On this date in 1960 The Crickets (Buddy Holly’s group) released the single “I Fought the Law” on Coral Records. Written by Sonny Curtis (he replaced Holly after his death), a remake by the Bobby Fuller Four became a top-ten hit for the band in 1966.
Just six month after the song made its first appearance on the Billboard Top 100 chart, Fuller was found dead from asphyxiation in his mother’s car in a parking lot near his Los Angeles apartment.
“I Fought the Law” is a song about a guy who goes to jail after a robbery spree. The phrase “I fought the law” caught on, and has remained in the American lexicon ever since. Both the song and the saying have appeared in many movies, TV shows, video games, and other commercial enterprises.
Fuller’s version of the song was ranked #175 on the Rolling Stone list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004, and the same year was named one of the 500 “Songs the Shaped Rock” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Clash recorded this in 1979 after they heard Fuller’s version on a jukebox in San Fransisco. They made the song more bleak, changing the line, “I left my baby” to “I killed my baby”. Their version got them noticed in America.
Dead Kennedys adapted “I Fought the Law” shortly after San Fransisco politician Dan White murdered city Supervisor and gay activist Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. Most of the lyrics were re-written so the song was from White’s point of view, the chorus was changed to “I fought the law, and I won”, with the final chorus changed to “I am the law, so I won”.
The John Mellencamp hit “Authority Song” was also said to be inspired by “I Fought the Law”.
Other groups who covered this include Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, Green Day, Nanci Griffith, Hank Williams Jr. etc.
For me, The Clash’s version has played an important role, pretty much set the standard, how to reinterpret the song in a punk & roll way.
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Featured image by Sheila Rock.