Monday, September 8, 2014

Lee "Scratch" Perry: Arkology

For several years in reggae's 1970s heyday, there was no producer more eccentric, creative and successful than Lee "Scratch" Perry, who worked his magic in a rudimentary studio known as the Black Ark. 

With space at a premium and with a set-up that was basic, maybe primitive, Perry used his prodigious talent for spotting quality songs and performers with an uncanny ability to coax the strangest sounds from his equipment and a combination of found materials and the voices of musicians and singers he worked with.  The lowing of a cow, the cry of a baby and other sounds were developed in this simple studio environment.

Arkology is a masterful three-disc set of fifty-two tracks from Island Jamaica that has a wealth of famous and lesser-known pieces, many paired with dub versions, that form the core of some of the best of what reggae had to offer during its zenith. 

In addition to the house band, The Upsetters, which variously featured such instrumental heavy-hitters as the great Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, on drum and bass, there were also bassists Boris Gardiner and Winston Wright, drummers Mikey Richards and Benbow Creary, guitarists Chinna Smith, Geoffrey Chung, Willy Lindo and Ernest Ranglin, among others; organist Robbie Lyn; melodica player Augustus Pablo, percussionists Skully Simms and Sticky Thompson, trumpeters Bobby Ellis and David Madden, trombonist Vin Gordon, sax players Richard Hall and Glen DaCosta and flautist Egbert Evans. 

Among the singers are The Heptones, Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, The Meditations, The congos, Mikey Dread and Perry's deep-toned toasting, with some of little-known performers like Errol Waler, Devon Irons, Raphael Green, and Enos Barnes turning in fine performances, as well.

Of the best-known songs, there are a raft of great tracks, including Romeo's "War Inna Babylon;" "One Step Forward;" "Chase the Devil;" and "Norman;" Murvin's "Police and Thieves;" The Meditations' "Much Smarter" and "No Peace;" The Heptones' "Sufferer's Time;" The Congos' "Congoman;" and Perry's own "Roast Fish and Corn Bread;" "Dub Revolution;" and "Party Time."

But, it's often the lesser-known tracks that are the most revealing, including Walker's "In These Times" and "John Public;" "Rasta Train" from Raphael Green and Dr. Alimantado; "Mr. President" from The Heptones and Jah Lion; and Devin Irons' "Vampire."

Finally, all the great dub versions from The Upsetters highlight the deep grooves generated by the musicians and the trippy sound effects concocted by Perry at his best.  It's been easy to play these three discs repeatedly and not tire of the contents, because of the variety in singers, excellent songs, and Perry's amazing dub concoctions.

Sadly, Perry was getting hassled for protection money, dealing with growing competition, and generally feeling greater pressure, which took its toll on his already-eccentric personality and mental state.  Black Ark was already colorfully decorated with record sleeve, 45 rpm records, photos  and all manner of memorabilia, but Perry then covered every inch of the walls with rambling statements and other writings before the studio suddenly burned to the ground in 1979.  There were denials from Perry that he torched the facility deliberately, but later he became more forthcoming.

He left the country and now lives in Switzerland with his Swiss wife and his children and has continued to make music, though mainly as a performer rather than a producer (and all the logistical and business issues that entails.) 

A couple of years ago, ubiquitous producer Bill Laswell, a huge fan of Perry and dub generally, produced "Rise Again," a highly-praised Perry album on Laswell's M.O.D. Technologies label. 

At 78, Perry is still performing and, though, it's been about 40 years since his peak years at Black Ark, this music lives on as a testimony to some of the best reggae ever committed to tape.  Long may Scratch's music be heard!

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