Lee “Scratch” Perry

TrackSingle
Kimble (by The Creators)Amalgamated AMG 821
Small Axe (by Bob Marley & The Wailers)Upsetter Dyna LP 3921
Downpresser (by The Wailers)Upsetter Dyna LP 4157
Words (by The Gatherers)Upsetter UP 100
Bucky Skank (by The Upsetters)Upsetter SCR 24
Sipple Out Deh (by Max Romeo)Upsetter LP 2997
Row Fisherman (by The Congos)Upsetter KLP 007
Stand Up (by Eric Donaldson & The Keystones)Black Art (1977)
Crying Over You (by The Heptones)Wild Flower WF-535
Vibrate Onn (by Augustus Pablo)Black Art DSR 3302

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Lee Perry playlist

 

Lee Perry photo 1

Lee “Scratch” Perry in his Black Ark recording studio in the 70s

 

Contributor: Ian du Feu

Lee Perry aka Scratch, The Upsetter, Pipecock Jackson,
‘The Kenny Dalglish of Reggae

Who would attempt a Toppermost Top 10 of Lee Perry’s music? It’s a question that has bothered me for a while; the sheer volume of recorded output associated with Perry is overwhelming. Nevertheless, his music has influenced many people and many genres, and is a constant source of personal inspiration … so let’s give it a go.

Lee Perry’s life has been long, interesting, eccentric, shrouded in intrigue and has become the stuff of folk lore. His work straddles the spectrum from genius to mundane, he is admired as a visionary innovator and criticised as a lucky bandwagon-jumper. Some of the events described in biographies must be true, some seem apocryphal, and we are relying on several narrators when trying to piece his life history together. If you factor in the Jamaican penchant for storytelling, Perry’s superstitions and unusual language, the quantities of rum, stout and marijuana that were involved for many years, one could suggest that we are relying on several ‘unreliable narrators’. However, the veracity of the stories doesn’t really matter; his music matters, and the man has become a living legend.

This being the case, I shall refer to a few key events in Lee Perry’s life but I won’t attempt to provide a comprehensive account; instead, I’ll point the interested reader in the general direction of this website dedicated to the works of Lee “Scratch” Perry.

 

Rainford Hugh Lee “Scratch” Perry was born in rural Jamaica in 1936 and lived a typically poor peasant lifestyle in his youth. He enjoyed dancing and musically was brought up on a diet of African tribal rhythms and chanting, church singing, mento, calypso, rhythm & blues and American style big bands. As a young man Perry worked on road construction projects where he claims to have been moved by rock’s vibrations. Taking this as a sign from the ‘king’s stone’, he made his way to Kingston and started to look for work.

Lee Perry Studio One

Perry operated in and around the music business from about 1959; he worked with Duke Reid and Joe Gibbs and also with Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. All these men were important players in the Jamaican music scene, and they all seem to have appreciated Perry’s charisma. He had various roles in the reggae roots of the early 1960s; initially as a studio hand, a sound-system DJ and as a salesman. Having been employed in all sorts of capacities, he became involved in talent spotting and sound selection at Studio One. He also got some of his own tunes recorded.

He soon realised that he was getting a set wage and little recognition for his contributions, when he could be getting more by setting out by himself. Initially, he worked in partnerships, most notably with Prince Buster. Towards the end of the 1960s he established the ‘Upsetter’ imprint and, in an exhibition of savvy marketing, created his own brand, referring to himself, his record label, his record shop and the roster of musicians he used as ‘Upsetter’. Shortly after becoming independent he had his first hit with People Funny Boy, which sold very well and added momentum to the ball that was already rolling for his long career.

Lee Perry constructed a home studio in the early 1970s which became known as the ‘Black Ark’. This gave him the opportunity and time to hone his creative production skills. His reputation grew; he had a good set of musicians – the Upsetters – working as a house band, and soon producers, artists and groups began to seek him out. At the time the 7″ single was the recording format of choice. I’ve limited my selection to these initial 7″ versions; they were predominantly recorded in the 1960s and 70s, released in small quantities for the Jamaican market, and most would be re-recorded at later dates.

