Police & Thieves, the most significant reggae song ever?

The influence of Jamaican reggae music on popular culture in 1970s Britain cannot be underestimated.

Police & Thieves is clearly a game changer.

junior-murvin_police-thievesPolice and Thieves was co-written by Junior Murvin and Lee ‘scratch’ Perry and produced by Lee ‘scratch’ Perry. It was considered a ‘hit’ at the time of its’ release in July 1976 in the UK and was the title track on Junior Murvin’s 1977 album of the same name. It was also included on the debut release by the highly influential punk band, The Clash in April the following year, 1977. The single was named ‘Reggae Single of the Year’ by the music publication: Black Echoes and placed sixth in the New Musical Express, end of year singles chart. The original reggae version of this song was also used in the Guy Ritchie’s 1998 film: Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (Katz, 2000). The song has obviously had an impact on a generation of people that identified with its’ anti-authoritarian message, delivered in two protest song formats: reggae and punk music. The title alone holds true for any society where corruption exists within the police force and would obviously resonate with anyone who appreciates music that embodies social reporting and who are conscious of social inequalities as a result of corruption. This essay will examine how Individual and sub-cultural resistance to dominant ideology is inspired by and expressed through popular music, and chart my own journey with this song as musician and performer.

Our sense of individuality is fashioned by questioning, what is offered to us as social truths, and comparing these ‘truths’ to our personal beliefs and subjective experience. This would be particularly true for adolescents struggling to establish a sense of identity within their world, in order to then establish a ‘sense of self’. According to Hartley (2002), our sense of individuality occurs when social convention is checked against our subjective reality and socially generated, historically authenticated discourses are copied and reinforced; a basic tenant of discourse theory. It’s worth exploring the process that led to myself strongly identifying with the anti – authoritarian discourse expressed within the song Police and Thieves, in order to place my journey within a theoretical framework.

After I completed my higher school certificate in 1984 and failing to gain an academic score high enough to consider entering university, I decided that I would never work at the BHP, Port Kembla steelworks, historically, the primary provider of employment in the Illawarra region where I was born and raised. Wollongong, the major city in the region, was primarily an industrial city, but I deliberately chose to search elsewhere for employment and eventually found clerical work in Sydney, which was a 90 minute train ride from my local train station. I also endeavoured to forge a path within music industry, played in a punk / pop band, spent all my money on records, music equipment and enrolled in a certificate of audio engineering through SAE in Surry Hills Sydney in 1986, which I partially completed. I did however use my previous studies as leverage to get a ‘job’ working for virtually nothing in a local Wollongong studio and for actually no money as a roadie and general hand for a PA hire company. I also enrolled and partially completed a diploma in jazz studies at The Wollongong Conservatorium. In between being unemployed and enrolling in courses and not completing them, I was also steadily working my way through numerous dead-end office jobs. I eventually decided to enrol in university and successfully completed a mature age entrance exam for Wollongong University. I began a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1991 and choose subjects such as: Sociology, Science & Technology Studies, Philosophy, History and Politics. I was obviously on a quest to find some sense of meaning in the world and my place within it.

I initially heard the song, Police And Thieves when I bought a double vinyl package set of
music by The Clash in the early to mid 1980s. I was then re-introduced to the song while studying at The University Of Wollongong in 1991. I had formed a band with the intention of playing ska music with a bass player, who was a Mod / Rude Boy and obsessed with The Clash. It was probably the bass player that suggested that we play ‘Police And Thieves’ as recorded and arranged by The Clash in 1977. Importantly, the Clash’s version of Police And Thieves was a fusion of punk and reggae music and not the original reggae version co-written, and produced by Lee Scratch Perry and performed by Junior Murvin.

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The band we formed, played at Wollongong University and local venues for about a year. Now in my late 40s I’m still playing music in bands, and still performing Police And Thieves, but I’m now performing the original reggae version of the song. The common thread here that another band member, this time the drummer, who is also a big fan of The Clash, suggested that The Clash were the only punk band of any importance. I was consequently inspired to add the original reggae version of Police And Thieves to our set list, as I had remembered that I had played it back in the 1990s when I was in my early 20s. What’s interesting to me is why I’m still managing to unlock some of meaning behind the song Police And Thieves, and what the song represents in terms of social commentary and cultural expression. Within a historical context, the song is also synonymous with a period of high racial tension in Britain at the time of its’ release there in 1976.

