Compilation honours legacy of Jamaican giant

A CD set of Lee Perry’s most famous songs scratches the surface, but true collectors will opt for the four LP release

A year after the death of legendary Jamaican reggae musician and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, the good folks at Trojan Records have released the very first posthumous anthology of the influential artist’s unparalleled career, King Scratch (Musical Masterpieces From The Upsetter Ark-ive).

The new collection, released on Aug 25, is taken mainly from Perry’s releases from the 1960s and 1970s, when he was helping create subgenres of Jamaican music from ska to rocksteady to roots reggae to dub. It includes sonic nuggets, mainly taken from 7-inch singles from the vaults of his Black Art Studio, before he burnt the place down in 1979 during a bout of depression.

Interestingly, the compilation is available in several formats. The basic compilations come in CD and vinyl formats — two CDs (40 tracks) and four black vinyl records. The CD version is very good value as it retails at less than US$20 (733 baht). Serious reggae fans, however, will go for the Deluxe 4LP set, which features 112 tracks (in both CD and vinyl formats), plus an illustrated set of liner notes (written by Perry’s official biographer David Katz) and photos, and a poster. That will set you back around $100.

And what of the tracks on the 40-song CD set? Well, there are some of his well-known classic tracks, such as Junior Murvin’s Police And Thieves (here in the form of a rare 12-inch mix, Police And Thief, a collaboration with Jah Lion), which formed part of the soundtrack to inner city strife in London during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I still spin this track when I DJ in Bangkok. Another less well known track by Perry and Romeo The Devil/Disco Devil, also is featured. The Upsetters UK hit Return Of Django jostles for attention with killer tracks by Junior Delgado, The Congos (Perry produced their best work), Leroy Sibbles, The Heptones, Prince Django and Susan Cadogan’s Hurt So Good (a Top 20 hit in the UK). There is even a weird take on Bob Marley’s Exodus — Perry was one of the key architects of reggae’s classic sound.

Garden Is Alone. 

Perry’s own output as a recording artist is represented here with some wild and surreal songs like Roast Fish and Cornbread, Big Beck Policeman, One Drop (one of my favourite tracks), Jamaican E.T. and the inevitable I Am A Madman. Some of these Perry songs show just why he became an important innovator in the spacey sound of dub and sampling music. Perry’s inventiveness in the studio — he used any sounds that interesting him and he recorded his layered sonic masterpieces on very basic equipment — influenced producers like Mad Professor and Dennis Bovell. As a result, the list of famous musicians who sought his recording mastery reads like a Who’s Who of popular music (think of The Clash, Beastie Boys, Adrian Sherwood etc.).

The 1997 release Arkology covers some of the same ground as the new compilation, but it is more complete and contains better contextual information. For those further interested in the life and times of Lee Perry, The Criterion Channel released a documentary earlier this year by filmmakers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough on his life, The Upsetter: The Life & Music Of Lee “Scratch” Perry, narrated by Oscar-winning actor Benicio del Toro. The film is available for streaming and is part of a film collection, Roots & Revolution: Reggae On Film, which includes classic films like Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come and TV series like The Story Of Lover’s Rock.

Coming of age in the 1970s in England, Trojan Records was a key part of my early music collection. The label, which started in the UK in 1968, released lots of ska and rocksteady, which complemented the soul music I was obsessed with in my early teens — most of my schoolmates were rockers and fans of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

In fact, Trojan played a key role in introducing Jamaican popular music in the UK. Producers such as Perry were able to license their records to Trojan to gain access to the lucrative UK market; as a result, Trojan artists like Desmond Dekker, The Upsetters, Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals and Dave and Ansel Collins became household names in the UK. In the early days, operating out of a warehouse in Willesdon, London, the label formed a successful joint-venture with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

The relationship between Trojan Records and British youth culture is the subject of an excellent documentary on the company, Rudeboy – The Story Of Trojan Records, which was released in 2018.

After being sold several times, Trojan is now owned by BMG. The label mainly releases compilations these days, and there are some excellent new releases on different genres of Jamaican popular music. I was very glad to notice a reissue of Carroll Thompson’s all-time classic Lover’s Rock collection Hopelessly In Love (released in both CD and vinyl formats) which was a hit during the 70s/early 80s when Lover’s Rock emerged as the only UK homegrown subgenre of reggae. Listening to the title track took me back to fun days in Brixton, London in the 1980s, and a soundtrack that seemed to sum up the times: Police And Thieves (including The Clash version), Hopelessly In Love, Silly Games (Janet Kaye) and The Special’s Ghost Town. More information from trojanrecords.com.


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