Panic In Babylon
Lee “Scratch” Perry
One of the seminal figures in all of reggae and dub music, Lee “Scratch“ Perry‘s musical career was launched back in 1959. He recorded more than thirty singles for various Jamaican labels over the subsequent ten years. Striking out on his own in 1968, he founded the Upsetter label. His first single for Upsetter was a hit. “People Funny Boy,” a sly slur directed at his former partner Joe Gibbs, was significant in its novel application of early sampling techniques (he employed the sound of a crying baby as a regular hook), as well as its uptempo, African-influenced upstroke rock rhythm- a style which eventually acquired the name “reggae”.
In that time he began to acquire a reputation as a sometimes erratic, often inscrutable individual with whom to interact. Despite his imperiousness, Perry was able to form his studio band Upsetters. From 1968 through 1972 the Upsetters, released countless popular dub singles for a variety of Jamaican labels.
In 1970, he began working with the then-unknown Wailers (with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer). Perry encouraged the band to abandon their ska and rock steady roots, to pursue a more rock influenced sound. The results epitomized the very best in early reggae exposition. Under Perry’s tutelage, Marley and the band evolved into a reggae powerhouse, making of them huge stars throughout the ‘70s. They even stole members of the Upsetters after a split with Perry- a move which caused hard feelings for a while.
In his home studio (built in his backyard), the Black Ark, Perry was able to spend as much time as was needed to perfect the music he produced, adding great care and attention to detail to innumerable records. He engineered numerous classic dub and reggae masterpieces over many years, but by 1978, the wheels had begun to come off the cart.
The studio began to deteriorate- a condition attributable to overuse, under-maintenance and the undo influence of a cast of undesirable characters, who, given his notoriously poor judgment, threatened to undermine Scratch’s often inconsistent efforts. In 1981, the Black Ark burned to the ground. Insisting he burned down the studio himself, Perry spent three days in prison for the offense, before being released. A few years later, he put a curse on the BBC- which will not be revoked until his records are played by the network for twenty-four hours straight.
The Black Ark fire, freed Perry to tour,. He performed in the US and UK, while releasing a series of uneven records- made with a wide assortment of cohorts. It was not until the late ‘80s that he finally righted his career. Despite the fact that there is (understandably) a great deal of sub-par Lee Perry material out in the marketplace, he was the 2003 Reggae Grammy winner for the album, Jamaican ET.
And this fine album falls in that latter category as well. Owing in part, no doubt, to Perry’s renowned “instability” in the studio, he does not produce this album, but hands the reins over to P. Brunkow (of Major Boys) and DJ Star Trek (who plays bass here). There is a second disc in this package, which features 3 re-mixes: one by Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio (“Panic In Babylon”) and two versions of “Purity Rock” transformed by DJ Spooky.
Joining Perry and DJ Star trek are guitarist Lorenzo Viennet (who died last April) drummer Daniel Spahni and an army of unnamed keyboard players- who also contribute militant synth horns in various places. Together, the band create a tight, driving straight-ahead reggae sound, and, with the exception of the live final track “Devil Dead,” mostly free of Perry’s characteristic dub antics.
The result is a fine foundation for Perry’s reverent, self-referentially spacey lyrics, which range from extolments of his personal virility- “Pussy Man” (impressive at age 70), to strange voodoo incantations (“Voodoo” and the prayerfully cosmic “Greetings”). Looking for lyrical depth and introspective candor is probably wasted with Lee “Scratch” Perry, but that is not to say his music is devoid of emotional impact or real pathos.
Amidst cantering piano and guitar rhythms and sputtering synth brass, Perry recalls his protégé Marley on “Rastafari.” There’s talk here of white and black rabbits- he’s allergic to the black ones and addicted to the whites (make of that what you will). And whatever the problem is, he’s certainly impassioned about it. A tightly synched bass, guitar and organ riff trots all over an insistent rhythm piano on “Purity Rock.” “The aforementioned “Pussy Man,” gives not a lot of insight into Lee Perry the man. “I am Lee Scratch Perry the cocky man/ I am Doctor Dick/ And I am Doctor Tick/I am Doctor Quick/And I am Doctor Nick/I am Doctor Tree/I am Doctor Key/I am Doctor Lee.” Warm, bubbling synth horns percolate beneath a chugging ensemble rhythm.
The sound of crickets and a crackling fire usher in “Voodoo,” a miasma of tones swirling around Perry’s solemn invocations of high-profile characters (he may be casting spells on some of them) including Chris Blackwell, Marcus Garvey, Satan, the Pope, George Bush and a number of other entities, living and other worldly.
The title track inspects the times in which we live- the tyranny which awaits us all in the gathering of those who presume to “protect” us. “Perry’s Ballad,” with the immemorably unfortunate rhyme of “Have a Perry salad/for this is Perry ballad.” similarly, unless the track was for the movie that no one saw, “Inspector Gadget” is a strange piece of fluff.
Ostensibly offsetting the fire of “Voodoo,” “I Am A Psychiatrist” sifts into the aural picture with the sounds of rolling thunder and a hard rain. Over a syncopated drum beat and an the insistent upstroke of the synth piano- minor key guitars pluck and fiddle- emerging into a grand chorus- augmented by a truly ’60s sounding horn figure. A dramatic, affective song.
Reggae music has been out of the spotlight for quite some time now, standing more as a musical reference point than as a vibrant cultural touchstone-with no one to take up the standard left behind by Marley and others. Lee “Scratch” Perry proves, even at age 70, even with all his countless idiosyncrasies, that he still has the fire and the fortitude to keep the reggae flag held high. With consistently well-crafted, well-played material, this album stands out as a high water mark for the genre.