"Spikey Heads Meet Dreadlocks"

New Musical Express (October 1, 1977)

By Neil Spencer

Lee Perry wants to make one point clear. He's talking about the likely next Bob Marley single, an item entitled "Punky Reggae Party", that Perry is producing. "We mix it down deep, man," he yells, gesticulating. "Deep! DEEP! DEEEEP!"

Jamaica's most idiosyncratic and prolific producer -- who's also co-producer on the new Clash single -- leaps to his bare feet and does a little dance around the room, pulling up his feet like they're glued to the floor with Bostick. "Deep!" he affirms. "Deep to the roots so it feels kinda mucky, so you can feel the slime on it."

He laughs, I laugh too. His enthusiasm is contagious, and I'm reminded of watching Perry at work in his Black Ark studio, lodged on the outskirts of Kingston JA, 12 months previously. Perry brings to the mixing console the intuitive feel and passion that the best musicians bring to their own instruments, and adds his own immense sense of humour. Leaping, dancing, and shouting as he records, he flourishes faders like he was conducting the string section of a symphony orchestra, twiddles with knobs like he was tuning a Stradivarius, mixes a dub with the ferocity of Townshend smashing a guitar. A flickering reggae dervish routine was also one of the highlights of BBC TV's excellent Roots Rock Reggae documentary.

Lee Perry -- AKA Scratch the Upsetter -- can't help it. He has to keep moving. A slight, wiry figure who positively crackles with a fierce but ital electricity, his is an impatient, restless spirit, his creativity insistent, nagging, a complete way of life. Seldom out of the studio, the sheer volume of his work would be awe-inspiring if it were uniformly of his best. As it stands, its merely staggering. "I can't keep it in here," he says, indicating his head and heart. "I have to let it out. So whether you love it or not, you have to sympathize with me. I have to put it out so something else can happen."

Even now he's converted his London flat-of-stay into a miniature studio. "You want to hear yourself?" he laughs half-way through our conversation, and plays back the interview. Other visitors found themselves being video-taped for instant replay on the colour TV that now shows a soundless kids' puppet programme.

Perry's in London by accident rather than design. En route to Nigeria to produce Island Records' Afro hope Eddie Quansah, delays in obtaining a visa here meant that by the time Scratch was finally ready to go to west Africa, it was damn near time to come back. Well, you know how it is when you're operating on Jamaican time... Scratch found himself in London, with, amazingly for him, no clear business aims in view here; a perplexing state. "So it just a pure talking me do, pure interview. And me rest." Well, not quite just talk and rest. For a start there was an apparently chance meeting with Bob Marley who also happened to be in town, while later The Upsetter could be found (or not) in a lesser known east end studio with The Clash.

Perry and Marley have had a thing going from way back. It was Perry who helped Marley and the Wailers set up their Tuff Gong Records back in the end of the '60s after the collapse of their first label, Wail N Soul M. He went on to produce some of the Wailers' best music ever - "Mr. Brown", "Duppy Conqueror", "Small Axe"...the list is so long. Later, when the team split up, there was talk of some friction between them, as is usual between artist and producer in Jamaica, though Perry later took production credits on "Jah Live", Marley's stately elegy for Selassie. Perry, in fact, tells me that he's worked uncredited on all Marley's Island albums except for Exodus.

"People might have said things about the difference between me and Bob, but it not so. We have a work we must do, y'understand? Compulsory job. So if Bob stay away a little while, man might have him own view but him interpret it wrong, because it's him that have the trouble and we have none, dig?"

Whatever, The Upsetter clearly feels the current reunion to be part of the grand design, and he's delighted at the musical outcome, the notorious "Punky Reggae Party". Later I discover the lyric to this offbeat item is basically a recital of the new wave bands who will attend the party: "The Wailers will be there, The Damned, The Jam, The Clash, Dr. Feelgood will be there... Rejected by society, treated with impunity, protected by their dignity, it's a punky reggae party." We done a cassette right here," Scratch says. "I gonna do the backing track in Jamaica, then maybe back to the States for the vocals... It's something big that we're going for. It will be like a festival when that song come out, everybody move to it. Sing and the whole world a sing the same song. What a great song that will be -- 'Punky Reggae Party'!"

