Hunger, and the Uses Thereof
In order to properly appreciate the incredibly important reissue of this album, it will be important to not just focus on the title track itself, which is bound to be the one song that everyone’s heard due to its cover by the Clash on their debut. The song itself doesn’t swallow up the LP, and we don’t want to wallow in praise here for one tune at the expense of all the other songs, not to mention the bonus tracks and new liner notes and stuff.
But damn, is “Police and Thieves” a great damn song.
But we’re gonna get to that. Junior Murvin never had the career he should have had, mostly due to quality control problems; after this record, he went on to work with producers both interesting and not, but nothing ever really kicked it as much as he did here, which was as far as I can tell his first real album. According to the notes (here by David Katz), Murvin had auditioned for Lee “Scratch” Perry and Coxsone Dodd at Studio One in the middle 1960s, was told to go write one more verse for his song, but got hungry and went away.
But there was to be none of that in May 1976 when Murvin tried again. He had a vision that led him back to Perry, now in control of his own Black Ark Studio. This time, Murvin and Perry were both hungry, musically and spiritually. This is one of the starvedest-sounding records I have ever heard, thanks in large part to Murvin’s signature falsetto singing. He doesn’t slip into falsetto like some other singers—he’s in that mode from the very beginning of “Roots Train”, where his opening “ba ba ba ba ba” syllables sound like some kind of warning siren floating over Perry’s complicated electrofuturist backing. When Murvin settles into his chorus, which is pretty much just the line “Roots train #1 / Is coming” repeated four times, you feel his righteousness and purity of soul in every syllable.
It’s almost a cliché to talk about what a genius Perry is, but when something is true, it is true. His work on this album is absolutely untouchable, from the sci-fi rhythms, to the techno-tweaked backing vocals that float in behind Murvin and then disappear like they never happened, to the use of dub echoes and dropouts in a purely pop context. Perry is sensitive enough to frame Murvin’s old song “Solomon” in terms of a quasi-doowop number and bold enough to turn around and do a hypnotic skank for “Rescue Jah Children” on the very next track, and make them sound like they belong together.
But it is that elusive blend of hungry singer and hungry producer that makes this record what it is. “False Teachin’” sounds less like a song than the gospel straight from heaven (“Babylon makes the wine / To blow the children’s mind”), but the groove is funky one-drop perfection, and Murvin’s testifying includes everything from jazz scatting to lover-man croon. The verses of “Easy Task” are delivered in a different mode than the choruses, as if Murvin’s message was so important that Scratch had to change up his style just to let him deliver it. “Workin’ in the Cornfield” is so dub-drenched that it sounds like it’s always in danger of collapsing from hunger just like its narrator: “We don’t eat most of the time / We just meditate on Jah and have a good time”. (When you hear it, it makes sense to rhyme “time” with itself.)
The whole thing sounds like the two most angry and talented and righteous men in the world getting together—except that one of those men is singing in a really super-high falsetto voice the whole time. Sure, there are moments that rankle (part of the amazing “I Was Appointed” could be used by the “pro-life” movement for a PSA), but overall this is hypnotic beautiful dub’n'vocal reggae music.
I guess I better briefly talk about the absolute kick-ass-ness of “Police and Thieves” itself. Those who only know it from the Clash’s version will be very surprised at how slow, deliberate, and authoritative it is, how pretty the melody and the backing rhythm are, and how thoroughly it rules on all its cover versions. This tale of how “All the peace makers / Turn war officers” will never go out of date or out of style; neither will the agonized way Murvin delivers the song or the way Perry boils all his various techniques and tricks down to three minutes and 51 seconds of echo and slap and soaring alien harmony.
The bonus stuff is great too. “Bad Weed”, a version of “Police and Thieves” with different lyrics about how Jah is going to set his garden in order, is almost as good as the original—but not quite. There’s a nine-minute mix of “Roots Train” with an insanely casual toast by Dillinger that completely takes over the song at the 5:45 mark. I’m as in love with Murvin’s previously unreleased song fragment “Childhood Sweetheart” as the protagonist still is with his lost love. “Memories” is another extended mix, where Murvin is sad for four minutes and then Perry goes way the hell off the dub end for another almost five. And what reggae record is complete without a remake of a Curtis Mayfield song called “Rasta Get Ready”?
This record will actually make you happy that you have food in your belly and in your pantry, but it might make you sad that Murvin never really got hungry enough to make another record this good. Me, I’m gonna go scarf the rest of last night’s Thai panang with tofu—suddenly, I’m ravening.
// Notes from the Road
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