The song became an anthem in the UK at the time of it’s release in July 1976 and consequently became part of the soundtrack for an annual carnival, celebrating Jamaican culture, that had been held in the Notting Hill area of London for ten years. The area had a high concentration Jamaican immigrants who lived there and importantly, the first generation of immigrant children, born in Britain, identifying as Black British citizens with a Jamaican heritage, who were struggling with issues of high unemployment, social and economic inequality. The Notting Hill Carnival perfectly embodied ‘diaspora’ theory, because It was a cultural activity that maintained aspects of the ‘homeland culture’ (Jamaica) but had a dual intention to integrate into the new homeland, while also seeking to make new communities and participate in the transformation of traditions, neighbourhoods and cultures (Hartley, 2002). The carnival however, was stopped after 1976 when a large-scale riot famously erupted after participants in the carnival, intervened to assist a number of black youth from being arrested by police for pickpocketing near the main carnival route on Portobello Road. More than 100 police officers had to be taken to hospital after being attacked with stones and other missiles. Around 60 people, who were taking part in the carnival, also needed hospital treatment and least 66 people were arrested due to taking part in the riots. (BBC, 2016)

The Notting Hill Carnival riot was significant because it highlighted growing racial tension within Britain and became a flashpoint for this tension to be released by British born, black youths who identified as being British, but felt angered by social disadvantage and over zealous police action at the time of the Notting Hill Carnival. The area has a very high concentration of Jamaican immigrants and the first generation born in the UK, were either living in the area or connected to it, by the first wave of immigration from Jamaica in the 1950s and 1960s. “Notting Hill, which had the highest population of Jamaican immigrants at the time … The housing was cheap and they were put into slums and ripped off, so to make themselves feel better they started the carnival, but that summer of 1976 there’d been heavy police pressure put on the black community … the police were intolerable and there was no legal redress against their behaviour. But this was a case of people saying, I’ve had enough!” (Peachey, 2008, p.105).  First generation, black, born in the UK, considered themselves British citizens, yet, were dealing with the same level of discrimination that their parents had encountered as newly arrived immigrants. Where their parents had attempted to assimilate, the next generation chose to maintain a stronger sense of cultural identity and fought back against police oppression and high unemployment.

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Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, founding members of The Clash, were present at the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. They have gone on record stating that they not only attended the Notting Hill Carnival, but they also took part in the anti-police riots, which, ended the event being held annually. Both were art students, musicians and were pioneers in a growing sub-culture at the time known as punk. Both were disaffected and angered by their experiences at The Notting Hill Carnival. Punk music was viewed by the band and in particular by Strummer, as a means to express the frustrations of his generation, who also wanted to see change in the society that they lived. In the words of Strummer: “We participated in the riot … After the riot I sat down and wrote they lyric [to White Riot]. In it’s clumsy way it’s trying to say to white people, If we were going to do anything, we’re going to have to become anarchists or activists, we can’t just sit around and be pummelled by society, or plastered over” (Peachey, 2008, p. 105). What is of great interest to myself, and the main theme of this article, is the ability of one cultural form of expression, the reggae song ‘Police And Thieves’, to influence and inspire people not only from it’s cultural place of origin, Jamaica, the first generation of Jamaicans born and raised in Britain, but also it’s ability to influence white British youth who lived in the same neighbourhoods and beyond.

The influence of reggae music on the development of punk music and the resonance that it had with the punk sub-culture was significant. Reggae music clearly had an influence on other bands and musicians of the time who also went on to enjoy international success, for example, The Police and of course, The Clash. “Black music generally and Jamaican music in particular have … consistently supplied white youth with the raw material for their own distinctive forms of cultural expression.

Bob Marley was in contact with a famous London DJ and Filmaker, Don Letts, who introduced Marley to a deeper, protest message within punk music

Through the political discourses of Rastafari, reggae has provided young whites with a collective language and symbolism of rebellion that has proved resonant to their own predicaments and to their experiences of distinct, but related, forms of oppression (Jones, S. 1988, p. 231). For the purposes of establishing a position on why some forms of music can be so significant to sub-cultures (eventually becoming mainstream), an examination of ‘sub-culture’ will done from the perspective of the ‘Birmingham tradition’ of cultural studies, with reference made to contributing authors of a seminal text in British cultural studies: Resistance Through Rituals.


