ASKING “WHO is Lee Perry?” is like asking “What is literature?” or “What is colour?” The question is too big. He is the Muhammad Ali of Jamaican music. A pint sized genius with purple hair.
The man’s discography is an endless abyss of dubs and reggae nuggets not to mention his various aliases and production roles. With more than 50 years recording his career has had a number of phases.
Perry started out working for Clement Coxsone Dodds at the Motown of Jamaica - Studio One - DJing on Coxsone’s Sound system and searching out local talent. He recorded some great ska sides himself with the backing of Coxsone’s house band, The Skatalites, earning himself the nickname ‘Scratch’ from his record ‘The Chicken Scratch’.
With a solid apprenticeship behind him at Brentford Road, Perry moved on to work at West Indies Records and teamed up with various giants in the scene at the time like Prince Buster, Clancy Eccles, and Joe Gibbs - all ending due to financial issues.
Eventually Perry struck out on his own just in time for the arrival of rocksteady, which has a much slower rhythm than ska, and then on to reggae. With his backing band, The Upsetters (formerly the Hippy Boys), arguably the best reggae band at the time, a deal was brokered with British record labels Trojan and Pama.
It was the right time. The fledgling skinhead and suedehead youth cult, which carried on from the mods of the sixties, had an insatiable appetite for fast reggae, and Perry’s first LP of many on Trojan, The Upsetter, a collection of organ led, upbeat reggae, tracks, captured the mood and tastes of British reggae fans.
Perry went on to set up his own Upsetter label shortly afterwards and the first single ‘People Funny Bwoy’ was a lyrical attack on his former boss Joe Gibbs’ perpetuating of the old sound system ways.
The Upsetters, with Perry at the helm, released more than 100 singles in the next few years - all of them with a touch of the inimitable Perry mad genius. The most successful of these was ‘Return Of The Django’ which reached the British Top 10, and led to a British tour.
All was rosy until a young upstart by the name of Bob Marley got The Upsetters to join his band, The Wailers. I have read different accounts of what happened next but the one I favour is that Perry knew this was going to happen, and even engineered it, so he could pile in and demand production rights, to which The Wailers were only too happy to agree.
What was to follow was some of the greatest reggae music ever to be cut to wax. Unfortunately this too would be short lived because once again, as so often happens in Jamaican music, there was a fall out over rights.
Around this time Perry moved to ‘uptown’ Kingston and created his famous Black Ark studio there. This is where the ‘madman’ really came into his own creating a sound that would influence generations.
“Perry shot pistols, broke glass, ran tapes backwards, and used samples of crying babies, falling rain, and animal sounds,” according to his biography. “Innovation and experimentation became Black Ark trademarks. He used eccentric methods such as cleaning the tape heads with his T-shirt and blowing ganja smoke onto the master tapes as they rolled, ensuring the music recorded in the Black Ark would have a dirty, magical, quality to it that would never be surpassed.”
Island boss Chris Blackwell noticed this rare talent and signed him to his label as both recording artist and producer. Songs of note are Max Romeo’s ‘War Inna Babylon’ and ‘Police and Thieves’ by Jr Murvin, later covered by The Clash. Some say dub was invented by King Tubby but this early work certainly was the first departure from the ‘version’ B-sides popular at Studio One.
Perry continued to record for Blackwell under various aliases, but his personal life took a turn for the worse in 1979, when his wife left him and took their children. In response, Perry set the Black Ark studio alight, completely destroying it. It was a breakdown from which he never seemed to fully recover, and with it came the onset of his famous eccentric personality. He covered the site with graffiti and small crosses, and journalists arrived at the Black Ark to find Perry worshipping bananas, eating money, and baptising visitors with a garden hose.
In 1985 Perry left Island accusing Blackwell of being a “vampire” and releasing a song ‘Judgement In Babylon’ describing his feelings on the issue.
Since then Perry has had varying solo success, with some great collaborations with British producer Mad Professor, but what has caught the real imagination of his fans are the floods of compilations of earlier work which have come to light - most notably Island’s Arkology, showcasing some of his production work for other bands as well as solo material.
I have seen Perry live a number of times, Some have been surreal, others reggae heaven, but one thing is for sure you will never see the same Lee Perry gig twice.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry plays the Róisín Dubh on Tuesday March 18 at 8pm. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and the Róisín Dubh.