Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Golden Age of Roots: 'Heart of the Congos'
'Heart of the Congos' has seen many ups and downs, from the widespread acclaim of today to the creative ferment of late '70s Kingston and all the neglect, discovery, and possible theft that came in between. Through all that noise the album shines, a work of undeniable inspiration and enigmatic effect, and a lasting testament to Lee Perry and his studio.
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.
The producer was not so concerned with clarity as he was with organicism or authenticity, and he had a very individual method for getting results. Perry was working with four tracks when most had 16, and to compensate he would "bounce down", consolidating multiple performances onto a single tape. Each recording would then sound blurrier as the tracks melted together like the flavors in a simmering pot. There are also many stories of less utilitarian techniques, like the ever-sensational tidbit, immortalized by David Katz in his biography People Funny Boy, that he would blow marijuana smoke onto the tapes as the musicians were recording. Watching Scratch in his native habitat in the BBC documentary Roots Rock Reggae rounds out the picture. He perches on a stool, bounces from one end of his control room to the other, and gesticulates avidly to the sounds coming from the musicians. The studio is small, but homey, filled with people who do and don't belong there (and don't forget that the Black Ark doubled as a home for the man and his family).
That building is tied up with Perry's legacy in so many ways. Ultimately it was in use a short time, but the impact it had on the reggae community was tremendous. The Ark was his lair, chock full of tapes, equipment, paraphernalia, and paintings that only Lee Perry would have put together, and it was an exclusive source for the distinctive sound that he developed in the late '70s. As the pinnacle of his achievements and one of the last major works to come out of his studio before its dramatic fall and Perry's emotional disintegration, Heart of the Congos is a definitive triumph, an artifact from that lost reggae epicenter. It is a poignant detail that, according to Katz, the four-track Perry had used since the beginning broke down after the sessions from so much use.
The challenge of producing at the Black Ark was balancing the multifarious ingredients that went into every record; Perry's weakest work is thus a mess of gratuitous touches, but his album with the Congos is the image of balance. Myton's falsetto, Johnson's tenor and Burnett's baritone melt perfectly into the dense, dark rhythms like sugar into coffee and legendary backing musicians like Sly Dunbar and Ernest Ranglin do their best to give the bass, drums and guitar an intoxicating savor. Phenomenal tracks like "Ark of the Covenant" are replete with forceful Rastafarian imagery, ominous, incantatory vocals and the kind of blacker-than-dread production that Perry perfected on Super Ape. The stamp of the Black Ark is a constant presence. You can almost hear the tracks bleeding into one another, and almost see the little man himself, pounding on the glass and shouting oracular commands at the singers and musicians.
Nowadays, Perry lives in Switzerland with his wife and family. He has quit smoking and drinking, though he still tours occasionally and puts out new music. He has declined somewhat into a mere eccentric, appearing in nutty outfits and indulging in attention-grabbing postures on stage, but his fixture status in the world of music has certainly earned him that right. Jamaica and the Black Ark are parts of his past now, and, as is every artist's right, he has moved on. Recent years have seen more and more reissues of his dub and vocal material in the wake of Blood and Fire's outstanding work and the public admiration of artists like Adrian Sherwood. Heart of the Congos has seen many ups and downs, from the widespread acclaim of today to the creative ferment of late '70s Kingston and all the neglect, discovery, and possible theft that came in between. Through all that noise the album shines, a work of undeniable inspiration and enigmatic effect, and a lasting testament to Perry and his studio.