Sunday, 8 December 2013
Junior Murvin has died but the story of Police and Thieves lives on
The Jamaican reggae singer, who died on Monday, bequeathed us an anthem whose indictment of policing still rings true
When Superintendent Leroy Logan stepped down as the highest-ranking African-Caribbean officer in the Met this summer, he entertained his retirement party guests with his rendition of Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves. The irony was not lost on myself and others present. The tune is iconic. Even among coppers. Despite its critique of the profession.
Having said that, many reggae lovers will struggle to identify the song's singer, Junior Murvin, who died on Monday in relative obscurity compared with the global success of his reggae anthem.
The tune was the soundtrack to the Notting Hill carnival in the summer it was released, 1976. The perfect groove for a hot and sticky August bank holiday on the streets of west London. Eerily, the record had been pumping out of sound systems and shebeens in London W10 and W11 postcodes in the days and hours before the community tensions of the time erupted in an all-out battle between (predominantly) black youth and the (predominantly) white police on the streets of Ladbroke Grove. Everywhere you went for the following few weeks – parties, blues dances and even university student unions – the tune was being rinsed out like it was the pick of the pops.
Every young rebel seemed to have a copy. Joe Strummer and his bandmates included. Even though John Peel had been playing Murvin for months, it was the Clash's version on their debut album that would turn the song into a punk anthem. Strummer told me he preferred Murvin's original. It was one of his favourite records.
So too, it seemed, for anyone who had a beef with the police throughout the rest of the 70s and 80s and maybe right through to the 90s. It even charted – four years later, in 1980 – and Murvin obligingly took the militant road to Top of the Pops. The following year it was the theme to the Brixton riots and subsequently to much of the social unrest during Margaret Thatcher's premiership.
Its comparison of police with thieves and any other criminals "scaring the nation" was written for the politically manipulated war zone that was Kingston, Jamaica, at the time – where you were as frightened of the constabulary as you were of the gunmen – but was subtle enough to resonate in these shores where the Dixon of Dock Green image of the obliging copper was being eroded by the image of uniformed thugs jumping out of black mariahs. What we didn't get at the time was that the "police" and the "thieves" were the emissaries of the politicians who ran the system.
But somewhere along the way its meaning started to fade and it became a party song rather than an indictment of the forces of law and order. Somewhere along the way it became OK for an outgoing Met superintendent to spoof it.
Everybody now knows, of course, that the old bill's antagonism towards black men never went away and that institutional racism is alive and well in the police force. But a new generation wasn't interested in dancing away its anger to one of the most seductive reggae songs you'll ever hear. It's too subtle for those weaned on NWA's cut-to-the-chase Fuck Tha Police.
Today, when it comes to cops and daylight robbers, there are no passing "anthems". Only the monstrous anger of direct action as we witnessed in the 2011 riots, a response to the police killing of Mark Duggan. In the Tottenham area where I live and in the areas I pass through – Harlesden, Brixton, Peckham, Hackney, Moss Side and other "hoods" – nobody is chanting the "downfall of Babylon" any more. But it doesn't mean they're not still angry with the belief that the police can kill a black man in broad daylight without consequences, and at being stopped and searched many more times than their white mates, and that the whole racist system compels half of young black men to languish on the dole. They're not stupid. They know who the "police" are and they know who the "thieves" are. They get it. They're just not voicing their frustrations through a pop song.
Written by Dotun Adebayo and first published at The Guardian