CRITICAL MASS: On Lee Perry, reggae and his genius/madness

  • “The studio must be like a living thing, a life itself. The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine and the machine performs reality.”
  • — Lee “Scratch” Perry on his legendary Live Ark studio

Lee “Scratch” Perry died in August 2021, at the age of 84.

His name might be familiar; if it’s not, don’t feel bad. Perry was a famous record producer, often cited as one of the prime figures in the evolution of ska into reggae music and a progenitor of what is called “dub music,” a stripped-down, permutated, reverb-heavy, remixed instrumental sound that started out as a subgenre of reggae but now is probably more properly considered a kind of electronic dance music.

He was a cultural hero to some, and a mentor to Bob Marley, but you can be a reasonably alert fan of popular music and not know much or anything about Perry — though he collaborated with, among others, Paul and Linda McCartney, the Clash, Keith Richards, and the Beastie Boys. The Los Angeles Times once called him “among the most important — if least-known — creative forces in Jamaican music.”

That’s all right; a producer’s influence ought to outstrip their celebrity.

But Perry is worth writing about now, because Trojan Records — a 53-year-old British label that specializes in reggae, dub, ska and rocksteady music — has just released a compilation of his work called “King Scratch (Musical Masterpieces from the Upsetter Ark-ive).”

Essentially a greatest-hits package that leans heavily on Perry’s work in the ’60s and ’70s, it includes work Perry released under his name, such as “People Funny Boy,” a 1968 single that codified the chugging Afro-Jamaican beat we would come to recognize as reggae. There’s also his work with his studio band The Upsetters and tracks he produced for other artists, such as Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (represented in a previously unreleased mix), Max Romeo’s “Three Blind Mice,” Susan Cadogan’s “Hurt So Good” and Junior Byles”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/sep/18/on-lee-perry-reggae-and-his-geniusmadness/”Beat Down Babylon.”

A variety of formats is available, ranging from a $15, two-CD, 36-track bare-bones version to a $96 deluxe edition with 116 tracks that combines vinyl records and CDs and throws in the obligatory photo essay book with photos by Adrian Boot and text by David Katz, Perry’s biographer and perhaps the world’s leading expert on reggae and dub music.

While I’m ambivalent about boxed sets (the target demographic for which always seems to be fans likely to own upward of 80% of the material anyway), it’s not difficult to recommend this to anyone who thinks they might like reggae music.

[UPSETTER: Check out the Spotify playlist » arkansasonline.com/918upsetter/ ]

Meanwhile, on the Criterion Channel (criterionchannel.com), they’re featuring Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough’s 2008 documentary “The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee Scratch Perry,” a fascinating look at how Perry saw himself, which was more as a behind-the scenes figure, controlling mixing console and contracts of the artists with whom he worked.

Perry saw Marley as “The King,” but positioned himself as “The Prophet,” the visionary behind the power. As with a lot of reggae artists, Perry tended to conflate his musical career with something more grandiose.

Born Rainford Hugh Perry in rural Jamaica in 1936, Perry once described his upbringing to U.K. magazine NME: “My father worked on the road, my mother in the fields. We were very poor. I went to school … I learned nothing at all. Everything I have learned has come from nature.”

“I never liked to work because I don’t want no one to be a slave,” he told an interviewer. “I want to be worked in my mind. Every thing that’s going on, there’s some big spirit behind me who send me to do the thing that I must do.”

Lee left school at age 15, and reportedly lived and wandered aimlessly before connecting to the dance and music scene, winning dance contests and earning the nickname “The Neat Little Thing” or “Neat Little Man.” He played dominoes. He said he learned to read minds.

He got a job shoveling stones at a construction site. He banged the stones together.

“When the stones clash, I hear like the thunder clash, and I hear lightning flash, and I hear words, and I don’t know where the words [are] coming from,” Perry told Katz, Steve Barrow and Trevor Wyatt, compilers of the 1997 boxed set “Arkology.”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/sep/18/on-lee-perry-reggae-and-his-geniusmadness/”These words send me to Kingston.”

There he got a gofer job working with pioneering record producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd at Studio One. Soon Perry was writing songs and scouting talent — he allegedly brought Toots and the Maytals to Dodd’s attention in the early ’60s.

