Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry has left earth – he was possibly only ever here from time to time, but in the way we calculate time that amounted to 85 years. No cause of death is given as yet but my guess is he simply decided to go live elsewhere.
To sum up Perry’s achievements and influence is a bit like trying to tap into what has made the music of Bob Marley or Bob Dylan or Brian Eno special. It’s a bit like trying to summarise the healing power of rest or to describe the power and tranquillity of rain.
Perry was a musical layman turned genius sonic innovator. If he only had his band The Upsetters, if he only made Superape, if he only produced The Congos, if he only recorded the first half dozen albums obsessed with westerns, if he only produced The Heptones, if he only worked with Max Romeo, if he only had that meeting with Bob Marley – although now acrimonious – and if he only produced the early Wailers…
If he only created the Black Arc Studio – and its sound!
It’s a series of ‘where do we start?’ moments.
You then think of how Perry produced The Clash, Junior Murvin, his Upsetters and so many others. How he collaborated with The Beastie Boys and the Mad Professor. How his influence – the space and shape and the stretched sonic he created – is pervasive across the work of single artists (Tricky) and entire genres: reggae, dub, dance, hip-hop…Er, ‘scratch’ that. So to speak. He basically invented dub. And if we’re using the umbrella term reggae to describe a small handful of genres and sounds and feels then Perry is the name mentioned either just before or just after Bob Marley. It’s household, in that sense. If the household is one that has a record collection.
Two of Scratch’s albums made my 10 Important Reggae Albums list and one of them is nowhere near his best work – the other is a classic. But both are nowhere near my favourites, just important gateway albums for me with that genre. That’s how big his influence is. And yet that’s not even saying anything.
The late-90s boxset of singles Arkology was on my stereo for days in a row some 20 years ago. And I can still hear it in my head now even though I long ago loaned it out for it to never return. I’m not mad about that – I love that his music just drifts in and out but it’s always there.
Quite recently I bought Dave Barker Meets The Upsetters (“Prisoner of Love”) on nothing more than a whim. Pretty sure it was just last year and after our first lockdown. I was allowed back in a record store, I found this and bought it. Overnight it felt like the most important thing I’d heard in a while, and yet – again – it’s just one journeyman to another, whispering little magic.
The colourful madness of Perry’s persona – the clothes, the voodoo, the burning down of his studio to exorcise demons or bask in some strange madness, or simply (further) create his own mythology on the fly – is all interesting. It’s all essential to have some grasp on. But the thing that will always stand is the best of the music. It informs even the worst of the music. There were later albums that were patchy, just downright weird. When I finally got to see him perform a live set (somewhere in the early/mid 00s) he spent far too long riffing over and over about “Kangaroo meat/Kangaroo feet” but I was just there worshipping because of who it was, not because of what he was doing in that moment. Besides, there was no real proof he was actually there. Because by then his music was everywhere.
But he also made vital new music as recently as a year ago. So you couldn’t ever count him out. Just as you can’t now. He’s simply gone somewhere else. To sprinkle magic dust over other things.
There are dozens of albums that Perry had a hand in that are essential. Dozens. Hundreds more that he influenced. And for me it was Perry – the name, the music, the producer – that guided me in some way towards the music of The Orb, Mad Professor, Sabres of Paradise and probably a dozen other acts I’m forgetting now in the blur. And maybe many more besides.
I’m still uncovering his cool.
And that will always be the case.
R.I.P. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry