Shocks Of Mighty: An Upsetting Biography (Part 3)

In command of his own studio now, Perry began to take his formidable skills to a new level, and worked his mixing board like an instrument. The wild experiments of the past few years gave way to more intricate and earthy sounds. As reggae historian Steve Barrow comments, "the sound of the Black Ark was like the signature of an artist on his canvas". The aura of the Black Ark began to attract Jamaica's greatest performers, from veterans like The Heptones to newcomers such as Jah Lion. Such was his passion for producing that he routinely gave unknowns a first try and gave has-beens a shot in the arm. Even prodigal son Bob Marley returned to Scratch and recorded several songs at the Black Ark. While other studios had performers punching a clock, Perry was only too happy to spend as long as it took to get the right groove. A recording session at the Black Ark took on the feel of a party as Perry kept the doors to the concrete studio open for people to wander in and out while he danced around, clapped his hands, and shouted out his approval from the mixing board. Perry 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 that the music recorded in the Black Ark would have a dirty, magical quality to it that would never be surpassed.

Using fairly simple equipment, Perry was able to take four tracks and make them sound like eight or more by mixing down several tracks onto one and then repeating the process. With less than state of the art technology, Perry managed to create a huge bag of tricks that many producers still puzzle over today. "It was only four tracks on the machine," Perry explains cryptically, "but I was picking up twenty from the extra terrestrial squad." Dazzling and dread albums from Max Romeo (War In A Babylon), The Upsetters (Super Ape), Junior Murvin (Police And Thieves), The Heptones (Party Time), and The Congos (Heart Of The Congos), along with hundreds of heavy singles flowed from the Black Ark between 1974 and 1979. It represented a pinnacle in Jamaican music, reggae at its highest heights and greatest power.

While things were heating up in Perry's studio, so was the political climate in Jamaica. The island's two political parties had a long tradition of settling arguments out of court on the streets of Kingston. Each party had hired gunmen who routinely went apeshit in the weeks before an election and shot at anything that moved. Anti-violence songs that foretold a coming apocalypse became the order of the day, such as Max Romeo's "War In A Babylon", Junior Murvin's "Cross Over", and Perry's own fevered plea for sanity, "City Too Hot". Never a stranger to extreme words and imagery, Perry's outer space productions seemed to mirror the current heat and confusion of Jamaica perfectly. Against this vivid backdrop, his sound was becoming internationally recognized. Perry secured a worldwide distribution deal with Island Records, and soon his productions had attracted the attention of rock and rollers such as Paul McCartney, Robert Palmer, and The Clash. Radio DJs in America were giving Perry's productions enthusiastic airplay. Journalists made trips to Jamaica to meet the man responsible for the incredible sounds. With the world beating a path to his door, Perry's backyard was becoming famous.

Despite the incredible music and the magical vibes of the Black Ark, by the late 1970s, all was not well in Perry's concrete kingdom. Freeloaders and loiterers began to get on his nerves, and making music became more and more difficult. Marathon recording sessions fuelled by ganja and alcohol began to take their toll. Island Records had deemed some of his greatest recordings as "un-releaseable". The Black Ark also became the target for local gangsters who began pressuring him for protection money. Perry's relationship with his common-law wife Pauline began to fall apart. Polite and angry requests for the "bad weeds" to get out of his garden didn't work; soon, Scratch turned to weirder methods to get rid of the unwanted dreads and rude boys. The Black Ark soon reached the boiling point, and a point of no return for Perry.

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