In their zeal to make sense of new and ever-evolving genres, rock critics are always quick to hold high a familiar sound from the past as the forerunner to and "seminal" influence on whatever is happening in the present. But Arkology (Island Jamaica/Chronicles), the new collection of reggae rarities produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry at his Black Ark Studios in the 1970s, is eliciting a new standard for this practice. Not since the punks elevated the Velvet Underground from the margins to the rock pantheon have so many superlatives been thrown at a mostly misunderstood cult figure.
"Arkology is an essential dub document, but the real treat is hearing how Perry's vision infects so many different strains of '90s music," Rob Sheffield wrote in Details. "Work your way through everything you know about hip-hop, electronica, punk rock and post rock, and somehow, some way, you always end up at Black Ark," crowed David Fricke in Rolling Stone. Valiantly refraining from using the word "postmodern" (though you know he wanted to), Rob Michaels added in Spin that Perry had "no use for 'songs,' as pop fans know them, with authors, owners, beginnings, middles and ends. His medium was one of total flux."
Well, not exactly. The young Prodigy fan or Wu-Tang Clan devotee who is inspired by such hyperbole to invest upwards of 50 smackeroos in the boxed set's three CDs and 52-page booklet may be shocked to discover that Arkology isn't nearly as radical as he or she was led to believe -- that, in fact, it's basically a collection of plain old reggae music. Michaels's claims to the contrary, it contains a lot of songs: 52, to be exact. Some of them are memorable, some of them are duds and some of them are extended or warped by Perry's production techniques. Those techniques are indeed impressive, but Perry didn't invent every genre that followed him, and chattering on about how he did just that makes it harder to hear his actual accomplishments.
Rainford Hugh Perry was born in 1936 in Kendal, a small town in northwest Jamaica. He became "Lee" Perry when he gravitated to Kingston in the late 1950s and started his musical career as an apprentice of Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, working as a gofer at Dodd's famous Studio One and looking after the portable sound systems that carried the new hybrid music called ska to the streets. In later years he became a recording artist himself, and scored a hit with 1965's "Chicken Scratch," which spawned his nickname. He was one of several key musicians who instigated the shift from upbeat ska to slower and more sinister rock steady and finally to reggae; he ran his own label, Upsetter Records, from 1968 to 1974, and he recorded the early efforts of young Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Through it all, Perry constantly complained about being screwed out of money and recognition by other producers: Two of his best-known early reggae recordings, "I Am the Upsetter" and "People Funny Boy," are vicious diatribes aimed at, respectively, Dodd and Joe Gibbs, another former employer. But this didn't stop Perry from using questionable practices in his own business dealings. He allegedly shortchanged the members of his band, the Upsetters, when they became the first reggae group to tour England in 1969, and he never paid the royalties due on the Wailers' early recordings, resulting in a legendary cold war with Marley and his estate. These are the sorts of things that are conveniently left out of the Perry hagiographies.
Arkology sheds no light on Perry's early history. It begins in 1975, the year he signed a worldwide distribution deal with the man he called "a vampire sucking the blood of the sufferer," Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. In 1973, Perry had purchased a u12,000 house in the Kingston suburb of Washington Gardens -- a not at all inexpensive spread for the time and place -- and built himself a concrete recording studio in the back yard, christening it with a sign over the front door reading "Black Ark." Here he recorded his own music with the Upsetters, a band composed of whatever session players were sitting around the studio at any given time. He also produced the work of artists such as Max Romeo, Junior Murvin and the pioneering female reggae singer Susan Cadogan, and he extended the dub experiments of the ground-breaking King Tubby.
Perry didn't invent dub, but he certainly embraced it. The word is thought to refer to the practice of "dubbing" out various tracks on the master tape, putting a sudden and unexpected emphasis on sounds that are usually in the background -- say, the rhythmic interplay of the high-hat cymbal and bass. On the island of Jamaica, the word dub closely resembles the patois word dup, which means "ghost." Perry's dub productions are marked by a haze of reverb and sound effects such as pistol shots, crying babies and falling rain that jump out at you like ghosts. "It was only four [tracks] written on the machine," Perry said, "but I was picking up 20 from the extraterrestrial squad."
Although Arkology starts off with Perry's declaration, "This is dub revolution, music to rock the nation" on "Dub Revolution Part I," it is by no means "an essential dub document." Listeners in search of one handy package compiling Perry's freakiest dub productions would be much better served by Trojan's two-disc collection, Open the Gate. Key tracks such as Perry's own "Bionic Rats" and the Heptones' "Babylon Falling" are missing from Arkology, and there's nothing included by Cadogan. The collection assumes a certain fluency with Perry's output that many listeners (and apparently some reviewers) lack, offering arcana such as alternate takes, previously unreleased tracks and multiple versions of the same basic song.
These versions illustrate the way Perry used a rhythm track to sculpt different tunes. But this was a habit born of economic necessity -- young artists couldn't always afford to start from scratch in the studio -- rather than a prescient vision of a drum and bass future. Five versions of a tune is overkill by anyone's standards, even when the song is as galvanizing as Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves." Studying the variations in the mixes -- dramatic as some of them are -- is an activity that is going to appeal only to obsessive collectors and academics.
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The alternate mixes of lesser tracks are even more superfluous. Perry may have been a sonic prankster, but he wasn't much different from other producers such as Phil Spector and George Martin, in that he was ultimately as good as the songwriters he was working with. When he was paired with talents such as his old friend Romeo or reggae veterans the Heptones, the result could be magical. But not even Perry's chirping crickets and bellowing elephants could elevate a cookie-cutter reggae jam such as Errol Walker's "John Public."
The secrets of Perry's success were good taste in choosing the right collaborators (though you can't always tell that from the tracks on Arkology) and the ability to create a vibe that encouraged artists to use their imaginations to transcend the ordinary. In order to summon the ghosts, he would blow ganja smoke on the master tape as it rolled. The feeling of druggy disorientation permeates Perry's work to such an extent that you can almost get a pot hangover just by listening to too much of it. This places him firmly in the continuum of psychedelic rock: Perry wasn't reinventing the use of the recording studio or abandoning conventional song structure as much as he was trying to capture the experience of being stoned, plain and simple.
Like psychedelic avatars Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson, Perry eventually flew too high for his own good. He overindulged in rum and ganja, split with his wife and children, angered his business partners, unwisely ignored the thugs who shook him down for protection money and finally saw Black Ark destroyed in 1979 by a fire that many people believe he started himself. (He covered the ruins with cryptic graffiti such as "Moses + Satan + dead spit" and "All robots all winds all seas all brains all minds all water all air.") Ever since, he's been playing the role of the mad genius, granting colorful interviews in which he rambles on about outer space, aliens, sex, Rastafarianism and being ripped off by the "bald head" white man -- then returning to the house overlooking Lake Zurich in Switzerland that he shares with his second wife.
He's crazy like a fox, that Scratch, and he's more than happy to have the bald heads credit him with whatever damn fool thing they can come up with -- as long as it contributes to the legend and helps move even mediocre collections such as Arkology.