Arts, Culture & Media

Don Letts remembers a reggae legend who united rastas and punks

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Don Letts waits in a BBC studio in London.

Credit:

Leo Hornak

British punk band The Clash included a song called "Police and Thieves" on their self-titled debut album, released in 1977.

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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.”