Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Golden Age of Roots

'Heart of the Congos'

by Dylan Nelson

10 September 2010

 

Heart of the Congos is widely considered a landmark of the roots era. It has had a loyal following of aficionados and fans since its limited Jamaican release in 1977, but that same year, when Lee Perry sent the master tapes to Island, the label decided not to issue the album. What ensues is a long and somewhat hazy history of reissues and interpersonal intrigues driven by the mounting frustration of artists and audiences alike that the recording was so hard to find. Not least among them is the story recounted by Lloyd Bradley in his book, This Is Reggae Music, that Perry, frustrated by the album’s neglect, broke into an office somewhere and actually stole back the original tapes. Some claim that the LP was just one among many victims of a conspiracy to promote Bob Marley at the expense of lesser-known artists, and David Katz has speculated that the dreadful state of the masters (which included the remnants of another previously recorded song on two channels) contributed to Island’s regrettable decision. One thing is certain: Blood and Fire’s loving 1997 reissue came as a relief and a blessing to a generation of reggae lovers who had spent years searching for rare copies or had endured the low-quality versions that came before.

I’d like to imagine, though, that the obscurity and the impurity of the recording as it existed for so long was an almost serendipitous fate for Heart of the Congos. There’s something akin to the sonic compulsion of noise rock’s senseless crescendos or ambient electronica’s diminutive abstractions in the way that Perry clutters these tracks with interference, like the lowing cow that punctuates “Ark of the Covenant” and “Children Crying” or the explosions of tape hiss which are used as a rhythmic device on “Can’t Come In” and “Sodom and Gomorrow”. The album can be off-putting at first because the simple, repetitive songs are veiled by the sheer amount of noise in the mix. So the thought that Cedric Myton, Roy Johnson, and Watty Burnett had to somehow make themselves heard through shoddy remasters, scratched vinyls, or the fog of scarcity on hi-fis around the world is fitting, because belting it out on Heart of the Congos they were already competing with Perry’s manic orchestrations.

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