I was deeply saddened to wake on Monday to an online ocean of photographs, and tributes, to learn of the passing of Lee “Scratch” Perry. I was sad, I still am sad, but not shocked. Listening between the lines of his latest LP, 2019`s Rainford, it was clear that something wasn’t right. The record found The Mighty Upsetter, for the first time, reflecting, looking back, telling stories that busted, made human, rather than built the superhuman myth. Listing his aliases – Pipecock Jackson, Dub Organizer – calling out to collaborators, Bob Marley, Susan Cadogan, and Prince Far I. Finally owning up to being the “little boy blue” from Kendal, Hanover, JA – Rainford Hugh Perry – when he used to claim that he was born in the sky. The news left me exhausted, flattened, and the only thing I felt like doing was going back to bed. Numb, hollow inside, that void where not a relative, or a close friend, but a great teacher has died. I spent the rest of the day pulling records off shelves trying to think of where to start.
Perry was probably many people`s introduction to dub – his talents championed by endorsements from celebrity cats as disparate as The Beastie Boys, George Clinton, David Lynch, Moby, Keith Richards, and Panda Bear. Lee Perry was the easy way in. I mean someone could play you a production of his, an inner / outer space full of disgruntled cows* and crying babies, and you wouldn’t even have to embrace reggae, understand the lore of the flying cymbal, or spring reverb thunder, to grasp how weird and wonderful it was. Its psychedelic nature appealing to rastas and stoned heavy metal-ers alike. With only a little more exploration you`d quickly discover how totally unique his oeuvre, and particularly the stuff from his `70s studio, The Black Ark is**. You don’t need to know that Perry would clean tape-heads with his sweater, creating the distinctive dense, layered, aquatic sound – the original “analogue bubblebath” – of bounced down bass and percussion, the rattle of stones, bones, bottles, and crowns to appreciate that it`s damn funky.
My entry point to the world of Lee Perry was Junior Murvin`s Police & Thieves – which was a staple on South London radio during the UK heatwave of 1976. Junior`s sweet falsetto soundtracking rising temperatures, further stoked by SUS laws. The Clash later famously covered the tune, while Perry maned the desk for a track – Complete Control – on their debut album. This was all during the “culturally” tense times of Rock Against Racism.
While still at school, tunes like Bucky Skank and Return Of Django, copied from cheap compilations, would be treated to fresh toasts from my friends.
In the late `80s, “balearic beat” digging in Croydon`s second hand stores for promos and white labels, I found a Perry remix of Terence Trent D`Arby, plus a 12 of George Faith`s To Be A Lover. This was the moment that I was truly smitten, and began to buy everything with bearing Perry`s name. Separated by a decade, former plays hallucinogenic havoc with a chart hit, while the latter is a potent piece of hypnotic art. A prime example of the ecstatic music*** he constructed, not in post-production, but live and direct at his Soundcraft mixing desk. Dancing eccentric, flipping faders, switches, knobs, and dials on his beloved Mutton B-Phase and Roland Space Echo RE-201. Composing, soloing, on the units as if they were actual instruments. Producing a pulsating percussive undercurrent, where electric guitar, and piano, are blended, almost indistinguishable from each other, and the cloudy, distorted, low end. Synthesizing a sea of spiritual sound experimentation that ebbs and flows, organically. A tide of tape hiss, and buoy-like cowbell adding to the overall submerged effect. Above this the singer reinterprets, re-appropriates, a William Bell US, Stax / Volt tune – vamping for over eight minutes, before being joined by Dillinger and Perry`s ad libs for the last two. The mesmerizing results appearing to suspend time****.
Shopping trips to The West End would take me into Soho, and onto Berwick Street. In Reckless Records I rescued more castoffs: Trojan treasures, like City Too Hot, Bullwackies bounty – Satan`s Dub – and a Syncopate 12 of the Adrian Sherwood-produced, Jungle. Sherwood first met Perry in Harlesdon`s Pama Records, when the On-U Sound founder was just thirteen. The pair eventually going on to join forces for over three decades – from Dub Syndicate`s Time Boom X De Devil Dead in 1987 to the aforementioned Rainford. The innovative, award-winning Sherwood has called Perry “One of the most important people in late 20th Century music.”
Up the road, Selectadisc sold tons of “represses” and remainders – Super Ape, Return Of Super Ape, Kung Fu Meets The Dragon, Blackboard Jungle Dub (arguably the first ever dub album) – and carried a few Black Art 45s, perhaps of a dubious legitimate nature. Sides like Junior Byles` cover of the standard, Fever, and the equally essential Land Of Love, by The Sons Of Light.
Soul Jazz, on Ingestre Place, had a box of 7s on the counter, where I bagged vintage bits, say, for example The Untouchables` Tighten Up. Dance floor 100% dynamite that enlisted the virtuosity of organists such as Gladstone Anderson, Jackie Mittoo, and Winston Wright, who rode roughshod over the “bumpity”, uptempo, punched in and out, rhythms. When the store switched location, and its name to Sounds Of The Universe, I scored a 10” of The Wailers` Rainbow Country.
In Daddy Kool I bought collections put together by the Kensal Rise-based label, Seven Leaves. Volumes titled, Heart Of The Ark, and their corresponding Megaton Dubs. I had no idea who any of the frequently uncredited singers were, but have been fortunate, since, to find a few – like Earl 16 and Lord Creator – through the exhaustive efforts of reissue imprints such as Belgium’s Roots Vibration. I also pocketed a copy of Tales From The Secret Laboratory, because it had been play-listed by Leeds` Soundclash DJs. Searching for Jah Shaka favourites turned up Horsemouth`s Herb Vendor. I shelled out for Roast Fish, Collie Weed, And Cornbread, on the basis that Jason “Spaceman” Pierce had raved in the NME about the pioneering drum machine use – an EKO ComputeRhythm – on the track, Soul Fire. In a similar vein, interested parties should also check Chim Cherie.
