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How a song written in Texas by Buddy Holly's guitarist became a UK punk classic

The Clash in New York, 1978
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

There’s a gathering thrub of drums. An anticipatory pick scrape. Then that deathless guitar riff, as urgent and insistent as a fire alarm. For those who heard it first on The Clash’s 1979 EP The Cost Of Living, I Fought The Law surely could only have been forged in the crucible of British punk. But for anyone who leaned in and listened, Joe Strummer’s opening line betrayed the song’s true provenance: ‘Breaking rocks in the hot sun.’ 

The reality is that I Fought The Law had been written two decades earlier and an ocean away, by the Texan guitarist Sonny Curtis, a compadre of Buddy Holly from childhood and an on/off member of Holly’s band The Crickets. 

“It was some time during the summer of 1959, and I would have been about twenty-one at the time,” the now 84-year-old songwriter tells Classic Rock. “I was sitting in my living room, about three o’ clock in the afternoon, in a little town called Slaton, Texas, outside of the city of Lubbock, where Buddy and a whole bunch of us started out. 

"It was a real windy day, which happens a lot in west Texas. The sand was blowing outside. I picked up my guitar, and I can’t imagine where the idea came from, but I just started writing this song, I Fought The Law. It only took about twenty minutes. You can tell that it didn’t take a rocket scientist to come up with those lyrics. But it’s my most important copyright.” 

The amiable Curtis admits he was no outlaw, but the words to I Fought The Law flowed vicariously. “The song is saying that crime doesn’t pay – and I was definitely of that notion. What’s frightening is that when I finished, I didn’t even write the song down, I just stashed it away in the back of my head. I’ve often wondered if I’ve lost songs over the years from that method.” 

Fortunately, I Fought The Law would soon be pulled out from memory and recorded. “I had rejoined The Crickets before Buddy had died that February,” Curtis continues, “and we were on our way to New York City to record an album, desperate for new songs. So off the top of my head, just sitting on the back seat, I sang I Fought The Law. When we got to the studio, we transposed it to a straight feel, and, voilà, we had us a rock’n’roll song.”

I Fought The Law debuted on 1960’s In Style With The Crickets album but airplay of the track was thin, not least because it was relegated to the B-side of the following year’s single A Sweet Love. At that time, Curtis didn’t think much more about it. “We couldn’t imagine where our careers would go. At that age we couldn’t even imagine lunch.” 

And so it was left to the covers bands for I Fought The Law to start its afterglow. A run of local heroes tried their luck with it, including Milwaukee’s Paul Stefen & The Royal Lancers, but still the song stubbornly refused to go national, let alone gather a global momentum that might one day see it infiltrate the sweatpits of Soho. 

In the spring of 1966, the take by self-styled ‘rock’n’roll king of the South-West’ Bobby Fuller fared better, making the Top 10 of the Billboard Top 100. 

“I thought that was a terrific record,” Curtis reflects. “I was living in LA at the time, and the song started working its way up the coast, then working its way east. It took a good while, but it got to the top ten. That really helped out with the royalties.” But when Bobby Fuller was found dead in his car months later, I Fought The Law seemed bound once again for anonymity, and now carrying the whiff of bad luck to boot.

And there it might have stayed, had Joe Strummer and his Clash bandmate Mick Jones not chosen to polish their second album, 1978’s Give ’Em Enough Rope, at The Automatt studio in San Francisco. 

“Jukeboxes were quite important in our story,” Jones told the Gibson website. “On the jukebox in our rehearsal room we’d have a lot of those records we covered, like Revolution Rock and Wrong ’Em Boyo, a lot of reggae records, and probably Vince Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac. And it was on the jukebox in San Francisco that we first heard I Fought the Law. "We would try to copy it, but bring something of our own to it.” 

Curtis deserves eternal credit for an extraordinary piece of songwriting. But if there was a sticking point with the earlier recorded versions of I Fought The Law, it was that this supposed rebel song hardly sounded like one. Both The Crickets and the Fuller versions rode on a jaunty, jangly, almost-mariachi strumming pattern, along with renegade lyrics (‘a-robbing people with a zip/six gun’), and a clean-cut vocal delivery that seemed oddly incongruous. 

The Clash changed all that. Faster, leaner, curl-lipped and now with that rabble-rousing guitar riff replacing the benign opening strum, the track’s riotous gallop was only underlined by the section at 2:10 where the instrumentation drops out, then rumbles back to life with Paul Simonon’s bass line. Adding a welcome twist of darkness was Strummer’s habit of swapping ‘left my baby’ for ‘killed my baby’ (as heard on the live version from London’s Lyceum Theatre).

For the first time, I Fought The Law sounded like its sentiment; there’s an argument that no other song bottled the anarchic spirit of punk to greater effect. And, yet to this day, Curtis has a tongue-in-cheek complaint. “I sorta have a bone to pick with The Clash,” he says. “I think the song would have been even more famous if they would have gone on TV and played it. But they eschewed some of the top TV shows, because they were sorta anti-establishment. 

“But I’m not mad at The Clash,” the veteran counters with a smile. “I’m really proud they cut my song, and I love that version of it. It just had the feel.”

Henry Yates
Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.