From the early 70s the B-side of the single was normally a version of the A-side, and these would evolve into dubs. Some regarded this as a cheap way of getting paid twice for the same tune. However, these tracks became very popular at dances. Also the versions and dubs allowed producers like Perry and King Tubby the scope to play about with the bare bones of the tracks; taking off vocals, emphasising drum & bass, adding loops, echo and reverb and phasing sounds in and out of the tune.

Perry has constantly been releasing material for over 50 years, building up an enormous body of work. This has been plundered, repackaged and re-released many times, producing many versions of the same songs. From his earliest releases there has been experimentation and exploration of the possibilities of production and sound. Some of the songs in this Toppermost were later re-recorded with other producers, and the results are so strikingly different that they make the Perry version noteworthy. When you consider that his version was almost certainly recorded on inferior equipment at various studios and later in his Black Ark studio, this makes his finished tracks all the more remarkable.

He was a master of production and the equipment he had at the Black Ark was relatively basic; a Teac tape machine, 4 track recorder, console, phaser, reverb and echo. He crafted reggae and dubscapes using beautiful voices and classic accompaniment laid down by the Upsetter musicians, setting this against found sounds, freeform vocals and animal noises. He was also at the forefront of introducing the producer as an important part of the recording; the songs wouldn’t have been the same without his production. His experiments started to create sounds which hadn’t been heard before, and his techniques set a template which has now become commonplace.

The first track I have chosen, Kimble, is from a 1968 split single: Jackpot by the Pioneers was on the A-side with this one by the Creators (basically Perry) on the B-side. It was an altogether stranger affair. The song is a companion of the I Am The Upsetter single and showcases a device Perry would return to throughout his career, where he introduces himself as a persona, this time as the nimble Kimble. The Fugitive was a very popular 1960s TV series; the wrongly accused Kimble goes on the run from the law, and here Perry inhabits his character. Perry used Stranger And Glady’s Seeing Is Knowing rhythm as the base of the track. His vocal is delivered to the sharp, staccato rhythm and you can almost feel Perry strutting about proclaiming how great he is, while warning others to give him space and keep away from his shoes. With screams, a popping bass line and breaking glass sound effects this was Perry having fun in the studio. It also shows how he was imagining songs as small stories and reveals his interest in popular culture, a theme that would be present in a great deal of his work.

Perry’s most famous collaboration is probably with Bob Marley. Marley was recently acknowledged as being the most universally recognised face on the planet, and it is odd to think of him as a regular musician whose popularity in Jamaica was on the wane prior to Perry’s serious involvement. Perry had been loosely associated with Bob and the Wailers since the mid-1960s; the later production work he did with them helped to define their sound shortly before they became international stars. In the early 1970s, Bob often stayed at Perry’s house and viewed him as a kind of mentor. Perry tried to emphasise the spiritual side of Bob’s music and smooth-out his vocals.

Small Axe is a track which was co-authored by Perry and Marley, as Perry continued to encourage the Wailers to move away from ska and adopt a reggae beat. The song starts by laying down a subtle but powerful drum and bass, over which light stabbing guitar chords and a trumpet chug along. Perry persuaded Bob to sing in his light, yearning, baritone voice and the Wailers harmonised with this really well. The lyric is deceptively simple and can be interpreted in at least three ways. It is probably aimed at the big three record labels in Jamaica at the time. It also has universal appeal about the possibility of haughty people getting cut down by ‘smaller’ people who have a sharp purpose, and probably carries a similar racial message. The song was a reworking of the proverb ‘pride comes before a fall’, with biblical and radical overtones set to a shuffling reggae beat.

All this added to the sense that Perry and Marley were making rebel, Rastafarian music. This was at a time when reggae and Rastafarianism were increasing in popularity but were far from having a broad appeal. The association between the Upsetters and the Wailers led to some of The Upsetter musicians joining the Wailers; the understated drum and bass from the Barrett brothers helped to anchor the Wailers’ tunes. This personnel defection caused Perry and Marley to temporarily fall out, but after reconciling their differences they would record more material together.

In 1971, while the Wailers were working closely with Perry, they revisited an outstanding song. They had released a very good ska version of Nina Simone’s Sinnerman in 1964 and here they reworked the tune with the help of the Upsetters. The message of the lyric is switched; the subject of the song is no longer the sinner but a politicised Rasta call against oppressors, the Downpresser.

