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REVERSE THE CURSE

An alternate history of The Upsetter

I've always been a fan of "what if" scenarios. When we look at historical events it's interesting to wonder how things would have been different if events digressed from what really happened. One of my favourite novels is Len Deighton's SS-GB, a murder mystery set in the fictional setting of Nazi-occupied Britain. In the book, Germany was able to invade and conquer Britain in 1941, changing history completely. It started me thinking about a less grandiose "what if" scenario: what if Lee Perry hadn't suffered a meltdown in the late 1970s?

We all know the story of how Lee Perry's train jumped off the rails by 1979. Burned out from years of an excessive lifestyle and surrounded by weakhearts, he embarked on a path of self-destruction for himself and the Black Ark. But what if something had happened to ease the pressure? What if Scratch had taken a break from the madness, found a second wind, and continued to produce into the 1980s? I pick up the alternate story in early 1978...

In February 1978, Perry finished recording the Full Experience album Strictly Roots. The group featured three female members from Jamaica, the United States and Guyana, representing all parts of the African diaspora. Because of this (and due in no small part to Perry's affection for singer Candy McKenzie), Scratch spent a long time creating a final mix of the album, laying down intricate layers of percussion and traditional African instruments. The result was a unique work that often had more in common with Nigerian highlife music than reggae. Although it was a solid album from start to finish, due to its African mood Strictly Roots was turned down by Island due to the label not being able to figure out how to properly market it to a UK reggae audience.

In May, Perry recorded a dozen tracks with Mikey Dread, the charismatic radio DJ whose Dread At The Controls program had taken the island by storm. On top of classic rhythm tracks such as "Police And Thieves", "Dreadlocks In Moonlight" and "War Ina Babylon", Dread merrily toasted about a variety of subjects including the temporary peace treaty between Kingston's gunmen. Ten of the tracks were released as the album Home Guard by Island, the last Perry produced LP to be released on the label. After Island refused to release both Strictly Roots and Return Of The Super Ape later that year, Perry angrily severed his ties with the label. Chris Blackwell travelled to Jamaica to try and discuss the matter, but Perry refused to meet with him. "Why does Blackwell have the island on the record label?" Scratch asked English journalist Chris May in a June interview for Black Music. "Because every time the record go around, him think he can control the island. But I am an island on the island of the gods, Jamaica, head of the globe."

In September, Perry put the finishing touches on his first solo album, Ghetto Sidewalk. The album was recorded mainly as a reaction to Perry's treatment by Island records as well as his anguished observations of the escalating tension and violence in Jamaica. The smouldering "Evil Tongues" was clearly about not only Chris Blackwell but about the variety of time-wasters that were making things difficult at the Black Ark. When asked about the song years later by David Rodigan, Perry claimed "That song was based upon Chris Blackwell and money men. Vampires. Sorcerers. People who hold nature's work to ransom." One of the tracks from the album, "City Too Hot", was released as a feverish Upsetter "Disco City" 12" single.

By the end of 1978, Lee Perry was teetering on the brink of exhaustion. Long days in the studio, combined with excessive intake of rum and ganja and the pressures he was feeling as a producer and business man eventually took their toll on Perry. And the pressure was not only felt by Scratch: close friends and several of the Black Ark session musicians began to find life in Kingston unbearable. After a dusk-to-dawn reasoning session with members of the Twelve Tribes church that involved copious amounts of ganja, Lee Perry vanished for a week. He was reported seen on the streets of Kingston walking backwards and striking the ground with a hammer. Others claim that they encountered Perry sitting quietly on park benches reading passages from the Bible in a hushed voice.

"Jah order me to rest and leave all the hypocrites out of the studio. "

By January 1979, The Black Ark was dormant. Perry's increasingly erratic and volatile behaviour had finally succeeded in alienating the gangsters and con men who were showing up regularly at the Black Ark making demands. However, it also resulted in many of the Black Ark's regular session players decamping to friendlier hang outs. While Perry wanted to continue producing, he suddenly found himself in a cart without a horse. For the better part of two years, the Black Ark lay dormant as Scratch withdrew from production and the music scene. "Jah order me to rest and leave all the hypocrites out of the studio which is the moon base, the Black Ark. I am the roots man of creation, not the music vampire," he explained. Perry took time to mend some fences, mainly between Pauline and his children. Although things had certainly calmed down, Scratch's relationship with his family remained tense and uncertain.

