Readers recommend: songs about smuggling and stealing – results

Pickpockets to highwaymen, bank heists to drug smuggling, the readers' collective Robin Hood act has made a treasure chest

Under the cover of darkness they came. Precious time was snatched to deliver. One reader endured terrible pain and went to hospital, another is set to move house, but this did not stop them. And another, more delightfully, saw the delivery of a beautiful baby (I dedicate this blog to you, prolific RR regular BeltwayBandit - congratulations!), and despite all of this, during this crazy pre-Christmas period, you still brought riches. Thank you, me hearties, for your bountiful song booty! From rampant robbery to surreptitious smuggling your treasures cascaded through the cellar door of the Readers Recommend and I spent many hours admiring, examining, analysing and enjoying. I am a man poor in time, but rich in song.

And now my turn again to stand and deliver. And indeed, among all the thieves, brigands and rogues came out from your collections, highwaymen featured prominently. For this I tempted by some more traditional fayre such as Eliza Carthy's Turpin Hero or Highwayman by, well, the Highwaymen, but I was persuaded to start with a bit of a bang, a dandy flourish, a glamorous swish, some panache, pistols and pomp. And so I plumped for a man then in his prime, delivering original sounding, drum-heavy post-punk pop. So hands up for nothing but Stand and Deliver by Adam & the Ants.

Theft often starts with small items and among history's most common petty criminals are the pickpockets, which what drew me to Sonny Boy Williamson II's street bluesy rebuke to all thieves - Take Your Hand Out of My Pocket. Sonny ain't messin' here - the police gonna take you down. But instead a number from a musical put its sticky fingers on my keyboard. It features other small ones - a bunch of Dickensian ragamuffins and their leader played by Ron Moody in Oliver! - You've Got to Pick a Pocket Or Two. I'm not big on musicals, but this is an entertaining steal every time.

Stealing can quickly move on from small theft to bigger items - and that means cars. So I nearly hopped into Bruce Springsteen's big, Caddy-style Stolen Car, and then thought about driving off instead with the sensitive, thoughtful Beth Orton's same title. But then, in a song that combines stealing with smuggling, cars and small things, the name had to be Johnny Cash. His song about Australian outlaw Ned Kelly was also grabbing for the A-list, but it had to be hilariously fast, and highly detailed One Piece at a Time, in which Cash's General Motors factory worker smuggles out small parts in his lunchbox over several years to create his own weird but wonderful luxury automobile. Stick it to the man, Johnny!

Staying in an American setting, in fact moving from from Tuscon to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah, the next song has been covered and duly nominated by several artists including Black Crowes, Linda Ronstadt and Steve Earle. It's about a smuggler of drugs and people in and out of Mexico who also thinks constantly about his lost Alice. It has a beautiful melody and a falling chord sequence: "I've been kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet /Had my head stoved in, but I'm still on my feet and I'm still … Willin' by who else but Little Feat.

Time for another beauty, but concerning another kind of stealing - a woman who wants to steal away in secret with her lover - but the difficult circumstances suggest that her man might also have to do some stealing so they can escape. It's Etta James with Steal Away.

Next a couple who did indeed steal away, and then some! There is another version of the Serge Gainsbourg classic (zedded in 2006 under crime), this time by Luna. But for its swagger, lovely arrangements, and inspired by the famous film too, I preferred another song entirely by Georgie Fame, which captures the jazz era superbly, and charts the glamorous rise, and inevitable hand-in-hand fall of those romantic robbers of many banks - The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde.

We've had cars, now it's time to hop onto a train, not going across the US plain, even though the song has an American feel, but one that went between Glasgow and London. And during a week in which Ronnie Biggs has died, it seems apt to choose the wonderfully twangy and throaty Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds by the Alabama 3 about the mastermind of the 1963 Great Train Robbery, who also died earlier this year.

The 1963 robbery came after much planning, but a lot of stealing just happens impulsively. We see this in Joan Armatrading's Opportunity - one that goes wrong of course, and an interesting cover nomination also came in the form of Bobby McFerrin. Ian Dury's Razzle in My Pocket was already zedded, as was the Slits' superb Shoplifting. So with something punchy in mind, honourable mentions also go to Bankrobber by The Clash, and Been Caught Stealing by Jane's Addiction. But because it neatly follows the mail train robbery song before it, and for being fast, furious and stupidly brilliant, I'm delivered by the Stealing People's Mail by the Dead Kennedys.

