"The Upsetter" (Part 2)

Black Music (February 1975)

By Carl Gayle

When "Return Of Django" was a UK hit in '69 a British agency found work for Perry's studio band, The Upsetters, but didn't offer enough money and the band turned down a British tour. Lee had to bring a replacement band -- namely Aston "Family Man" Barrett (bass), Ronnie Bop (guitar), Glen Adams (keyboards), and Winston Wright (drums). [1]

"The group I brought over really wasn't The Upsetters. Most of my hits were made by Gladdy's band: Winston Wright (keyboards), Hux Brown (guitar), Jackie Jackson (bass), Hugh Malcolm (drums) and Gladdy (Gladstone Anderson, keyboards). The Good The Bad And The Upsetters (made by the touring band) is a fluke album, to tell the truth. Tony Cousins came up with the idea to make an Upsetters album and we tried to do that. I didn't really want to do it, because that wasn't really Upsetter music."

After the high standard of the first three LPs, The Upsetter, Return Of Django , and Clint Eastwood , the LP The Good The Bad And The Upsetters was a marked low point. So was another British venture, Reggae Steady Go. Perry in fact made no musical contribution to either and the albums were completely bereft of ideas or mood. The original numbers were mostly written by Family Man and Glen Adams and the LPs produced with assistance from an Englisman, Bruce Anthony. Only the drumming by Winston Wright was really sharp [2]. This was the same band, however, that made "Shocks Of Mighty", another chart hit for Lee Perry. By then regage was moving into a new gear and the record reflected the new style. But Lee was still as authentic and ethnic as ever.

The instrumental music on Eastwood Rides Again and Scratch The Upsetter Again was as weird and engrossing as ever. Perry's productions were always interesting and totally different from everybody else's. His sounds more than any other (artist or producer) was the music of the sound systems. Lee Perry's music at that time wouldn't make that much sense to an outsider, but for a long time his instrumentals with their thudding bass lines and strange atmospherics, provided the "heavy" music that the sound system followers wanted and needed.

By the time he made the LP Africa's Blood in 1972, the instrumentals had lost their eerie character but were more vibrant, earthy, realistic. "Dreamland", "Go Slow", "Cool And Easy" and "Not Guilty" especially is very potent reggae music that requires no singing.

"I like that one ("Not Guilty"). I made that tune definitely for a vocal track but I couldn't find a singer to sing it. I prefer it just as it is. Because you have an idea, you trying a new beat, and the people can feel it. But then you get a singer and he can spoil it."

"Even now I prefer instrumental tunes. There are only a few singers that could really sing the type of tunes I really appreciate. Guys like Bob Marley could sing what I want. I say to Bob 'sing that', he sing it just like I want it to sing. And Junior Byles is alright too because I give him my feeling and he's good. But the artists in Jamaica don't sing for a feeling, they sing for money, so... But when I arrange something, the instrumental has got to be there because I won't stop until I get it."

"That LP ( Africa's Blood ) is really based on being black...just a feeling, telling the people that this is the blood of Africa. So once it's done, black and white have to appreciate everything in it, 'cause I love black, I love white, I love everyone."

Lee Perry's work with The Wailers deserves closer attention. In the first place, there would be no "Duppy Conqueror" or "Small Axe" if it had not been for the producer. The partnership between Lee and Bob Marley was as important to The Wailers' music from '69 to '71 as any other factor. That partnership established the groundwork, the musical direction, that The Wailers took with Catch A Fire . And the partnership was Marley's inspirational source for the work he does today.

The album Soul Rebel (recently re-released with two extra tracks -- "Mr. Brown" and "Duppy Conqueror" -- as Rasta Revolution ) bears all of the trademarks of Perry's inimitable production style. Mysterious atmosphere, sound effects, and jagged rhythms dominate, especially in the classic "Mr. Brown", a song that could have only been possible with Marley and Perry working in collaboration.

The album African Herbsman is an even better example of the high level of creativity and inspiration that The Wailers' music reached with Lee Perry. Some say it's never been matched, and never can be.

"We used to know each other, from Coxsone days, but the first thing we ever did is 'Try Me' (1969). Bob was absent from the recording scene for a long time ('68 to '69). He had some bad management and things like that so it's kind of like he got fed up and kind of cooled off for awhile. Or what he wanted to portray, he couldn't find the right people to work with."