The production and instrumentation is sparse and this allows the listener to focus on the mournful, accusatory voice and lamenting lyric, making the overall effect quite haunting. The song is credited to Peter Tosh and crops up on his 1977 solo album Equal Rights, in a different and, some might say, an inferior production.

The 1973 release Words by the Gatherers is, to my mind, the quintessential Lee Perry track. An alliance that produced a song with a hypnotic rhythm, sweet melody and nice harmony. It is such a major cornerstone in Perry’s work that it has been sampled, dubbed and reused by him on at least ten other tracks. Perry had been approached by the Gatherers, a virtually unknown vocal trio, and was so impressed he recorded them immediately. The song is introduced by a quick, echoing drum rap which launches a relentless, driving, percussive two chord guitar ‘k-chung-a’ rhythm and bouncing beat which propels the song along. Over this musical spine a barely audible, sorrowful, minor-key melodica tune heralds Sangie Davis’ bright vocals. The lyric is vaguely religious, about the need to back words with heartfelt meditations. At 3:34 minutes the song manages to capture many of the crucial elements of Perry’s work: collaboration, rhythm, harmony and soul with a mystical tone.

Bucky Skank was originally released on the Upsetter label in 1973 and was one of the special records found in John Peel’s Record Box of 7″ singles. It shares the same ‘riddim’ as the opening track on the Blackboard Jungle album, widely regarded as the first dub album. A short spoken word introduction about the increase of guns on the streets leads into a spidery backing track. There is a mesmerising sparse riff, over which Perry scats a few rhymes about young, armed men swaggering about. The lyric has a rhythmic drive and the whole song lollops along on the back of some clever drumming. The tone of the vocal has a suppressed anger and is embellished by swirling sound effects. These production effects are strange; they are very spacey but manage to feel confined at the same time, and one is reminded of the pressure forcing bubbles to rise in water.

The 1976 single Sipple Out Deh had Lee Perry combining the Upsetters with Max Romeo’s sweetly sung political lyric, producing a magical roots reggae classic. This track is also known by the title of the album Perry sometimes refers to as his masterpiece, War Ina Babylon. It is a catchy song that plays the trick of combining a childlike tune, patois lyrics, sugary harmonies and lazy, relaxed rhythms with a serious political statement. The album also reflected the growing violence in Kingston at the time and commented on conflict arising from people not respecting each other. The initial single version has a different mix to the later album cuts and is less cluttered with each component of the song having a lot of distinct room.

Lee Perry Max Romeo photo

Max Romeo & Lee Perry

1977 was believed to be a significant year for Rastafarians, as a biblical prophecy warned of two 7s clashing. Perhaps inspired by the predicted Armageddon and with support from Island Records, Perry produced a great deal of work in this year; including the Congos’ Heart Of The Congos. This album was rejected by Island who worried that it was overly religious, experimental and complained about the production. The record has a chequered history of release but is now rightly regarded as definitive roots reggae. Perry blended the trio of singers; incorporating tenor, baritone and falsetto to produce a harmonious whole, in one of his finest productions. The album’s recording sessions were difficult and the process started to push Lee Perry towards the edge of sanity. The Congos were from the Nyabingi sect and were accompanied by many brethren at the home studio. Some commentators have described how these people helped to strengthen Perry’s beliefs and others have asserted that they made life difficult for him and his family. In one of the more bizarre episodes, Perry believed the sect were performing curses on him, so to counteract this he covered his car and the outside of his house in pork, seen as unclean meat. In spite of this madness they managed to produce a stunning album, which is held together by beautiful singing, biblical themes and consummate reggae musicianship. Row Fisherman was released as a promotional single; it’s a traditional tune which has had the lyrics amended to a heartfelt lament about the search for a higher meaning in life. The song’s pleasing harmonies are suspended in a thick air of percussion, surrounded by echo and reverb.

