Lee Perry aka Scratch, aka The Upsetter burned down his
Black Ark studio, many people thought he had finally flipped his lid. But now
hes back, with a new LP, a new studio and a vengeful plan to bankrupt
Island Records whose villainy, he claims, brought about his past madness.
Danny Kelly takes a schizo-reading on the man who invented dub and made
Bob Marley famous.
Photos: Derek Ridgers.
WHEN THE sprawling, jagged, beautiful, wicked history of popular music is definitively assembled, the name of Lee Perry will be writ large. If his sole achievement had been to engineer Doctor Alimantados Best Dressed Chicken In Town, a tune that fired the pimply imagination of John Lydon, he would have been entitled to a line at least. Or if he had only been the coproducer of The Clashs fiercesome complete Control hed have deserved a small paragraph.
But Perry was also the man behind some of the greatest records ever made, reggae or otherwise. And the politics that drew the latent genius of Robert Nesta Marley to the surface. And the brains, ears and hands that helped create dub, an innovation that altered the sound, the very possibilities, of black music as surely as Leiber and Stollers inspired orchestral drenching of The Drifters There Goes My Baby or the white-coated circuit-board wiz who gave soldered life to a micro monster and called it DMX.
In truth, the felling of all the forests of Scandinavia couldnt produce enough pages to do justice to the wondrous art of Lee Perry. And yet, on one hazy Jamaican morning in 1980, this amazing man made an effort to write himself out of that history. He destroyed his fabled Black Art studio, his tiny haven of creativity that had become a torture chamber to him.
Perrys legendary eccentricity appeared to have spilled across the invisible line into full scale insanity.
Since then all we have heard are rumours, spread, he claims, by his enemies, of continued madness, some third-hand quotes (some pitiably said, others laced with acidic anger) after the death of Marley, and a series of reworked rhythms put out on compilations by the miniscule Seven Leaves Records in North West London, welcome but nonetheless faded echoes of former glories, dusty crumbs from a table once groaning with bounty.
But now the Lee Perry legend may be on the verge of resurrection. An all-new record (History, Mystery, Prophesy) has appeared in America and the genius is holed up in London, planning, scheming, plotting and ranting, preparing to tour and, joy of joys, to produce more new music...
Having tracked him down amidst the suburban bustle of Kensal Green, initial contact with Perry is disturbing. He is wearing a straw hat, a sequinned shirt and a womans cardigan. His small, wiry, 48-year-old body is incredibly fit, used to Kung Fu kicks way above head height. A video camera records my movements until the batteries run out. And throughout the interview, Perry thumbs the pages of a large book (about Marcus Garvey actually) and writes a selection of the words and phrases that I speak to him in large biro capitals across the dense text. Id like to see Terry Wogan handle this.
But all these things are mere eccentricities, really. In conversation he is lucid, articulate and abrim with opinion. A torrent of language (punctuated with catch phrases, buzz words, references to the elements and martial arts gestures) issues from him, some of it pertinent and clear, some babble in unearthly tongues. He is currently obsessed with Island Records, or rather their head Chris Blackwell, who he feels has done him wrong.
Im no psychiatrist but I dont think Lee Perrys mad, at least not now. In any event, he is willing to hold forth his views on his past, his present and his future, to set the record straight.
"MY FATHER worked on the road , my mother in the fields. We were very poor. I went to school, first in Kendal, then in Green Island, til fourth grade, around 15. I learned nothing at all. Everything I have learned has come from nature.
"When I left school there was nothing to do except field work. Hard, hard labour. I didnt fancy that. So I started playing dominoes. Through dominoes I practised my mind and learned to read the minds of others. This has proved eternally useful to me.
"After that I was getting to be a big lad sol decided to get a proper job. I became a builder, a driver of bulldozers. I liked the power! That BRRRRRRR from nine til six. BRRRRRRR from the engine up the gearstick and into your arm, It builds up lots of power. The tractor driving filled Lee Perry with superpower!"
Fuelled with "superpower" drawn from large internal combustion engines and what he describes as "miracle gifts, blessing from God", young Lee made his way to Kingston, a city of sharks and wolves. He infiltrated the peripheries of Clement Coxsone Dodds sound system and record label, first as a glorified teaboy, late as a fully fledged disc spinner.
