The Clash

Police & Thieves

Song Review by

There are some songs that belong so completely to a particular artist that no one else would even think to cover them. One such is the reggae classic ”Police & Thieves”, which is justly considered one of the hallmark recordings of the roots era and shows up regularly on reggae compilations -- but always in its original version, which is actually associated equally with its singer, the great falsettist Junior Murvin, and its producer, the infamous Lee “Scratch” Perry, who recorded the song in his legendary Black Ark studio using a crappy four-track recorder from which he was able to draw sounds unlike any heard before in reggae history. Murvin’s lilting delivery and Perry’s dark, ominous arrangement and production are as central to the song’s identity as its lyrics and melody. And yet, one other band did manage to record a credible rendition of the song, and that was the Clash. What made the Clash’s version work so well was the fact that the band made no attempt whatsoever to duplicate any of what made the original so unique and wonderful. Instead, they infused it with punk-rock urgency and turned a song originally written to depict political violence in the Kingston streets into one which reflected equally well the racial unrest that plagued London at the time. Listeners who had never heard reggae recognized the Clash’s version of ”Police & Thieves” as punk rock, whereas reggae fans heard a desperate cry from a band of dispossessed white youth and, for the most part, gave it the respect it was due. In fact, Perry himself was so impressed that he later produced the Clash’s single ”Complete Control”. This was by no means the last punk-reggae fusion; the mixture would prove to be a fertile one for such bands as the Slits, the Ruts and even the Stranglers, not to mention the entire Two-Tone ska revival and a whole host of punk-ska upstarts in the late 1990s.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Clash 1977 Legacy / Epic 6:03
No Image 1981
Various Artists
Harmony Vision / Vestron
Story of the Clash, Vol. 1 1988 Epic / Legacy 6:00
No Image 1990 Relativity 0:00
Clash on Broadway 1991 Epic / Legacy 6:00
The Clash/London Calling/Combat Rock [2000] 2000 Epic / Sony Music Distribution 6:01
The Royal Tenenbaums [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] 2001
Original Soundtrack
Hollywood 6:00
The Essential Clash 2003 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 6:00
Pearl Harbour '79 2004 CBS Records 6:01
Hits Back 2013 Sony Music 5:59
Sound System 2013 Sony Legacy / Sony Music 6:03