I fought the law, and the law won (unless it didn't)
November 11, 2015 9:03 PM   Subscribe

Outlaw songs are at least as old as popular music itself. The image of a gallant loner battling a rigid and unyielding legal establishment has proved irresistible for generations of songwriters. In 1959, Texan Sonny Curtis wrote one of the best, "I Fought The Law." Intended as a vehicle for himself and the post-Buddy Holly Crickets, their single went precisely nowhere.
That is, until it was covered -- the first hit cover was by The Bobby Fuller Four in 1965, then another major version came out 14 years later, from The Clash who revived the "oldie" into what is now a "punk anthem." From there, the covers start piling up....

Notable versions:
1064 - Bobby Fuller's demo version, with some background information from Dangerous Minds.
1975- Sam Neely's version of the song went to No. 54 on the Billboard pop charts and no. 61 on the country charts.
1979- Hank Williams, Jr.'s cover was released the same year as The Clash's version, ranking as a #15 country hit that year.
1987- Dead Kennedys finally released their own version, written shortly after San Francisco politician Dan White murdered city Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978 with lyrics rewritten in criticism of Dan White's sentencing and early release.


Even more versions:
- Roy Orbison - kinda swinging, released in 1972
- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - live in 1978, with a little preamble about talking to the police and making noise, with some video tape distortion
- The Crickets and Waylon Jennings - at a Buddy Holly tribute concert in Lubbock, Texas in September 1980
- Bruce Springsteen - live audio from 1984
- Mano Negra - official live recording, 1991
- Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - peaked at 66 on Billboard country charts in 1992
- Grateful Dead - live in 1993
- Mary's Danish - a so very 90s alt. rock take
- Mike Ness (of Social Distortion) - released on his second solo album, Under the Influences, which peaked at No. 174 on the Billboard 200 in 1999
- Green Day - 2004 digital single
- Johnny Marr - live at T in the Park, Kinross, Scotland in 2013
- Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - live televised performance
- Stray Cats - a bit of modern rockabilly
- Nanci Griffith with Sonny Curtis & The Crickets - according to a comment, she's "the queen of folkabilly"
- Brian Jonestown Massacre - appropriately BJM-type cover
- Beatsteaks - German punk band's cover
- Masked Intruder - pop-punk with altered lyrics ("and the law beat the shit out of me")
- Thug Murder - Japanese punk/ska take on the track
- Ska-P - Spanish punk/ska, decent live audience video
- Cepeni Cunci - Serbian (?) punks reclaim the song ("...and I won")
posted by filthy light thief (29 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Clash's version was part of Operation Nifty Package, the United States Navy SEALs-operated plan conducted in 1989 designed to capture Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega.
Previously: a question about tracking down Goblini's version.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:06 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


And finally: a weird link (streams iTunes audio sample, links to the iTunes store, but isn't an Apple site) to a sample of the not so great but slightly notable cover/re-write by/featuring Dave Courtney, English self-proclaimed former/"celebrity" gangster.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:13 PM on November 11, 2015


Great post!

I hate to lead with a negative, but...speaking as a Deadhead, I hated the Dead's take on this, and I think it was pretty unpopular with many other Deadheads, too. The Dead's versions of this tune were short, not exploratory, not always well executed (insert joke here), and the message of the song was not well received. A great song when covered by some bands, but not all bands could...wait for it...do justice to this tune. I'll let myself out...
posted by mosk at 9:19 PM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


wow, that's a great evening collection! thanks. trips back in time.
posted by anadem at 9:22 PM on November 11, 2015


why didn't the dead do it better?
posted by anadem at 9:27 PM on November 11, 2015


Strange, i was just listening to the clash, this in particular.

We must kill General Aupick. And sorry Deadheads, the dead kinda suck, punk is the future of rock and roll. 25 years ago. Where are my pills? Why are those kids on our lawn?
posted by vrakatar at 9:34 PM on November 11, 2015


It's fascinating to me how The Clash version feels like the first fully realized version of this song to me, and yet is the "punk" cover, while the Crickets and Bobby Fuller versions sound like garage demos by comparison. In a way it reminds me of "Respect" or "All Along the Watchtower," where you can clearly see the solid songwriting in the originals, but where it took Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix, respectively, to make them into the songs they were supposed to be.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:48 PM on November 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


What, no love for Metric? It's their best song evar. :)
posted by trackofalljades at 10:58 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Nice how the demo uses the lyric 'robbing people with a SHOTgun', while inventing the fantastically witty musical hook of sounding six 'shots' as slow triplets while the line is sung. Obviously shotguns don't work like that so the line needed changing to 'robbing people with a SIX-gun' so listeners could really get the musical joke first time, and enjoy the six chambers being fired off every subsequent time you hear it.
posted by colie at 1:25 AM on November 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


The Clash's version was part of Operation Nifty Package, the United States Navy SEALs-operated plan conducted in 1989

The US National Security Archives provides the full Operation Nifty Playlist (page 4 onward) - but they claim that Bobby Fuller's version was the one played. More on the playlist.
posted by rongorongo at 2:04 AM on November 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't see Colin Farrell's version here from my favourite Irish movie.
posted by night_train at 2:11 AM on November 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


but they claim that Bobby Fuller's version was the one played

Presumably the Pentagon is committed to playing by the rules on paying ASCAP/BMI royalties, but someone didn't like taxpayers' money going to commies like The Clash and intervened in a plausibly deniable way.
posted by acb at 4:35 AM on November 12, 2015


I never knew that about the Dead Kennedys' version, but now the lyric "I blew George and Harvey's brains out with my six gun" finally makes sense.
posted by indubitable at 4:55 AM on November 12, 2015


Not covered, but referenced in Lou Reed''s "Dirt".