On Ross Allen’s mid-week radio show I heard the haunting, ethereal Milte Hi Ankhen (Bird In Hand) – think Tim Buckley drenched in delay – and then Carl Craig cut up The Congos. Blood & Fire reissued the whole Heart Of The Congos LP, a genuine masterpiece, regardless of genre. A swirling, surreal, super-phased stuttering staccato legato suite of spatially fractionated signals, songs and chants led by Roy Johnson, and backed by Watty Burnett and Cedric Myton. A peak never to be recreated, which I literally wore out.
There were projects with fellow dub warrior, Ariwa`s Mad Professor, and a long-standing relationship with Pressure Sounds gave rise to quality compilations and bespoke 45s. Spotlighting lesser known acts, such as Shaumark & Robinson, and Leo Graham. In 2013, their Roaring Lion set collected previously unreleased dubplates and soundsystem specials, including a deranged deconstruction of an Althea and Donna tune. A blast from The Ark transforming Going To Negril into Loco Negril, reducing the Uptown Top Rankers to spinning, orbiting debris.
Only last year there were reissues of highly sought after rarities from Perry`s back catalogue – Seskain Molegna & Kajo Kawongolo`s Roots From The Congo and The Black Ark Players` Black Ark In Dub. Studio 16`s Disco Devil Volumes made available elusive extended disco mixes. Volume 5 proving decidedly essential for a duo of Junior Murvin tunes, Cross Over and Memories – bringing me, personally, I guess, full circle.
Going through everything, all this vinyl, yesterday and today, attempting to take some kind of stock, it fast became clear that I don’t own anywhere near as many records by any other one artist, as I do those graced by the considerable gifts, the genius, of the very singular Lee “Scratch” Perry.
When I once asked The Orb`s Alex Paterson what it was like to work with Lee – they’d then recently completed the Orbserver In The Star House LP, and Volker Schaner`s Vision Of Paradise movie was being screened – LX, a massive fan, just said, “M.A.D.”
Perry may well have worried the borders of madness and excess, lost two studios to fire – at his most cracked allegedly christening sessions with cocktails of gasoline and blackcurrant – but personally I don’t think that he went mad. Many artists whose accomplishments I admire have had periods when their passion conjured a magic too strong to be harnessed or held for long*****. Often paying a high price for witnessing its flame, burning out in the struggle to come to terms with its unavoidable waining. Perry for sure experienced this as he developed his mercurial, mystical, musical language at The Black Ark. However, Perry survived. He made it through to the other side, reached Overstanding, and proceeded to globe-trot, collaborating, railing against wrongs – waging lyrical war on corruption, greed, and money-worship. With a mischievousness that stirred a fair amount of red herring in with the wisdom. In the broadest, most “pop” terms he’ll be remembered / go down in history for briefly but crucially – between `70 and `71 – sharing some of that magic with Soul Rebels, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh.
While his “music shall live” and his “music shall echo” Lee Perry the sonic shaman, auteur of aural altered states, the self-proclaimed “Jamaican E.T.” – his spirit`s sights now set toward heavens, moving “forward ever, backward never”, continues his journey, his repatriation to the stars. Thank you for the righteous raving, the musical miracles. Godspeed. Travel In Peace.
“Play on Mr. Music, play on.”
*In reality, Perry, drunk, high, and groaning down an aluminum tube.
**Perry – Coxsone “Downbeat / Studio One” Dodd`s former right-hand man – built the Black Ark – designed by King Tubby, and installed by Errol Thompson – in 1973. Perry felt forced to do so when his favourite studio, Randys, replaced their mixing board (“Them fuck up the studio”). Located in the garden of his family home on Cardiff Crescent, in the then fairly well-to-do Kingston suburb of Washington Gardens, the rudimentary Ark was upgraded 3 years later when Perry landed a worldwide deal with Island Records. The eventual collapse of this deal contributed to the decline of both the studio, and Perry`s apparent mental state. The Ark sat unused, in increasing disrepair from 1978, and then burnt down in 1983.
***Around the start of “the second summer of love” I can remember reading – in either ID, The Face, or Time Out – an article in which a journalist recounts taking their first E. To soundtrack what was kind of a controlled experiment, conducted during a picnic in a park, not a club, they chose Lee Perry dubs.
****An even longer, dub – previously only available on a rare Jamaican 12 – surfaced in 2001, on the brilliant Pressure Sounds compilation, Divine Madness…Definitely. The double LP also features Steve Barker and Roger Eagle’s side-long interview with Perry.
*****Perry was often accused of dabbling in Obeah – the Caribbean’s equivalent of Voodoo / Santería – something that he always denied. However there are witness reports of the super producer indulging in invocations, and “anointing” tapes with whiskey, urine, blood, and ganja smoke. Even “resurrecting” reels buried in his backyard. The Black Ark was also famously covered – completely by the end – in graffiti. Talismanic symbols intended to aid Perry`s aural alchemy. When asked – by Susan Cadogan – “Why you write up the place”, he replied, “If you don’t write, you wrong.” It`s unclear though if any of this was actually Obeah, or simply Perry`s own private Ju Ju – no doubt influenced by his mother, who was a Yoruba Ettu Queen.
Michael E. Veal / Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs In Jamaican Reggae / Wesleyan University Press / 2007