Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Corn Bread: A Ten Song Introduction To The Illustrious Lee “Scratch” Perry

Lee “Scratch” Perry is a sort of divine figure within the annuls of 20th century popular music. The kind who, even if you’d never heard a lick of music that (you knew) was his, you’d still undoubtedly be familiar with name of, if you’ve ever spent so much as a cursory moment with a contorted 33 1/3 copy or crumpled edition of NME from 2003. Owen White picked his top ten Lee "Scratch" Perry songs, to provide an introduction to his music for those who are unfamiliar.

Lee "Scratch" Perry is the kind of figure who’s lionized to near biblical status in certain music nerd and genre enthusiast circles with the likes of Brian Eno and Frank Zappa. A sort of maverick patron saint to other outsiders, goofballs and wholly original creatives the world over. It’d be impossible to have any more than a passing brush with Jamaican popular music since the 1970’s and not encounter echoes of his influence.

"Perry defined and redefined the ways in which a producer could weaponize the studio console itself in the arms race to blow listeners minds and shake their hips"

Indeed, his name is so ubiquitous with the dub and reggae genres that if you know even one name for its proximity to these styles beyond Bob Marley, it’s Lee “Scratch” Perry more likely than not. From the comfort of his ramshackle backyard studio ‘Black Ark’, Perry defined and redefined the ways in which a producer could weaponize the studio console itself in the arms race to blow listeners minds and shake their hips. Though the equipment at his disposal was rudimentary at best his creativity was boundless and his DIY approach coupled with.

Echoes of his distinctive style and production aesthetic can be heard in the cavernous space between the individually tracked drums on Joy Divisions Unknown Pleasures, in the sub nautical bass that writhes ominously beneath Massive Attacks Mezzanine and even in the neo-expressionist masterworks of Jean-Michel Basquiat. With his passing popular music has lost one of it’s true visionary mavericks, an artist who eviscerated boundaries and crossed both genres and cultures deftly.

1. Zion's Blood - The Upsetters

Super Ape, much like the figure depicted on its cover, is a lumbering freak of nature. A subterranean dub behemoth that rumbles and lurches through ten luscious, overgrown riddims liable to leave any sound system quivering and any listener totally enveloped. You’ll find no better example of Perry’s magnetic power as a bandleader and studio visionary than this record and Zion's Blood is as perfect a tone setter as you could hope for. The foreboding rumble of its sub-nautical bass slowly soaks you to your very bones, beckoning you deeper into the thicket. Meanwhile distant horns, nocturnal synths and mind warping sound effects slither through the foliage, threatening to lunge out at any moment and swallow you whole.

2. Chase The Devil - Max Romeo

Produced during a period of unprecedented prolificacy and creativity, Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon recorded with Perry’s in-studio band The Upsetters is widely regarded as part of the Black Ark Holy Trinity. This three (arguably four?) album set constitutes the creative peak of Perry’s legendary period spent working out of the fabled studio. Chase The Devil is not just a highlight of that incredible record but one of the most enduringly popular and widespread tracks of his whole career. Whether it’s Romeo’s magnetic delivery and triumphant melody, it’s timeless lyrics of striving to overcome evil or the sheer ass-shaking alure of its hypnotic riddim (a riddim so astonishingly good Perry would reuse it for Croaking Lizard off Super Ape), Chase The Devil has remained an essential staple of venue soundchecks, college smoke-ups and chilled summer evenings for decades and shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Thank god for that.

3. Black Panta - The Upsetters

Black Board Jungle has in the past been dubiously labelled the first dub album by some writers and figures within the scene. While this is highly debatable, it IS inarguably the first to be in stereo and feature reverb making it a landmark document for the genre. Listening to Black Panta you can plainly see a blueprint of the sound Perry would follow and further hone on subsequent records over the course of the 70’s. Awash with unearthly studio effects, strange sounds, thunderous bass and even a mystical melodica lead, an instrument that would later become inextricably tied to the genre through the works of pioneers like Augustus Pablo, it’s a vital chapter in the dub story and a captivating song in its own right.

4. Fisherman - The Congos

Fisherman, the opening track on The Congo’s unparalleled reggae classic Heart of The Congos is a true-blue epic of biblical proportions. Mixed with the signature spaciousness that you’d expect from any great Perry helmed dub project. Each hallucinatory guitar stab, distant snare hit and thunderous bass crackle echoes across the mix with a primordial grandeur like a rainforest soundscape on a dark and stormy night. The angelic three-way harmonies of The Congos waft over the mix with a harrowing delicacy and spectral desperation brilliantly evoking the disciples depicted in the songs lyrics as they skirt oblivion on the tempestuous waves. Heart of The Congos remains a crowning achievement for not only Perry’s Black Ark period but for reggae as a whole combining dub physicality,

5. Police & Thieves - Junior Murvin

Police & Thieves holds a special historical significance as the song that began one of the most fruitful cultural exchanges in musical history between dub/reggae and the burgeoning punk/underground rock scene, particularly that of the UK. Punk legends The Clash would pay tribute to this track with a cover version on their eponymous debut which in turn would lead to their own collaborations with Perry. Despite the fact they couldn’t be anymore stylistically disparate, on a deeper listen it’s easy to see how the band were attracted to this alienated rallying cry that combines radical politics and spirituality in a way many would have thought only possible for punk. It’s also a gorgeous, fluid reggae song in which Perry allows each sound and instrument to bleed into one another till the whole groove becomes one fluid sweeping tide punctuated by tall foamy waves of bass. Unmissable.

