Dreadlocks In Derry (Lee Perry)

I didn’t really need an excuse to return to Derry, on my two previous visits not only friends but everyone I met seemed happy to see me & to share stories. It had been 10 months since the last time so a concert by Lee “Scratch” Perry, a musical legend whose influence extends beyond his chosen field of Reggae, was a perfect focal point around which another long weekend could be planned. The gig was on March 18th & apparently, I don’t keep up with these things, the day before is St Patrick’s Day, a rather big deal to the Irish. Shoot, it was a dead stone bonker that this would be hectic…so let’s go !

 

 

Image result for lee perry“Dub Revolution Part 1”, the first track on the 3 CD “Arkology”, the ultimate collection of Scratch’s work at his Black Ark studio round the back of his house in Washington Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica. In this yard he practised nothing less than alchemy to pioneer techniques that anyone with a laptop now takes for granted & to produce music of unrivalled  imagination & quality. If ever I was exiled to a desert island & could only take one piece of music then it would be “Arkology”. Lee Perry’s rhythms demand that your hips sway, the conscious lyrics are from & for the heart & his Dub explorations hit upside your head. It’s a perfect package with sunshine in the grooves.If you could grow weed on that island then that would be nice but this music would still get you as high as that palm tree.

 

The gig in Derry was the day before Scratch’s 81st birthday so he probably wouldn’t be leaping around the stage (I know I won’t be at that age). Much of his best work was done in his producer’s booth. We were not sure what exactly we were going to get  but we would be sharing oxygen with Lee Perry, a legend, a man who’s bona fides justified the tag “genius” & that was enough. So, after Ireland’s surprise victory over England at rugby (I was the only Englishman in the packed bar. That was interesting, I thought these people were my friends!) we made our way to the Nerve Centre buoyed by an anticipatory buzz.

 

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We were not disappointed, The 4-piece band played us into the room. They were the Upsetters, not Scratch’s original house  group but as his backing band they have the right. Back in 1969 the woman lucky enough to become my wife had spent the money from her Saturday job on “The Return of Django” by the Upsetters, Perry’s first UK hit, on the day I met her. It was Love at first sight…with the record, the rest came later. Reggae gigs smell  a little differently nowadays with the ban on smoking, the star of the night entered to acclaim from the big crowd. He’s a small man, big coat, big hat. He looked happy to be there & we were happy to see him.

 

One of the things about Lee Perry’s music is that he does the simple things beautifully. Susan Cadogan’s “Hurt So Good” (1975) is perfect Pop Reggae while Max Romeo’s LP “War Ina Babylon” (1976) showed that rather than setting the controls to the heart of the Dub, powerful, passionate music just needs strong songs & a wonderful groove. Tonight we got “Chase the Devil” from that record, “Police & Thieves” came around too & man that hit the right spot. What we didn’t get was an old man trying to recreate past glories note for note & word for word. He rode the rhythm smoothly, maybe chatting whatever came to him in the moment & he never missed a beat, a rhythm rapper, comfortable on stage, showing off his bright red hair. You could hear why Lee Perry is such a great producer, he knows what is in a song & he knows how that song goes.

 

Image result for lee perryOf course Scratch was instrumental in the early career of Bob Marley & the Wailers. His set included his versions of “Punky Reggae Party”, “Crazy Baldhead” & “Sun is Shining” before closing with a driving encore of “Exodus”. Again these were echoes of the tunes we know, with only a whisper of Dub. Lee Perry is the Dub Adventurer but that is for another time. We did see the natural mystic & we heard some great Roots Reggae. I don’t get around much anymore but if there are places where there are as many smiling faces as tonight at the Nerve Centre then perhaps I should be there too.

 

 

 

OK…so much things to say. My hosts & fellow concert-goers, Joe & Gayle, don’t need a shout out (oh, I just did !) I think they know just how much I value their company. On the bus from Belfast Laura & Shirley, two Glaswegians on a mission to drink Derry dry, insisted that I be included in their fun. The following day I was able to return the favour & they squeezed into a packed Sandinos bar to join my small circle of friends in celebrating St Patrick. They fitted right in.

 

Finally Derry has lost two of its favourite sons in the past 48 hours. Martin McGuinness was radicalised by the growing demand for civil rights in his community & the violent response by armed forces employed by the British government in the late 1960s. Until January of this year he served as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. His struggle & his progress embodies that of the community into which he was born. Ryan McBride was born in Derry in 1989, different times. On Saturday he captained the city’s football team, the Candystripes, to victory & was found dead at his home the next day. Out here on the perimeter of my country, Derry has an individual, often troubled history. It welcomes strangers with an open hand & with respect. It keeps a special place for those of their own who make a difference because it is a special place.

