ReDiscoveries #4: Lee "Scratch" Perry & King Scratch

"Whip dem, whip dem," sings Junior Byles on "Beat Down Babylon," to the accompaniment of whip cracks that recall the ones on Frankie Laine's "Mule Train." Produced by Mitch Miller some 20 years before Lee "Scratch" Perry produced Byles's reggae hit, "Mule Train" helped establish "the primacy of the producer—even more than the artist, the accompaniment, or the material," according to author Will Friedwald, who adds that "Miller also conceived of the idea of the pop record 'sound' per se: not so much an arrangement or a tune, but an aural texture (usually replete with extramusical gimmicks) that could be created in the studio."

Doubtless unaware of Miller's contributions, Perry played a similarly pivotal role in Jamaica as producer and performer, a pioneer of the hard-pounding dub style that influenced punk, hip-hop, house, techno, and more. He mixed and remixed his recordings, removing and replacing the vocals, pumping up the bass, adding echo and reverb together with various instrumental and non-instrumental effects to create a quirky, densely layered sound that exuded warmth and power at some cost to conventional audio quality.

Now, a year after his death at age 85, Trojan Records has released King Scratch, a lavishly illustrated and extensively annotated compilation of Perry-produced singles and album tracks—112 cuts in all, a small sample of his prolific output. Beginning in 1968 with the striking "People Funny Boy," considered to be one of the first reggae records, and ending in 2002 with the spaced-out "Jamaican E.T.," it omits Perry's early work with Bob Marley as well as his erratic later output, focusing instead on the landmark roots reggae he produced in the 1970s at his Black Ark studio in Kingston, which he destroyed in 1979. Featuring such singers as Max Romeo, Junior Byles, Junior Murvin, Leo Graham, the Heptones, the Congos and, of course, Perry himself, the set includes such reggae classics as Byles's "Beat Down Babylon" and Murvin's "Police and Thief," the latter popularized by the Clash's punk-rock rendition, "Police and Thieves."

Although the sound grows increasingly polished over the years, some aspects of the music remain constant, none more than Perry's devotion to the cannabis-friendly Rastafarian religion, which pervades the lyrics. Other topics include Jamaica's fractious politics and Perry's rancor toward his rivals. Perry wrote most f the material, but some songs were written or cowritten by other artists; there are also reggae-style covers of non-Jamaican originals ranging from Stevie Wonder's "A Place in the Sun" and the Staple Singers "I'll Take You There" to the Bee Gees "To Love Somebody" and Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

Despite a well-earned reputation for personal and professional oddity, which Perry alludes to in his song "I Am a Madman," many of his productions (including "Madman") are fairly straightahead, featuring clipped guitar, pulsating organ, booming bass, and one-drop drums, with added percussion and sometimes horns or melodica.

Others contain samples, like the crying baby on "People Funny Boy"; imitative noises, like the fake mooing on "Cow Thief Skank"; and abstract effects, like the gurgling echoes on "Cane River Rock." None of these tracks is as freakish as the ones on the trailblazing 1973 album 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle, none of which is included here, even though David Katz, Perry's biographer, who compiled and annotated King Scratch, also annotated the 2004 reissue of that album.

What's most remarkable about Perry's work is not its eccentricity but the degree of sophistication he achieved with relatively crude equipment. He would layer numerous overdubs together in perfect rhythm so that every track rocks with smooth precision. The balance between the vocal, instrumental, and miscellaneous other parts varies from track to track, seldom approximating live performance but always musically apropos.

The basic dub concept is illustrated on Max Romeo's "Three Blind Mice," with its familiar melody, and its flip side, "Three Times Three," which is essentially the same rhythm track without Romeo's vocal, originally recorded by Perry at King Tubby's studio for Leo Graham's earlier vocal version and credited to Tubby. The Heptones' "Sufferer's Time," recorded at Black Ark, is paired here not with its flip side, "Sufferer's Dub," but with "Sufferer's Heights," where a vocal credited to Junior Dread (not the Brazilian Junior Dread active today) is dubbed onto the Heptones' backing track. Max Romeo's euphoniously stomping "Chase the Devil" segues into Perry's own "Disco Devil," one of several versions he produced over the original rhythm.

Although Augustus Pablo collaborated with Perry frequently, and his winsome melodica is heard on more than one track here, he is credited only with "Vibrate Onn," the rhythm of which is also used for Hugo Blackwood and Dr. Alimantado's "Reggae Music." Other noteworthy numbers include Max Romeo's throbbing "Sipple Out Deh" aka "War in a Babylon," the Gatherers' psalm-quoting "Words of My Mouth," and Junior Delgado's stunningly emphatic "Sons of Slaves." Some tracks were big hits in Jamaica and/or England, such as Dave Barker's "Prisoner of Love" and "Shocks of Mighty" and Susan Cadogan's "Hurt So Good," a reggae cover of Millie Jackson's R&B original. But lesser-knowns such as the Unforgettables' Bible-thumping "Many Are Called" and Perry's "Jungle Lion," a Skatalites-like take on Al Green's "Love and Happiness," are comparably impressive.

The recordings are exceptionally bass-heavy to begin with, even on the CDs; the LPs are simply drowning in bass, better suited for the dance floor than for headphone listening. The multiple overdubs, not to mention Perry's habit of exposing his tapes to smoke and various fluids for supposed spiritual enhancement, caused some sonic degradation, and yet the sound, for the most part, is surprisingly clear and bright, a testament to Perry's extraordinary ear.

Glotz's picture

RIP Scratch!