“I Fought the Law” is a song written by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets and became popularized by a cover by the Bobby Fuller Four, which went on to become a top-ten hit for the band in 1966 and was also recorded by the Clash in 1979. The Bobby Fuller Four version of this song was ranked No. 177 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 that Shaped Rock” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The song was written in 1958 by Sonny Curtis, and recorded in 1959 when he joined the Crickets, taking the place of the late Buddy Holly on guitar. Joe B. Mauldin and Jerry Allison continued their positions on the standup bass and drums, respectively, while Earl Sinks filled the role for vocals. The song was on their 1960 LP, In Style with the Crickets, and the following year appeared as the b-side of their single, “A Sweet Love”. The song never received any airplay. Milwaukee’s Paul Stefen and the Royal Lancers covered the song in 1962; it provided them with a local hit, but it never made the national charts. In 1964, Sammy Masters recorded his cover of the song. That same year, the song was recorded by Bobby Fuller and his band on his own Exeter label in El Paso, which solidified the band’s popularity in the West Texas area with one of his biggest local hits.
The song contains a break in the line “Robbing people with a six gun”, where the rhythm continues in regular time signature but plays two triplets (i.e., 6 beats in succession), in order to represent six shots of the “six gun” revolver in the song. This rhythmic device is found in the Crickets, Clash, and Bobby Fuller Four versions of the song.
Bobby Fuller Four version
|“I Fought the Law”|
Single cover of the Bobby Fuller version of “I Fought the Law”
|Single by The Bobby Fuller Four|
|from the album I Fought the Law|
|B-side||“Little Annie Lou”|
|The Bobby Fuller Four singles chronology|
After enjoying regional success in Texas, Bobby Fuller and band decided to switch to a major label—Del-Fi Records under Mustang Records—and they became known as the Bobby Fuller Four. While producing minor hits, the band broke the national top ten when they re-recorded “I Fought the Law” in 1965 with Bobby Fuller (vocals, guitar), Randy Fuller (backing vocals, bass guitar), Jim Reese (backing vocals, guitar), and DeWayne Quirico (drums).
Just six months 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, Californiaapartment. The Los Angeles Police Department declared the death an apparent suicide, but others believed him to have been murdered. Fuller was 23 years old.
|Billboard Hot 100||9|
The Clash version
|“I Fought the Law”|
|Single by The Clash|
|from the album The Cost of Living|
|B-side||“(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais“|
|Released||July 26, 1979 (U.S.)|
|The Clash singles chronology|
In mid-1978, the Clash were working on their second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Singer Joe Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones flew out to San Francisco to record overdubs in September–October atthe Automatt studio. The owner of The Automatt kept his collection of classic jukeboxes distributed around the various rooms of the studio complex. Strummer and Jones listened to the Bobby Fuller version of “I Fought the Law” for the first time on one of the jukeboxes, and by the time they returned to England they could perform the song.
Their version first appeared on the EP The Cost of Living in May 1979 in the UK, and then later in 1979 was made part of the American edition of the Clash’s eponymous album. This cover version helped gain the Clash their first taste of airplay in the States and is one of the best-known cover versions of the song. The live recording of the song, performed at the Lyceum Theatre, West End, London on December 28, 1978, features as the last piece of the 1980 film Rude Boy directed by Jack Hazan and David Mingay. The Clash were dressed all in black for that gig and the song, at that stage, was considered the film’s title song.
In 1988, CBS Records re-issued the single (catalog number) in CD, 12″ and 7″ vinyl formats, with “City of the Dead” (2:24) and “1977” (1:40) as its 7″ B-side. The song is featured as a downloadable track in the music video game series Rock Band.
In 1989 during Operation Just Cause, the US military surrounded the Apostolic Nunciature in Panama while trying to capture Manuel Noriega, the strongman of Panama. US forces blasted loud rock music—including “I Fought the Law” by the Clash—to put pressure on Noriega to give himself up.
In 2012, the Clash’s version of the song was featured in the video game Sleeping Dogs as part of a karaoke mini-game.
|Chart (1988, Re-release)||Peak
|UK Singles Chart
Sam Neely‘s version of the song went to No. 54 on the Billboard pop charts and Mo. 61 on the country charts in 1975. Hank Williams Jr. had a No. 15 country hit with the song in 1978 and another country version by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went to No. 66 in 1992.
The song has also been performed, both in concert and on record, by the Dead Kennedys who did a version with lyrics re-written about the Moscone-Milk assassinations. Dave Courtney, the London gangster, sang alongside Scottish pop-punks Mute, fronted by Jay Burnett, who wrote an updated version with lyrics based on Dave’s legendary court case. Both this and the Dead Kennedys’ version are titled “I Fought the Law and I Won”.
In 1999, Mike Ness of Social Distortion covered the tune on his second solo effort, Under the Influences, which peaked at No. 174 on the Billboard 200 (November 27, 1999).
In addition, Ducks Deluxe, She Trinity, Beatsteaks, Viper, Bryan Adams, John Cougar Mellencamp, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Social Distortion, Stiff Little Fingers, Mike Ness, Waylon Jennings, Gary Allan, Green Day, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Ska-P, the Jolly Boys, Grateful Dead, Stray Cats, Mary’s Danish, Claude François, Mano Negra, the Big Dirty Band, Lolita No. 18, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Attaque 77, Die Toten Hosen, Status Quo, Nanci Griffith, La Vida Bohème, Anti-Flag, Chumbawamba, Tsuyoshi Kawakami and His Moodmakers, the Airborne Toxic Event and numerous other artists have covered this song live or in studio. For the 2003 film Intermission, Colin Farrell recorded a version of the song, singing it in the guise of his character in the film. TheMary’s Danish recording is featured in the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), and the accompanying soundtrack release Buffy the Vampire Slayer Soundtrack.