Put On A Iron Shirt (Max Romeo)

In June 1969 there was something missing when the BBC announced the new UK chart on a Sunday evening. At #10 “a record by Max Romeo” was referred to then on to the next. “Wet Dream”, a song about sleeping under a leaky roof (yeah right Max) was banned by the only British music station but Reggae was not only favoured by skinheads that summer. Desmond Dekker’s “It Mek” & Max’s early example of Jamaican slackness could be heard, mixed in with the Motown, wherever young people gathered to dance. “Wet Dream”, a combination of novelty, suggestiveness & a damn good tune, sold 250,000 copies & Max Romeo became known as a very Rude Boy.

 

 

There was no successful follow-up to the hit. With producer Bunny Lee Max tried more slackness but that novelty had passed. There were ill-judged cover versions from the middle of the road  (“Puppet on a String” !) while his own songs showed a growing concern with social issues & Rastafarian culture. “Let the Power Fall on I” was adopted by Michael Manley’s People’s National Party who campaigned & won an election in 1972 with policies including equal pay, a minimum wage & free education. Max liked the sound of that & wrote a number of songs promoting the PNP. They were an extension of previous conscious lyrics like “Rent Crisis” & “Black Equality”, sweet vocals setting out simple, direct & sincere sentiments. It’s difficult to resist a tune titled “Socialism Is Love”.

 

In the early 1970s Max Romeo worked mainly with Bunny Lee, Niney the Observer & Lee Perry with one-off recordings for other Kingston producers. The songs, with versions by men like Dennis Alcapone, (“Jordan River”), I Roy & King Tubby, are clear, attractive polemics, provocative & anticipating the coming “Rasta Bandwagon”. There are some gems to be found from this period. By 1975 the LP “Revelation Time”, a consistent, original collection, was only available in Jamaica. There were at least 10 single releases in 1975 & one of them stood above the rest.

 

 

“One Step Forward” was produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry who had engineered much of “Revelation Time”.  Scratch’s reputation is as a mad, stoned Dub alchemist but for this LP, “War Ina Babylon”, Max has said there was “a one hundred percent scrupulous function” in the studio. There was a deal with Island Records, a guaranteed international release for “War….” & the Romeo/Perry partnership stepped up to the mark. This is a more refined Reggae, house band the Upsetters providing sympathetic, confident rhythms to Max’s assertive lyrics. In 1976 the possibilities of Reggae LPs were being stretched by Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Vibration” & the debut records of his brothers from the original Wailers. In his backyard Black Ark studio Lee Perry’s work with the Heptones & Junior Murvin was a benchmark for a commercial, still conscious sound. “War Ina Babylon” sits just fine with both of these strands, An essential Reggae LP.

 

 

The alliance with Perry didn’t last nor did the good relations with Island. Max took care with his publishing business, the much-sampled “Chase the Devil” from “War…” proved to be a consistent earner. However the money & promises made by producer & record label were not forthcoming. 1977’s LP “Reconstruction” was self-produced but Island’s promotional priorities were geared towards making Bob Marley an international superstar. The late UK release of “Revelation Time” also deflected attention from his new material. It’s a pity that songs as good as “Melt Away” failed to consolidate the higher profile his great record had brought him.

 

 

Max Romeo left Jamaica for work in the US, continuing to record, perform & write those good songs. In 1981 the “Holding Out My Love To You” LP, an attempt to crossover into the American market, was co-produced by Keith Richards. After the notoriety of “Wet Dream” he established himself with a series of early Rasta, direct & melodic political songs which were often too candid for Jamaican radio stations. “War Ina Babylon” is his masterpiece, still sounding great 40 years on. It’s an entry point for some seriously good Reggae music.

 

 

 

Sweet Soul Music (William Bell)

William Bell never achieved the success of some of his Memphis contemporaries but his contribution as a singer & a songwriter places him at the heart of the enduring soul music created in that city throughout the 1960s. In 1961 Bell, just 21 years old, stepped away from his vocal group, the Del Rios, to record a self-written solo debut for his hometown label Stax Records. “You Don’t Miss Your Water” is a smooth sliver of country soul before that was even a thing. In 1967 the song was  recorded by Stax’ shining star, Otis Redding & included on his “Otis Blue” LP. The following year The Byrds released their version on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” & Taj Mahal his for “The Natch’l Blues”. 3 distinctive records linked by this immaculate song.

“You Don’t…” made a small dent on the US charts, the following 45, “Any Other Way”, was picked up by established R&B singer Chuck Jackson. For a small label this was a big enough deal for Stax to release a number of  William’s singles. He was away for 2 years in the armed forces which didn’t help with promotion & publicity. On his return to Memphis he began a string of recordings which were R&B hits but which never really matched the crossover success of other studio colleagues. In this golden time the Memphis Soul stew was cooking on gas. Now, over 45 years later, William Bell’s best records take a place alongside all those other Stax solid senders.

Bell’s stock in trade ballads had a sweet gospel tinge. Booker T’s sympathetic productions allowed a lightness not always associated with the trademark attack in the sound of Stax. “The Soul of a Bell” (1967) marked the beginning of a songwriting partnership between the pair. The opening track “Everybody Loves A Winner” is a tragic song of life, a lovely example of the thing that William Bell did so well…”but when you lose, you lose alone”. Ah, Gram Parsons should have gotten hold of this song with the Byrds or the Flying Burrito Brothers. “Eloise (Hang On In There)”, a soul stomp, Motown urgency filtered through the layers of Memphis grit, had to be the one to break on through. Like another muscular Stax release, “Big Bird” by Eddie Floyd, “Eloise” made no impression on the charts but it shook my radio whenever it came around. A hit 45 that just never was one.

It was around this time that guitarist Albert King was signed by Stax. Bell & Jones provided a song that captured all the bad luck & trouble of the Blues while putting this folk music on Soul Time. “Born Under A Bad Sign” was an instant classic. Eric Clapton had always checked for Albert & a year later Cream, with encouragement from Atlantic Records, covered the song on their #1 LP “Wheels Of Fire”. King found a new audience for the Blues in America’s concert halls. Up in Chicago the Chess label encouraged Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf to update their sound. “Born Under A Bad Sign” is a landmark song.

When Stax tragically lost it’s greatest star in December 1967 William Bell marked Otis Redding’s death with “A Tribute To A King”. Only a B-side in the US, we Brits were more receptive to this heartfelt elegy from his musical family & it dented the charts. Another Bell- Jones composition, “Private Number”, a sweet, smooth dialogue with Judy Clay, less raucous than the Otis & Carla Thomas duets, made the UK Top 10 with no transatlantic promotion trip (so unfortunately no black & white Top of the Pops clip) & is still a sure fire winner to my ears. The follow up, “My Baby Specializes” (mostly Judy) was an Isaac Hayes-David Porter song. There was an LP of “Duets” with Clay, Carla Thomas & Mavis Staples. William Bell was a busy man in 1968.

He began to produce records for Peachtree Productions. I have a version of “Purple Haze” by Johnny Jones & the King Casuals, a crazy collision of soul & psychedelia. I did not know that it was Bell’s debut production for the company. It’s on the Y-tube, treat yourself. It was in 1968 that he had his biggest hit so far. “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” is a gorgeous tender gem. Steve Cropper’s guitar, a cascade of strings, the Memphis Horns…oh yeah ! Down in Jamaica Lee “Scratch” Perry was creating all manner of wonderful dub reggae strangeness at his Black Ark studio. Scratch always had an ear for a well-written song. Through 1976/77 he recorded a number of soul classics with singer George Faith & that’s how William Bell & Booker T Jones’ “To Be A Lover” stands as a reggae classic. The almost 20 minute long version, including Augustus Pablo’s mellifluous melodica, is a desert island disc of mine but, hey, you are busy people.

William Bell moved to Atlanta but stayed with Stax to the end in 1974. Public taste had changed but there are some classy songs from this time. A move to Mercury finally brought him a gold record in 1977 with “Trying To Love Two”, a disco-fication of his trademark ballad sound. Despite the song reaching the top of the R&B charts there seems to be contemporary clip of him performing the song on “Soul Train…if only.

With the formation of Wilbe Records he has continued to record himself & others.There was never the one big breakthrough song for Bell. No “Knock On Wood”, “Sweet Soul Music” Or “When A Man Loves A Woman” that put faces to the names of other singers. He was not on the bill for the momentous Stax/Volt tours of Europe & there is no film of the young William Bell. So this clip, from 2013, gets me buzzing. It’s from a Memphis Soul special, after dinner entertainment at the White House for the Obama’s & a few close friends.  There was a stellar line-up, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples, Cyndi Lauper (Huh !) for the audience to rattle their jewellery to. Seeing 70-odd year old William Bell singing “You Don’t Miss Your Water”, knocking the song that started it all for him out of the park & sharing the stage with Booker T Jones, his songwriting partner who shared in the inception of so much fine music, just makes me smile.