Soon he was cutting records on his own, and took his prime nickname (there are many) from “Chicken Scratch,” a seminal ska album he produced in 1965 which featured The Skatalites, the early Wailers, The Soulettes (with Rita Marley) and Perry’s band The Upsetters. He also at times called himself the Upsetter, the Super-Ape, Inspector Gadget, the Firmament Computer and once “the creator of the alien race globally.”

The next year Perry split with Dodd, upset because he wasn’t receiving the money and recognition he thought was his due. He partnered with Joel “Joe” Gibbs, an electrician who’d trained in Castro’s Cuba and who had a two-track tape machine in the back of his electronic shop.

With Bunny Lee, Gibbs had just launched Amalgamated Records. One of the label’s first singles was Perry’s “I Am the Upsetter,” a none-too-subtle warning aimed at his old boss that begins “Why are you so gravelicious … Why are you so covetous?”

[Video not showing above? Click here to watch: arkansasonline.com/918hurt]

PERRY AS HITMAKER

In 1967, Gibbs hired Perry to run the label and serve as house producer. Perry immediately produced a string of hits, chief among them The Pioneers”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/sep/18/on-lee-perry-reggae-and-his-geniusmadness/”Long Shot (Kick De Bucket),” which is often cited as the first song to use what became known as the reggae beat.

The rhythm didn’t have a name, but in 1968, Toots and the Maytals released the Leslie Kong-produced single “Do the Reggay,” a coinage they derived from the Jamaican slang word “streggae” which meant “raggedy.” (Which takes me back to a bar conversation I overheard circa 1976, when a musician of my acquaintance was holding forth on the “reggae” guitar in the Eagles”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/sep/18/on-lee-perry-reggae-and-his-geniusmadness/”Hotel California.” This triggered a nearby Eagles fan who spoke up: “Dude, you wish you could play guitar that raggedy.”)

Even if Toots named it, Perry has a legitimate claim on being the inventor of the genre.

But Perry didn’t get along with Gibbs either, and soon he split from him and Amalgamated, collaborating with Lynford Anderson (later known as Andy Capp) to found his Upsetter label. And the first single from that label was a broadside aimed at his old partner Gibbs, the aforementioned “People Be Funny.”

Perry was now calling his music reggae, and — like Phil Spector and Joe Meek before him — was beginning to utilize the studio as an instrument, threading the sound of a crying baby through the track.

He reformed the Upsetters as a crack studio outfit, akin to the first call musicians in Nashville, the Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles, and the Swampers in Muscle Shoals. The core of the band, formerly known as The Hippy Boys, featured Carlton Barrett on drums and his brother Aston, aka “Family Man”; guitarist Alva Lewis; Glen Adams on keyboards and Max Romeo on vocals.

The band was intrigued with the sounds Perry had educed with “Long Shot” and “People Be Funny,” and with his idea to slow down their music and bring out something sinister — an ominous bass “dread” — in it.

They provided instrumental backing for the vocal group Wailers (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) and Junior Byles, artists who endorsed themes of Black self-determination, political resistance and spiritualism, and released instrumentals under their own name, many of which were influenced by spaghetti westerns and cheap horror movies.

One of these songs, “Return of Django,” became a Top 10 hit in the U.K., and Perry and the Upsetters became the first Jamaican band to tour Britain.

Both the Wailers and the Upsetters became disenchanted with Perry, in part because he’d become the sort of impresario he alleged Dodd and Gibbs were. He took most of the profits from their recordings and tours.

“I pirated their music to expose them,” Perry explains in “The Upsetter.”

He had to be cruel to be kind.

RUM, GANJA & SEX

It was Marley and the Wailers who first sought Perry out after working with a few less innovative producers, including Dodd. But Perry wasn’t sure he needed a vocal group. He was mainly producing instrumentals and doing quite well at it.

It was only after Marley convinced the Upsetters to leave Perry and join the Wailers that Perry was willing to talk with him. At first he wanted to kill him, and when the two men finally met face to face, many assumed there would be violence. But somehow Marley and Perry managed to work it out, touching off a profitable but volatile relationship.

The Upsetters joined the Wailers to become Marley’s touring band, and Perry maintained the name The Upsetters as the rubric for a floating group of musicians. Off and on, they worked together until Marley’s death, despite constant disagreements over financial matters. (When he was asked how he felt about Marley’s death, Perry told an English journalist he felt like he’d been “set free.”)

