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Classic Albums #3

Between 1976 and 1977, Island released four classic Black Ark albums: Party Time by The Heptones, Police And Thieves by Junior Murvin, Super Ape by The Upsetters, and War Ina Babylon by Max Romeo. Of these four, Police And Thieves stands out as something special. It was the most successful of Island's Black Ark albums, not only because of the strong material and Scratch's distinctive production, but because it really captured the mood of the time in both Jamaica and England. Police And Thieves is more or less a psychedelic blues album: Scratch's smoky sound swirls around Junior's staggering falsetto as he warns off bad women, dismisses hoodlums, and laments a life working in the hot sun.

The album begins with the wonderful "Roots Train", a near irresistible number with breezy horns and Murvin's catchy chorus of "gotta get on board, gotta get on board". Why this song didn't become a major hit is beyond me.

Thirty years later, "Police And Thieves" is still the theme song to a wide variety of world unrest as well as the continuing gun violence that plagues Jamaica.

In many ways, the song "Police And Thieves" overshadows the rest of the album due to its position as one of reggae's anthems, alongside Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" and Bob Marley's "One Love". It's a timeless piece of reggae: whether its political violence on the streets of Kingston or protesters smashing up McDonalds on the streets of Seattle, Murvin's epic tune is just as crucial now as it was in 1976. The song is a snapshot of mid-70s Kingston, telling the tale of increasing social unrest and violence fuelled by rival political parties. It also became relevant to West Indian immigrants living in London, who had been experiencing unprecedented levels of police harassment and aggression in that city. What had been simmering in the background suddenly boiled over in the summer of 1976 during London's Notting Hill Carnival: after months of intimidation from the police, the black population of London's west end spontaneously erupted in violent protest. "Police And Thieves" was an eerily accurate description of the situation: "all the crimes committed, day by day / no one tried to stop them in any way". Two young Brits who were in the middle of the Notting Hill riots were Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, soon to become famous with their band The Clash. The following year, the band made the bold decision to record a rugged cover of Murvin's song, which until that time had been relegated to rehearsals and sound checks. "Just like the Rolling Stones used to cover the latest rhythm and blues records, we decided to cover one of the latest reggae records," recalls Clash guitarist Mick Jones. "It was relevant to us, to a lot of people. Joe and Paul had been in the Notting Hill riot. But we did our own thing with it." As David Katz wrote in the sleeve notes to Island's 2003 re-issue of Police And Thieves, The Clash's cover version was "a direct expression of how the punk movement was enthralled and influenced by the rebellious spirit and and musical individuality of reggae". Thirty years later, "Police And Thieves" is still the theme song to a wide variety of world unrest as well as the continuing violence that plagues Jamaica.

"Solomon" is a reggae chestnut, with other versions being cut by Derrick Harriott and Delroy Wilson. In a nutshell, the song sings the praises of the Biblical king Solomon, but admits that not even he could figure out women. In a wonderful show of male bravado, Murvin reworks the lyrics and claims "I am wiser than Solomon / so girl, don't make no jest".

"Rescue Jah Children" is a reworking of an older Murvin tune, "Rescue The Children", also originally recorded for Derrick Harriott in 1973 as Junior Soul. Murvin revisits the song with new Rasta-inspired imagery and a slow, smouldering Upsetters rhythm underneath. The song is a gritty observation of poverty and violence and a call for people to set a better example. "Black against black every day / too much wolves are in the pack" is reminiscent of Dennis Brown's superb "Wolves And Leopards".

"Tedious" is the first really startling song on the album, a haunting, phased out commentary on Jamaica's political strife at the time. The opening verse refers to Michael Manley's famous "Rod of Correction" — a walking stick that Haile Selassie gave Manley in 1970, and which became a symbol for many Rastas who sympathized with Manley's socialist PNP government. Murvin chastises Manley for not following Moses' example and leading his followers to the promised land. Murvin sings that "it's tedious a yard, tedious abroad" and concludes "soon there will be a great exodus".

"Babylon makes the wine to blow the childrens' mind" opines Murvin on "False Teaching". Among other things, the song touches on duplicity in the church, violence in Jamaica, and the authorities' fight against ganja. The mood of the song is summed up the with the ominous line "confusion on the land, judgement is at hand".

"Easy Task" is a straight up blues lyric. Had Murvin been born 20 years earlier in Mississippi, it might have been a classic Chess or Paramount tune. "It's no easy task living / but no one wants to die / when you think of how hard you work / it really blows your mind".

Then there is the chilling "Lucifer". In the same vein of Max Romeo's "Chase The Devil", Murvin delivers a terse, militant lyric over the propulsive "Vampire" rhythm. In Romeo's song, the devil is responsible for a variety of ills and Max wants to chase him away. In Murvin's song, the anger is directed towards the legacy of slavery, and it seems the devil himself — Lucifer — is to blame. The song contains vivid imagery such as "they took away our gold and land / and parked us in the sinking sand" as well as the devastating "they slaved us / they raped us". Thus, the grim chanted chorus "death to the brothers of Lucifer" is a warning to anyone who would continue the oppression of the slavery era.

"Workin' In The Cornfield" is another blues number, albeit with some strange twists. "Working in the cornfield, hot and sweaty all day / working hard for my week's pay" needs no explanation, but later Murvin adds unusual touches such as "my wife Mary, she ain't contrary" and some scat vocals.

The album concludes with "I Was Appointed", a melancholy number that has Murvin taking the role of a prophet, urging people of all colours to gather round and hear what he has to say. Murvin then scolds priests, abortions, pollution, and Wall Street and laments on the state of society and the planet. An alternate version of "I Was Appointed" showed up many years later on Heartbeat's excellent Baffling Smoke Signal collection.

In 2003, Island re-released Police And Thieves on CD and included several crucial bonus tracks, a hint of what other gems they have stashed in their vaults.

In 2003, Island re-released Police And Thieves on CD and included several crucial bonus tracks, a hint of what other gems they have stashed in their vaults. First is the previously unreleased "Childhood Sweetheart", a charming love song featuring a chugging rhythm. The song is notable, since you get to hear Junior speaking in his normal voice instead of his famous falsetto. Also included are the discomixes of the terrific "Bad Weed" and the magnificent "Roots Train", featuring Dillinger running alongside with a big spliff in the second half. Then comes another discomix, "Memories". The song has more in common with George Faith's To Be A Lover than the militant vibe of Police And Thieves; originally it was released as a limited edition Island 12" single. The best is saved for last: Murvin's version of Curtis Mayfield's classic "People Get Ready", re-created as "Rasta Get Ready" — a true gem.

Like other artists who worked with Lee Perry, Junior Murvin's career went on after Police And Thieves, but he never really harnessed the same power that is contained in this Black Ark classic. He recorded the great Bad Man Posse for Mikey Dread in 1982 and Muggers In The Street for Henry "Junjo" Lawes in 1984, but neither soared to the heights of Police And Thieves, Junior Murvin's tour de force.

February 2007