Classic Albums #4

Super ApeBetween 1976 and 1977, Lee Perry released a quartet of albums that can easily be considered amongst his finest moments: Super Ape, War Ina Babylon, Police And Thieves and Party Time. Not only do these epic albums represent Scratch at his best, but reggae at it's finest. In the Classic Albums series, Eternal Thunder takes a closer look at these incredible works.

Out of all of the wonderful albums that emerged from the Black Ark in the 1970s, perhaps the most under-rated is Super Ape. Other albums such as Police And Thieves and especially Heart Of The Congos seem to capture the attention of reggae fans more readily. While those albums and other Black Ark benchmarks like Party Time and War Ina Babylon stand out as excellent works, these albums were collaborations with talented songwriters, especially in the case of Max Romeo. Super Ape, on the other hand, is purely Lee Perry's vision. As such, it stands out as a pinnacle in Scratch's career.

Super Ape is almost a jazz album, with Scratch playing the mixing board like an instrument.

More than one reggae fan has described Super Ape as over-rated or even "boring" when it comes to comparing it with other classic dub albums like King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown. However, these complaints are missing the point: Super Ape is not a dub album. Super Ape is something else, which makes it rather difficult to classify. To call it simply a reggae album is misleading, as not all of the tracks have vocals, and so this is not a traditional reggae album. To describe it as a dub album implies that we'll be hearing heavy doses of echo and reverb; we don't. Super Ape is almost a jazz album, with Scratch playing the mixing board like an instrument. Examined in that context, Super Ape can be rightfully placed alongside such other jazz landmarks as John Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. For there are no reggae albums like Super Ape – none are as dense, multilayered, and sonically brilliant.

The striking cover of Super Ape is the first indication that this is no ordinary album. The cover was painted by Tony Wright, who also provided the unforgettable sleeve to Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon. While the art was most likely conceived to be provocative, it does contain some allegorical qualities. The ape looks to be 50 feet tall and is on a rampage, an uprooted tree in one hand and a huge spliff in the other. One of Wright's alternate paintings included the giant ape breaking it's shackles; an obvious nod to King Kong, but there are certainly other ideas in the art. The Super Ape is a Babylon nightmare come true: Rastafarians who have broken loose from their chains and are intent on escape or revolution. Of course, the rampage is largely symbolic, and Wright's painting is too cartoonish to be anything more than eye-catching.

Unlike the vivid cover art, Super Ape is an album of darkness and muted colours, musically – the aural exquivalent of a walk at midnight, where bright colours are present, but darkened by shadows. The few vocal tracks have minimal verses, while the instrumental pieces only contain brief, haunting lines.

Despite 400 years of slavery and oppression, the connection to Africa is unbreakable.

Super Ape was originally released in Jamaica as an Upsetter LP entitled Scratch The Super Ape. It's interesting to note the differences in track listings between the Jamaican and British versions and how the flow of each provides the listener with a certain mood. Scratch The Super Ape starts off with "Dread Lion", which provides a more explosive start to the album, while Super Ape begins with "Zion's Blood", which provides a quieter feeling of dread. Ultimately, the ordering of the tracks on the Island release is more satisfying. The cover of Scratch The Super Ape features a portrait of Lee Perry as a dreadlocked lion (and not as an "ape man" as suggested elsewhere). Given Scratch's love of nature, perhaps he was using the portrait to make a statement about himself as a man in touch with the beasts of the jungle. Certainly one of the key themes explored on Super Ape is Lee Perry's fascination with the primordial forces of nature.

The album opens up with "Zion's Blood", a quiet, brooding track that simmers but never boils. With minimal vocals, it says more with a few couplets than most reggae songs with many verses. It describes the mood of a typical Rastafarian struggling to live a good life under Babylon conditions: "Zion's blood is flowing through my veins / So I and I will never work in vain..." Despite 400 years of slavery and oppression, the connection to Africa is unbreakable. While racism and the shadow of slavery might attempt to nullify Jamaicans' past, the link to Africa remains like the hidden roots of a tree; indeed, it flows though their veins.