"Well, Bob mentioned that he wanted me and him to work together, so I said fine. One Saturday I was doing some recording at a little shop in Orange Street. I said to him, well look here Bob, I want you to write a tune with 'yes me friend, we on the street again' in it. He gave me the third line, I gave him the fourth line and so on. We started to work together and the ideas started to flow 'til finally we made the tune 'Duppy Conqueror'. Then he came up with the idea 'I'm a rebel, a soul rebel' (from the excellent "Soul Rebel") and I arranged and wrote the music for that. He wrote the lyrics. Those were straight hits and then... There was a problem in Jamaica between us, the small operators and the bigger boys. They were planning to squeeze us out. Three individual people -- I don't want to call their names now. And one Sunday morning I get up and sort of think over the whole thing and I get this idea. I said 'well, if they are the big three, we are the small axe'. And I started to write the song. Then I got stuck at a certain part, so I bring it to Bob. Bob read it and started to sing a melody. Bob created the melody for that. We were stuck for about three quarters of an hour, and I went for a bible. I don't quite remember if it was a verse of Psalms or Proverbs, but we saw it there (sings): 'why boast of thyself, oh evil man?' That come from the Bible." ("Small Axe").

"That was when the beat change again. After that we went straight into an album titled Soul Rebel . Then we made Soul Revolution (not released in Britain) because Soul Rebel was so successful. I asked Trojan to push these guys. They said I'm wasting my time, 'cause they can't make it, because they can only sell it to the West Indian market. And Soul Rebel did well here but through lack of promotion it didn't do what we expected. And then he (Trojan boss Lee Gopthal) wasn't interested in Soul Revolution . And then it was like he was trying to tell me to forget these guys because they'll never make it. I said 'man, you're crazy'. Then some other people listened to the music and realized. That's where Chris Blackwell (Island's boss) came in. Well, it's only now that Gopthal's interested, 'cause he want all the old Bob Marley tracks."

Commenting on the fact that Marley claimed in Black Music recently that Trojan released things they had no right to, Lee said "Yeah, three tracks. 'Trenchtown Rock', 'Lively Up Yourself', and 'Burial' ("Burial" has actually not been released in Britain). 'Trench Town Rock' I had nothing to do with, it's not mine. When me and Bob split, he do that for himself."

"As far as I'm concerned, every song that Bob Marley sing is good. He is the only artist in Jamaica that I really admire and nothing Bob can do can be wrong as far as I'm concerned. I just like the way he's professional. I think he's the best. I and him can even quarrel, 'cause there are certain things between me and Bob that no one can understand. We work together, we have ideas, and in Jamaica, professionally and musically we are blood brothers man, so there's nothing he can do wrong for me. You see, I believe in originality and Bob is an original. He don't muck about, honestly. If you say to Bob, 'Bob, I want you to write a tune about this bamboo cup,' Bob will just take up the guitar (he begins to sing) 'bamboo cup...' y'know, until he finds a melody. Most of the time I have a pen writing while he's singing. And I write and he sings it. I don't tell no lie, Bob Marley a great man!"

On Peter MacIntosh (Tosh): "Peter is another good writer. He writes how he feels. Any time Peter write a tune, he writes it for a reason. He doesn't do it just because he wants to sing a song, he does it because it means something to him...because you done something to him or he's saying something about somebody or something. He doesn't do things for a quick price. He does it because he wants to send out a message."

On Bunny Livingston (Wailer): "Bunny is a good singer, I like Bunny's voice very much. The message that Bunny writes is not so easy to understand, like Bob and Peter would write. See, Bunny is a man who believes in a thing (the doctrines of Rastafari) so much that he gives himself less time to think. He would do great if he gave himself more time to think. He did a song for me called 'Dreamland' which can't get stale. It's a beauty. Y'see, he's a guy who don't like you to rough him. If you cool with Bunny, you can get anything out of Bunny. They all play a great part in The Wailers. You can even see the harmony section...there's no harmony in Jamaica can sound as good as Wailers' harmony."

Apart from The Wailers, Perry admires a singer called Earl George ("one of the best voices in Jamaica"), The Heptones, and Junior Byles, whose album Beat Down Babylon he produced. Despite the absence of really outstanding songs, it is still one of the best LPs Trojan has ever issued.

Perry's album Cloak And Dagger is another fine example of potent instrumental Jamaican music: the music of the 70s sound systems. Signing on and signing off tunes, instrumental specials. Dance music that persuades you to listen despite its simplicity of structure, it's lack of variation and its concentration on rhythm.

"I gave that album to Rhino, but at the time they were doing some little things in reggae which the people didn't really like, so they weren't really buying their records like they should then. I've tried other companies, but... A big company like EMI can't handle reggae people because they have so much at stake, they can't worry to go through that. I'm a Trojan artist, but I ain't got no contract, because once you sign a contract... But if you say you'll give me 200 grand for the year, then you know that it can keep me so that I don't have to go and mess about."

Lee's work with deejays like Dennis Alcapone, U Roy and I Roy, or as a deejay himself has been just as potent. U Roy's "Stick Together" from the LP Double Seven is the best he's done for four years. Alcapone's "Master Key" is one of the best things he's ever done and I Roy's "Space Flight" is easily one of the most poignant in terms of what the record's title suggests. Perry's own deejay records, "Jungle Lion", "Cow Thief Skank", "Station Underground News", and "Bathroom Skank" are innovative gems of production.

"One must realize that what whatever message you're sending to people, you must send it clearly, and I Roy is a guy who can send a clear message. He's one of the more stylish deejays. My fashion of talking is different, because I talk different. 'Jungle Lion' is another record that's based on a man who claims that he's top and boss, so I say well right now I am the jungle lion. The people who I'm throwing my thing at know it's them I'm talking to. 'Cow Thief Skank' is another reason for jiving with somebody. 'Station Underground News', well that's just gimmick. Like 'Kentucky Skank'...when I was up here the last time, I eat so much Kentucky, I feel like I was gonna fly!" (Laughs).

"I build all my records. After the musicians have finished, I do my thing. Sometimes they ask me if I do the records over again. I say no, but they don't believe me. I couldn't tell you my secrets, but... Sometimes I even use my mouth to make the music and you wouldn't know unless you see me doing it."

When I saw Perry around this time last year, he gave me a record called "Black Candle" (never released here) which on first listen I found unusual yet ordinary, but which later became irresistible. It was the same with his last Trojan LP, Double Seven .

"'Black Candle' did well, but it didn't have that usual reggae beat like what Trojan was looking for. It was another experiment, if you listen you'll see. You never had a beat like that before. Like Double Seven, the people never really ready for that yet. I never repeat myself in music yet. If you go this way, I go the other way. The man over there don't have to agree with you."

Commenting on Jamaican music in general, Lee said: "It's improving with guys who stick to original things. People like Dennis Brown. And Ken Boothe is a good singer, but I think it's time he did some writing and stop singing other people's tunes. His voice is very good, I'm not criticizing it. But honestly, my opinion... I think the rhythm is very rough. Someone like Ken Boothe really could be getting some better backing. I feel like if I worked with Ken Boothe, he'd be a superstar. Ken's voice is too good for the type of backing he's getting... Inferior backing. Sound like the type of music that we gave up five years ago for backing tracks."

On other producers: "Niney, he's a carbon copy of me. He's coming from my school anyway. He used to be with me, so actually he's covering my footsteps. He came on late, but he's trying to do something different from the rest of the guys. Only one or two producers come with something new. Most of them want to copy. Because there's only three beats up there right now that you can pick out. Coxsone has a thing going, Niney, and myself. So for all the rest if it's 'pang pang' they go 'pang pang'. But they still make good records. They'll come up with a hit quicker than you because they're not thinking about doing anything new."

Lee Perry's most recent productions, "Rebels Train" and "Enter The Dragon" are both very cleverly executed but with perhaps too many sound effects. They're still very good dance records, even if they are a little gimmicky. But "Curly Locks", which Lee produced for Junior Byles is in a class of its own. The sound is haunting and atmospheric, restrained and understated. It's a beautiful, evocative record.

It's amazing that the only vocalists Perry has worked with in his long career are Byles and The Wailers (early days with Coxsone apart). [3] But it is a fact that his style of music does exclude most performers. Maybe he's too far ahead of his contemporaries for his own good. Perry is another great whose gift cannot or will not be acknowledged until he has passed. His genius is misunderstood or ignored except perhaps by the people who buy the records. Maybe that is all that counts.

[1] Actually, it was Carlton Barrett on drums.
[2] Don't know who Gayle is referring to here; Winston Wright is a keyboard player.
[3] Gayle has overlooked David Isaacs, Dave Barker, Busty Brown, The Bleechers, and a few other vocal trios that Scratch has worked with on more than one record.