The Bobby Fuller Four’s version of Sonny Curtis’ “I Fought the Law” has been a beloved fixture in the American pop song canon for very good reason. It’s got a lot going for it: a catchy riff, a wonderful, wistful vocal performance, lost love, rebel cache (“I fought the law…”), fatalism (”…the law won”), and one of the most indelible singalong choruses in the entire history of choruses. And for those who know Fuller’s life story, the song has an undercurrent of the tragic to it—he was found dead under shockingly tawdry and mysterious circumstances just months after releasing the record that would finally bring him enduring fame.
But while the last half-century has been very kind to the song, 2015 is already shaping up to be a great year for it. The 1966 Mustang Records single has been inducted into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame despite never actually having won a Grammy—to be fair, in the categories it might have qualified for, nods went to Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, and the Mamas & the Papas, all obviously worthies, so it’s not like the song was slighted—and Fuller’s original self-recorded demo of the song is finally getting a proper release, on the long-running archivist/garage label Norton Records, as a 7”. It’s been on some limited rarities comps here and there, but has never until now known the tender kiss of sweet, sweet vinyl.
I’m actually kind of excited about this, way out of all proportion to how much I usually give a fuck about the nth reissue of a song I’ve heard a million times since childhood, because for all the world, I think the demo version is just flat-out better than the official release we all know. Bobby Fuller experimented heavily with recording process. During some of the years he spent striving to become known as a musician, he also ran the independent record label Exeter, and he did his own engineering. In the new Fuller bio titled—oh, you’re never gonna believe this—I Fought the Law, co-authored by Fuller’s brother/bassist Randell and Norton Records honcho Miriam Linna, Fuller pal Rick Stone recalls:
“I was at a recording session of I Fought the Law. Bobby set up everything, ran the whole show, did all the work setting up and running things. He had to run through the den, then through the garage and into the storage room, which was his control booth. He had two Ampex machines in there and he’d built some cubicles out of chicken wire and burlap just before that session, so he was really going for a home version of a real recording studio at that point. I got over to his place about 9:30 and Bobby was still working on it at 4:30. It was pretty wild.
So let’s A/B the versions! Here’s the one everyone’s used to, the Mustang Records release from 1966:
And here’s the demo version, freshly remastered for vinyl. YouTube compression is probably eating some of that nuance for breakfast, but the differences that really count are plain as day.
Nice, no? I love the double-tracked vocals, the slightly rounder lead guitar sound, and the looser, more spirited overall feel of the demo recording. I also like that in this version he’s “robbing people with a SHOTgun” instead of a “six-gun.” In fact, here’s some trivia, related to me by Miriam Linna—you can tell which version of the song you’re listening to by what kind of gun our hero is brandishing. In the demo, it’s a shotgun. On the 1964 Exeter single (the recording described in the above quote), it’s a zip-gun. And of course, on the 1966 Mustang single, it’s a six-gun. There you go. You can drop that science for trainspotter cred next time you’re trying to get that cute record collector you’ve been chatting up to come home with you. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!
Here’s a fun and goofy note to end this on—it’s the Bobby Fuller Four miming behind Nancy Sinatra in the Boris Karloff film The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini!