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A BRIEF HISTORY OF SCRATCH

Seven upsetting eras

The amount of work that Lee Perry has been involved with over a 40 year career is nothing short of staggering. Scratch's story is more or less the story of Jamaican music: from humble beginnings, the sound takes root, grows strong and wide, and contains many branches. From the ska era to the first wave of reggae and the dread magnificence of the 1970s, Scratch was there all the way. Yet, some fans only know Scratch for his Black Ark masterpieces; others only know his later, more eccentric work. Many have never heard his early ska scorchers. As a reggaeologist, I started thinking about all of the distinct periods in Scratch's career, and therefore present the following seven eras for your consideration:


1. The Ska Era (1959 - 1966)

Mainly working behind the scenes for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, Scratch didn't get behind the microphone as much as he wanted, but when he did the results were usually pretty good. His music from the ska era does nothing to suggest that the young "King" Perry would one day become The Mighty Upsetter, yet many of his ska songs established a thematic cornerstone that he would use for the rest of his career. Lyrically, Scratch wouldn't stray too far beyond the sentiments of "Give Me Justice" and "Doctor Dick", except to blast a former employer.

Best songs from this era:
Pussy Galore, Chicken Scratch, Help The Weak, What A Good Woodman.

2. The Reggae Era (1967 - 1970)
Although Scratch is best known for his more innovative works, many of his productions are straightforward rock and soul inspired first wave reggae. However, considering that Scratch more or less invented the new reggae beat, his sound from this era is killer. With a few wild exceptions such as "Kimble", "People Funny Boy" and "The Tackro", there still wasn't a lot to suggest that Perry would soon live up to his Upsetter nickname. With tight productions from artists such as Dave Barker, The Bleechers, and The Silvertones, Scratch mashed up the place with some of the catchiest tunes ever.

Best songs from this era:
Return Of Django, Live Injection (The Upsetters), Tighten Up (The Untouchables), Leaving On A Jet Plane (David Isaacs), Prisoner Of Love (Dave Barker).

3. Proto Black Ark (1970 - 1974)
The first truly upsetting era, as Scratch's work began to take on a deadlier, weirder quality. Scratch's collaboration with Bob Marley was not only a turning point in both of their careers, but in the history of reggae. The new technique of dub entered Scratch's arsenal, and many of the songs from this era foreshadow his Black Ark work.

Best songs from this era:
Duppy Conqueror (The Wailers), Cow Thief Skank (Lee Perry & Charlie Ace), Kentucky Skank (Lee Perry), Cane River Rock, Sipreano (The Upsetters).

4. Early Black Ark Era (1974 - 1976)
Now in command of his own studio, Scratch now could exercise complete control over everything from auditions to the final mix. One gets the feeling that for the first couple of years, Scratch was making a final set of test flights before blasting off for real - many of these first Black Ark tracks sound as if they were recorded earlier, at another studio. The signature sound of the Black Ark hadn't emerged quite yet, but was just around the corner...

Best songs from this era:
Talk About It (The Diamonds), Yagga Yagga (Lee & Jimmy), Public Jestering (Judge Winchester), Cross Over (Junior Murvin), Brotherly Love (The Jolly Brothers).

5. The Black Ark Era (1976 - 1979)
Dreader than dread, heavier than lead. During this time, Jamaica's most magnificent and memorable music was being made, and Scratch was responsible for much of it. The trademark "hissing / falling rain / chains in the dungeon" sound that the Black Ark is famous for finally emerges. Now at the height of his craft, Scratch ensures that the Black Ark was the cornerstone of the deadliest music in reggae.

Best songs from this era:
Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Uptown Babies Don't Cry (Max Romeo), Children Crying (The Congos), Zion's Blood (The Upsetters), Vibrate On (Augustus Pablo).

6. Judgement Ina Babylon Era (1981 - 1986)
After the demise of the Black Ark in 1979 and his subsequent breakdown, Scratch drifted for several years. Gone were the days of producing other artists as the Upsetter concentrated on his own volatile songs, many of them aimed straight to the head of his (perceived) enemies. While most of his works from this period are quite odd, the complete "stream of consciousness" approach had not taken shape quite yet.

Best songs from this era:
Judgement Ina Babylon, Bed Jammin', Bafflin' Smoke Signal, Holy Moses, Radication Squad.

7. Secret Laboratory Era (1986 - present)
By the time of Battle Of Armagideon (1986), Scratch more or less laid down a blueprint for all of his subsequent work: hard, fast, crazed lyrics delivered over electronic rhythm tracks with strange happenings around every corner. Scratch's famous "word salads" began to get tossed, as songs stopped having definite coherence and went off on wild tangents along the way. In this period, Scratch really stopped being a singer/musician per se and instead became kind of a performance artist. Art may imitate life, but for Scratch there's no difference between the two, as he uses water, fruit, paint, crazy clothes, and other materials to create a mood rather than just music.

Best songs from this era:
I Am A Madman, Kiss The Champion, From The Secret Laboratory, Train To Doomsville.

April 1999