Jimmy Cliff originally wrote and sang “The Harder They Come” as the theme song for the movie of the same name, in which he starred. The Harder They Come, the song, album and film, are widely credited with familiarizing non-Jamaican music fans with reggae. I’ve been familiar with the song my whole life; partially because I’m a Brooklynite of a certain age with Caribbean ancestry and am thus familiar with Jimmy Cliff, and partially because of Rockers Revenge’s post-disco cover, which I heard on the radio in the early ’80s.
I was also familiar with Joe Jackson. I did not know that Joe recorded a version of “The Harder They Come” until the early 2000s, when I purchased a double CD compilation of his greatest hits. Joe’s version was a one-off single release, not previously attached to any album, and it didn’t chart in the U.S. or his native UK. However, it’s the best version of “The Harder They Come” that I’ve ever heard.
The Cliff and Rockers Revenge versions are a bit bouncy and friendly-sounding, which takes away the fact that the song is actually about fighting oppression and emerging victorious from the hands of people trying to hold you down. Joe’s version lands somewhere between ska and punk. The tempo is amped up from the original version and Jackson snarls the lyrics in his slightly raspy croon. He feels those lyrics in a way that I don’t feel from Jimmy Cliff (who, to be fair, wrote the damn song).
And I keep on fighting for the things I want
Though I know that when you’re dead you can’t
But I’d rather be a free man in my grave
Than living as a puppet or a slave
So as sure as the sun will shine
I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine
And then the harder they come
The harder they’ll fall, one and all
No disrespect, Jimmy, but your version makes me want to go to the beach. Joe Jackson’s version makes me want to punch someone in the face-righteously and with cause, of course.