“Police and Thieves” Citation as Struggle in the Punk Cover Song

Attention to pop ideology is inevitably limited where it doesn’t take formal questions into consideration. However, the question of form in a pop record is itself complicated, because form here doesn’t simply mean song form: it also involves negotiations and interactions among producers, engineers, and musicians, and the mediations of management and the record company as well as (sometimes) those of the artists themselves. Such negotiations are a constant; their particularities are not. During the punk era, record form was generally a charged site where politics were made manifest, but nowhere was that more true than in the early work of the Clash. Their 1977 cover of reggae artist Junior Murvin’s 1976 Jamaican hit “Police and Thieves” represents an unusual moment in the checkered history of white bands covering black music. The cover song has always been a key nexus for rock negotiations of authenticity, whether figured in terms of race or of roots. But the Clash refused to appeal to a nostalgic, imaginary purity—which makes the retrospective nostalgic mythos that has surrounded Joe Strummer since his early death just that much more disturbing. Rather, in “Police and Thieves,” the Clash create a form that from the outset denies resolution. Examining cover-song form enables us to think beyond those questions of ethics and appropriation that have, hitherto, dominated the theorizing of pop.

In tribute to Junior Murvin (1949-2013) who died on Monday, December 2nd, we’ve opened access to Debra Rae Cohen and Michael Coyle’s article on The Clash’s complex negotiations of Murvin’s “Police and Thieves.” Read the full-length article, available online until June 2, 2014.


Debra Rae Cohen