Lee Perry – The Ultimate Upsetter

Lee ‘Stratch’ Perry, pre-eminent reggae producer, started out in Kingston, Jamaica, in the late 1950s, initially working for Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd. Perry operated Dodd’s sound system and helped to bring acts like the Maytals to a wider audience. By the late 60s, Perry was established. Taking his nickname from the single Chicken Scratch, he worked briefly with leading producer Joe Gibbs before recording his seminal track The Upsetter, the name under which Perry’s many dubs, versions and musicians would henceforth be billed. Perry then went on to produce the Wailers at that crucial point between the late 60s and their signing to Island in 1972 (see feature on Catching a Fire…)

Perry’s skills now turned to perfecting his own style, which became synonymous with dub versions of his own vocal productions. Working alongside the first true dub producer Osbourne Ruddock (better known as King Tubby), Perry went on to build his own studio, Black Ark. From 1974 tto the end of the decade this studio provided the unique sounds to be found in the important collection, Arkology (Island, 1997). This three-CD set provides both an excellent introduction to his music and some of the best productions he ever came up with.

The first disc features several classic tracks, including One Step Forward by Max Romeo, followed by the Upsetters’ One Step Dub, loping along in characteristic Perry style, the typically prominent hi-hat keeping time consistently as the other sounds fade in and out. The Heptones’ Sufferers’ Time follows briskly before giving way to the Upsetters’ Sufferers’ Dub, and the bonus of Junior Dread’s Sufferer’s Heights, with the beat slowed down and the DJ declaiming over the top. Max Romeo’s excellent War in a Babylon and its accompanying Revelation Dub are the high points, pretty much summing up Perry’s approach to production at this time.

Disc two provides a lesson in deconstruction of a basic music track, almost a tutorial for aspiring producers. The disc concentrates on Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, a successful Jamaican and UK single (and a major influence on the Clash). Placed alongside the original vocal recording are several additional versions, all using the same rhythm track: the dub Soldier and Police War by Jah Lion (b side of the original 7” UK single), a stripped-down alternative Grumblin’ Dub by the Upsetters, a saxophone-led instrumental by Glen Dacosta, and a previously unreleased mix of Bad Weed by Junior Murvin. And, as if this were not enough, there is Lee Perry’s Dreadlocks in Moonlight, and its dub by Mikey Dread, using the essential basis of the Police and Thieves rhythm.

The third disc includes a wider variety of material. The melodica sound of Augustus Pablo is to be found on Vibrate On, while the exceedingly strange vocal style of the Upsetters’ Bird in Hand suggests Lee Perry had an unexpected encounter with some Celtic folk musicians on the way to the studio. The collection finishes strongly with an excellent mix of Perry’s Roast Fish and Cornbread, already in a dub style before going into the Upsetter’s dub version proper.
Arkology stands as the essential Lee Perry collection. Countless other compilations are available, some more worthy of attention than others. Of the early sounds, Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle, released in 1973 and now available in its full format on CD (Auralux, 2004), was one of the first album-length collection of dub tracks. Usually referred to simply as Blackboard Jungle Dub, its contents now sound more limited in scope than the Lee Perry of a few years later, but it stands as a classic of dub. The three-CD collection Lost Treasures of the Ark (Orchard Records, 1998) has some interesting versions and effectively provides a supplement to Arkology.

Lee Perry’s history is complicated. The Black Ark studio burned down, in circumstances not fully explained. He is thought to have gone through a spell of walking around Kingston backwards. He moved to Britain in 1983, before relocating to that renowned world centre of reggae music, Switzerland. As time went on, his music became difficult to slot into the reggae mainstream. Today, he continues to tour, somewhat unpredictably, with his sound system. So, if you get the chance, you can still find out what all the fuss is about.

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