jamaican reggae singer Junior Murvin. He released "Police and Thieves" a year before the Clash did their version.
Murvin died on Monday at the age of 67.
“That song is very much a product of its time,” says musician and filmmaker Don Letts, who was a DJ back in the 70s.
Letts is often cited as the man who — through reggae and ska 45s — bridged the worlds of the Jamaican rastas and London punks.
Because Junior Murvin wrote "Police and Thieves" in Jamaica, it's about what he saw there, says Letts.
“In Jamaica, in the early to mid 70s, there was a lot of political struggle. And there was a lot of gunfire on the streets ... a lot of it instigated by the politicians who were bringing in weapons onto the island and putting them in the hands of young kids that really didn't know what direction to point them in. So, it was very, very messy.”
"Police and Thieves" became Junior Murvin's big hit, charting in Jamaica and in the UK. When it came out, Murvin had already been singing for a while, Letts says.
“Like many Jamaican artists, he grew up as a child singer, like Curtis Mayfield who was very big and very popular on the island at that time. If I remember correctly, he was actually rejected by Lee Perry and the legendary Coxsone Dodd when he first auditioned for them," Letts adds. "And then he went off and had this small career, releasing a few singles for other producers, before he re-approached Perry with his self-penned 'Police and Thieves.'”
As it turned out, Perry also produced the Clash's version of Junior Murvin's song.
Punks and rastas as allies may seem strange now, but it wasn't at the time, Letts remembers.
“In the mid-70s, we had this punky reggae connection, which was very strange because you know they are two tribes from very different worlds," he says. "But we were like-minded rebels thrown together by circumstance and chance.”
And by Junior Murvin, with his song "Police and Thieves."
A few years after he and The Clash put out their respective versions of the song, Junior Murvin performed it on the British music show Top of the Pops.
To powerful effect, Letts says: “For him to actually chant and appear on this TV program with such a politicized song was a major achievement, not only for reggae, but for black people in this country, as well.”
Reggae great Junior Murvin reportedly died Monday morning at his home in Portland Parish, Jamaica. The falsetto singer born Murvin Junior Smith in 1949 was best known for his 1976 classic "Police and Thieves," recorded by Lee "Scratch" Perry and famously covered by the Clash on their self-titled debut the following year. He released a handful of notable albums and singles over the years — his last being 1998's "Wise Man" — often exploring his country's issues with politics and crime.
According to the Jamaica Gleaner, Smith died peacefully, though had been struggling with an advanced form of diabetes. While he toured Europe extensively, in part playing with his '90s roots reggae band the Jah Postles, he had lived just about his entire life in the parish capital of Port Antonio, a rural region on the island's northeastern coast known for its gorgeous beaches, as well as its status as a major exporter of coconuts and bananas. Rihanna filmed "Man Down" nearby.
"Police and Thieves" can be heard not only on the excellent 1977 album of the same name, but in the beloved 1978 Jamaican film Rockers and the soundtracks to Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Dave Grohl also covered it for Reno 911!: Miami under the pseudonym Sprechen Sie Deutsch. Revisit the original along with career highlights "Cool Out Son," "Closer Together," and "Think Twice" below.