Originally published in Lava Magazine, September 1999. Dug this out after Michael Wells posted an old pic of him and Mr Perry on Facebook - see below....
|A few minutes before this was taken, Michael had asked Perry to autograph |
a copy of the Lava issue with him on the cover. Photos courtesy of Big Matt.
He was there when reggae was invented. He was there when dub was invented. In celebration of the man's first and highly anticipated visit to New Zealand late last year , Michael 'Yardboy' Wells took a look at the extraordinary life and times of a legendary producer, musician and visionary.
During the late 1960's, the flipside of 45rpm singles produced in Jamaica began to carry the word VERSION. These sides were usually instrumentals used to test soundsystem levels. Some producers reasoned that to issue a single with a song on either side was risky business, so it became accepted practice to reuse the bare backing track from the A-side on the B-side. At weekend dances, like those held by King Tubby's Hometown Hi-Fi, soundsystem selectors began to spin the instrumental versions of current hits following the vocal for the deejay (now called an mc) to chat over.
Dub was born from experimentation with these instrumentals, pushing the drums and bass forward in the mix, and using the mixing desk itself as an instrument. In the studio, producers utilising two and four track technology began to embellish instrumental versions with studio techniques, adding reverb, delay, dropping instruments in and out of the mix, the producer turned artist. At the forefront of this new development in recording technique two names stood out; one was King Tubby, the other was Lee 'Scratch' Perry.
Born 20 March 1936, Kendal, Jamaica, Rainford Hugh Perry grew up poor, in a small village, where he earned a reputation for being tough and streetwise. His first break came when he was hired by Studio One producer Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, as jack of all trades, quickly establishing himself as selector at Coxsone's weekly ska soundsystem dances. Perry turned the dances into a huge success, and when he wasn't selecting he would help out with security, defending the sound equipment against sabotage from the hired thugs of rival operator Duke Reid the Trojan. Perry began his recording career at Studio One with Old For New in the early 60's but his first big hit came in 1965 with Chicken Scratch, a song that was to earn him the nickname 'Scratch'.
After almost seven years with Coxsone Perry left Studio One, bitter about not getting the money or recognition he felt was due. He crossed the street to the studios of Joe Gibbs where he recorded, I Am the Upsetter, aimed at his former boss and as a wake-up call to the recording industry. The song added to his growing list of aliases. Gibbs hired Perry to produce bands on his Amalgamated label and Perry willingly obliged, launching a string of local hits including the Pioneers 'Long Shot. This song was to introduce a new rhythm to Jamaica, one that wouldn't have a name until a year later but it is Long Shot and other Perry productions from the time that can be used to support the claim that Perry invented reggae. His association with Gibbs was fruitful but short-lived, and Perry left in a huge furor that culminated in the song People Funny Boy, another stinging retaliation, this time aimed straight at Gibbs.
In 1968, Perry decided he was better off working for himself. He hired the best backing musicians he could get, to form his own studio band that he called 'The Upsetters.'
Inspired by hot Kingston afternoons spent watching Spaghetti-Westerns, Perry and his Upsetters mashed up the dances with their fiery organ-led instrumentals. The music was soul-tinged reggae, inspired by US artists and certainly sounded formidable with song titles like Kill Them All, Return Of Django, and Vampire. The initial Upsetters left to form the backing band for Toots and The Maytals but not before producing two albums for Perry and establishing him as an emerging force in Jamaican music.
When Return Of Django hit the charts in England, Perry put together a new 'Upsetters' to capitalise on the moment. He recruited the rhythm section of The Hippy Boys, a young group fronted by singer Max Romeo and young brothers Aston and Carlton Barrett, who would later rise to fame with a singer by the name of Bob Marley. Perry took his new Upsetters on a tour of Britain, something that had never been done by a reggae group, and they were a hit. On their return, Perry reputedly pocketed most of the tour earnings, to the deep annoyance of his group.
Enter Bob Marley
As The Wailers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston had cut a few early tunes for Coxsone that were fairly successful, but the young Marley realised that they would need to reinvent their sound for the current trends or fade into obscurity. The Wailers rehearsed with The Upsetters and after a couple of sessions together Marley convinced The Upsetters to leave Perry and join The Wailers.
Perry was livid when heard the news that Marley had stolen his backing group. The tense stand off that followed led to Perry and Marley shutting themselves away for several hours to have it out. The two sides agreed to join forces, both would share the backing musicians with Perry as exclusive producer. The time was right for new producers to prove themselves against the dominance of rival producers Coxsone and Duke Reid, and the public were ready for a new sound.
Perry was more interested with the spooky instrumentals he had previously been crafting and didn't want to work with singers, but Bob's sufferer lyrics and plaintive delivery impacted on Perry's sensibilities. He recognised the overwhelming talent within Marley that needed guidance and nurturing. Despite their intense love/hate relationship, together the two giant personalities created some of The Wailers' most enduring songs, music many would call their best work ever. Perry and Marley shared songwriting duties during the fruitful period between 1969 and 1971 producing instant classics like Small Axe, My Cup and Duppy Conqueror, but eventually loose agreements over money and songwriting credits would spell the end of their dynamic partnership.
The relationship between Perry, The Upsetters and The Wailers was a turning point in reggae history. The foundations were laid for Bob's phenomenal rise to fame and Perry's production skills continued to develop far beyond those of his contemporaries. Marley took the Barrett brothers, formed Bob Marley & The Wailers, and signed to Island Records in 1973. Perry retained the name 'Upsetters' and formed a fresh studio band with a floating lineup drawn from a pool of Jamaica's top musicians that included Tommy McCook and Sly & Robbie. Perry kept the Upsetters going in various forms until their final incarnation in 1986.
