Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Golden Age of Roots: ‘Police and Thieves’

Throughout 1976, as Lee Perry was working with the likes of Max Romeo, Gregory Isaacs, and Dennis Brown decrying the violence and instability of Jamaican politics and the harsh injustices of Jamaican society, he was also collaborating with a young man named Junior Murvin on what would become one of the most famous statements of protest and solidarity in reggae history. “Police and Thieves” resounded across the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In England, the song struck home with an oppressed immigrant population recently traumatized by the outbreak of violence at the Notting Hill Carnival in London; in the United States it made inroads with a progressive demographic still learning about the potency of the little island’s musical tradition. “Police and Thieves” is instantly recognizable: if you haven’t heard the album cut in context, you’ve heard the Clash’s punk version or the soundtracked clip from the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

As always, though, this international reggae hit is rooted firmly in Jamaica. The song, and the album which followed, were products of the same circumstances that spurred forth War Ina Babylon, and the two records have an analogous message and tone, not to mention having enjoyed similarly illustrious and influential careers after their releases. Murvin and Romeo also invite comparison as singers–both men did an album at the Black Ark Studio that would come to define their careers. Murvin would work with the eccentric producer again in the ’80s, but both vocalists have spent decades capitalizing on their Perry-produced recordings. Both benefited tremendously, one thinks, from the guidance of Lee Perry. It would seem that in 1976, the Black Ark was the place to be for an aspiring singer.

The two are worlds apart, however, in ambiance and mood. Police and Thieves, released in 1977, is murky, apocalyptic, and surreal. War Ina Babylon, in comparison, is crisp, practically minded, and concrete. The contrast testifies to Perry’s versatility and his responsiveness to his singers, for the producer’s arrangements are tailor-fit to the two musicians’ disparate and individual voices. While Perry magnified Romeo’s authoritative tenor into a tribal call-to-arms, Murvin’s ethereal falsetto gave him a chance to make a record just as fluid and glitzy, a colorful meld of sound and harmony. Nowhere is this more obvious than with “Police and Thieves” itself. The slow tempo allows Murvin and the band to luxuriate in the saucy melody and bassline, and Scratch gives their performance a shimmering finish with a gauze of reverb and echo that brings out the pointed and delicate intonation of the singer’s voice without overwhelming it.

The details are a matter for speculation, but it’s likely that Perry did more than simply record Murvin and mix his tracks. In the roots era, studios like the Black Ark were laboratories and schools for young singers developing their voices. Producers were looking for a certain sound, and perfectionists like Perry (though he was by no means an exception) would refuse to conclude a session or finalize a recording until the band and the singer had gotten things just right. It is not surprising, then, that Murvin’s story — and the story of Police and Thieves — is one of growth. Like other young singers — Max Romeo among them — Murvin learned to sing imitating American soul stars (Curtis Mayfield especially) and, once he came of age, bounced from one studio to another, writing songs, botching auditions, and scoring brief and inauspicious hit singles. At least one of these–“Solomon”–would be featured on his album with Perry.

“Police and Thieves” itself was the song that hooked the producer, and work slowly but surely proceeded on a full-length. Over the course of a year, the two artists developed a working relationship and collaborated for hours in the studio. Murvin reportedly wrote most of the songs at the ruins of Folly Mansion in Port Antonio, a crumbling, massive, Romanesque house built in 1905 by a rich American engineer. Looking at photos, it’s all too easy to picture the slight young singer leaning back against a decrepit Doric column, penning lyrics like “Back to the evil days of Lucifer / What happen in the dark / Must come out to light.” The mood is indeed ominous, satanic even. If there’s any one album that prefigures the disastrous and ignominious end of the Black Ark, it’s Police and Thieves.

Reinforced by Perry’s imaginative production, Murvin’s imagery is consistently strong. “Tedious”, for example, opens with a piercing, exhilarating wail into a breathless call for a Rastafarian exodus buoyed up by a male chorus. On “Roots Train”, a probable homage to Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” (which Murvin would later cover as “Rasta Get Ready”) he sings “Train number one / Is coming” over a veritably chugging rhythm in yet another vision of pan-African redemption. “Workin’ in the Cornfield” paints a vivid picture of modern slavery complete with muggy, phased horns and belabored, somber backup vocals. If none of these can quite live up to the basic immediacy of “Police and Thieves”, with its two-faced heroes and villains running rampant in the street, it’s because that song is superlative.

Junior Murvin had an ultimately modest career in music, but Perry believed in him and expected great things, comparing him to legends (of his own making) like Romeo and Bob Marley. Police and Thieves is perhaps more than anything else a product of that partnership and that confidence. Certainly the album’s expressive, exotic ambiance would not be possible without the contributions of both. Count it as one more reason to think of the Black Ark as not an inflexible institution, but as a makeshift creative home for musicians, songwriters, singers, and visionaries–subject always, of course, to the indomitable will of their resident Upsetter.