"Me and Bob, we still have fe go to a deeper depth, because we have to find the half that's never been told. Deep, deep down..." He stares into my face, his eyes go a long way back. He leaps up. "Go find out all the lie them tell, find out the facts and expose it to the people," he proclaims grandly. Yeah, you and Bob have been doing that for a long time already, Scratch. "Yeah, but everytime we get close together to do that, evil force part us. But now that we know where the trick is -- that the evil force part us because we know too much of the truth - we're stronger. When we're together, we're the same powerhouse again!"

Then there was the collaboration with The Clash. "Great," said Perry when I asked him his opinion of The Clash's rendition of "Police And Thieves" (which Scratch co-wrote and produced for Junior Murvin) on their debut album. How he later came to meet the band and go into an east end studio with them is already obscure: the meeting was "pure coincidence" according to Clash manager Bernard Rhodes. [1] Whatever, Scratch is co-credited with regular producer Mickey Foote on the group's latest waxing, "Complete Control", their lambaste against centralized corporate decision-making. It's an impressively proportioned opus, but to these ears there's scant that's Scratch about it beyond some tasty reverb on the vocals.

"I want to take the Jamaican vibration, the American vibration, the English vibration and combine it all together like a clock. Tick tock, tick tock. Like a rocket!" He gives one of his hearty cackles. "Right now, I'm surveying a new scene, I want to make use of this atmosphere when I get home. I'm recording it all up there now," he says, pointing to his head.

So what do you think of the atmosphere in London right now Scratch? It seems to be getting pretty downpressing...

"Yeah man, it's a universal crisis. Everybody feel it 'cause this a tedious time. '76 was a sipple (slippery) year, but '77 is a tedious year."

Yeah, know what you mean, Scratch.

In fact, Perry has already released a song called "Tedious" on Junior Murvin's Police And Thieves album, just as he released "Sipple Out Deh" - better known as “War In A Babylon" in this country - by Max Romeo last year. It's that and "Police And Thieves" that have made him probably the best known JA producer among rock audiences, though his pop chart successes here also include Susan Cadogan's "Hurt So Good", "Return Of Django" and the immortal “The Upsetter" itself from the days of the skinhead reggae craze.

"The Upsetter" was a big record for Scratch. Like several other of his records, it's a record of retribution, a musical retaliation for the way he felt he'd been treated by Jamaican patriarch producer Coxsone Dodd's Downbeat set-up for whom Perry had worked, since the primal days of the mid '50s first as a sound system DJ, then as producer and artist, until 1968 when he left in fury. [2]

Since '68 he's worked with just about everyone on the island, though his outstanding work has been with The Wailers, Junior Byles - with whom he cut the stunning "Beat Down Babylon" and epochal "Curly Locks" - and with The Upsetters, the shifting musical conglomerate that's his studio band and which at one time included the Barrett Brothers before they became fully fledged Wailers.

As an innovator he ranks second to none. Alongside King Tubby he's out as one of the originators of the dubwise style, and on tracks like "Cow Thief Skank" with its bizarre cut-up effects and "Enter The Dragon'' (Bruce Lee holds a particular fascination for Scratch) took Jamaican music to surrealist limits. "It's like when you make a movie and you make a scene where man always have to laugh," he says about "Cow Thief". "Station Underground News" and "Bathroom Skank" were another pair of notables, this time with Scratch providing wacky talk­over vocals.

All this time he was building up Black Ark to the self-contained unit it is today - a small bunkerhouse lodged literally at the bottom of his yard. "By '74 Black Ark in full operation and me me 'ave everything me want," he relates. "The first thing me came up with is 'Hurt So Good', an international best seller."

Note: This article is incomplete. If you have the complete article, please get in touch.

[1] Perry was approached by Paul Simonon (The Clash's bassist) while Scratch was in London, and was asked if he would produce some records for the band, rather than the "pure coincidence" described by Rhodes above. Although much has been made of Scratch's collaboration with The Clash on "Complete Control", the band has since admitted that the record was more or less done by the time Perry stepped behind the mixing board, and was further mixed by Mick Jones afterwards.
[2] Scratch never worked as DJ or producer for Coxsone. He left Studio One in 1966, not 1968.