Music

Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Golden Age of Roots: 'Police and Thieves'

The international success of 'Police and Thieves' made it ubiquitous for fans of reggae and punk alike, but the album's roots are particular to the inner workings of vital, very-much-Jamaican studios like the Black Ark.

Throughout 1976, as Lee Perry was working with the likes of Max Romeo, Gregory Isaacs, and Dennis Brown decrying the violence and instability of Jamaican politics and the harsh injustices of Jamaican society, he was also collaborating with a young man named Junior Murvin on what would become one of the most famous statements of protest and solidarity in reggae history. "Police and Thieves" resounded across the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In England, the song struck home with an oppressed immigrant population recently traumatized by the outbreak of violence at the Notting Hill Carnival in London; in the United States it made inroads with a progressive demographic still learning about the potency of the little island's musical tradition. "Police and Thieves" is instantly recognizable: if you haven't heard the album cut in context, you've heard the Clash's punk version or the soundtracked clip from the film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

As always, though, this international reggae hit is rooted firmly in Jamaica. The song, and the album which followed, were products of the same circumstances that spurred forth War Ina Babylon, and the two records have an analogous message and tone, not to mention having enjoyed similarly illustrious and influential careers after their releases. Murvin and Romeo also invite comparison as singers--both men did an album at the Black Ark Studio that would come to define their careers. Murvin would work with the eccentric producer again in the '80s, but both vocalists have spent decades capitalizing on their Perry-produced recordings. Both benefited tremendously, one thinks, from the guidance of Lee Perry. It would seem that in 1976, the Black Ark was the place to be for an aspiring singer.

The two are worlds apart, however, in ambiance and mood. Police and Thieves, released in 1977, is murky, apocalyptic, and surreal. War Ina Babylon, in comparison, is crisp, practically minded, and concrete. The contrast testifies to Perry's versatility and his responsiveness to his singers, for the producer's arrangements are tailor-fit to the two musicians' disparate and individual voices. While Perry magnified Romeo's authoritative tenor into a tribal call-to-arms, Murvin's ethereal falsetto gave him a chance to make a record just as fluid and glitzy, a colorful meld of sound and harmony. Nowhere is this more obvious than with "Police and Thieves" itself. The slow tempo allows Murvin and the band to luxuriate in the saucy melody and bassline, and Scratch gives their performance a shimmering finish with a gauze of reverb and echo that brings out the pointed and delicate intonation of the singer's voice without overwhelming it.

The details are a matter for speculation, but it's likely that Perry did more than simply record Murvin and mix his tracks. In the roots era, studios like the Black Ark were laboratories and schools for young singers developing their voices. Producers were looking for a certain sound, and perfectionists like Perry (though he was by no means an exception) would refuse to conclude a session or finalize a recording until the band and the singer had gotten things just right. It is not surprising, then, that Murvin's story -- and the story of Police and Thieves -- is one of growth. Like other young singers -- Max Romeo among them -- Murvin learned to sing imitating American soul stars (Curtis Mayfield especially) and, once he came of age, bounced from one studio to another, writing songs, botching auditions, and scoring brief and inauspicious hit singles. At least one of these--"Solomon"--would be featured on his album with Perry.

"Police and Thieves" itself was the song that hooked the producer, and work slowly but surely proceeded on a full-length. Over the course of a year, the two artists developed a working relationship and collaborated for hours in the studio. Murvin reportedly wrote most of the songs at the ruins of Folly Mansion in Port Antonio, a crumbling, massive, Romanesque house built in 1905 by a rich American engineer. Looking at photos, it's all too easy to picture the slight young singer leaning back against a decrepit Doric column, penning lyrics like "Back to the evil days of Lucifer / What happen in the dark / Must come out to light." The mood is indeed ominous, satanic even. If there's any one album that prefigures the disastrous and ignominious end of the Black Ark, it's Police and Thieves.

Reinforced by Perry's imaginative production, Murvin's imagery is consistently strong. "Tedious", for example, opens with a piercing, exhilarating wail into a breathless call for a Rastafarian exodus buoyed up by a male chorus. On "Roots Train", a probable homage to Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (which Murvin would later cover as "Rasta Get Ready") he sings "Train number one / Is coming" over a veritably chugging rhythm in yet another vision of pan-African redemption. "Workin' in the Cornfield" paints a vivid picture of modern slavery complete with muggy, phased horns and belabored, somber backup vocals. If none of these can quite live up to the basic immediacy of "Police and Thieves", with its two-faced heroes and villains running rampant in the street, it's because that song is superlative.

Junior Murvin had an ultimately modest career in music, but Perry believed in him and expected great things, comparing him to legends (of his own making) like Romeo and Bob Marley. Police and Thieves is perhaps more than anything else a product of that partnership and that confidence. Certainly the album's expressive, exotic ambiance would not be possible without the contributions of both. Count it as one more reason to think of the Black Ark as not an inflexible institution, but as a makeshift creative home for musicians, songwriters, singers, and visionaries--subject always, of course, to the indomitable will of their resident Upsetter.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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