Lee “Scratch” Perry behind the console at the Black Ark.
Today is the 70th birthday of Rainford Hugh Perry, better known to the world as Lee Perry, a.k.a. Scratch, a.k.a. the Upsetter, a.k.a. Pipecock Jackxon…I could go on, but you get the idea.
Scratch casts a long shadow over the history of reggae music, and could be considered one of the most influential figures in the history of recorded music, period. Along with people like Brian Eno and George Martin, he was a pioneer in the use of the recording studio as an instrument. In the five years after he built the Black Ark, his Kingston studio, and before he burned it to the ground for reasons that have never been made clear, he produced a staggering body of work that was not so much ahead of its time as simply out of time. Today, if you listen to an album like Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, The Congos’ Heart of the Congos, or the Upsetters’ Super Ape, it doesn’t sound old, it doesn’t sound new, it just sounds like nothing else in the world.
And he accomplished all this with a four-track system that was far from state of the art even in 1975, transcending the limitations of the equipment with a combination of technical ingenuity and what appears to have been some kind of voodoo. As Scratch put it himself, “It was only four tracks written on the machine, but I was picking up twenty from the extraterrestrial squad.”
Which is fairly typical of the kind of thing that has been known to come out of his mouth over the years. Always an eccentric, Perry went off the deep end in 1979, putting the torch to his own studio in an act of monumental perversity. The liner notes to the Arkology box set describe the Black Ark’s demise this way:
Perry is said to have been seen in various parts of Kingston walking backwards, striking the ground with a hammer, for two days before the Black Ark was destroyed. Some have suggested that Perry burned the Ark by accident, while others believe Perry destroyed it on purpose to foil the tactics of his enemies. Still others claim that Perry burned it in a desperate attempt to rid himself of of the unwanted attentions of a German tourist. Whatever the case, the Ark was indeed destroyed. Perry was detained for three days for suspected arson, only to be released without charge due to lack of evidence.
In the subsequent years, Perry has continued to make music, some of it quite good, much of it pretty shaky. But his legacy is secure, embracing as it does a strong influence on the career of Bob Marley, a key role in the invention of dub, and a formidable discography. No one is quite sure how many records Perry has made — some were pressed in small quantities on obscure Jamaican labels — but if you count both those released under his own name and those produced for other artists, it certainly goes well into three figures. Considering the uniform quality of his pre-1980 oeuvre, that’s an amazing amount of music.
So take a minute today to tip your hat to Mr. Perry. If you have more time, you might want to check out Mick Sleeper’s birthday Webcast at http://www.upsetter.net/scratch/.