The term ‘sub-culture’ can be taken to mean something that is more akin to ‘lifestyle’ rather than ‘culture’ as it would be most commonly used to refer to ‘cultural expression’ or creative works. Cohen suggests that “Youth sub-cultures express and resolve albeit ‘magically’, the contradictions which remain hidden or unresolved in the parent culture. Sub-cultures are ways of dealing with the difficulties that structural transformations in society have created in the parent culture to which they belong” (Cohen cited in Longhurst & Bogdanovic 2014, p223).The punk sub-culture was, overtly anti-authoritarian and was essentially a youth-protest movement. It’s no coincidence that the music and fashion sense reflected this. “Subcultures generally resist the dominant social order, albeit indirectly and in symbolic ways.” (Hebdige, as cited in Longhurst and Bogdanovic, 2014, p. 225). The punk sub-culture was essentially a reaction against the social, political an economic turmoil of the mid 1970s Britain, outwardly celebrating an anti-authoritarian stance by adopting confronting hair styles, fashion and suggesting that anarchy was a worthy social alternative to socio-political status quo. While some people within the punk movement, particularly in bands wanting media attention, declared themselves anarchists as a means of generating publicity, others meanwhile were taking such claims seriously. By 1979 – 80, the punk sub-culture had splintered into various, almost disparate factions and sub-genres that ranged from the hard-line anarchism of those gathered around bands such as Crass, the class-based social realism of bands such as Sham 69 and The Cockney Rejects through to the experiments of post-punk and new wave bands declaring that rock was dead (Worley, 2014, p.91).

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What seems to be a prevalent theme in the punk sub-culture was a desire for change, separation from the status quo and anti-authoritarian stance. Punk, like any sub-culture seeks to distance itself from the ‘parent culture’ and seeks to balance the difficulties and restrictions placed on members of the sub-culture by emphasising the generational gap through two main lifestyle components which can be termed ‘plastic’ and ‘inftrastructural’. Within the ‘plastic’ category can be placed music and fashion, within the infrastructural category can be placed ritual and jargon (Cohen, cited in Longhurst & Bogdanovic, 2014, p. 223). While fashion, jargon and ritual all have their place in understanding sub-cultures, music for the purpose of this essay, may be regarded as an essential component in the creation of any modern sub-culture. Forms of music that promote an anti-authoritarian stance, would obviously appeal to those seeking to express their frustrations with society, as their experience within it. Music also serves as a means by which to identify with feelings that are evoked by it on an individual level and to create a sense of ‘belonging’ through shared musical appreciation.

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The song Police And Thieves served as a perfect vehicle to help bridge racial and cultural divides existing in 1970s Britain and took the anti – authoritarian stance suggested by the lyrics and reggae music, concerned with black pride and nurturing an Afro-centric view, to create a new story for dispossessed British youth, both black and white. The political and social philosophies of the principal lyricist and singer for The Clash, Joe Strummer suggests that he viewed rock and rock roll music as a means of individual and social empowerment rather than just mere entertainment and Strummer came to embody the notion of self transformation for his fans” (Worley 2014, p2). His social realist method of song writing displayed a reporting style of social commentary that consciously reflected their immediate surroundings and eventually would shift to more global concerns. The Clash were a white band that were drawn to social and political concerns as expressed in a black man’s music; Rastafari ‘infused’ reggae. The song Police And Thieves, was recognised and championed for its’ anti – authoritarian discourse, and fused with the energy and ‘attack’ of punk music to create a new method of expression, that would take reggae as a form of protest music, to a much wider audience. “His rebellion, [Strummer’s] was not built on class expression, nor was it theorised. It was, by contrast, a liberal humanist response to injustice wherever it occurred (Du Noyer, cited in Worley, M., 2014, p.91). The song Police And Thieves, as previously mentioned, was added to The Clash’s first album: The Clash, which was created with the intention of being a soundtrack for a generation that wanted change and wanted to express their frustrations their society at the time. Police And Thieves was presented to a mainly white audience by The Clash and it’s anti-authoritarian message was eventually taken to an international audience.  The song provided the necessary inspiration for an entire generation and potentially brought about change within society at the time. A timeless piece of music that continues to resonate with people decades later.


BBC ON THIS DAY | 30 | 1976: Notting Hill Carnival ends in riot. (2016). News.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 21 November 2016, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/30/newsid_2511000/2511059.stm

Harrison, B.J. & Faulk, D.B. (Eds.) (2014), Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series : Punk Rock Warlord : the Life and Work of Joe Strummer: Ashgate. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Hartley, J. (2002). Communication, cultural and media studies (4th ed.). London: Routledge.

Jones, S. (1988). Black Culture, White Youth: The Reggae Tradition from JA to UK, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Katz, David (2006) People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry, Omnibus Press, ISBN 978-1846094439.

Longhurst, B. and Bogdanovic, D. (2014). Popular Music And Society, (3rd ed.). Cambridge, U.K: Polity Press.

Peachey, M., (Ed.). (2008). The Clash. London, Atlantic Books.

Worley, M. (2014). Revolution Rock? The Clash, Joe Strummer and The British Left in the Early Days of Punk. In, B. Harrison & B.J. Faulk, & D.B. Scott (Eds.), Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series : Punk Rock Warlord : the Life and Work of Joe Strummer: Ashgate. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

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