From Ocean Of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound
And Imaginary Worlds

(Serpent's Tail, 1995)

By David Toop

Lee Perry sits next to me, fiddling with a small cassette recorder. Pieces of plastic are breaking off, batteries disgorged. How to offer technological assistance to a twentieth-century master of audio recording? Not master, magician. A wiry, wizened man with a mischievous look about him, he was born in Jamaica, in perhaps 1935 or 36, though nobody is sure. [1] Festooned with coins, pendants, feathers and badges, he could be an obeah man empowered with the trappings of Afro-Jamaican folk magic, or simply an eccentric. The ambiguity enhances his mythical status among reggae fanatics. He appears to enjoy the fact that people think he is quite mad, although confusion and unhappiness are apparent alongside the inspirational juxtapositions of his word play. "Rocking and reeling, having a ball, swinging and singing, strait-jacket and all," he sang on a tune called "Secret Laboratory".

He belonged to three different churches in his youth: the Holiness Church, the Church Of God and the Ethiopian Orthodox, and tends to describe both musical motivations and the technical process of recording with imagery that would suit an Old Testament prophet. What could be dismissed as mystical mumbo jumbo makes sense if related to Perry's music, which has consistently drawn upon Jamaican folklore and language. Some of Bob Marley's freshest work, for example, was achieved with Perry in the years 1969 to 1971; some songs that they recorded together contain hidden meanings referring to the British colonialist era and the proscribed cult practices of Jamaican slaves, including their belief in duppies (ghosts) and spirits. Later tracks transpose and collage potent Biblical, Rastafarian, Afro-Jamaican, comic book and spaghetti western imagery: the ethereal "Congo Ashanti" chant of the Congos, "Hay Fever" chanted by Jah Lion over the sound of a squeaking door, or Leo Graham's "Black Candle" ("a warning to enemies who might seek the help of an obeah man in order to attack the producer," writes Steve Barrow).

At its heights, Perry's genius has transformed the recording studio. If the original purpose of recording was to document a musical performance, then Perry's approach, as titles such as "Secret Laboratory", "Station Underground News" and "Musical Transplant" indicate, lifted the studio into virtual space, an imaginal chamber over which presided the electronic wizard, evangelist, gossip columnist and Dr. Frankenstein that he became.

"Electricity is the eye, water is the life," he says. "In a way, electricity reach the high peak. The studio must be like a living thing. The machine must be live and intelligent. Then I put my mind into the machine by sending it through the controls and the knobs or into the jack panel. The jack panel is the brain itself, so you've got to patch up the brain and make the brain a living man, but the brain can take what you're sending into it and live. Think of music as life. When I making music I think of life, creating life, and I want it to live, I want it to feel good and taste good." This is alchemist's talk: making living matter from intractable substances. "When we eat and smoke and feel nice," he continues, "eat cornbread with butter. Then it give you a new appetite and new vibes. The sound might be sounding sweeter. The sound might be coming from the food zone."

A substantial body of influential, extraordinary music was made in the 1970s at Perry's Black Ark studio, named after the Ark Of The Covenant. [2] Some of these - Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves", Max Romeo's "War Ina Babylon", George Faith's "To Be A Lover (Have Some Mercy)" - were irresistibly, innovatively commercial. With their jump-cut edits and supernatural sound worlds, others - "7 3/4 Skank", "Militant Rock", "Roast Fish & Cornbread" - were more daring than anything else of their time. [3] "I grew up reading comics," he tells me. Perhaps comics, cartoons and film (and now computer games) are more useful for a musician's self education than books.

Lee Perry explored the potential of sound to hypnotise. "But still the Black Ark was something else," he says, "because the sound that I get out of the Black Ark studio, I don't really get it out of no other studio. It was like a space craft. You could hear space in the tracks. Something there was like a holy vibration and a godly sensation. Modern studios, they have different set-up. They set up like a business and a money making concern. I set up like an Ark. Studying history, I realized that the Ark Of The Covenant is the top of everything. You have to be the Ark to save the animals and nature and music." The level of inspiration was very high at this point, with Perry pushing limited equipment to its extremes. His attitude to the sources of his inspiration is unorthodox. "It had something to do with the location of the studio," he claims. "Because it was built on a godly plan to make holy spiritual music. [4] I have a plan to make music that can make wrongs right. I was getting help from God, through space, through the sky, through the firmament, through the Earth, through the wind, through the fire. I got support through the weather to make space music."

[1] Actually, we are sure: according to his passport, Rainford Hugh Perry was born in March 1936.
[2] In one interview, Scratch seemed to liken it to Noah's Ark: "the place where the black man come for redemption".
[3] "Militant Rock" is an instrumental version of "Curly Locks" with a gentle acoustic guitar; not really part of the "supernatural sound world" that Toop describes.
[4] Scratch claims that he was taking a nap under a tree in his backyard and he heard music in a dream. When he awoke, he took it as a sign and built the Black Ark on the same spot.