I first heard “I Fought the Law” by the Crickets as I first heard many of the oldies: travelling in the car with my parents. Much of the foundation of my music education was laid while sitting in the back seat of the car as we drove to family gatherings, listening to the only radio station – WMJI Majic 105.7 – that my mother, father and I could agree on.
Sonny Curtis wrote the song and brought it with him when he joined the Crickets after Buddy Holly’s death, releasing it in 1965. The song was covered in 1966 by the Bobby Fuller Four and did well for them (though Fuller’s tremolo warble makes me want to punch him), but I’m going to take a wild guess that the majority of people reading this are most familiar with the Clash’s 1979 cover.
You’ll notice a couple of small lyrical changes from the Crickets’ original. For instance, the narrator of the original is robbing people with a zip gun, while, starting with the Bobby Fuller Four cover, he began robbing people with a six-gun. Though, of course, the biggest change implemented by the Clash took the narrator from merely missing his baby (or, as Fuller had it, leaving his baby) to killing her, making him much more of an outlaw than he started out. But, you know, at least he feels bad about it.
The lyrics of “I Fought the Law” seem to invite people to mess with them, and nobody messed with them more than Jello Biafra as he rewrote them to comment on the murders of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk for the Dead Kennedys’ 1980s re-working of the song.