6. I Shall Be Released - The Heptones

The Heptones were already a well-established fixture of the Jamaican music scene by the time they recorded their legendary 1977 album Party Time. With their intense yet honeyed three-part harmonies they’d played a foundational role in the creation of the reggae style and were respected contemporaries of The Maytals and The Wailers, but it wasn’t until they added Perry production to the mix that they were able to press a truly timeless record. Atop his mountainous production the groups delicate harmonies soar heavenward, weaving together and occasionally grazing one another sending curtains of dazzling sparks cascading down. Perry’s trademark mantle cracking subterrestrial bass gives real punch and body to one of reggaes most transcendent basslines and provides a solid bedrock for some glorious horn arrangements.

7. People Funny Boy - Lee “Scratch” Perry

This early solo highlight from Perry showcases both his magnetic eccentricity as a frontman and his anarchic idiosyncrasies as a producer. The track eschewed the sonic conventions of the then trendy rock steady genre that often leaned heavily on the stylistic trappings of American soul and R&B. With it’s driving rhythm and syncopated interplay it played a key role in the development of the roots reggae style. It also features a revolutionary incorporation of a sample into it’s instrumental with the additions of a baby’s cries for both texture and novelty. Even today it’s an impressively smooth and striking implementation of a non-musical sample in songwriting.

8. Complete Control - The Clash

Unsatisfied with pioneering a measly couple of genres Perry would proceed to produce one of the most respected and beloved singles in punk history. Recorded as a proverbial middle finger to their overbearing label executives, Complete Control is as driving and vitriolic as any great punk track should be full of hilariously direct lyrics that lambast the suits who demanded “complete control”. Perry turned out to be the ideal choice to produce the single, his signature sound giving the song a feeling a grandeur rare amongst early punk recordings. He famously blew out a studio mixing board in pursuit of a truly meaty bass tone and the experimentation pays off here and the tracks filthy guitars skim along the top of it’s juggernaut bassline rumbling below the surface like the very spirit of punk itself. Despite the bands own tampering to make the recording more punk adjacent here Perry was able to imbue the bands music with a spirituality that would grant the track it’s legendary punk hymn status.

9. African Herbsman - Bob Marley & The Wailers

Before the tantalising prospect of international stardom pulled his production aesthetics towards American/British radio appeal, Perry produced for an up-and-coming reggae vocal group led by a young man named Robert Nesta Marley. Marley would of course go onto forge his own legend, using that aforementioned radio appeal to bring reggae to a wider audience than any would’ve thought possible at the time. Still though, these early recordings (including some of his most beloved tracks that would see revisions on later albums) hold a certain organic beauty and sonic purity that would be absent from later records likely at the behest of money-grubbing international labels. African Herbsman is as lovely a slice of roots reggae as you’re likely to find, jubilantly performed by an exceptionally talented studio band with the kind of warm vital clarity only Perry could capture on wax. Subtle echo and carefully positioned organ licks give the deceptively simple arrangement a gorgeous and enveloping quality. The whole African Herbsman compilation collecting most of Marley’s work with Perry is well worth seeking out for those interested.

10. Beat Down Babylon - Junior Byles

Junior Byles stunning croon seems to wash in on emerald green waves of organ at the start of beloved 1972 hit Beat Down Babylon. Initially chosen by Perry as a new musical foil after his creative partnership with Marley drew to a close, Byles and Perry’s new collaborative relationship would prove unexpectedly to be one of the most fruitful of his long career. Nowhere is this musical synthesis more evident than on their biggest hit Beat Down Babylon, a swaying roots reggae gem. Despite instrumental so mellow it’s almost having a whitey the song gains a real gravitas via Byles emotive fire and brimstone preaching and it’s revolutionary lyrics packed with righteous anger over societal injustice and systematic oppression. Perry’s layered production keeps the instrumental dense and enveloping throughout and cleverly incorporates a crisp whip sample to inject just a bit of weight when necessary.

Listen to all of the tracks included in this article, plus many more, on this Spotify playlist:

Written by: Owen White Edited by: Gemma Cockrell

Featured image courtesy of Lee "Scratch" Perry via Facebook.