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THE ON THE WIRE QUAGMIRE

Fire wankers, this time it is different

While many of Scratch's modern albums are hit and miss, the work that he did in the late 1980s while in England stands out as a high point in his post-Black Ark career. After several years of confusion, Scratch was getting back into action and laying down some powerful music, such as the great Battle Of Armagideon album and his collaborations with Adrian Sherwood. According to the seminal Scratch retrospective in Grand Royal in 1995, several of the tracks that he recorded with Adrian Sherwood during this time were "too important to entrust to any record company" and were put in the proverbial vaults. We can take statements like that with a grain of salt, but Trojan's On The Wire seems to contain some of those important tracks.

Re-releases of Scratch's productions are one thing, but an unreleased set of songs from the past is rather incredible. On The Wire is more than a missing link, it's a link that we never even knew about. The album features 10 heavy duty tracks dating back to the period between Battle Of Armagideon and Time Boom X De Devil Dead. Trojan's sleeve notes don't give too many details about these tracks, and that's not surprising, as the true background to this album is rather chaotic and unfortunate.

As the sessions rolled on, tensions between Scratch and Trojan began to simmer.

After the release of Battle Of Armagideon in 1986, Trojan asked Scratch to record a follow up album. He set about doing so, but as the sessions rolled on, tensions between Scratch and Trojan began to simmer. The company owed Scratch a lot of royalties from their extensive back catalogue of Scratch's music, but were more concerned about getting new material from him — hardly an encouraging approach. At the same time, Scratch was irritated by the fact that some of Trojan's in-house producers were adding overdubs and creating final mixes of the songs without any input from him. The Upsetter would walk out of recording sessions when the Trojan crew showed up and then return after they had left, working late into the night undoing their efforts. As if the problems with Trojan weren't bad enough, Scratch was also at odds with his managment company, who were taxing his patience in regards to live performances and trying to find other ways to promote him. Scratch began to drink heavily, and his mood towards the people around him took a turn for the worse.

Trojan started to put more pressure on the Upsetter; he told them that they "deserved nothing". Trojan officials finally demanded the master tape from Scratch, and eventually two reels of master tapes were delivered with the following track listing:

1. I Am The Upsetter
2. Yes Me Friends
3. Boom Cannibals
4. Fire Wankers
5. I Win The Revenge
6. Pal Bad Breath
7. This Time It Is Different
8. Eye For Eye
9. Tooth For Tooth
10. Surprise

Read the listing as a complete sentence and you will get the joke; the tapes that Scratch delivered were blank. Scratch sporadically worked on the music for awhile longer, but before long his enthusiasm waned, and the project came to a halt. In 1989, Scratch relocated to Switzerland and the sessions were more or less considered "lost".

Ten years later, the master tapes for the fractured album "mysteriously" showed up at Trojan, and after some work became On The Wire. Although the sleeve notes only hint at the real story, it is most likely that Scratch simply decided that he needed some money and finally released the tapes to Trojan for a reasonable sum.

A weird insight into Scratch's frame of mind at the time.

On The Wire is fascinating for many reasons. There is no production credit on this album — perhaps not surprising given its history. Ultimate production credit probably goes to Scratch despite the work of Trojan's knob turners. One definite uncredited producer is none other than Adrian Sherwood: "Lee 'Scratch' Perry On The Wire" is almost identical to "Jungle" (found on Time Boom X De Devil Dead), while "Grim Reaper" is more or less an alternate version of the raucous "Train To Doomsville" (another Sherwood production found on the Pay It All Back compilation). There are also reworkings of Bob Marley's "Duppy Conqueror" ("Yes My Friends"), "Keep On Moving", and "Exodus", as well as a new version of "I Am The Upsetter". Scratch would later revisit some of the songs he co-wrote with Marley on the 1998 album Dub Fire; it's interesting to hear the versions that he cooked up for On The Wire. Some of the experiments that Scratch would later use on his Grammy-award winning Jamaican ET album (2002), such as double and triple tracked vocals, are first heard here. Several avant garde touches, such as barking dogs in the mix, perhaps reveal a weird insight into Scratch's frame of mind at the time.

Although it's unfortunate that On The Wire has such a checkered past, it's better that we had to wait 10 years to hear it rather than have these fascinating songs remain in limbo.

June 2000 (with additional material September 2003)