Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Immortals: #100 - Lee "Scratch" Perry

The story of Jamaican popular music is one of self-reinvention, where the mento sounds of the island’s dancehalls evolved into ska and rocksteady variants to create a rich and unique folk tradition over a relatively small window of time. And while the most popular and influential musicians of their era were certainly ready to put an ear to their contemporaries, only one figure could make the whole island stop dead in its tracks to see its own future: Lee “Scratch” Perry was the crazed visionary of their native musics, and everybody knew it. That’s why they flocked to him to produce their tracks, and to proudly display his mark prominently on their own legacies. His creations were rife with imperfections and non sequiturs, signifiers of his own idiosyncrasies which, like the famously detuned piano of Studio 1, sustained each note he recorded with the unmistakable ring of his personal madness. While Perry's known erratic and volatile history at times overshadows his specific innovations, a glace back at the decades since he first hit the charts reveals a more subtle and important place in rock and roll history.

It is significant that the commercial viability of punk was first realized in England, where pop singles were propelled up the charts by seemingly nothing but the collective despair of the young, broke and angry. The Clash filled their first recordings with Junior Murvin covers, barely-veiled weed references and songs about how the only true revolutionaries in their punk explosion were found in the black clubs of Sheperd’s Bush. And you know something- they were right. When, my 15 year old self asks, did punk rockers stop listening to reggae music? After all, the towering influence of Scratch himself might be the most immediate link we have to our beloved indie ethos of Do It Yourself. Sure, the states had their share of forebears of would become punk, but any number of those proto-whatever acts were "DIY" only in the sense that they hadn’t the means to replicate the post-Motown, post-psychedelic take on American rock and soul (or the British Invaders who were themselves responding to those trends) that they aimed for. Ultimately, almost every Nugget of the garage-y goodness that we all love actually came from bands who aspired only to match the conventions of the time.

Far more punk than those days could predict, Scratch was true to himself, an Upsetter at heart from his earliest days. He broke genre boundaries because they could no longer contain his mad genius, and he pushed standard technologies past previous limits to fulfill the drive he felt to create something that could move even his own addled soul. When the instruments couldn’t make the right noises, he re-imagined the studio itself, and when he was ready to impart his pedagogy unto others, he did so in a lab built by hand from brick and wire. And, profane in all but the eyes of Jah, he christened his studio the Black Ark. Listening to a survey of his works, from the vocal pop of the Wailers and Junior Byles to his most hard-core instrumental dubs, one senses that the man’s recordings are as close to a map of his brain as could be generated in an Earthly language. Lee Perry made music because if he tried to put his actual thoughts into words, they’d have locked him away and thrown away the key.

Arkology by Lee "Scratch" Perry


michael a. gonzales said...

i wish some great filmmaker would turns scratch's life into a movie. great entry...

Brendan K. said...

I appreciate it, man- the next one's on Curtis Mayfield. Thanks for reading.