“I Fought the Law” was originally recorded in 1959 by rock & roll group Sonny Curtis and the Crickets.

Sonny Curtis (second from right) and the Crickets

Sonny Curtis (second from right) and the Crickets

It has since been covered by pretty much every artist ever, and then some.

You know you have a hit on your hands when Colin Farrell asks to cover your song.

You know you have a hit on your hands when the venerated Colin Farrell asks to cover your song.

By far the most famous covers of “I Fought the Law” are by the Bobby Fuller Four, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, and Green Day, whose version was used in an early iTunes commercial.

I’m partial to the cover by the Dead Kennedys, a 1980s hardcore punk group, because I once did a report on its lyrical meaning for history class.

The Dead Kennedys (Klaus Fluoride, Jello Biafra, East Bay Ray, and Ted) protest the commercialism of the music industry.Early Dead Kennedys: bassist Klaus Fluoride, vocalist Jello Biafra, guitarist East Bay Ray, and drummer Ted, protesting the commercialism of the music industry.

Jello Biafra, one of the most bad-assed and politically incendiary frontmen in the history of punk rock (and that’s saying something for an inherently bad-assed and politically incendiary genre of music), rewrote the lyrics of the song in a sarcastic derision of the controversial trial of Dan White.

You’ll recall from this blog’s reviews of Milk that White was the San Francisco city supervisor who assassinated fellow supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone in 1978.

Former San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White

Former San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White

What Milk doesn’t cover is the aftermath of the killings and White’s subsequent trial in 1979.  White, a former police officer, turned himself in to authorities as the shooter later that day, whereupon his old coworkers allegedly applauded him.

His trial saw the introduction of the infamous “Twinkie Defense”.  White’s lawyers argued that he should not be convicted of murder because his capacity for rational thought was diminished in the days leading up to the shootings.  His lawyers offered as evidence of White’s altered state of mind his uncharacteristic consumption of junk food.

They did not argue, as the film misstated, that a chemical imbalance resulting from eating junk food prompted White to carry out the shootings.

In any case, the jury bought the argument and found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than first degree murder, convicting him to only seven years in prison as opposed to a life sentence.  This sentence, criticized by many as being an overly lenient one delivered by a jury sympathetic to White’s status as an ex-policeman, sparked the White Night Riots in San Francisco.  Jello Biafra rewrote the song from Dan White’s point of view, and many of his lyrics reflect this anger as well:

“The law don’t mean shit if you’ve got the right friends

That’s how this country’s run

Twinkies are the best friend I’ve ever had

I fought the law and I won”

“I’m the new folk hero of the Klu Klux Klan

My cop friends think that’s fine

You can get away with murder if you’ve got a badge

I fought the law and I won”

Jello Biafra, the Dead Kennedys

For your comparison, I’ve compiled the Youtube videos of the five most famous versions of “I Fought the Law”.  I chose live performances over studio recordings wherever possible.

Sonny Curtis and the Crickets: “I Fought the Law”

The Crickets disguise themselves as wildflowers.  Thrilling hilarity ensues.

Bobby Fuller Four: “I Fought the Law”

The Four play in a jail cell to the delight of an appreciative fellow inmate/go-go dancer.

The Clash: “I Fought the Law”

The Clash radiate pure awesome at a live show at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

Dead Kennedys: “I Fought the Law (and I Won)”

Jello Biafra sings with vitriolic sarcasm at an L.A. show while the audience? (bouncers?) mosh onstage.

Green Day: “I Fought the Law”

Billie Joe gamely tries to blink his eyeliner out of his eyes.  A female audience member and probable Hot Topic patron at front and center shows off her startling proficiency at pointing in the general direction of the band, frustrating the event’s cameramen at every turn. Unfortunately, near 1:58, her clapping is temporarily thrown off beat when she attempts to point and clap simultaneously.

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