Do you remember that song
By a dude named Bobby Fuller
It went like this
I fought the law and the law won
I fought the law and the law won

posted by davebush at 5:23 AM on November 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


I love this song and just about any cover of it. I'm especially fond of it because I can play it despite my mediocre guitar skills, and its three-chords-no-waiting style still sounds good.
posted by Gelatin at 5:30 AM on November 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Quite apart from anything else, "Operation Nifty Package" is the best military codename ever.
posted by Eleven at 5:36 AM on November 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Fascinating! I've only ever heard the Bobby Fuller version and had NO IDEA this was such a well-covered tune. Which I suppose says more about my listening tastes than anything else, but there you have it.
posted by briank at 5:56 AM on November 12, 2015


This is great but what is more awesome is there is something called the Covers Project.
posted by Mitheral at 6:10 AM on November 12, 2015


Quite apart from anything else, "Operation Nifty Package" is the best military codename ever.
And the playlist is just the best if you are trying to evict your arms dealing, drug dealing, money laundering, murdering (yet opera-loving) neighbour and former pal.

( Of course they should have played this Spanish version).
posted by rongorongo at 6:46 AM on November 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


trackofalljades: What, no love for Metric?

Another tribute-not-cover, John Mellencamp has called his Authority Song "our new version of 'I Fought The Law.'"
posted by filthy light thief at 7:09 AM on November 12, 2015


I love, love, LOVE this song! That it's so widely covered is just a testament to how timeless it is. It fits seamlessly and bridges so many generations and types of rock. Just a little tweak here and there and it's folk, punk, rockabilly, country, etc. Perfection. My first experience with it was the Stray Cats version, which led me to the Dead Kennedy's version. This is an excellent post. Thanks for this!

Anecdotally, (and I have exactly no way to prove this), up until a few years ago, my dad was fairly close with one of the psyops higher ups who had a hand in coming up with Nifty Package, and personally selected many of his favorite songs for the playlist. We had known him for a few years before he offered up that nugget, and it just blew me away. He is one of the most chill dudes I've ever met. Kind of medicine and new agey- very peaceful. Helluva keyboard player.
posted by Krazor at 7:17 AM on November 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


There was a Clash-Bobby-Fuller-Four generational-gap joke about it this week on Bruce McCulloch's new show 'Young Drunk Punk'.

I'd link, but work filters no likee.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:47 AM on November 12, 2015


Why are those kids on our lawn?

John Peel once mentioned a band called The Lawnmowers, who did a cover/parody "I Fought The Lawn (And The Lawn Won)", but I can find no trace of this being true. Rob Carlson had a song by the same name, mind.
posted by Devonian at 7:53 AM on November 12, 2015


There is (was?) a band called The Lawnmowers and at least one song called I Fought The Lawn (And The Lawn Won) has been recorded. Sadly, these two facts seem not to have occured on the same disc. Perhaps Dr Peel was indulging in one of his legendary quips?
posted by Paul Slade at 8:48 AM on November 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Great post! It's pretty clear why the Bobby Fuller version won out, but the Crickets version is delightful, go listen to it.
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on November 12, 2015


but they claim that Bobby Fuller's version was the one played

I hope so, because cranking The Clash's version on repeat will just make you rock out like a boss. Shit, I'm doing that right now.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:20 AM on November 12, 2015


Nice how the demo uses the lyric 'robbing people with a SHOTgun', while inventing the fantastically witty musical hook of sounding six 'shots' as slow triplets while the line is sung. Obviously shotguns don't work like that so the line needed changing to 'robbing people with a SIX-gun' so listeners could really get the musical joke first time, and enjoy the six chambers being fired off every subsequent time you hear it.

The six shots are still present in the original Crickets version, but there the lyric is "robbing people with a zip gun" which generally don't work that way either.
posted by ckape at 10:47 AM on November 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


In 1986 there was a countryish (I can only assume) band called DK Davis that played a county fair near my grandparents' house in northern Illinois. They were filming their version of "I Fought the Law" for a video that I THINK ended up on TNN. Several months later, we crowded around the TV and tried in vain to pause the VCR to see if Tiny St. Hubbins and DK Davis had become the new Courteney Cox and Bruce Springsteen.

(Nope.)

It was SO EXCITING.
posted by St. Hubbins at 9:27 AM on November 13, 2015


I think my favorite of the covers in the post is the Nanci Griffith with Sonny Curtis & The Crickets one. You have to admire Thug Murder's enthusiasm though.

Navelgazer: It's fascinating to me how The Clash version feels like the first fully realized version of this song to me, and yet is the "punk" cover, while the Crickets and Bobby Fuller versions sound like garage demos by comparison. In a way it reminds me of "Respect" or "All Along the Watchtower," where you can clearly see the solid songwriting in the originals, but where it took Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix, respectively, to make them into the songs they were supposed to be.
In a bit of a coincidence, YouTube's suggested video that autoplayed for me after The Crickets version was “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by songwriter Robert Hazard.

Gelatin: I love this song and just about any cover of it. I'm especially fond of it because I can play it despite my mediocre guitar skills, and its three-chords-no-waiting style still sounds good.
I think that's one of the reasons the song has been so widely covered. Almost anybody learning to play guitar winds up learning this one relatively early on.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:16 AM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


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