A mad scientist at the helm of his personal starship

By Neil Spencer
New Musical Express (October 23, 1976)

Lee Perry at the controlsLee Perry's diminutive four year-old daughter is perched in the corner of his studio control room, utterly unconcerned by the colossal din clattering from the monster speakers above her head.

I'm drooling with excitement of witnessing a session by the famous Upsetters, fascinated by the sight of her father in action, but she's seen it all before. She knows her daddy is a magician.

There he is now, conjuring with the switches, knobs, faders; mad scientist at the helm of his personal starship, a Pisces fish swimming through seas of tape, wire, and sound. A small, pert man whose hair appears to have a 240 volt current running through it, Lee Perry, alias Scratch the Upsetter, legend and veteran of the Jamaican music scene, works like no other producer or engineer I've seen.

For a start, there's this constant movement: down to the studio to make adjustments to mikes and wires and issue orders to the musicians, back upstairs to set tapes rolling and bang on the glass between booth and studio and yell "ROLLING" at the top of his lungs (amazingly there's no intercom), then the red light's switched on and Scratch is dancing at the controls of his console, arms swinging madly.

Another great dub side from the Black Ark studios bites the tape.

Or else he's sitting and un-sitting on his stool, sipping water, ordering a son to bring a bottle or two of Dragon Stout and shooing out a daughter. He's never still. Suddenly he swoops on a pair of switches, knocking out the piano from the mix and bringing in a booming double echo on the drums and congas. He twirls more knobs, investing the action with all the drama of Doctor Strangelove on the Doomsday Machine. This time the guitar echoes uncannily and the hi-hat cymbal comes zipping in like a machete cutting through a dark jungle of rhythm before the slow fade out. Another great dub side from the Black Ark studios bites the tape.

Today's sessions are the backing tracks for a young singer by the name of Sam Carter, who has a song named "Milit Y Ankee", which he informs me is Indian for "The First Time I Saw You", a title which hardly fits the ferocious uptempo rocker the Upsetters are threshing through.* The vocals come later. If they're good then in a month or two Sam Carter might find himself with a monster hit on his hands, like Junior Murvin's "Police And Thieves", or the venerable Max Romeo's "War Ina Babylon", to name but two of Scratch's biggest hit productions of the year.

The birthplace for some of the freakiest and most compelling reggae of the 70s.

It's a squat little studio, is Scratch's Black Ark, situated behind his house in a pleasant but unexceptional tree-lined suburban road. A trifle unlikely as the birthplace for some of the freakiest and most compelling reggae of the '70s. Scratch and his wife Pauline have been there since '73, about the time that Lee was producing Junior Byles on hits like "Beat Down Babylon" and "A Place Called Africa", and the Upsetters – Scratch's session band, a name that remains constant while the musicians change – were coughing up masterpieces like "Clint Eastwood", "Enter The Dragon", and "Cow Thief Skank", the last of which I will consider one of the most bizarre musical excursions of the age. Laced by semi-random cut-ups (William Burroughs meets the rockers uptown), the rhythm section apparently consisted of lumps of scaffolding being manipulated in a deep hole while up top someone yelled obscenities about cow thieves and chopping off hands with machetes. Mind bending stuff.

But even while he was exploring the limits of his studio with craziness like this, Perry was tucking away more orthodox hits. He's recorded a bewildering variety of stuff: U Roy, I Roy, Prince Jazzbo, The Wailers, Leo Graham, Susan Cadogan; the list goes on. Recently he's completed a reportedly dynamite album from The Heptones.

Then there was the strange battle he had with King Tubby.

Then there are the incessant dubs that Scratch puts out under the Upsetters tag. These days he's retreated somewhat from the outer edge of "Cow Thief Skank", producing more subtle, amorphous projections like the recent Jah Lion and Super Ape sets for Island. And then there was the strange battle he had with King Tubby on King Tubby Meets The Upsetter At The Grass Roots Of Dub, when the two were pitted their engineering brawn against each other – one side each – to see who could mix down the most mind-scrambling maze of dub from their respective consoles.

And before the Black Ark? Well, you might remember "Return Of Django" from skin 'ead days back at the turn of the decade. That was when Aston and Carlton Barrett were the Upsetters' rhythm section, and Scratch was producing The Wailers, who'd signed up with him after their first attempt to launch their own record label (Wail N Soul M) had failed – sabotaged, so it's said, by record biz pirates.

Many of the songs on which Marley and the group went on to build their reputation sprang from their fertile stay with Scratch; "Trenchtown Rock", "Lively Up Yourself", "Soul Rebel", "Small Axe", and a host more. In some cases the more sophisticated re-recordings of this old material for the Island albums haven't caught the smoky intensity of the originals.

Since Catch A Fire, they haven't worked together (with the interesting exception of "Jah Live"), but Scratch is evidently proud of Bob and his success, and pictures of him cover the studio walls, vying for space with Bruce Lee and Scratch himself. Practically every pic shows Scratch at his console, the only place you're sure to find him. He has an apparently insatiable appetite for work.

Equally amazing is that all of this goes down on to either the four or two track machine that are stuffed unceremoniously up on the corner. I ask Scratch about the console rigging, unable to work out how many tracks there are in use. "We only have fe use three track here," retorts Scratch impatiently. "That's the father, the son, and the holy ghost. Maybe no one tell you about dat!"

Sure they did, Scratch, it's just that I never expected to find them working as tape ops in a recording studio.

* Sam Carter is better known as Sam Carty, and the song is "Bird In Hand", which is a cover of an Indian song named "Milte Hi Aankhein". Hardly the "ferocious uptempo rocker" that Spencer describes!