 

 

Reggae In Your Jeggae

On the day I met the young woman who was lucky enough to become my wife she had just spent some of the wages from her Saturday job on a new 7″ single. “The Return Of Django” (inspired by the same spaghetti western that has just unchained Quentin T) was by The Upsetters, the house band for producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. It was released in the UK on the Trojan label, an imprint set up by Island records for the fine music emerging from Jamaica. In 1969  reggae was becoming more audible  in Britain, “The Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & the Aces became the first reggae song to reach #1 in the UK charts. Skinheads were  working-class youth who used to be Mods. Their style & attitude tipped a pork-pie hat to the Jamaican rude boy, ska & reggae was their music. They heard the tunes in the clubs, bought the records which made the charts and were played on the one pop radio station in the country. This woman was not only very attractive but had excellent taste. A fact confirmed when she accepted my request for an assignation at any time of her choice. The rest, dear reader, is her story.

So reggae was always around in the early 1970s, adding a Caribbean spice to the salmagundi of the British music scene with its Glitter, Glam, Soul & Gilbert O’Sullivan. There was always space for at least one tune to break into the charts. Sometimes there was a touch of novelty about these hits & sometimes they were just great records.

“I am the magnificent. I am backed by the shack of a soul boss most turnin’ stormin’ sound o’ soul. I am double u o,o,o & I’m still up here again”. In April 1971 “Double Barrel” by Dave & Ansell Collins was #1 in the UK for 2 weeks between “Hot Love” by T Rex and “Knock Three Times” by Dawn. Ansell Collins wrote and produced while Dave Barker yelped this proto-dub rap. Digital recording my butt, 40 years on this still sounds strange & fresh & gets men of a certain age creakily skanking across the room. The duo followed the hit with “Monkey Spanner”, another fine tune. Dave Barker had earlier hits with Lee Perry (“Prisoner Of Love” “Shocks A Mighty”) and is still around. His personal vocal style is instantly recognisable if you are lucky enough to bump into his music.

Trojan knew their market at this time. They began to customise the titles of their releases by adding “Skinhead” to any rhythm. As the image calcified the boots, braces & “aggro” became a bigger part of the scene. It became less safe for people with hair over their ears to enjoy a good night at their clubs. No matter, the Trojan collections of reggae from this time are a smile in vinyl…good stuff.

There is no finer example of the breadth of British music taste than this 1974 Top 10 hit. “Ire Feelings” by Rupie Edwards came from outta space with this dub of a Johnny Clarke tune. My friend Carl was recalling his youth club nights, how strange and wonderful this sounded &, of course, what a great dance tune it was. Rupie Edwards rode this riddim to another hit, “Leggo Skanga” , appearances on Top Of The Pops & an LP of slight variations. 4 years later the Dub classic “King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown” from Augustus Pablo was on everyone’s turntable. We knew how good Dub Reggae could be because of Rupie Edwards…Skanga ! Skanga !

There are so many great reggae hits from this time. The music was becoming more conscious, the artists more likely to be singing the praises of Jah or of oppression in the world. Bob Marley’s “Live” LP was on everybody’s Xmas list in 1975, the roots reggae of the Rasta was to carry the swing for some time now. It was the quality of the work of John Holt, Ken Booth, Bob & Marcia & many others who were less successful on the charts who prepared the way for this popularity. Man, I am going to have to come back to these times. Wheel & come again !

Before the 12″ singles of disco & the synth bands of the 1980s reggae pioneered the extended mix of a song. A successful rhythm was re-cycled almost endlessly. The hit of 1976 was another Lee Perry masterwork, “Police & Thieves” by Junior Murvin, I am still finding songs by Murvin that are exactly the same tune. Producers were inspired to wilder dub experimentation, pioneers of sampling and drum and bass. Dee-jays/toasters added their own vocals over the hits of the day. In 1976 Punk trashed much of music’s immediate past. Dreadlock reggae, Marley & those who followed, got an approving nod. In clubs at this time you would hear Dillinger & Culture alongside The Clash and the Pistols.

Dennis Brown, a singer with a facility to handle militancy & romanticism equally well, was called “the Crown Prince Of Reggae” by “King” Bob. “Money In My Pocket” was recorded in 1973 by Niney the Observer for the Joe Gibbs organization with a version from Big Youth. In 1978 this re-working was a UK hit. This record has the lot. A good song by an outstanding singer, a rocking dub and Prince Mohammed’s “Cool Runnings” toast keeping it bubbling. This original release sold out its first pressing and deservedly so. It is one of the best examples of how reggae was maturing, innovating and proving to be some of the most vital music around. Dennis Brown made some very good music in his time, this is such a classic that I keep returning to it to check for how it should be done.