Had the Beatles been transported to the year 2001 to meet Lee “Scratch” Perry, they might have penned a very different song about being 64, or better still they might have written no song at all. You see, Perry—whose recording career spans five decades—is not your average sexagenarian. While he’s widely regarded as one of the architects of dub and while his work continues to meet with considerable critical and popular acclaim, he’s just as well known for his oddball persona.
Or maybe that should be “personae”. After all, his name is legion. He’s assumed countless monikers in his time: The Upsetter, Charles Atlas, Lord God Muzick, Super Chin From The Castle Grey Bed, King Perry, President Abraham Perry, The Last Dustbinman, The Gong, Westminster Bank Perry, Inspector Gadget, Daniel Dandelion the Lion, The Super Ape, Paul Getty, Kojak, Kimble The Nimble, Duppy Air Ace Marshall, William Shakespeare, King Of The Jews, The King Of Mess, The Hebrew King, Gabriel The Archangel, Pipecock Jackxon, Santa, The Red Ninja, Lord Thunder Black, Dr. On The Go, Dr. Dick, The Firmament Computer, Mr. P The Weather Bee, The Ghost of King Arthur, and, of course, Jesus H Christ, among others. (For a more complete list, check out Music365.com’s recent feature on The Upsetter.)
If his tendency to move from one identity to another, in nominal terms at least, hints at a playfully unhinged personality, so too do The Upsetter’s sartorial inclinations. Some of the items to have emerged from his infamous wardrobe are: regal and ecclesiastical garb, crowns and Native American head-dresses, less formal millenary festooned with mirrors, religious images and CDs—or simply fashioned from cassette tape—as well as footwear and waistcoats adorned with compact discs. If clothes make the man, then in the case of Lee “Scratch” Perry, they would seem to make him profoundly eccentric.
Much of Scratch’s storied lunacy might be put down to a genius for good old-fashioned showmanship, but the worldview articulated in his music is idiosyncratic, to say the least. At once completely baffling and wholly absorbing, Perry’s is a carnivalesque parallel universe—with its own, largely hidden, governing logic—that derives from intersections of the supernatural, the magical, the extra-terrestrial, and the cartoonish. Blending scatology, rhymes and riddles, folk beliefs, biblical prophecies, apocalyptic auguries and personal invective (directed at his myriad real and imagined enemies), his dense lyrical vision charts an epic battle between the forces of good and evil in all their manifestations.
Still, Lee “Scratch” Perry’s most significant role has undoubtedly been that of a producer. He was instrumental in moving Jamaican music beyond the frenetic simplicity of the ska beat toward the bass-heavy, slow throb of the roots “riddim”, thereby laying the foundations for contemporary reggae. Following landmark records with Bob Marley and the Wailers, such as African Herbsman (1973), Perry’s best work was executed at his own, now legendary, Black Ark Studio. Between 1974 and 1979 the Black Ark was a hallowed laboratory in which Scratch—part scientist, part magician—presided over memorable moments in reggae history like Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon (1976), Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, The Congos’ Heart of the Congos and the Heptones’ Party Time (all 1977).
It was Perry’s work at the Black Ark in the late ‘70s that attracted the attention of the burgeoning punk generation in the UK. The Clash, for instance, covered “Police and Thieves” on their 1977 debut album and invited The Upsetter to produce their 1978 single “Complete Control”. And beyond punk, of course, the legacy of his Black Ark period continues to be heard. As Rolling Stone recently observed: “Work your way back through everything you know about hip-hop, electronica, punk rock and post-rock, and somehow, some way, you always end up at Black Ark.”
With Perry at the height of his creative powers, however, the Black Ark began to implode and along with it, according to popular accounts, so too did Scratch’s sanity. Protection racketeers, parasites and hangers-on—as well as a souring relationship with Island records and the “vampire” Chris Blackwell—pushed The Upsetter to breaking point. In an effort to drive away the evil forces surrounding him, he set about trashing his own studio and daubing its walls with mystical-scatological graffiti. Much circulated—and quite possibly apocryphal—tales have him in the ruins of the Black Ark eating money, baptizing his visitors with a garden hose and worshipping bananas.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, matters really came to a head when Perry finally burned the Black Ark down. “The Black Ark was too black and too dread, it was stifling me,” The Upsetter later explained in a 1997 interview with Mick Sleeper, “I have to burn it down, to save my brain. It was too black. It want to eat me up.” (For the text of the interview, go to: www.upsetter.net/scratch/outer01.htm.)
Having left Jamaica for London in 1984, Scratch hooked up with producer Neil Fraser (a.k.a. The Mad Professor) and the pair went on to work together on numerous releases throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. Techno Party! is the most recent fruit of the collaboration between the Professor and the madman and it finds The Upsetter’s familiar rants, prophecies and admonitions cooked up in a melting pot of startlingly diverse sonic components. Techno Party! mixes dub with elements drawn from an array of electronic, dance-related forms—trance, house, trip hop and jungle/drum’n'bass (I’ll leave the difference between the last two to the super-specialists). The result is a rich and innovative concoction, often with a convincing contemporary feel that belies Perry’s age.
Although Scratch re-treads familiar roots ground on tracks like “Having a Party”, “Black Buster” and “No Dreads” (a revised version of Bob Marley’s “Who Colt the Game”) with the usual measure of success that one has come to expect from The Upsetter, the most striking material on this album is born from the marriage of dub and drum’n'bass. The skittering and frenetic beats of the latter might seem incompatible with the laid- back, mellow pulse conjured up by the delay, echo, reverb and phase of dub and yet it’s precisely the melding of the two that makes for this album’s best moments.
This marriage can be heard best on the mini-epic “Earthquake Rock Dub”, for which jungle beats are subtly mixed up with dark, bass-heavy ambience and a few well-chosen words aimed at the powers that be. No less effective are “Mr. Herbsman”, “Papa Rapa” and the title track, a re-working of “Punky Reggae Party” (which Perry recorded with Bob Marley in 1977). On “This Old Man” we may be witnessing the birth of an unlikely new genre—the dub’n'bass/techno nursery rhyme—as Scratch takes on Satan (and his spaceship) and emerges victorious, of course.
While jungle/drum’n'bass beats are the main ingredients here, Techno Party! also draws on other genres. “Come in Dready”, for example, is a spacey, house-flavored cut, instantly memorable for its addictive rhythms and for its inventive reappropriation of a considerably over-used James Brown vocal sample—which serves here as unique punctuation for Scratch’s own vocals. Built on basic hip-hop beats, “Crooks in the Business” sees The Upsetter launching another attack on those in the music industry who have robbed and cheated him over the years. Similarly vitriolic is “Daddy Puff”, on which Scratch denounces the boss of Trojan Records, among others.
To these ears, Techno Party! sounds like Perry’s most solid work since his collaborations with Adrian Sherwood on Time Boom X De Devil Dead (1987) and From the Secret Laboratory (1990). With the able assistance of The Mad Professor, The Upsetter shows that while he may currently reside in rather idyllic surroundings overlooking Lake Zurich, he’s not ready for retirement just yet. The bottom line is: how many 64-year-olds are able to put out records that are better than the majority of those by people young enough to be their grandchildren?