A golden age is coming to an end.
In a world population of 7.107 billion, there are a few on our planet whose contribution to our global community is vast; whose achievements, lives and personalities have gained universal recognition due to their brilliance. In politics, an arena in which it is difficult to be lauded given the very nature and polarity of political beliefs, one man dominates the 20th Century. Nelson Mandela (born 1918) whose dignity during his incarceration, release, and time served as South African President has been globally lauded. Meanwhile in the world of the dissident, none has been so consistent, so concerned with the plight of the underdog, or as committed as Noam Chomsky (born 1928). Similarly, Muhammed Ali (born 1942) is the one man whose ability, wit and political conviction mark him out as a legend of the sporting world. Stephen Hawking (born 1942) is revered for his scientific work that has gone some way to helping us understand the world and his ability to make it readily understood by the lay man.
All of these legendary figures are in their dotage, and when their time comes to a natural end, one has to ask; just who can replace them?
In the Arts, that venue of restless creativity, the artist who consistently produces great work is a very rare commodity indeed. Most sparkle during an intense burst of creativity and then live on their reputation for the rest of their days. The brilliance of some is not valued until they are long gone. However, there are a few whose life is art, whose dedication to making art subsumes their very being and whose minds are on an entirely different plane to us mere mortals. One man who fits this description was born Rainford Hugh Perry (born 1936). He is more universally recognised as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the Jamaican purveyor of mystical and mind bending musical productions that have coloured the genres of reggae, dance, ska, rap and jungle among others. He is perhaps best known for his influence on Bob Marley, rightfully revered as one of the musical greats of the 20th Century. Without Perry’s production skills, one wonders whether Marley’s global reach would have extended quite so far. Yet his connection with Marley has come to obscure a lifetime of work that is at least the equal, and in some cases, stronger than that he produced with the Tuff Gong.
His early life in Jamaica was fractured by his parents split which resulted in him being separated from the rest of his siblings to go and live with his father. The hardship he endured during his Jamaican youth and the resulting solitary existence he led may well have been the catalyst in creating the dynamic, energetic, individual, unique and almost mythical figure of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
His humble beginnings within the arts began in his early twenties, when he found himself a job selling records for Coxsone Dodd’s sound system, before gradually picking up the skills and developing his own that would lead him to become the most celebrated record producer in Jamaican history. The Jamaican music industry is a fractious arena, dominated by spectacular falling outs and beefs, one such row resulted in Perry leaving Dodd’s studio for his rival Joe Gibbs’, before establishing his own Upsetter label, which he used to sonically attack both of the producers for whom he had previously worked. Left to his own devices, Perry was now free to wreak havoc upon the music he was mixing, and as a result, he was responsible for establishing reggae music as Jamaica’s musical life force and for spreading those vibes around the planet. It was during this period that the eccentric brilliance of his every waking hour was becoming established. With his band the Upsetters he wrote and produced some of the most ground-breaking music of the late 60s and early 70s. During the same period that he was establishing the Wailers and helping prepare them to conquer the world; he was also producing and promoting the like of The Heptones and Junior Murvin, in his own inimitable style. His beautifully crafted Curly Locks, covered by Junior Byles and Sinead O’Connor to name but two, was written during this period of creative high and some might see this as Scratch’s nirvana regarding his art.
Yet in 1976, Britain’s musical zero when punk broke all the rules, Scratch was already ahead of the game. Whilst producing the heavenly vocals of Max Romeo on I Chase the Devil Perry decided that he and his fellow Upsetters would record another version of the song which they called Croaking Lizard. Perry the ultimate creator, welded the two together, chucked in a plethora of mind warping sounds and thus created the stunning Disco Devil.
Even today, more than thirty years after its release, it is entirely relevant and sounds as though it could have been made yesterday, in out of space and by a talent that seems to be sadly missing in modern music. However, the best was still to come. In the year when the two sevens clashed, Perry produced his most astonishing work yet.
The Heart of the Congos may have been written and performed by Cedric Myton and his fellow Congos, but its beating heart was Scratch.
From the opening drum and cymbal crash, the sound and feel of the whole piece is that of a beatifically, reverential paean to Jah Rastafari. This magnificent opus is crammed with so many other worldly sounds, echo and reverb, that repeated listening is always rewarded by the discovery of something new. Whilst the feel on the incredible Fisherman creates biblical visions of the Sea of Galilee, Congoman with its claustrophobic beat and sensational melding of vocals takes one back to the beginning of life in Ethiopia. Open up the Gates is a work of astonishing beauty, hymn-like in its tenor whilst Children Crying takes a back seat, lazily meandering along to some fantastical background noises whilst praising the Most High always. When Myton sings “Send us another Moses…” the accompanying riot of noise is so bizarre that it jars, but works, whilst at other times Perry just lets the song breathe. La La Bam-Bam takes a mystical journey through both Old and New Testaments as Scratch dips in and out with his musical mischief and Can’t Come In and Sodom and Gommorah continue with the album’s intensity, the latter track’s continuous refrain of “burning” was to prove somewhat portentous in the not too distant future. The Wrong Thing is a work of beauty, a lovely melody interjected with shrill whistles, crashing cymbals the sound of water running, and other entirely unidentifiable sounds bubbling in the background. The centrepiece of the album has to be Ark of the Covenant. Opening with what sounds like a cow in mourning, the arrangement of vocals and the chugging, urgent rhythm, the hissing, the sonorous bass and the backing track (which sounds like an entirely different song undercutting the main one) make for a spectacular sonic assault before it all drops out entirely, allowing Scratch to fiddle while gleefully burning Rome.