A victim of the violence that accompanied the sounds of Dodds renowned business sense, Perrys lifelong hatred of his employers started in those heaving dancehalls and dingy studio sessions.
"Coxsone never wanted to give a country boy a chance. No way. He took my songs and gave them to people like Delroy Wilson. I got no credit, certainly no money. I was being screwed."
In these mid-60s days, Perry worked in the Federal studios before it went bust and the West Indies studio before it became Dynamic Sound. In the latter he organised a work now, pay later, session for himself and cut the record that freed him of Dodds yoke.
Boy (a vitriolic attack on his former guvnor) was "cut on the Monday,
mastered on the Tuesday, out on the Wednesday and a hit by Friday". People
opened ears to Perrys talent as an idiosyncratic vocalist and, crucially,
as an organiser of sound. His reputation as a producer/engineer was made.
BETWEEN 1968 and 1974the period in which another bout of vinyl revenge gained him The Upsetter handle Perry worked incessantly. In this country his productions were issued on dozens of labels. Over 100 cuts, often spiky instrumentals, were issued as singles on Trojans Upsetter subsidiary. Some, like The Return Of Django, were even pop hits. And it was during this maelstrom of creativity that he tapped the muse of Bob Marley and helped unleash dub on an unsuspecting world.
The Perry/Wailers union yielded two classic reggae albums (available currently as Rasta Revolution and African Herbsman) and brought Marley, and to some extent Perry to the attention of Island Records supremo Chis Blackwell.
How did he partnership with the Honourable Marley come about? "The Wailers had worked with Coxson at Studio One but it had networked out. The group had split up and Bob had gone to America with Danny Simms to do the Johnny Nash thing. But Nash didnt want to promote Bob, just to pick his mind. When he came back to Jamaica he asked me to work with him.
"I liked him as a person and so I said OK. To be honest, everytime we recorded together it was something magical, almost too powerful, too strong.
"We worked like brothers til Chris Blackwell saw it was something great and came like a big hawk and grab Bob Marley up."
Islands signing of Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer was painful enough. Misery was heaped on woe for Perry when two of his house band, bassist Aston Barrett and brother drummer Canton went with them to form the new, self-contained Wailers.
"Was Bob who organised that, with Chris Blackwells money. They took away my musicians. But I dont get vexed with Aston or Carlton because money talks very loud. Aston still checks me every day."
Despite this wrench, Marley returned to Perry throughout the 70s, at times for advice, at times to collaborate (Jah Live, Punky Reggae Party and Rastaman Live Up). They were "more than friends, like brothers, a team", but Marleys death brought forth some very strange utterances from Perry, then at the height of his behavioural unpredictability, a bizarre cocktail of grief and bitterness. Looking back now, what did he feel about the Tuff Gongs demise?
From under the boater, liquid brown eyes flash. "I felt nothing. Nothing at all. You see, before he died, I had had a message from Jah and I went to Bobs Tuff Gong Studio to tell it to him. But at that time he was making the big money and he had no time to talk to Scratch. I went to tell him that he was going to die but he said that if Jah had a message for him, he would deliver it direct."
You felt slighted? Humiliated? What? "I said wow, no problem ... If he had listened to Scratch, the idiot, the shit, the madman, he wouldnt have died."
Perry puts his hands to his face, like hes going to cry, then shakes himself out of it. "For what does it profit a man to gain the earth and lose his own fuckin soul?" A huge, tired, sigh." But whos to blame? Bob is gone, and Im still here alive."
Theres guilt and sorrow, pride and pain, in those words. A tragic, unsavoury, ending to one of musics most satisfying and influential marriages.
At the same time as nursing Marleys talent to shimmering, militant fruition, Scratch Perry was also starting to experiment with technical trickery and sound effects in his instrumental work. Along with Osborne Ruddock (King Tubby) he is credited with creating the musical mindscramble we now know as dub.
"To be fair and speak the truth, it wasnt land Tubby who brought about dub, but I alone! In those days Tubby had a sound system and he wanted dubs for it from me. Hed come to Randys studio where I worked at the time and spend days watching me messing about with the controls. As my dubs got famous and people like them, so Tubby try mixing up a few sides of his own."