Next is "Croaking Lizard", a largely nonsensical toast by Prince Jazzbo over the rhythm to Max Romeo's "Chase The Devil". The song is one of the anomlies on the album, since it features a full set of vocals, rather than vocals being used as decoration on an instrumental track. What is fascinating about the song is that the lyrics don't seem to follow any narrative or logic. At first Jazzbo seems to be toasting about a certain character, then he ruminates on street violence, later he throws in non-sequiturs like "dub it pon the riverbank". Scratch would later incorporate the song into the mind-bending "Disco Devil".

"Black Vest" is an intricate musical mosaic of vocals and themes.

"Black Vest" deconstructs "War Ina Babylon" with some help from Jah Lion, Max Romeo and James Brown (not the Godfather of Soul, of course; the Jamaican deejay also known as James Booms). Over a dubwise version of "War Ina Babylon", ghostly horn riffs rise like steam over snatches of vocals from Jah Lion ("Earth Is The Lord"), Romeo ("Fire Fe De Vatican") and Brown ("Stop The War Ina Babylon"). Echoed vocals from Prince Jazzbo start off the song, where he speaks of "peace, love and inity" in a time of war. His mostly unintelligble toast soon vanishes like smoke as the song continues. Later on, James Brown pops up to proclaim that "Jah is dressed in a big black vest" and moments later we hear Max Romeo's cry of "fire fe de Vatican" buried deep in the mix before Brown comes back to exalt Rastas as peaceful people and to "stop the war ina Babylon". "Black Vest" is therefore an intricate musical mosaic of vocals and themes, artfully constructed in great detail by Perry at the mixing board.

"Underground" is a song that speaks of a connection with nature, in this case the roots of the collie weed. The rhythm is downright mysterious, originally recorded for a rare Clive Hylton dub plate called "From Creation". What sounds like a metallic percussion riff throughout the song is in fact Earl "Chinna" Smith's guitar through a wah-wah pedal and treated with serious treble and reverb. Otherwise, the rhythm is strictly drum and bass.

"Curly Dub" features a strident rhythm with the talents of horn players Vin Gordon and Richard "Dirty Harry" Hall. Gordon's mighty trombone and Harry's sax are submerged in the mix until they are almost whispers, while an ethereal flute by Egbert Evans is much more prominent. Perry's minimal vocals are concerned with religious themes, mainly an ode to Rastafari. "Curly Dub" is definitely the most jazz-influenced track on the album.

For Scratch, righteous Rastas are the true kings of the concrete jungle.

Scratch then announces a "dub called Dread Lion" and the song of the same name explodes with a drum riff followed by swirling melodica and flute and a hypnotic chant of "roots...roots...roots". The Heptones provide harmony vocals that once again speak of a connection with nature. A chorus of "Dread lion / King of the jungle / King of the forest / Strong like iron" is repeated. Later, a soaring Leroy Sibbles line declares "Here comes natty dread", creating a clear parallel between Rastas and lions – for Scratch, righteous Rastas are the true kings of the concrete jungle.

The theme of African roots continues in "Three In One", as the vocals speak of "African knowledge" and a repeated chant of "go deh". Musically, the song is a wonderful mix of jazz and traditional African rhythms courtesy of Evans' jazzy flute and gentle bongo drums.

"Patience" is one of my favourite songs on Super Ape, a quietly psychedelic instrumental featuring waves of reverb, shadowy horn riffs and a mysterious, squelched vocal that sounds as if it was being transmitted via short wave radio from another planet.

"Dub Along" is the dubwise version of "Come Along" by the Blue Bells, albeit with female vocalists standing in for the Blue Bells. While the original song is a gentle call for repatriation, here the mesmerizing, echoing vocals simply invite the listener to "follow I" and later on "dub with I". Like "Underground", the rhythm is almost strictly drum and bass with muted keyboard skanks throughout.

The balmy "Super Ape" concludes the album with the same mood that it started with. The vocals on the song ("This is the ape man / Trodding through creation / Are you ready to step with I man? ") suggest that taking notes from nature instead of modern society is the way to live a better life. The subtle rhythm features a toy flute played in such a way that it mimicks a bird call, adding additional colour to this ode to nature. As the song fades, a cryptic snatch of vocal at the last moment provides a strange conclusion to this magnificent album.

October 2008