Lee Perry Upsetters Congos photo

Lee Perry, The Upsetters & The Congos

Hidden away among the many albums and singles that Lee Perry produced in 1977 is an absolute gem from Eric Donaldson and the Keystones. Stand Up has a mournful lyric delivered by Donaldson’s fine voice. It slowly builds on an echoing rhythm with Donaldson asking why people won’t assert themselves. The pressure is eventually released by moving from minor key questioning to a major resolve as the song progresses to hope and assurance that everything will be okay at the chorus and finale.

The Heptones’ Crying Over You is a single which has the universal theme of a heartbroken boy crying over a girl who has left him. The instrumentation on the tune is refreshingly beefed-up with the introduction of a brass section with a phased-out effect. The vocals have an alluring, sweet but melancholic harmony, and tension is built by the introduction of extra beats before the relief of the resolving chorus. Perry produced the Heptones’ Party Time album in 1977 which has become another roots reggae classic.

Around this time, the music documenter Jeremy Marre and film crew managed to capture the magic of Perry in the Black Ark studio, recording with the Heptones, the Upsetters and the Congos in his TV film, Roots, Rock, Reggae.

Vibrate Onn is another Black Art single released in the prolific period around 1977. Augustus Pablo had been working in the Jamaican music scene for a number of years. Perry appreciated his talent as a musician and his soulful melodica playing is present on many roots reggae tracks. This single is like a hazy dream of a smoky, echoing recording studio. It conjures up images of a distant Africa and vague, universal vibrations. The song is introduced by echoes; there is a heavily affected vocal before launching into the main melodica tune and Pablo seems to be playing against the many sound effects.

Sometime in 1978, the strain of work led to Perry becoming increasingly troubled. He ceased his recording activity and would eventually burn down his Black Ark studio. This brought an end to a period of intense creativity and recording, and heralded the start of a new nomadic phase in his life.

 

Lee Perry photo 2

Lee “Scratch” Perry remains busy, touring and recording; an enigmatic punky-reggae high priest. He has continually revisited the classics from the 1970s while keeping up to date with new technologies and styles.

2018’s The Black Album is a delight which follows this retro-friendly formula and each track is followed by a dub version in classic showcasing style. He went to great lengths to recreate a feel of the 1960s and 1970s by using vintage equipment for the recording process and referencing many previously recorded songs on the album.

His recent March tour of the UK around his 83rd birthday was an absolute triumph; backed by a great band he appeared full of energy and enjoying life to the full.

Lee Perry photo 3

 

 

Dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry has reunited with producer Adrian Sherwood for a new solo album, Rainford. The new project sees Sherwood on production duties, recording nine original tracks with Perry in Jamaica, Brazil and London. “Delivers all the whacked-out grooves and cosmic wisdom that Perry conjures at will, but also the key alchemical ingredient – songs” Mojo (released by On-U Sound, May 2019).

 

Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Guinness TV ads all in one clip

 

Lee Perry Official Site

Eternal Thunder: all things Lee “Scratch” Perry (including Discography)

Upsetter Riddim Shower: more all things Lee Perry (including Definitive Discography)

The Upsetter: The Life And Music Of Lee Scratch Perry – directed by Ethan Higbee & Adam Bhala Lough (full film on YT)

“People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry” by David Katz (Omnibus 2006)

“Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: Kiss Me Neck: The Scratch Story in Words, Pictures and Records” by Jeremy Collingwood (Cherry Red Books 2011)

Lee Perry YouTube playlist with the original 7″ versions for this Toppermost

Lee “Scratch” Perry – Live at Philharmonie de Paris 2017 (Full Concert)

Lee Perry biography (iTunes)

This is Ian’s 8th post for Toppermost (after Fats Waller, King Tubby, Dawn Penn, Melvins, The Orb, Nina Simone, The Woodentops).

TopperPost #786

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    May 6, 2019

    Excellent article and song selection. Perry is, as you say, completely underrated outside of the fans. And it’s interesting that a rather parochial regional style, that as you suggest, was starting to wane in its own place, exploded. And Perry is as responsible as anyone else, if not more so.

  2. Andrew Shields
    May 7, 2019

    Ian, thanks for this – some fabulous music in here. And a fascinating backstory.

  3. Ian
    May 9, 2019

    Andrew, David thanks for your comments; been a real pleasure piecing this together.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