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Published: 2010/08/09
by Brian Robbins

Lee "Scratch" Perry
Sound System Scratch

Lee “Scratch” Perry Sound System Scratch (Pressure Sounds)

Lee “Scratch” Perry Revelation (Megawave Records)

Dear Mr. B:

I know, I know – you must hear it all the time: “Gee, I never thought I’d be writing to an advice column, but here I am …” Well, add me to the list of souls who have turned to you when there was nowhere else to go, Mr. B. My life will be meaningless unless I can find some answers – and I’ve been told you’re the man to talk to.

So what I need to know is … Lee “Scratch” Perry: apeshit crazy or genius, Mr. B?

I thank you in advance for your guidance and wisdom.

Pondering in Pensacola

Dear Pondering:

You left out the third possibility, my friend: apeshit crazy genius. (There may even be a fourth, according to some – including the man himself on certain days: apeshit crazy genius from another planet.) But the fact of the matter is, does it matter? I mean, I could put whatever title I wanted to on ol’ Scratch – the riddims coming out of the crusty-yet-trusty KLH speakers here in the cabin sound just the same. And the man’s history reads just the same, as well: Lee Perry was there for the birthing of reggae as we know it back in the 60s; he translated the sounds in his head and the beat in his bones into some of dub’s pioneer excursions back in the 70s; and even now, at the age of 74, he’s managing to crank out tunes that are still interesting, engaging, and, well, good to dance to.

Of course, there are Scratch’s perceived excursions into Nuttyville (the reports of defecating in champagne glasses and placing them around the house and the compulsive spray-painting of most everything in sight, including his boots), but hey – show me the man without some sort of pile of poop in his past (literally or figuratively) and I’ll show you a saint, my friend. To you I say, judge a man not by the color of his mirror-encrusted cap but by the groove of his tunes. And believe me, ol’ Scratch has the groove – always did, always will.

It just so happens I have living proof of that very fact right here at my elbow, Pondering. First, let’s take a look at Sound System Scratch, a collection of mostly-instrumental dub mixes that LSP cooked up in his legendary Black Ark studio between 1973 and 1979.

Now to put this in proper perspective, even though the Black Ark is always spoken of in tones of reverence when it comes to matters of reggae history, you’ve got to remember something: the Ark itself was a simple-looking little building tucked out back of Scratch’s house in Kingston, Jamaica. And if you have visions of walls full of state-of-the-art recording, mixing, and mastering equipment, then I have news for you, my friend. The magical groundbreaking sounds coming out of the Black Ark were laid down and layered onto a pretty basic 4-track recording machine. Yep. The magic didn’t come from the equipment – it came from Scratch’s obsession with searching out ways to make sounds (both common and just plain weird) into music; it came from his fearlessness with dumping tracks onto tracks onto tracks – with no way get back to square one if it didn’t work; and it came from his uncanny sense of groove and timing.

The 20 tracks on Sound System Scratch testify to that. You could amuse yourself for a loooonnnngggg time trying to figure out the sources of some of the sounds woven into these grooves, but the best thing to do is just sit back and enjoy. Your ears have never heard this stuff, Pondering – not unless you happened to on the streets of Jamaica back in the 70s digging the one-of-a-kind mixes being played by the local sound systems.

During the heyday of the Black Ark, there was no shortage of talent making the walls thump. Sprinkled throughout Sound System Scratch you’ll find everybody from rhythm gods Sly and Robbie to string benders and skankers like Earl “Chinna” Smith, Junior Murvin, and Ernest Ranglin. (And, yes, that’s the cool drift and sway of Augustus Pablo’s melodica you hear on “Lama Lava Mix One”, Pondering – good ears, my friend.) The list could go on and on – and the fact is, there was such a steady stream of musicians through the Ark that it would be hard to pinpoint who was a part of which round-the-clock session. In the end, the common denominator was Scratch Perry – and Sound System Scratch is an excellent look inside both the vault of reggae history and the mind of the man himself.

I can hear what you’re thinking, Pondering: “That’s all well and good, Mr. B, but what about right now? What’s Lee Perry doing these days?” That’s a good question, my friend – especially since it sets me up to talk about Scratch’s newly-recorded release, Revelation. What we have here is far from the weird and wonderful days of LSP holed up in the Black Ark, layering in the sound of a flushing toilet or a mooing cow to an already-thick dub mix. Revelation is a true modern-day worldwide effort with tracks coming from all points of the globe (including Scratch’s present-day home in Switzerland) to be mixed and produced in the UK by longtime LSP collaborator John Saxton.

And what does it sound like, you ask? Well … Lee Scratch Perry, for one thing. While the casual ear may mistake his at-times sing-song-stream-of-Scratch-consciousness delivery for ramblings, you just need to listen a little closer to the man’s vocals to pick up on the humor and/or the reasoning behind the wordplay. And like a classic jazz player digging into a sax solo, Perry is a master at taking a word or a phrase and working the syllables around and around to take the meaning where it needs to go. When it comes right down to it, Pondering, ol’ Scratch is as much a Beat poet as he is a toastmaster, rapper, or reggae vocalist. Always has been, always will be.

As for some specific tracks, oh boy – where should we start? Well, for one thing, Scratch’s buddy Keith Richards is back (Keef sat in on 2008’s Scratch Came, Scratch Saw, Scratch Conquered), credited with “guitar, bass, piano, Wurlitzer, and big drum” work on “Books of Moses”. I tell you, Pondering, I’d love to hear an album’s worth of Scratch and Keith – the two of them totally mesh on this track, with LSP laying down his spin on Moses’ session with the burning bush while Richards fires off little B.B. King-style bee stings and major-flavored chord suspensions that grind nicely against the song’s minor-keyed underpinnings.

Speaking of buddies, funkmaster George Clinton shares the cockpit with Scratch on “Scary Politicians” – another match-up that absolutely works. The track opens with the crackle and pop of a needle dropping on vinyl, giving way to Clinton’s opening testimony from outer space. As Perry’s chanted “boom-boom-boom”s work their way forward through the mix, there are warnings to heed and thoughts to consider – and always a beat to move to.

Scratch’s choices of subjects to tackle on Revelation are as eclectic as you might imagine. Over here we find the late Michael Jackson (“Love your color/love your skin” advises Scratch to MJ’s ghost in “Freaky Michael”, and then asks, “Where is your nose?”); while over here, Scratch addresses the aging process. (“I’m getting younger,” announces Scratch on “Eye For An Eye”. It could very well be.) And there’s one thing for sure: the going may get a little weird at times, but it’s never boring … and absolutely never lacks for a groove.

So to answer your original question about the genius or madman thing, Pondering, I have to say: who cares?

In the end, you should just let the music play, my friend. What you feel is what it is and that’s what really matters.

No thanks necessary.

Your old pal,
Mr. B

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