Review Summary: 'The Upsetter' compiles some of Lee Perry's most noteworthy, important and enjoyable work into one hour-long celebration of his genius.
Rainford Hugh 'Lee' Perry (a.k.a Scratch a.k.a The Upsetter a.k.a Pipecock Jackson/Jaxxton a.k.a King Perry a.k.a Chicken Scratch) is one of, not perhaps the, most important and towering figures in the history of Jamaican music. A bit of a grandiose statement to begin a review with perhaps, but Perry is no ordinary man. Having a career that progressed from working as a songwriter for famed sound system heavyweights Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd and Duke Reid, to recording and producing sessions, to nurturing Bob Marley, to building his Black Ark studio where he commenced experimenting with pioneering 'dub' techniques, to dipping into Jungle and Techno music, to the modern day where in his seventies he still tours regularly and makes festival appearances, Perry's musical career ha been long, fruitful and as diverse and enigmatic as the man himself.
The Upsetter: Essential Madness From the Scratch Files largely eschews his experiments with heavy dub, techno and jungle and work for other artists, and concentrates on his vocal material. While generally considered limited at best as a vocalist, his abilities as both songwriter and producer combine with his madcap personality and innovative ideas to produce fruitful results which on occasion became huge hits in the Jamaican charts. This 18-song compilation dips through a decade of his career from 1968 to 1978 and handily puts all the gems in one place. Few of these songs were ever included on a album, as most were released as singles on his Upsetter label.
The album starts with Perry in a vengeful frame of mind after leaving Dodd’s Studio One. He had previously stopped working for Duke Reid due to Reid using his lyrics without paying him. Similar restrictions, including Dodd preventing him fm vocalising his own songs, compelled him to leave him too. And so, as Perry struck out on his own, he released ‘The Upsetter’, a vinyl punch-in-the-face to his old boss that accused him of being “greedy” and “gravelicious” over a tight rhythm and a double tracked guitar line. Perry is semi-crooning here, but the maliciousness off his statements are not half-baked – he really was pissed off about Coxsone restricting him doing his own thing while taking his songs and paying him little money. ‘Kimble’ has more of a half-formed sound, with Perry’s signature odd percussion popping in and out. However the next track, standout killer ‘People Funny Boy’, blows it out of the water. Replete with crying baby samples, ‘People Funny Boy’ is one of the most essential of all Lee Perry songs, pioneering in its use of samples and scratching, but with a strong tune and hook. Added to this Perry’s lyrics alluded to another attack on a former employer; the time Joe Gibbs whom he warns “I used to help you out – now you’ve turned bigshot you no remember that”. No wonder it was such a huge Jamaican hit when released on a 45 via Perry’s Upsetter label! It is one of the most important songs of Perry’s career, showing that he could blend both hooks and experimentalism – more often than not the latter came to the fore. ‘Uncle Desmond’ is another strong tune, a lazy backing from the Upsetters Mk.1 studio band underpinning Perry ascertaining that he isn’t a “wine head”. Whatever that means.
The next standout is hip-hop precursor ‘Cow Thief Skank’, where Perry and toaster Charlie Ace fight cattle rustles at night complete with mooing noises. Here, alongside several effects, he innovatively uses rhythms from previous songs stapled together in a sequence which he and Ace toast and moo over. As a song maybe it isn’t amazing but as both an idea it is carried out to perfection, Ace urging that they “hurry hurry!” to save the cows. Maybe part of Perry’s obsession with cowboy films, it certainly sounds like he’s having fun. The same rhythms are used for ‘Kentucky Skank’ (an ode to KFC) and ‘Bathroom Skank’ (with Perry instructing the listener to wash themselves in various places), which is a common technique in Jamaican music; here it is interesting to note how the plethora of effects used by Perry in his producing capacity make the two songs sound extremely different. By this time his studio, the ‘Black Ark’, was up and running in his back garden, and you can tell the difference between the pre-1973 and post-1973 sound of his work. Before 1973 he had recorded in various studios, giving some of his work (especially the earlier material) has a drier sound. In the later sixties and early seventies he, like many producers of this time, took his master tapes to King Tubby for mixing and mastering, but Perry’s Black Ark work provides his definitive sound. Often characterized by odd percussion, excessive sampling, and almost always featuring his signature compressed phasing (as heard on Junior Murvin’s classic album ‘Police and Thieves’), the Black Ark material has a slightly softer and fuller sound that the drier sound of songs from the first half of this compilation such as ‘I Am The Upsetter’. Eventually the place became a hangout for hustlers and hanger-ons and with pressure on all sides Perry burnt the studio to the ground in 1979 in a fit of madness.
One of my personal favourites on the album is ‘Public Jestering’. Throughout his career Perry used courtrooms and justice as a lyrical theme, right from his work with Prince Buster in the mid-sixties on the classic ‘Judge Dread’, and here he plays the part of the judge charging “Sylvester the public Jester from Manchester” with the public jestering of the title. The song has a nice fun feel, and the rhymes spun by Perry work in many ways due to their silliness. It is a version of the ‘Skylarking’ rhythm originally recorded by [reggae singer] Horace Andy. This is followed by ‘Fist of Fury’ showing Perry’s imagination had been captured by Kung Fu films, with karate sound effects galore, and this is followed by Perry affirming his Rastafarian beliefs on record for one of the first time in ‘Stay Dread’. The album closes out with its three longest songs. The first, ‘White Belly Rat’, is yet another Perry ‘diss’ – this time aimed at Bob Marley. It seems that Scratch fell out with everyone at some point, and despite the two of them writing songs together and Bob sleeping on Perry’s sofa, they had a falling out which lead to Perry issuing this song as an attack on Marley. The last two songs were originally issued together on a 12” single, with ‘City Too Hot’ coming in at 8:40 and ‘Bionic Rats’ at 7:34. These two songs are the crowing achievements of the CD, working well as a one-two couplet, displaying Perry’s phenomenal sound and lyrical ideas. ‘City Too Hot’ is the most overtly political song on the disc, the music’s uneasy atmosphere conveying the gun-ridden political atmosphere of Kingston that is relayed by Perry’s lyrics. ‘Bionic Rats’ is more up-tempo with high-pitched doobie-doo backing vocals a bucking phaser sound throughout.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in reggae music, and though his legacy encompasses achievements in various genres both as a solo artist, a writer, and a producer, it is inevitably difficult to compile all of this. By concentrating on his vocal work, accompanied by some mighty dub work, The Upsetter compiles some of his most noteworthy, important and enjoyable work into one hour-long celebration of Perry’s genius.