KRCL is building a new studio and so all Summer we have been building shows from home. I ‘n’ I was putting together an entirely different Smile Jamaica. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and I caught an alert on my phone from Rolling Stone Magazine:
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Reggae Giant and Dub Pioneer, Dead at 85
Damn. First U Roy. Then Bunny Wailer. Now Lee. For me, Lee “Scratch” Perry epitomized what I loved about Reggae music. He was there at the beginning of ska. Brought the Wailers their riddim section and he was a giant in the Reggae mythos via his Black Ark studio.
A mad genius who marched to his own drummer. In the Secret History of Reggae music, that label took on mythic undertones without sacrificing the impeccable quality of 70’s Roots Reggae.
In fact, when I ‘n’ I upload these Reggae Radio showcases I can them the Smile Jamaica Ark-Ives in a backwards tribute to him.
The Black Ark. From the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant buried in a church in Ethiopia. Beyond cool!
In Reggae, we collector obsessives are often more interested in labels and producers than performers. When I ‘n’ I started building my collection in the late 80’s, it became very easy to just automatically add Perry’s productions/performances as the epitome of quality.
Especially through the Mango label, the penultimate releases from the likes of Junior Murvin (Police & Thieves), Max Romeo (War in a Babylon) and The Congos (Heart of the Congos).
It had everything that originally attracted I ‘n’ I to Reggae music: great lyrics about Rastafari love, the story of downtrodden Jamaicans living in the Diaspora (Babylon) and this throbbing bass.
At the Black Ark, Perry was notorious for dumping all of his instruments onto one track. It overloaded everything to the point that your monitors were over-bassed. Then he would cut that murky sound with a slicing high hat and cymbal crash. It had a sort of “stone skipping on water” buoyancy.
The vocals were on the second track. How he captured that sound on primitive Jamaican recording equipment speaks to his prowess as a producer/engineer.
There was often times when I ‘n’ I would purchase a new disk or LP and hear that trademark cavernous sound and think, “That’s a Black Ark recording.” And sure enough, even if the LP was produced by another label. Engineering credit was Lee’s
Another of his hallmarks was the “moaning cow”. He would do some strange flange technique that would approximate that groaning bovine. I’ve pulled the clip for you to hear:
<Lee Perry’s Moaning Cow; 21 sec.>
Lee definitely had some mental health/paranoia issues and eventually the hanger’s ons, the skylarkers, the follow fashion dreads who would hang out and shift coke and eat pork made him destroy the Black Ark Studio to get away from that bad mojo. He painted black X’s over everything. The console, the monitor speakers, the walls. Eventually I think the studio, located behind Lee’s house, burned down.
That lead to about 15 years in the wilderness. Middling releases. A lot of stream of consciousness jive with forgettable Reggae players.
Lee was sued by Chris Blackwell for calling him a vampire who killed Bob Marley for his royalties.
He got his second act with three major events
- The return to glory with ON U Sound producer Adrian Sherwood and the album From the Secret Laboratory (another backward tribute as I ‘n’ I often call the Smile Jamaica Ark-ives the Secret Dubratory.)
- Blood and Fire Label’s massive reissue of The Congos Heart of the Congos.
- The Beastie Boys cover tribute from their boutique magazine Grand Royal
In the wake of the Blood & Fire reissue, a lot of legit and gray market Black Ark disks and LP’s flooded the shops. Lee moved to Switzerland married a wealthy Swiss gal decades younger.
If you check him on discogs, he issued dozens of LPs and CDs of middling quality: some techno, a lot of Mutant Dub, a lot profane rhyming couplets. He definitely was the eminence grise of Reggae music and enjoyed his notoriety.
I ‘n’ I have a few stories I could tell that don’t put in a good light, but those imperfections make him human and flawed like all of us.
If you still buy those round aluminum coaster thingees. Here is the epitome of his best Black Ark work of classics and obscurities.
Jah’s Heavenly Choir has a new mixing board and you can hear Lee’s maniacal cackle lively up the place.
Smile Jamaica Ark-Ives: Sept. 4, 20201 Playlist
- Lee “Scratch” Perry – I Got the Groove; From the Secret Laboratory (ON U Sound) ‘90
- Prince Jazzbo – Live Good Today; Ital Corner (Clocktower) ‘76
- Candy McKenzie – Jah Knows; Lee “Scratch” Perry Presents (Trojan) mid 70’s
- Lee “Scratch” Perry – Free Up the Weed; Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Cornbread (Upsetter) ’78 4:20 Cannabis Service Announcement
- The Heptones – Garden of Life; Disco Devil (Trojan) ’79 comp.
- Junior Murvin & Jah Lion – Police & Thieves; 12” (Mango) ‘76
- Max Romeo – One Step Forward; One Step Forward (Mango) ‘76
- Prince Jazzbo – Ital Corner; Ital Corner (Clocktower) ’76 dj to Max Romeo
- Susan Cadogan – Fever; Susan Cadogan (Trojan) ’76 Little Willie John/Peggy Lee cover
- Twin Roots – Know Love; Disco Devil (Trojan) ’77 comp.
- Aisha Morrison – Ethiopia; Stay Red (Esoldun) mid 70’s comp.
- Jah Lion – Black Lion; Colombia Colly (Mango) ‘76
- Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus – Little David; Love Thy Neighbor (Live & Learn) ‘79
- Errol Walker – John Public; Arkology (Island) mid 70’s comp.
- Flying Sensation – Shoulder to the Wheel; Lost Treasures of the Ark (Orchid) mid 70’s comp.
- The Meditations – Much Smarter; Deeper Roots (Heartbeat) ’78 comp.
- George Faith – I’ve Got the Groove; To Be a Lover (Mango) ‘77
- The Upsetters feat. Prince Jazzbo – Croaking Lizard; Super Ape (Mango) ‘76
- William Clarke – Be Thankful; Shocks of Mighty (Attack) early 70’s comp.;William DeVaughan soul cover
- Martha Velez – Get Up Stand Up; Escape From Babylon (Sire) ’76 Wailers cover
- Bunny Livingstone & The Wailers – Dreamland; Soul Rebels (Trojan) ‘71
- The Diamonds – Talk About It + Yam a Ky; Open the Gate (Trojan) ’75 comp.
- The Congos – Children Crying; Heart of the Congos (Blood & Fire) ‘77
- Denzil Dennis – Women and Money; 7” (Upsetter) ‘74
- Lee Perry – Soul Man; Double Seven (Trojan) ’73 Isaac Hayes cover
- Roots – Mash Down; Voodooism (Pressure Sounds) ’77 comp.
- Lion Zion – Gas Guzzler; Reggae in America (House of Natty) ’76 Oakland artist
- Mikey Dread – Dread at the Mantrol; Arkology (Island) late 70’s comp.;dj to Lee Perry Dreadlocks in Moonlight
- Debra Keese – Travelling; Build the Ark (Trojan) ’77 comp.
- Lee “Scratch” Perry – Train to Doomsville; Pay It All Back vol. 2 (ON U Sond) ‘88
- Robert Palmer – Love Can Run Faster; Double Fun (Island) ‘78
- Aura Lewis & Full Experience – Young Gifted and Broke; Full Experience EP (Blue Moon) mid 70’s female vox
- The Bluebells – Come Along; Cutting Razor (Heartbeat) mid 70’s comp.
- Junior Byles & the Versatiles – The Thanks We Get; Curly Locks (Heartbeat) ’74 comp.
- Bob Marley & the Wailers – Punky Reggae Party; 12” (Tuff Gong) ‘77