The Black Ark.
Perry relocated to Washington Gardens, an uptown part of Kingston, in 1973, where he began constructing a recording studio in his backyard. He took a year to complete the building that would allow him complete independence and creative control as arranger, producer and artist. Perry called his studio 'Black Ark' which would have been an audacious name for any producer, except that in this case history has borne out the legend.
The Black Ark sound was deep and sticky, like wading through molasses, loping, sweetly ganja-infused rhythms resonating with muddy feedback and sampled (as we now refer to it) noises such as running water, mooing cows, children crying, breaking glass, and numerous unidentifiable 'found' sounds. Perry had a way of drawing great beauty from apparent chaos and disaster.
What makes his work so good is that he was working within a largely conservative genre, injecting chance, humour and ethereal otherworldliness without losing the thread of a good tune. He collaborated with King Tubby on two wicked dub albums Blackboard Jungle Dub with Tubby's mix in one channel and Perry's in the other, and King Tubby Meets the Upsetter At The Grass Roots Of Dub that featured one side each of uncluttered, elegant rhythms.
It was during this age of 'classical reggae' that Perry unleashed dub sides of unparalleled excellence; Super Ape, with its loping, spacey tunes and eerie undercurrents is the best example.
Perry earned a reputation for giving relative unknowns a chance to record their stuff and revitalising the careers of stars past their use by date. He would spend as long as necessary to perfect a recording session, unlike most other studios where time was charged strictly to the minute. During recording it would not be out of the ordinary for Perry to be bouncing around the mixing desk, clapping his hands, shouting encouragement, and blowing ganja smoke on the master tapes.
City Too Hot
His trademarks as an arranger and producer were experimentation and eccentricity, backed up by a wealth of technical prowess that appeared chaotic and disciplined at the same time. With only basic four track equipment, Perry was able to create sounds that still defy imitation and always seem to be just out of human reach. Soon the sound reached the ears of the mainstream music industry, and artists like Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer and The Clash starting qeueing up for a sprinkle of Perry's magic.
The studio became a cultural centre that during its heyday was known around the world for producing profoundly conscious roots reggae (check out Heart Of the Congos on Blood & Fire) against a backdrop of rising violence. Guns flooded into the island during the cold war years, and tensions grew between Jamaica, Cuba, and the US.
The heat was building up in Kingston as warring supporters for the nations' two political parties took their differences to the streets during the build-up to elections. Perry came under increasing pressure to perform his wizardry for an endless stream of hopefuls and hangers-on. Listen to Perry's City Too Hot for a musical image of the mood at Black Ark: the times were becoming increasingly dread and the situation was reaching critical mass.
One day in 1979 Perry torched his beloved Black Ark, in a desperate attempt to break free from the pressures that were building up around him and the studio. Perry's wife Pauline had left with their children, tired of the marathon recording sessions that had swallowed up so much of his life for years on end. Perry had ground himself down to exhaustion both mentally and physically.
Some of the dreads that surrounded him in the last few months were demanding protection money and generally bringing heavy vibes into the studio, too heavy for Perry, quoted after the fire: "The Black Ark was too black and too dread, even though I am black, I have to burn it down, it was too black.'' Perry subsequently suffered a mental breakdown and withdrew beneath a veil of erratic behaviour and mad, poetic ranting for which he is now famed.
The 1980's saw Perry travelling extensively between Jamaica and Europe. He recorded some very dodgy albums during the first half of the decade and toured the US with an even dodgier white reggae band from New York called 'The Terrorists.'
He changed his name several times and swore that Island Records head Chris Blackwell was a vampire, even putting a picture of Blackwell in Dracula garb on the cover of the 1986 album Judgement In A Babylon.
In 1987, On U Sound boss Adrian Sherwood collaborated with Perry for the superb Time Boom X De Devil Dead, the album exceeding all expectations. Sherwood's studio band was the Dub Syndicate, a floating pool of musicians operating much like the Upsetters. The combination was a winner, and all parties came together again in 1989 for the album From The Secret Laboratory, drawing wide praise as a return to his previous greatness.
The same year Perry re-located to Switzerland with Swiss-born Mireille Campbell, who Perry married in a Hare Krishna temple. Campbell is also Perry's manager, and the couple have two children. Despite his advancing years, Perry has never given up professing his love of sex, children and everything in between.
The 1990's have seen a resurgence of interest in Perry's work. The Beastie Boys' Grand Royal magazine (issue 2) devoted around 20 pages to his life and work, and Island Records issued the 3CD Arkology set, while re-issue label Pressure Sounds compiled ultra rare sides for their Voodooism collection.
In 1997 Perry performed two sold-out shows in San Francisco and contributed to the Free Tibet concerts in New York. Most recently Perry has been working closely with the Mad Professor at Ariwa Studios in London, producing strong new material including Black Ark Experryments, Super Ape In The Jungle, a strange but entertaining jungle set and a recent reworking of his classic, Soul Fire.
As entertaining and fascinating as it is, all of the mythology that surrounds the life of Lee Perry would be of little importance without the music. Perry consciously propagates his legendary persona with wacky behaviour, creating a fantastic world around him as if living within his own cartoon character. He produced literally thousands of records, most of them seven inch singles made for the insatiable domestic consumer, and made brilliant albums when it suited him. His music is and will always be the last word on Lee Scratch Perry.
Sources: Reggae Rasta Revolution (Schirmer Books 1997), Grand Royal Magazine (Issue 2 1995-96), interviews with Lee Perry conducted by Mick Sleeper 1997-98. Special thanks to Big Matt.