Now that, Lee, sounds like a likely story. Still, how had the idea of dub come about in the first place? "We liked to record the drums and bass first, to get them perfect. The other instruments would be put on afterwards. But sometimes the rhythm track would be so fucking perfect that wed forget about the other parts and just play about with the drum and bass."
"So what started as a technical thing became a creative thing. Im so good at it because Ive got great ears!"
BY 1974, Perry had accrued enough money to open his own studio and record label. Based primarily at the bottom of his garden, he called his studio the Black Ark.
A claustrophobic four track set-up, it was from here that for six years welters of the best reggae, of the best music ever made, sprang. Scratch, barefoot, in shorts, a spliff ever draped from the corner of his mouth, would skip, hop and whirl, and move his hands over the console like a spell caster or a faithhealer. And onto the cold tape would fall showers of magic.
The sound achieved in the Ark was unique. The music was springy and light, as though it had been dabbed gently onto the vinyl, like kisses. At a time when other studios were making passable dub impressions of steamhammers getting to work on massive chunks of concrete, the Ark dubs were often spidery constructions of lacy delicacy. Some, like the dub of Keith Rowes Groovy Situation were
ethereal, threatening to evaporate before the needle reached the run-off. Others, Murvins Crossover for instance, were demented soundscapes like none heard before, and seldom since. Almost all this music was brilliant.
And, in a genre dominated by 45s, Perry forged classic albums: dub ones by The Upsetters (Super Ape and its sequel The Return.. .), and vocal ones by Max Romeo (War In A Babylon), Junior Murvin (Police And Thieves), George Faith (To Be A Lover) and The Congoes (Heart Of The Congoes). Almost as astonishing as the sheer volume of irresistible music that was emanating from Perrys mind was its breadth.
The Congoes record, along with The Abyssinians Forward On To Zion, is the most uncompromisingly spiritual of popular reggae, while Faiths disc focuses on the hearts business and the messy pleasures of the flesh. Scratch finds no conflict in this.
"Most certainly not. God is sex! If there was no sex, we would die, and with us would die truth and religion. God loves sex."
What kind of producer are you? "I expect artists to do exactly as I say. I teach them everything. How to play, how to move, everything. I am a dictator!"
Theres not much evidence of the dictators sound on the track he produced for The Clash. "That is true. But when I got involved with that record, most of it was already done. I liked The Clash, they were nice boys, I taught them to turn down their guitars in the studio." He covers his ears. "They were loud, man, loud!"
And I notice, Mister Dictator, that none of your acts ever made a second album with you. "That was caused by the thief Blackwell", he claims. "He never paid me for the way them records sell in Britain so I can never work again with them artists. cha... that man is a parasite..
PERRY NOW sees his black despair at what he regards as mistreatment by Island as the major cause of his seemingly inexplicable destruction of the Black Ark. Whether invented or real, his recollections of those desperate events are cut-glass clear. His account is given in a detached monotone, without traces of sadness or regret.
"For weeks and months the pressure had been building up. I was getting no money, just pressure, pressure, pressure. I got up that morning with turmoil in my heart and went to the bottom of my garden, the studio, yknow. I love kids rubber balls. They are air, trapped. I love that and I collect many of these balls. Anyway, I have one favourite, it came from America and I kept it on the mixing desk. Some one had taken it when I got to the studio and I was just filled with anger. First all the pressure, the thievery, and then this..
What did you do? "I destroyed the studio. I smashed it up and then I burnt it down. Over." How did you feel the next day when you looked out and saw not a place of work but a heap of ashes?
"I felt I had done the manly thing, that I had stood up for what I believe in. I was cleansed and relieved. No one could rip me off any more. Not Chris Blackwell, not anybody."
But, Lee, this does sound exactly like the actions of a madman, nothing more, nothing less.
"I was mad. In my heart. But not in my mind. I have never been physically mad."
Taking the above events into account, thats probably a statement open to serious questioning. My own feeling is that Perry, by societal norms never a candidate for Mr Sanity, probably did flip his lid and is now applying retrospective logic to this actions.
