Lee "Scratch" Perry
By Jim DeRogatis
In our zeal to make sense of new and ever-evolving musical genres, we're always quick to hold up a sound from the past as (Lord, I hate this word) "seminal." But in honor of Arkology, the new collection of reggae rarities produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at his Black Ark Studio in the 70s, my fellow critics have set a new standard for this practice. Not since punk pried open the rock pantheon to make room for the Velvet Underground have so many superlatives been thrown at a misunderstood cult figure.
"Arkology is an essential dub document, but the real treat is hearing how Perry's vision infects so many different strains of '90s music," Rob Sheffield wrote in Details. "Work your way through everything you know about hip hop, electronica, punk rock, and postrock, and some how, some way, you always end up at Black Ark," marveled David Fricke in Rolling Stone. Valiantly refraining from using the word postmodern, Rob Michaels added in Spin that Perry had "no use for 'songs,' as pop fans know them, with authors, owners, beginnings, middles, and ends. His medium was one of total flux."
The young Prodigy fan or Wu-Tang devotee inspired by such hyperbole to invest upwards of $50 in the three-CD box set may be shocked to discover that Arkology isn't nearly as radical as he was led to believe, and that it's basically a collection of--hold on to your hats--reggae. Michaels's claims to the contrary, it contains a lot of songs; 52 to be exact. Some are memorable, some are duds, and some are extended or otherwise warped by Perry's production techniques. The last are indeed impressive, but all the chatter about what came after makes it harder to hear his actual accomplishments.
Rainford Hugh Perry was born in 1936 in Kendal, a small town in northwest Jamaica. He became "Lee" when he gravitated to Kingston in the late 50s and started his musical career--as a gofer at Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's famous Studio One and a DJ with the Downbeat Sound System--a group of DJs that helped take the new hybrid music, ska, to the streets on Dodd's equipment. In the years that followed Perry became a recording artist himself, and in 1965 scored a hit with "Chicken Scratch," which spawned his second nickname. He was one of several key musicians in instigating the shift from upbeat ska to the slower and more sinister rock steady and finally to reggae. He ran his own label, Upsetter, from 1968 to 1974, and recorded and released the early efforts of Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Through it all, Perry constantly complained of being screwed--out of both money and recognition--by other producers. Two of his best-known early reggae recordings, "I Am the Upsetter" and "People Funny Boy," are thought to be diatribes aimed at Dodd and Joe Gibbs, another former employer. Yet Perry himself has been accused of shortchanging the members of his band, the Upsetters, when they became the first reggae group to tour England in 1969, and he allegedly never paid royalties to the Wailers, resulting in a legendary cold war with Marley and then the Marley estate. These items are conveniently left out of most Perry hagiographies.
Arkology only goes back as far as 1975, the year Perry signed a worldwide distribution deal with the man he called "a vampire sucking the blood of the sufferer," Island founder Chris Blackwell. In 1973, Perry had purchased a £12,000 house in the Kingston suburb of Washington Gardens--not an inexpensive spread for the time and place--and built himself a concrete recording studio christened "Black Ark" in the backyard. There he recorded his own music with the Upsetters (whose lineup varied depending on which session players were sitting around at any given time), produced the likes of Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, and the pioneering female reggae singer Susan Cadogan, and built on the dub experiments of the groundbreaking King Tubby.
No, Perry didn't invent dub, but he did embrace it. The word is thought to refer to the practice of "dubbing out" various tracks on the master tape--putting sudden and unexpected emphasis on elements usually restricted to the background, like the rhythmic interplay of the high hat and bass. The word dub closely resembles dup, patois for ghost. Perry's dub productions are marked by a haze of reverb and sound effects like pistol shots, crying babies, and falling rain that do jump out like ghosts. "It was only four [tracks] written on the machine," Perry says in the box set's liner notes, "but I was picking up twenty from the extraterrestrial squad."
Although Arkology is divided into three "reels" called "Dub Organiser," "Dub Shepherd," and "Dub Adventurer," and kicks off with Perry's declaration that "This is dub revolution / Music to rock the nation" (on "Dub Revolution Part I"), it is by no means "an essential dub document." Listeners in search of one handy package compiling Perry's freakiest productions would be much better served by Trojan's 1989 two-disc collection Open the Gate. Key tracks like Perry's own "Bionic Rats" and the Heptones' "Babylon Falling" are stranger and more inventive than anything on Arkology, and the absence of Cadogan on the new set is unforgivable. The collection assumes a certain familiarity with Perry's output that many newer listeners (and apparently some reviewers) lack, offering such arcana as alternate takes and previously unreleased tracks. Multiple versions of songs do illustrate the way Perry could use one rhythm track to sculpt several different tunes. But this was a habit born of economic necessity--young artists couldn't always afford to start from scratch in the studio--not a prescient vision of a drum 'n' bass future.
Five versions of a tune is overkill by anyone's standards, even when the song is as galvanizing as Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves." Studying the variations in the mixes, dramatic as some of them are, is an activity that can only appeal to obsessive collectors and academics--the same folks who listened more than once to the early demos on the Velvet Underground box set Peel Slowly and See. The inclusion of alternate mixes of lesser tracks is even more dubious. Perry, like Phil Spector or George Martin, was ultimately as good as the songwriters he was working with. Paired with talents like his old friend Romeo or the Heptones, he could look like a magician. But not even Perry's chirping crickets and bellowing elephants could levitate a cookie-cutter reggae jam like Errol Walker's "John Public."
The secret of Perry's success was good taste in collaborators (though you can't always tell that from the tracks on Arkology), combined with his ability to create a vibe that encouraged artists to use their imaginations. In order to summon the ghosts, he would blow ganja smoke on the master tape as it rolled. The feeling of druggy disorientation permeates Perry's work to such an extent that you can get a little woozy just listening to too much of it. Perry wasn't so much reinventing the recording studio or abandoning conventional song structure for the hell of it as he was trying to capture the experience of being stoned.
Like fellow psychedelic avatars such as Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson, Perry eventually flew too high for his own good. He overindulged in rum and pot, split with his wife and children, angered his business partners, unwisely ignored the thugs who shook him down for protection money, and finally saw Black Ark destroyed in 1979 by a fire that many people believe he started himself. (He covered the ruins with cryptic graffiti such as "Moses + Satan + dead spit" and "all robots all winds all seas all brains all minds all water all air.") He's been playing the role of the mad genius ever since, granting colorful interviews in which he rambles about outer space, aliens, sex, Rastafarianism, and how he's been ripped off by the "bald head" white man, then returning with his second wife and manager in their BMW to their house overlooking Lake Zurich in Switzerland.
He's crazy like a fox, Scratch is, and he's more than happy to have the bald heads credit him with whatever damn fool thing they can come up with--as long as it helps move even mediocre collections like Arkology.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lee "Scratch" Perry photo by Adrian Boot; album cover.