Perry took the opportunity to spend some time in the country, travelling to Hanover to visit with his mother Ina Blythe and his brothers Milton and Sonny. Perry's time away from Kingston probably saved him from a complete breakdown. In March of 1981, Scratch spent eight weeks in England, mainly drifting, playing tourist and hanging out with Dennis Alcapone and Jimmy Cliff. Perry made tentative plans to record with Cliff while in London, but no sessions took place. Perry was also amused to find himself reunited with The Clash as they were starting to record the first tracks for their latest album, Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg. At the insistence of bassist Paul Simonon, Scratch created heavy dubwise mixes of their songs "Stop The World" and "Radio One", both released as B-sides in 1981.

The passing of Bob Marley in May 1981 marked a turning point for Lee Perry. The death of his friend was a wake up call after two years of inactivity. "I am the teacher, Bob Marley was the student," said Perry ruefully at the time. "I am hiding from the same parasites that did kill Bob. I am here to bless the good and curse the evil. My music is here to heal people." Returning to Washington Gardens, Scratch silently vowed to start anew. He gutted the Black Ark, trashing all of the old and damaged equipment and then proceeded to torch the building with a ritual fire, one he claimed would purge all evil spirits and bad minds. The Kingston fire department wasn't very receptive to Scratch's ritual and charged him with arson. After spending a few days in jail, Scratch was met at the doors by Errol Thompson and Clancy Eccles, and with their help he began to rebuild the Black Ark.

The passing of Bob Marley in May 1981 marked a turning point for Lee Perry.

With a basic 4-track Teac recorder and a new Soundcraft mixing board, the Black Ark was reborn, more or less in the same state it had been when it was first built in 1973. A small but steady stream of singles and the belated release of the 1977 album Conscious Man by the Jolly Brothers quietly put Lee Perry back on the map. "After a few years of silence, the Upsetter is back, although without the fire and brimstone that marked his 1970s sides," wrote Neil Spencer in New Musical Express, reviewing Perry's latest single, "Rich Man" by George Faith. "Tarzan and the jungle survive," explained Perry to Spencer. "This is the voice of the master, laughing in the echo chamber! Marcus Garvey the prophet gave me the words that bring lightning from the sky and thunder from the Earth. I am back in the nick of time to save my mind musically."

As the sound of reggae was changing, Perry's production style still retained the heavy and mystical vibes that had been his signature years earlier. With the emerging dancehall sound moving away from the more august sounds of roots reggae, it meant that Perry's works would remain a fringe element in Jamaica, even if they were being eagerly received overseas. Still suspicious of outsiders and the music scene in general, Perry kept his cards close to his chest, working only with a small group of collaborators and singers that he deemed worthy of his attention. Several works from this time have remained unreleased, such as an album with Keith Rowe and singles with the Wailing Souls and Paul McCartney.

When King Jammy's "Sleng Teng" burst onto the scene in 1985, the all-digital rhythm galvanized Perry. Since he had been using drum machines since the 1970s, the idea of creating rhythms with a machine appealed to Perry immediately. "I have fe beat the drummer with a stick if he can't get the beat the way me want it. So with a machine, it is perfect. Perfect beat, perfect drums." Using the same Casio keyboard that Jammy used for "Sleng Teng", Scratch came up with digital scorchers like Junior Murvin's "Reverse The Curse", Tenor Saw's "Fire Fire" and his own ganja anthem, "International Collie ". For several months, Candy McKenzie's sultry "Midnight Wine" was every bit as popular in the dancehalls as Jammy's latest hits. Not only were these songs new additions to Perry's mighty catalog, but they did brisk business in Jamaica, giving Perry a much needed boost in his income. They also saw Perry reconnecting with the Kingston music scene, working with new collaborators as well as old friends. The new, digital sound of the Black Ark was born.