Institutionalised theft and smuggling came up in several different forms. A telling nomination came with Aid Dealer by Coldcut, all about corruption from banks to governments over developing countries - in other words stealing on a massive scale. Another more localised and hip-hop contender came with a great performance by Del tha Funky Homosapien in The Coup's The Repo Man Sings - where the collector will take everything and doesn't care about the consequences. However, with an impossibly catchy, simple tune, this making it somehow more hard hitting , I couldn't ignore Stealing in the Name of the Lord by Max Romeo and the Upsetters, a timeless critique of organised religion.

Taking this political link further, I was going to choose a song that attempts to show, rather poignantly, how a deprived childhood can inevitably lead to a tragic criminal act of theft. Yes, that would have an unusual song by Elvis Presley - In the Ghetto, but it is zedded! Instead, a hip hop tune came to mind - Ghetto Bastard by Naughty by Nature - but it wasn't nominated. So I went for another nomination which takes a different tack, but by coincidence, has Elvis on the cover. Morrissey is noted as saying this is his favourite Smiths song. It is variously interpreted, but he once said: "It's more or less spiritual shoplifting, cultural shoplifting, taking things and using them to your own advantage." A very common sort of theft indeed in Shoplifters of the World Unite.

It's time to focus in a celebrity thief. There are many nominations of famous pirates and outlaws, from Captain Kidd (Waterson/Cathy) to Henry Martin (Joan Baez) and Henry Morgan. Pirate Jenny is a very potent song, particularly in Nina Simone's version, but her story is more about killing than stealing. A real contender was Jesse James by the Pogues, which manages to portray a notorious American outlaw in style that also captures the era of sea-faring criminals. But it was just shaded in the end by the Byrds with their plucky version of Woody Guthrie's tale of Depression-era Robin Hood Pretty Boy Floyd.

From telling the tale of the thief, to going inside their mind. So many songs on this. I enjoyed Arlo Guthrie's rather laid back expressions of smuggler's worry on the plane Coming Into Los Angeles (with a couple of 'kees'). An even more potent source of anxiety is mixed when the thief is feeling compromised by his relationship. Simon and Garfunkel's Somewhere They Can't Find Me (an upbeat version of Wednesday Morning 3am) includes the immortal lines - "I've committed a crime, I've broken the law.While you were here sleeping and just dreaming of me / I held up and robbed a liquor store," and he must flee. But this time, by using Google translate, I was swayed by swirling delusional passion of the protagonist in Charles Aznavour's Au Voleur, who feels compelled to steal for the woman he loves (he moves like a cat … because she loves fur), but worries about being named as a thief while another man steals his lover. Potent stuff!

And so to the final twist. Sadly there's no room but honourable mentions for the wonderful Lincolnshire Poacher sung by Peter Pears, which captures another era entirely. Nor for a couple of Stones smuggling songs including Sweet Virginia, or Radiohead's 2 + 2 = 5. Here though I bring in, of all people, Rod Stewart, who in Maggie May, repeatedly mentions how "you stole my heart and that's what really hurts". Poor old Rod, eh? Great song, but the old seducer is just B-list pawn in my game, as the final choice is Let No Man Steal Your Thyme. In this traditional song, "thyme" refers to virginity, but it can also be seen as one's whole life and "time" too. A quiet, simple, but potent song, of which there are other renditions, including a good one by Anne Briggs, but here it is Pentangle. After lots of jollity about theft in other songs, this one reflects how people, particularly men, may take what they can find, but it can have consequences for others.

Stand and Deliver by Adam & the Ants
You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two by Ron Moody in Oliver!
One Piece At A Time by Johnny Cash
Willin' by Little Feat
Steal Away by Etta James
The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde by Georgie Fame
Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds by Alabama 3
Stealing People's Mail by Dead Kennedys
Stealing in the Name of the Lord by Max Romeo and the Upsetters
Shoplifters of the World Unite by the Smiths
Pretty Boy Floyd by the Byrds
Au Voleur by Charles Aznavour
Let No Man Steal Your Thyme by Pentangle


Peter Kimpton

The GuardianTramp

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