PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Junior Murvin: Police and Thieves

Matt Cibula

Junior Murvin

Police and Thieves

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 1969-12-31
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.