Those actions forced him into the wilderness for four long years, the prophet without honour in his own land, without a studio but with a reputation that precluded rehabilitation.
Whatever his mental state then or now, his loathing of Chris Blackwell has become an all-consuming motivational force. One of the reasons for Scratchs re-emergence is a desire to play out his vendetta with Island.
"I was going to beat Blackwell up. I could, easily. But I have decided to bankrupt him instead, to see Island in the gutter and the vampire a pauper. Every time Island has a hit record, I will produce a better version of it. I will ruin that company!"
That could be a tall order, Island are a big business, with incredible facilities and acts like Black Uhuru. Perrys voice cracks into a wild cackle. "Uhuru guru schmuru! I dont care who they have, I will do it. That is definite, confident, without qualification.
"You know, that Chris Blackwell disgusts me, makes me want to vomit. He invited me to the opening of the Compass Point studio in Nassau and there I saw him drink the blood of a freshly killed chicken. He thought I was into all that voodoo and obeah (African magic for inflicting damage on enemies, much feared in the Caribbean) stuff, and offered me some. It was disgusting."
I hate to be a contradictory cuss, but we are talking about the same Chris Blackwell arent we, yknow, the internationally-respected business man? "Yes, yes, yes!" The knotty dubmaster is insistent. "I, Lee Perry, will swear that before any judge, solicitor or barrister he could employ."
There you have it, Perry's side of the story. A further illustration of the depth (again the bounds of rationality are being stretched) of his disaffection with Island is illustrated by the fact that he turned down the opportunity to produce no less a mob than Talking Heads, despite talking to David Byrne in a big way, because he thought that the Heads were on the label, instead of just using the Compass Point facility.
The Lost Years,
a sad and tragic waste.
So what of the future? In Perry's favour there is at least a stability in his home life. He lives in Kingston with his three grown up offspring, a car and two video players. He has spent the dark ages writing - "on books, walls, stones, anywhere" - and exercising - "exercise and Buddah, that's my recipe". He seems to have his once monumental drink problem under control. What about drugs?
"If I take drugs I will be unfit and unable to speak to the people because when I speak, it would be the drugs talking. But I will take herb from morning til night. I will smoke it, eat it and drink it! But cocaine is bad for the body, and I love my body!"The Upsetter, in his own highly unqualified opinion, has never been in better physical fettle and, his ridiculous and ugly plan to deal with Island notwithstanding, is ready to record again.
Plans are afoot for the building of a new studio on the site of the Black Ark and hes working withand heres one for your scrapbook Linda McCartney on a project started many years ago but that was stalled by the Perry problems. In London this month he has recorded with Neil Fraser, the engineer at Ariwa studios whose work as the Mad Professor has established him as the British reggae producer. This is a master/apprentice relationship as fascinating in prospect as watching Method babies De Niro, Pacino and Duvall kneel at the feet of Papa Brando in The Godfather.Listening to Perry talking about his schemes and knowing the, ahem, unpredictability, of his past, its hard to be anything but sceptical, but Neil Fraser, as sane as his records are loonie, is a reassuring voice amidst the doubts.
"The little bits of work we have done have been really fantastic. The man is back and doing it. I think hes ready." So convinced is Fraser of this that hes now slated in for mixing desk duty when Perry takes to Britains halls in the near future. He will be using for backing "any musicians who know the musical scale of doh ray me, I will teach them everything else!"
And finally, History, Mystery, Prophesy will very soon be released on Seven Leaves in this country. Its not a great record but a couple of the cuts (M Music and Heads Of Government) are vintage Scratch. And nobody else would dare rhyme "Martin Luther" with "computer", would they?
The ball is in motion but it really is too early to say whether this dotty, angry, electrified bundle of creativity, a man not really with us half the time, can complete what would be a remarkable comeback, second coming. He wont fail for lack of confidence.
"I am the best record producer that Jamaica has seen. Many say that l am the best in the world!!"
From the shambles of a brilliant, wasteful, bitter and possibly insane past, Scratch may still be genius enough to prove that. For people like myself that have lusted after his work there is the comforting thought that where theres life....
New Musical Express, 17th November 1984. Pages 6, 7 and 58.