An amazing late career CD from a reggae elder
By Lee Scratch Perry
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
A reggae Pioneer turns in his best set of new songs in over a decade
note: So, yeah, I know reggae doesn’t usually fall within nodepression’s sphere, but Adam Sheet’s great review of the new Jerry Lee Lewis CD reminded me of how many artists in their seventies are still producing – or again producing – essential works that should be heard.
For nearly half a century, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry has done more than almost anyone alive to change the course of popular music. Even though he never has attained the popularity of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff or any of the other founding fathers of reggae music, most Jamaican music fans – whether they know it or not –almost certainly have dozens of albums in their collection that bear Perry’s indelible creative stamp.
Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Max Romeo, The Congos, and literally hundreds of other artists have benefitted from Perry’s distinct production style and uncanny sense of melody. Using equipment and facilities that were rudimentary – even by the standards of the day – Perry was able to create musical landscapes and bedrock sounds that have yet to be surpassed. Whether it was wiring a rake to use as a percussion accent, using toy instruments to create texture or looping tapes by hand, in his heyday there was nothing that Perry wouldn’t try in the pursuit of the perfect sound. As distinct and immediately recognizable in his musical style as Phil Spector, George Martin or Daniel Lanois, Perry created soundscapes as challenging and groundbreaking as any of these artists at a fraction of the cost, and with facilities that would have sent them into the hills screaming with frustration.
For a decade and a half – from the late sixties until 1983 when Perry famously torched his iconic ‘Black Ark’ studio in a pique of frustration and exhaustion – the diminutive musician produced thousands of singles for Jamaican radio and sound systems. With a revolving roster of singers and musicians on hand day and night to help realize his increasingly eccentric musical visions, Perry maintained a work schedule and output that is unsurpassed in modern popular music. A quick look through the singles, albums and artists Perry worked with during this period reveals a back catalogue that is almost suffocating in its breadth and depth. To this day, producers, DJs and musicians owe Perry a creative debt whose significance is just beginning to be understood. It is almost impossible to conceive that one man was almost singlehandedly responsible for creating so much work of lasting value in such a short span of time.
Obviously the unrelenting pace of work took its toil, and since the eighties Perry has done little in the way of production, but has instead reconceptualised himself as a singer and recording artist. Indeed, it is primarily as a singer and performer that his legend became established, though unfortunately Scratch has become known almost as much for his bizarre behaviour and pronouncements as for his music. Tales of madness, incarceration and strange behaviours – including burying televisions in a friend’s back yard and refusing to let a chambermaid in a Canadian hotel drain his bath because it contained ‘holy water’ – often superseded his creativity despite some truly excellent albums produced in the late eighties and early nineties with sympathetic musical foils such as Adrian Sherwood and The Mad Professor.
Part of the problem with assessing Perry’s recent musical output is that he has remained a maddeningly prolific artist. In 2008 alone he released three new CDs on three different labels while record pirates the world over continue releasing inferior compilations of unfinished recordings stolen by unscrupulous employees, so-called friends and former lovers. The result has been that it’s often been very difficult to distinguish great recordings from releases that are shoddy wastes of time, and reggae fans can be excused for simply ignoring Perry’s often very questionable output. This, of course, is a great shame as in amongst the dross there have been some exceptional recordings.
‘Revelation’, the newest new CD from Lee Perry is – without qualification – the best set of new songs he has released in a very very long time. ‘Revelation’ is the third in a series of new music from Perry issued by the American based Megawave records, and like its predecessors ‘The End of An American Dream’, and ‘Scratch Came, Scratch Saw, Scratch Conquered’ it represents a collaboration between the singer and John Saxon, a British producer and multi-instrumentalist with a flair for creating ambient dub soundscapes that sound beguilingly rootsy and modern at the same time. Their partnership which began rather tentatively with ‘American Dream’ and picked up steam and confidence with the second ‘Scratch Came’ has come to full fruition with the new CD. Other producers have often misread Perry’s intentions and have unwisely second guessed him and tried to give him what they perceived he wanted. As a result, they often stressed bizarre sounds and concepts at the expense of good music, but this is clearly not the case here. Rest assured ‘Revelation’ has melodies to die for punctuated with exhilarating hooks and rhythms galore.
More than anything else ‘Revelation’ represents the high water mark of creative role reversal that Perry has experimented with for the past several years. He spent decades creating innovative and often downright magical music to support singers and make their tracks sound as good as they possibly could, and when he was inspired he pulled out all of the stops to create some of the most creative soundtracks ever recorded. Though Perry has hardly ever operated as a ‘silent partner’, by 2010 it has fallen to other people to create most of the music that he sings over. In this respect, Saxon has surpassed all expectations. ‘Revelation’ is the best sounding album Lee has been a part of since Adrian Sherwood – more to the point – or Lee himself was the man twirling the knobs in the studio.
To this end, Saxon has obviously done his homework and comes off as being thoroughly versed in Perry’s sonic world. More than any previous collaborator, he creates Lee Perry records that sound like Perry could have produced them himself, yet there are enough dynamic sounds and ideas to prevent the album from sounding like nothing more than flawless imitations.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Perry’s new record is that the tracks each sound like carefully produced complete songs and not the musical sketches that he has often turned out in recent years. The lyrics are more flowing and unforced than they have been in a long time, and sound more like real compositions and not the first take stream of consciousness rants that Perry sometimes passes off as songs. Every track sounds meticulously constructed and layered. Harmonicas, chimes and bells interact easily with staccato guitars and electronic distortion to create a musical soundtrack that never disappoints. In every instance, the music fits rather than jostles with the lyrics, and some cuts like the autobiographical ‘Used to Drive a tractor in Negril’ sound so wildly contemporary that in a perfect world it would be a huge hit on modern radio. Other highlights include the hilarious ‘Fire Power’ and ‘Holy Angels’ which confirm that Perry’s rediscovered melodic edge hasn’t come at the expense of the strange observations about love, sex, drugs, God and extraterrestrials that we’ve come to expect from him. Unlike so many albums where famous artists make guest appearances to attract attention to an artist, the contributions from George Clinton on ‘Scary Politicians’ and Keith Richards on ‘Book of Moses’ sound completely natural and unforced and work well within the context of the songs. There’s really not a dud song on the whole album, and I can’t recommend it enough.
In conclusion, though I have nearly a hundred Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry CDs in my record library, I rarely pull any of them out and listen to them all the way through. Over the years, I’ve isolated the tracks I enjoy and have transferred them to my Ipod. But this one’s different. I’ve listened to it dozens of times from beginning to end, and don’t think it’ll be leaving my CD player any time soon. As I began by saying, Perry’s impact on the recording industry cannot be overestimated, and this record will remind you why this is so. Unlike many of Lee Perry’s recent releases, this one is a keeper and should be in every serious reggae fan’s collection. It will age well and years from now will remain utterly indispensible.
This review also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
Sign up for free updates