Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is royalty. Since the 1960s, the Upsetter has been doing that to reggae music, consistently and constantly innovating. He was one of the first Jamaican artists to sample, in his 1968 single, ‘People Funny Boy.’ He helped pioneer the idea of the remix in reggae, the use of studio techniques to expand the sound of the music form. And he pretty much invented dub music in the 70s. He has produced all the big names of Jamaican music from Bob Marley to Max Romeo, Junior Murvin. He has worked with legendary English dub and dance producers like Adrian Sherwood and the Mad Professor. And he’s now 83 years old and still pumping out music. In 2019 alone, he released four albums, including Heavy Rain, which came out in December.
Heavy Rain is a dub reworking of Rainford, his first 2019 album, which came out last May. Rainford is Perry’s actual birth name, and the album was an autobiography of sorts. With Sherwood at the controls, Perry let loose on some of the most personal lyrics he’s ever dropped. No doubt this is, in part, due to his advancing years. Sherwood said Rainford is ‘the most intimate album Lee has ever made, but at the same time the musical ideas are very fresh. I’m extremely proud of what we’ve come up as a piece of work.’ He also went onto compare it to Johnny Cash’s late career resurgence with Rick Rubin and American Records in the 90s and 00s. That is unfair to Perry, who did not, like Cash, fade away. Or rather, his fadeaway was over 30 years ago. He had long come back from his fade away. Cash, on the other hand, was largely a spent force until he teamed up with Rubin back in 1994.
Anyway. The album was full of reflections on the great man’s life, most notably, for my money, the unambiguously titled ‘Kill Them Dreams Moneymakers’ and the last track, ‘Autobiography of the Upsetter,’ which might be one of the greatest reggae tracks ever put to tape. It was a fresh and exciting collection of songs, and it has been on heavy rotation around here since it was released.
Heavy Rain, though, is the better album. This is partly because I love dub. Sherwood is back here, working with the legend to rework the album, and the results are nothing short of stunning. It’s also something else to have the progenitor of dub returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, and reclaiming his crown.
One of the reasons I love dub is due to the way in which the tracks are created through the use of studio technology, and the manner in which producers like Perry and Sherwood make use of echo effects and an array of synthesizer noises, and then all of this laid down over a big, fat bassline. If you read my reviews regularly, you know by now that few things are more gorgeous than a wicked bassline. And in dub, everything starts with the bass.
In essence, there is a relationship between the original Rainford and Heavy Rain, but they are not siblings, they are cousins. One of my favourite tracks is ‘Mindworker,’ which, over a the same basic chord progression used by Toots & The Maytals on ’54-46 Was My Number,’ Perry chants ‘I am a soldier in the army/I am a soul collector/I am a collector of souls/I am collecting souls/I am a soldier/I am a soldier and I am collecting souls/In the army of Jah.’ He also intones that ‘I need brains and I transfigure mine.’
The second track, ‘Here Comes the Warm Dreads’ is also a stunning track, the re-working of ‘Kill Them Dreams Moneymakers.’ It is a breakdown of ‘Makumba’ from the original album, but it is a minimalist one. And Brian Eno is the guest on it. So we get him unleashing the dub mix on the right channel whilst Sherwood takes the left.
‘Crickets in Moonlight,’ the re-working of ‘Crickets in the Moon,’ is a largely instrumental track that draws on the long history of dub and reggae, with a big fat trombone line, courtesy of Vin Gordon) that provides the melody, over a thumping bass. In fact, like ‘Warm Dreads,’ this is also a minimalist track. Bass, drums, some guitar and horns. Glorious.
‘Space Craft’ is a classic Perry track. A disembodied vocal track from the Man welcomes us to the ‘Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry starship’ and I can imagine us in a version of space with Perry, in a cloud of weed smoke, with the Upsetter himself at the controls heading for where no one knows, including our pilot.
‘Heavy Rainford’ takes the original, ‘Autobiography of the Upsetter,’ and strips it down to the basics of the original track, looped through the heavy bass and lurching drums, along with Gordon’s trombone. We get a bit of the Upsetter’s autobiography through the lyrics, but it’s the music that dominates here, largely as Gordon lays down his trombone, before that plays directly into perhaps the only harmonica solo I’ve ever thought was a good idea. And then we get the chanted chorus, Perry in a high voice, ‘I am the Upsetter.’
Long and short, Heavy Rain is, for my money, one of the great entries into the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry oeuvre.