Why you should care
Because there are plenty of second acts in British lives.
The song’s chorus rang out rough, Cockney and with all the street passion a guy like Jimmy Pursey, singer for punk rock stalwarts Sham 69, could bring to bear: “George Davis is innocent!” In approximately one minute and 49 seconds of bristling anger, Pursey screams those words 12 times, and an anthem is born. Even if you had no idea who George Davis was, questions concerning his innocence after hearing the tune would have been nonexistent.
You wouldn’t have been alone. In 1974, classic rockers the Who, new romantics Duran Duran and gay-rights rockers the Tom Robinson Band all had George Davis’ back. The Dublin-born Davis stood accused of being an armed robber, one with the balls to pick off the payroll of the London Electricity Board. LEB was a major concern on the stock exchange, and robbing its payroll at gunpoint made about as much sense as robbing, well, the stock exchange. Yet it happened, and it happened in a milieu that later saw the U.K. rocked by race riots, bombings, street scuffles galore and a prevailing idea that “Us” allied against “Them” couldn’t really believe anything “They” said.
From anti-fascists lining up against the National Front in the ’70s to the Brixton race riots in the ’80s, it was easy to understand both the birth of punk rock and why folks believed Davis had been wrongly convicted. Maybe as much for his movie-star good looks as for a robbery that involved multiple car chases, three other injured robbers (none of whom were convicted), grainy photos taken by undercover cops, questionable eyewitnesses and possibly doctored blood test results that didn’t match Davis’.
A perfect storm for an acquittal, in other words. A year after Davis’ conviction — he received a 20-year jail sentence — the U.K. was still unsettled. Supporters were tearing up the fields at professional soccer matches, and his then-wife was busy with photo ops on Downing Street. Paintbrush graffiti artlessly proclaimed “Justice for George Davis OK,” while celebs and the media piled on. In the spring of 1976, under the weight of public clamor and shifting political appetites, the 35-year-old Davis was released.
“There was so much going on then, that it was really just an almost too-good-to-be-true blip in a sea of bad insofar as ‘blows against the system’ go,” says Barry Adamson, bass player for Magazine and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Which is why it was so much more than perfect that two years later, George Davis was a little less than innocent and much more than involved in another bank robbery. For which he was jailed. And then again, in 1987, this time for trying to steal mailbags. In a 2009 Daily Mail interview with journalist Andrew Malone, Davis said, “Yes, I did them [the crimes]. I pleaded guilty. But I have been a good boy since then and kept out of trouble.” But the original ’74 case that caused the kerfuffle? In 2011, Davis won his appeal. (He did not respond to our request for comment.)
So, George Davis is again innocent. At least until the next time the fickle waters of possible guilt and felony are roiled, clean-nose stuff notwithstanding, in conspiring to catch a man who either did or did not do something. Which, if there’s another song as good as Sham 69’s in the works, would not be all that bad of a thing.