Music

Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Golden Age of Roots: 'War Ina Babylon'

Photo of Lee Perry (center) with Max Romeo (in white), by Kim Gottlieb-Walker

Max Romeo's 'War Ina Babylon' was just the beginning of a tremendously fertile period for producer Lee Perry. In less than two years he would produce an impressive batch of albums, several of which remain absolute classics. 'War Ina Babylon' can measure up to all of them in one way or another, and that is the main reason it is remembered as an essential piece of the roots reggae canon.

The producer occupies a unique place in the crowded and intricate world of Jamaican music. Making sense of the countless singers, engineers, and instrumentalists who could be involved in any given song requires the kind of expertise enjoyed by few casual listeners, but in some cases the studio at which a recording was made is a convenient shortcut. The producer, after all, was frequently responsible for bringing the contributors together, as well as for creating the atmosphere of the record--a deciding factor in the message and the impact of reggae music. Auteurs like Joe Gibbs, Keith Hudson, and Augustus Pablo were the men who shaped a final product from the diverse forces guiding Jamaican music, forging an individual legacy from the talents of a host of musicians, songwriters, and engineers.

Lee "Scratch" Perry, the volatile, brilliant, and idiosyncratic man behind the Upsetters band and the Black Ark studio, tops them all. He played a pivotal role in the rise of groups and singers like Junior Murvin, the Congos, and the Wailers, and in the course of a long and passionate career he was a key player in pushing the bounds of expression to fashion dub and reggae itself from older forms. Forced to choose a single figure upon which to found an understanding of reggae in the '60s and '70s, Perry would not be a bad choice.

By the time Chris Blackwell--founder of Island Records and the man who signed Bob Marley for international distribution--started coming around to the Black Ark to watch Perry work in 1976, "Scratch" had established a reputation among Kingston musicians for his bizarre habits, dedicated ethic, and signature style with instrumental classics from his studio band the Upsetters like Blackboard Jungle and Cloak and Dagger, and vocal sets like the early Wailers' Soul Rebels. He had opened his own studio in 1973 after falling out with a handful of bosses and collaborators, and it quickly developed a uniquely informal ambiance and an almost spiritual energy. Blackwell had come to Jamaica with a view toward signing some new reggae acts after Marley's breakthrough. It was Max Romeo's "Sipple Out Deh"--later renamed "War Ina Babylon"--which sealed the deal between Blackwell and Perry and ushered in a new age of frantic innovation at the Black Ark, as the producer worked to supply Island with material with an invigorated sense of purpose. Among the first projects he undertook was to flesh out Romeo's powerful, political single into an album.

Romeo had gotten his start with a soul-inspired harmony group called the Emotions and, like so much young talent, had bounced from one place to another, trying to find a foothold until he achieved international notoriety with his rude boy single "Wet Dream". War Ina Babylon was something completely different, a statement of political solidarity with the innocent civilians tormented by the inter-party upheaval which prefaced the 1976 election. The album, especially the lead single, adopts the tone of relentless reproach and social responsibility of his earlier work like "No Joshua No" (addressed directly to prime minister Michael Manley) that came to define his legacy as a socially conscious Rasta singer. It was this forceful, direct approach that gave his work and that of other, similar artists such resonance with the punks of the late '70s.

The combination of his commanding vocals and Perry's intuitive arrangements gives War Ina Babylon a stark power not unlike the album's own cover art: a lone woman clutching her head and handkerchief in anguish, painted in emotive blue, brown, and black. For listeners more familiar with R&B and rock, the reggae beat can make any sentiment sound happy-go-lucky or just stoned. Try to hear past the conventions of form, however, and the music begins to feel like a natural envelope for the outcry of an oppressed and impoverished majority.

The political imagery sometimes verges on demagoguery, as in "Uptown Babies Don't Cry", when Romeo sings "Uptown babies don't cry / They don't know what suffering is like", but on others, like "One Step Forward" (another song pointed at Manley) and "I Chase the Devil", he assumes the authority of a mouth of the people or a bearer of righteous mandate. He boasts on the latter: "I'm gonna put on an iron shirt / And chase the devil out of earth". With a little imagination it is not hard to believe him, his voice swooping over the steady rhythms while blasts of harmonies and guitar lines punctuate Perry's deceptively stable arrangements and the much versioned bassline--featured later in the producer's superlative Super Ape--slinks, grinds, and pounds away.

On "Stealing in the Name of Jah", he indicts the corruption of the clergy with a gospel-style sincerity that only intensifies his accusations of sacrilege. The easy, swinging chorus goes: "My father's house of worship / Has become a den of thieves / Stealing in the name of the lord", and to open and close the track Romeo wails out that word "stealing" with a tone of heartfelt misfortune, as though the good and bad parts of the church were clashing in his very soul.

"Tan and See" is a somewhat inscrutable declaration of Rastafarian moralism, but lines like "A long time I man did a wonder, yeah / A long long time ago", take on an undeniable, primordial resonance as Romeo and his backup singers chant them in a breathless give and take. The percussive vocals, cryptic lyrics, and persistent rhythms make the song a foil to numbers like "Stealing in the Name of Jah", flaunting the singer's versatility, the Upsetters' impeccable musicianship and Perry's canny manipulations.

War Ina Babylon embraces whole neither the sweet melodies of vocal trios like the Mighty Diamonds nor the pious chanting of Burning Spear, opting instead for a fusion of bare-bones instrumentals and soulful vocal riffing. Such stylistic flexibility gives the album's seamless 38 minutes an impressive scope, as each track's dynamics are modulated according to tone and mood. And so the album is rife with energy; the title track is charged with urgency, its key phrase "It's sipple out deh" (It's slippery out there) registered with a joy that comes from adrenaline and not happiness; "One Step Forward" is a terse reprimand, the chorus inflected in a militant iambic. Perry brings it all together into a shimmering mix, the perfect musical accomplice to Romeo's political and spiritual agenda.

The financial disagreement between the two which followed the album's release (Romeo claims he was paid a fraction of his due) is ironic, for even in matters of fact the line between one and the other's contributions is sometimes more than usually difficult to draw. Several of the biggest hits incorporate pieces of both men's visions, and occasionally the songs are based on a shared experience--"Norman" was written about a mutual acquaintance, "I Chase the Devil" was written by Romeo about one of Perry's spiritual obsessions, and the very authorship of "War Ina Babylon" is disputed.

Injustices of the past aside, it does not really matter who exactly was responsible for what. War Ina Babylon proved to be Romeo's best and most popular release. Audiences still demand to hear the title track and "I Chase the Devil" when the singer, now in his sixties, tours today. It was just the beginning, though, of a tremendously fertile period for Lee Perry. In less than two years he would produce an impressive batch of albums, several of which remain absolute classics. War Ina Babylon can measure up to all of them in one way or another, and that is the main reason it is remembered as an essential piece of the roots reggae canon.

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