[PERRY PRODUCTION: Listen to Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” » arkansasonline.com/918thieves/]

Perry may deserve credit for the evolution of the Wailers from a vocal trio to a self-contained band; he certainly recognized that if they were to have any impact on the world beyond Jamaica, they would need to at least nod to the fashions of the time.

So he downplayed the horns and pianos that had decorated much ska music in favor of Family Man’s sinuous bass and Marley’s stabby rhythm guitar, vocals and personal-as-political lyrics.

He formed them into a rock band, discarding the falsetto gymnastics that marked some of their earlier work in favor of straightforward backing vocals. They didn’t need to be the Beach Boys, and they didn’t need to push their natural tenors into Desmond Dekker “Israelites” territories, but they needed to be (or seem) “authentic,” like an island version of The Band.

Marley was the songwriter and ultimately the greater figure, but Perry was the creative engine, the intelligence who shaped Marley and the Wailers into one of the world’s biggest acts. He was like a combination of George Martin and Brian Epstein, pushing the band in the direction of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. The two albums he produced for them, 1970’s “Soul Rebels” and 1971’s “Soul Revolution,” are among the band’s best work.

But the distrust between Perry and Marley was strong, and the center couldn’t hold, so The Wailers signed with Island in 1973. Perry started releasing bootlegs of their work together and kept the money, while publicly, at least, maintaining that he loved and respected Marley.

Post-Marley, Perry moved more deeply into dub, with the (new) Upsetters’ 1973 album “Blackboard Jungle Dub,” considered one of the first dub albums to be released. After 1974, he worked out of his Black Ark studio, which Perry built in his backyard and opened to all manner of hangers-on and well-wishers, police and thieves, extortionists and con artists, all drawn by the nonstop party atmosphere. There was rum and ganja and sex.

Perry only had four tracks at his disposal, but he pioneered unusual techniques, created sound collages and engaged in an early form of “sampling.” Gunshots and backward-running tape made their way onto his tracks. He claimed he blew marijuana smoke onto the tapes and doused them in whiskey.

Black Ark was never state of the art, but Perry was a master of intuitive tweaking and knob twisting, of creating sometimes unrepeatable effects on the fly. He produced classic dub-drenched albums such as Max Romeo’s “War Ina Babylon” (1976), The Heptones”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/sep/18/on-lee-perry-reggae-and-his-geniusmadness/”Party Time” (1977), The Upsetters”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/sep/18/on-lee-perry-reggae-and-his-geniusmadness/”Super Ape” (1976), Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (1977) and The Congos”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/sep/18/on-lee-perry-reggae-and-his-geniusmadness/”Heart of The Congos” (1977) there, as well as hundreds of singles. He turned them around quickly — it wasn’t unusual for a single to be on the street three days after it was recorded.

In 1975 Perry secured a worldwide distribution deal with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and his productions had gone mainstream, attracting the attention of white pop stars.

[Video not showing above? Click here to watch: arkansasonline.com/918thieves]

CHASE THE DEVIL

In 1979, Perry’s wife left him, taking his children. He set about covering every inch of his studio walls with cryptic glyphs and crosses drawn in magic marker. Then he burned the place to the ground. He later said he destroyed his studio because someone had stolen a rubber ball from his mixing desk.

During the first half of the ’80s, it seemed his breakdown was complete. There were reports of him drinking gasoline mixed with black currant juice. He worked sporadically, and what work he accomplished was uneven and uninspired. He moved to London in 1984, and began to work more steadily.

He remarried in 1989, and his new wife — Swiss businesswoman Mireille Ruegg, who took over management of his career — moved him to Zurich. He reconciled with Dodd, who’d given him his first break, and they produced two albums together. Working with his former acolyte Adrian Sherwood and his band Dub Syndicate, he released perhaps the finest album of his career, 1990’s “From the Secret Laboratory.”

He persisted. To what extent his image as an unhinged and unpredictable personality was cultivated to intimidate and discourage those who might take advantage of him is a reasonable question. Perry alternately presented as shrewd and naive; he might have acted like a madman simply to keep intimacy at bay.

Or may not. Sometimes, not always, genius is a hair’s breadth from madness. That Perry was the former is not in question.

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