Throughout 1986, Scratch bought new equipment and made improvements to the Black Ark. While he initially embraced the idea of producing music completely with digital instruments, Perry knew that he could never completely abandon using session players. Members of the Roots Radics, intrigued by Perry's reborn studio, became the new Upsetters, which caused some friction between Perry and the Hookim brothers who were none to thrilled at having their star players moonlighting at what they called "Scratch's poppy show studio". Just as he had done with Coxsone Dodd and Joe Gibbs, Scratch recorded a taunt record with Dillinger aimed at the Hookims, "Batman And Joker".

The new, digital sound of the Black Ark was born.

Perry's cagey nature slowly began to dissolve as he started making music with a fresh sense of purpose. The communal nature of the Black Ark returned, with singers, musicians and friends stopping by on any given day. While some artists felt out of step with the new digital style, Perry's enthusiasm made them feel at ease. Junior Byles and Max Romeo returned to the Black Ark and recorded new material, including digital remakes of "Beat Down Babylon" and "Chase The Devil". Star DJ Tenor Saw cut several more singles with Perry, including "Jail House" and "Dance Hall Prophet". In 1988, a collaboration with Sly & Robbie and singer Ini Kamoze produced a new high point for the Black Ark. "Sly and Robbie understand what I'm doing. Other musicians, they don't understand so it get boring fe work with them. I'm making future music for future children," explained Scratch. The resulting Ini Kamoze album, Lion In The Jungle, was picked up by Island after Perry finally buried the hatchet with Chris Blackwell. That relationship soon crumbled yet again when Perry released the outrageous "Judgement On The Island" single in which he accused Blackwell of being an obeah man and being responsible for Bob Marley's death.

In 1989, Perry travelled to Britain and met with producer Adrian Sherwood. The two of them recorded I Am A Madman, an excellent album that represented some of the best work in the two producers' already outstanding catalogue. With an uncanny sense of timing, a single from the album called "Babylon Stumble" predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall two months later and became an unexpected hit in Germany. A second album with Sherwood, In The Secret Laboratory, which was completed in 1991 but not released until 1993. Although the material they recorded was always excellent, Perry suddenly broke off relations with Sherwood, dismissing the producer as "a baldhead". A decade later, the two would reunite for the fantastic Born In The Sky album and a wonderfully eccentric series of live performances across England and Europe.

That same year, Perry and Pauline Morrison separated. Although he was definitely back on his feet in Jamaica, the social climate of the island and the end of his partnership with Pauline meant that life in Jamaica became increasingly unbearable to Perry. While in England working with Adrian Sherwood the previous year, Scratch met an attractive Swiss woman, Mireille Ruegg, who had offered to become Perry's business manager. A passionate affair ensued and in 1992 Perry married Ruegg in a Hare Krishna ceremony and relocated to Switzerland.

Perry's original claim of "one hundred billion pounds" left Trojan's lawyers nonplussed.

Twenty years after the Black Ark's zenith, the reggae world saw a Lee Perry renaissance as a new wave of fans embraced the Upsetter's music. Throughout the 1990s, Perry oversaw the re-release of his Island albums on CD and fought legal battles with Trojan over royalties from his extensive back catalogue on the label. Although the matter was eventually settled, Perry's original claim of "one hundred billion pounds" left Trojan's lawyers nonplussed. In 1997, Island released the 4 CD box set Arkology, a Black Ark anthology lovingly prepared by long time Perry fans Steve Barrow and David Katz. It contained extraordinary unreleased tracks such as "Make Up Your Mind" by the Heptones, "Love Can Run Faster" by Robert Palmer and "Daniel Saw The Stone" by The Congos. A solid series of re-releases continued into the next decade, including the Heartbeat release of George Faith's second album for Perry, Working On The Guideline and the Pressure Sounds collection Jah Light, a compilation of unreleased Augustus Pablo material recorded at the Black Ark in 1977.

In 2003, Lee Perry surprised the music world when he won a Grammy award for his album Time Marches On, produced with Mad Professor. Although he has stated many times that he will soon retire, the Upsetter continues to upset. "I am not Lee Perry, I am music!" Scratch exclaimed in a 2007 BBC interview. "Only music shall live. So in darkest night and brightest day, as long as I am living, I will be music."

December 2008