Solid Foundation, At the Feast and Nicodemus bring home Heart of the Congos in a triumphant triumvirate with pealing bells, languid rhythms, and delicious distortions.
The personnel on the album are testament to the fact that Lee Perry was at the heart of everything going on in Jamaica and indeed the reggae world at that time. Ernest Ranglin, Boris Gardiner, Gregory Isaacs, Sly Dunbar, and Sticky Thompson are all present at various points on this masterpiece of roots, reggae and Rastafarian religiosity.
However, a by-product of the time taken to create this magnificent piece of art was that Scratch found a lot of unsavoury characters, often demanding money, hanging around the studio. His behaviour, which could be seen as already incredibly erratic and full of energetic creativity or the manifestation of madness, became even more bizarre. Some have seen it as a bid to put distance between him and his unwanted visitors, others as a sign that he had either smoked too much weed, or that the classic creativity/madness fine line had been crossed. Accidentally or consequently, no-one knows for sure; the Black Ark, the studio in which he had created his finest works thus far, burnt to the ground.
In Rastafarian culture, fire is seen as a cleansing process, and Scratch needed to recharge. Since then Perry has travelled through the States and England before settling in the entirely opposite climate to that of his birth, Switzerland. However, contrary to popular belief, his creativity did not end with the Black Ark. Musically, collaborations with the likes of Adrian Sherwood and the Beastie Boys, a Grammy for his 2004 album Jamaican E.T. (along with further nominations for albums in 2008 and 2010), the fabulously funny Guinness commercials, and recent work with the Orb attest to the fact that he is still an incredibly inventive artist. However, I would argue that Lee Scratch Perry is a walking piece of art.
The excellent movie/documentary, The Upsetter, is a marvellous portrait of a personality some find difficult to fathom, but one that is always entertaining. It is evident that Scratch has always been on the eccentric side and The Upsetter illustrates this through archive and recent footage. In the sixties, seventies and eighties Perry cannot seem to stand physically still (he was known for his dancing back in the day), and mentally he is a walking word play with confusion and frightening clarity being uttered in equal measure. Whilst his physical movements are less excitable now that he is approaching his 80s, his mental faculties remain the same. Despite having given up liquor and weed, the same wonderfully disarming chunks of seemingly crazy talk remain, and yet as always it is frequently cut through with real insight on the state of the world today, especially with regard to the machinations of the Babylonian “shitstem”. In the documentary Perry claims that he is a punk, and you cannot argue with that statement. Punk was always about standing up to the powers that be and asserting your individuality (something that got lost very early on with the tiresome cloning of fashion and musical style that took place following the Pistols explosion) and Scratch has been the epitome of punk since before punk began. The time and effort he takes with his unique dress sense, with his beard and hair colouring, with his art installations (walking around with a bowl of fruit on his head, creating fires in the snow), alongside the torrent of Biblical and insightful verbiage that he emits in his own inimitable style, means that Lee Scratch Perry is a true artist a rare breed. Another documentary is on its way, a year after he was decorated by the Jamaican Government for his services to the country. At the end of The Upsetter, Scratch, dressed in all his regal fine-ness, is seen charmingly asking if a shopkeeper has any plastic money. A belligerent and very large Canadian begins verbally abusing him, obviously oblivious that he is in the presence of a musical genius. Does the diminutive septuagenarian Scratch back off or cower in the presence of a really threatening situation? Far from it; he points to the man’s stomach and suggests that if he is talking bullshit, this man must have been eating his own judging by the size of his belly. Punk! Lee Perry is still unique and rebellious, one of the Twentieth Century’s great artistic characters and one of my all time heroes.
A further documentary Vision of Paradise has been released this year (2015) and is set to further his legend.
They say there is a thin line between genius and madness. Scratch definitely sides with the former and he is still creating; from his incessant painting of any surface, to his unique and personalised fashion sense and not forgetting the glorious chaos and hilarious lyrics of songs like this;
In a world of X-Factor/American Idol, boy bands, identikit fashion, identikit politicians’, identikit identikits, Lee Perry is one of a dying breed. Listen to his back catalogue, go and watch The Upsetter, read People Funny Boy by David Katz and appreciate a very rare and magnificent talent while he is still here.
Lee Perry = ART.