Good Always Conquers Evil:
The Musical Genius of Lee Perry
by Daniel & Seth Nelson
Lee 'Scratch' Perry - if you've heard the music that's been touched by him, then you're no stranger to the widely varying influences that have inspired him to create the music that he does. People have tried through the years to mimic, always unsuccessfully, the distinctive sound that seemed to emanate so easily from Lee Perry.
SOMETHING YOU GOT
So why is Lee Perry so important to the world of music, especially music from Jamaica? There are countless other key players in the world of music, but why does Lee Perry seem to rise above them all? His vast amount of work is one of the main reasons, having produced thousands of singles for both himself and for other artists, all having a completely different sound to them than anything else before or since.
It can easily be stated that if Scratch didn't sing on it, sing through it, sing about it, produce it, write it, or do anything else to it, then surely no one else ever did. Included in this great amount of work are hundreds of artists that he's graced with his presence. Everyone from the obvious Bob Marley (along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) to the Clash to Linda McCartney (Paul's wife) have all got it on musically with Lee Perry.
A common theme among the artists that have worked with Lee Perry is that their music never sounded the same before coming to Scratch, and after leaving him. To name one example, The Wailers, who pre-Scratch were just starting to experiment with reggae after having participated in the ska and rocksteady eras. But while working with him, The Wailers arguably made their finest work of their career as a band. Other artists who recorded their finest music during their Scratch days are the Congos, Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, and the Heptones.
What's also interesting is that after these groups had their stints with Lee Perry, most of them either broke-up shortly after the split with Scratch, never reaching the same success and more importantly sound, that they had achieved with Perry.
ROAST FISH & CORN BREAD
To prepare the recipe for a Lee 'Scratch' Perry, you'll need the vital ingredients of one part comic books, one part cartoons, one part spaghetti westerns, one part kung fu flicks and one final part genius. WARNING! This recipe can create only one Lee Perry, but will serve millions of happy listeners throughout the world.
The things that Lee Perry draws on from the non-musical world as his influences, makes him that much more unique than others, and is one more reason why he is such an important figure in the music world.
Comic books and cartoons have had a big influence on Perry's life. As Lee Perry himself said, 'My life is straight out of a comic book. Definitely. I love comics from when I was a kid and it don't change. I'm still a child in my mind' (Grand Royal 1995/6). One look at Lee Perry & The Upsetters' album covers like 'Super Ape' (a giant ape with the overall look of a comic book); 'Return of the Super Ape' (another giant ape with a comic book feel to it); 'Kung Fu Meets the Dragon' (cartoon drawing of Lee Perry kicking at the viewer); 'Judgement Inna Babylon' (cartoon drawing with Chris Blackwell offering chicken's blood to a stunned Scratch); 'Blackboard Jungle' (cartoon of a lion in military gear in a jungle); 'The Quest' (drawing of Perry with a block of wood in one hand, incense and a microphone in the other) and 'Rastafari Liveth Itinually' (drawing of a lion-drawn chariot flying through the sky) reveals Perry's love for comics and cartoons. Set aside the music for a second, and each cover tells a story of its own.
The question arises, so why comic books? It's very simple...good always conquers evil in these stories, and this is something that everyone (including Lee Perry) hopes will happen in the world. Comic books and cartoons are also very entertaining and allow an escape from all of the troubles in real life.
A few more examples that the influence of cartoons has on Lee Perry's life are evidenced by his many recording labels, including his Justice League label, which in the comic book world featured the Green Lantern and the Flash. Another one of his recording labels, Upsetter, occasionally featured a comic book-esque drawing of a flying fist and the words 'PUNCH' seemingly breaking through the label that it's printed on.
Occasionally, Lee Perry brings up in interviews many references to comic books. In one particular interview, he mentions that he defeated Lex Luthor (Superman's nemesis) with the help of his 'teddy bear, my hair, and my invisible chair, and my 144,000 mosquito angels what sting with lightning, psssssst' (The Upsetter Issue #2). The list of comic book and cartoon references could go on and on.
Some of Lee Perry's nicknames come straight out of cartoons and comic books: Dr. On The Go (Dr. Octagon from Spiderman), The Red Ninja, and of course Inspector Gadget. The last of these, Inspector Gadget, brings up a whole new picture of someone having an unlimited amount of gadgets, which Lee Perry does, including: A mirrored hat, a small ape, mirrored shoes, a magic horn, a long pink balloon-snake, his magical kaya stick and many other devices, which all lend to his uniqueness and make him stand out in even the largest of crowds.
EASTWOOD RIDES AGAIN
Clint Eastwood, Bruce Lee, and the movie world in general have also had a big impact on Lee Perry and on his music. Spaghetti westerns (Old West movies from the 1960s made in Italy, some of which starred Clint Eastwood) heavily influenced Lee Perry's work with the Upsetters during the late 1960s and early '70s. Albums such as 'Clint Eastwood', 'Eastwood Rides Again', 'The Good, The Bad & The Upsetters' and song titles such as 'For A Few Dollars More' and 'Return of Django', all suggest western movie themes.
Although Lee Perry & The Upsetters' music was 100% pure reggae, most of the songs were instrumentals, and the band was therefore free to name the songs anything they wanted to, not being restricted by song lyrics. They could have named the songs and albums in an unlimited amount of ways, but they chose to saw fit to base their material on strong, cowboy heroes.
The work by the Upsetters also features hints of sounds straight from the Old West: A cowbell mimicking horse hooves, organs imitating the music that can commonly be heard in these movies, gun shots, yelping, and many more such examples. The covers of these albums also support this spaghetti western influence, portraying people with cowboy garb, usually brandishing guns, and the setting is usually a dry desert-like area. And once again, good always defeated evil in these movies, which most definitely was to Perry's liking.
KUNG FU MAN
Some of Lee Perry's dub experiments in the mid-1970s was heavily influenced by the kung fu movie genre, and mainly by the films of the master, Bruce Lee. With albums such as 'Kung Fu Meets The Dragon', which features song after song of kung fu movie inspired songs and titles. Just the music alone is like you're inside of a Bruce Lee movie, battling Kareem Abdul-Jabar (a la 'Game of Death'), with gong crashes, Chinese musical scales, and all of the sound effects that are integral to any good kung fu flick.
Song titles like 'Enter The Dragon' come straight from the title of one of Bruce Lee's best movies ever, and once again in these movies, good always conquers evil. The influence of kung fu on Lee Perry is also evidenced in many photographs taken of him, where Scratch has a flying leg in the air, modeled after scenes in these films. The same moves can be seen at any Lee Perry concert.
The above are only a few of his non-musical influences and certainly there are many others, but the above seem to rise above the rest in importance. There's an even longer list for his musical influences, which probably reads like many other Jamaican musicians, but really doesn't distinguish him from from all others.
The genius that is Lee Perry is demonstrated by his odd combinations of such things as kung fu and spaghetti western flicks, comic books and cartoons. Each of these ingredients being combined with reggae music make these combinations sound so right for one another, and so classic.
The non-musical inspirations of Lee Perry will ensure that his influence on the world of music will never cease and will only increase over time. If you don't believe that one person's musical touch can be so great, then go out and ex-Perry-ence him for yourself!
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