By the late 70s Lee Perry's reggae productions had become remarkably popular not only with Britain's West Indian populations but with a significant number of whites. A telling array of white rock stars tried to work with perry including Paul and Linda mcCartney, John Martyn, The Clash, and our next guest, who travelled to the Black Ark in 1978 before he became better known for being addicted to love. Look for the new Power Station LP in late '95.
What are your recollections of Lee Perry?
He always seemed very aware and gentlemanly. I've been asked who was my favorite producer, and it's definitely him. He used to do amazing things that were just hard to accept unless you witnessed what he did. He used to record on a Teac 4-track and mix as he went, occasionally cleaning the head with his T-shirt. He seemed to be some kind of spiritual leader. I went there for about a week. His studio was in the back garden. The story was that he sacked out under a tree in the garden, heard this music, and decided it came from the tree, so that's where he built the studio. The recording room was box-shaped and about eight meters on a side. And everywhere was covered in posters of black people in chains. It aws a split level and the control room was eight feet up. There was this slot like a foot by three inches cut so he could see down into the room. All you've got to communicate with are his eyes through this little slot. Now as I began working, all these people came down to vibe me out. First I got the religious zealots. I don't know if you've hung around Rastafarians much. The real deal people are very sweet, but there's this kind of right-wing side of them. They're aggressive and negative. So these guys come around wearing robes and they've got magic wands and shit. I'm doing vocals and one stands in front of the mic and starts doing this weird dance. Well, I thought it was fucking ridiculous, but I couldn't laugh because it would have been an insult, right? And I can see Lee Perry's eyes staring down through this little slot up there. Anyway, that didn't work, so they brought in another guy who stood with his back to me and pushed me with his shoulder blades into the microphone while this other guy did the magic wand shit. I was thinking, Look, I'm trying to work here. Take your carnival elsewhere. It was very strange. And Lee didn't do a thing to stop it. He was very amused by my reaction. When that didn't work, they brought all these friends who dressed like military. They gave me the white boy routine: What're you doing here? And Lee's looking at me, grinning, going What do you think of this? I had this great empathy with him. He was like, I can't do anything about these hangers-on. I'm sorry, I think It's ridiculous too.
That must have been a problem
The problem was that because of the way he cut, he dubbed as he went. He was on a 4-track, so he'd have the bass and drums, stereo, on one track, then keyboards on two other tracks, and dump the lot, mono, to the fourth track. Of course, there's an incredible degradation. So while he's doing all this and throwing all thses effects in, he can never go backwards. Then he'd bring in backing vocalsand horns onone and two, and you'd be left with track three for the vocals. But boy oh boy, when he got going, he'd work for ten hours a day, just constantly doing all these things. Then he'd get to this certain point and say, "music." And he was right, you know. He'd just get to a point where he'd take it that bit further, and all of a sudden his expression was, "it's gone clear. It's music." He just had this thing, a magic touch. But it was was kind of hit and miss, and the problem with the stuff I was working on was that his style worked best with a very simple two or four bar cycle. Because then he would dub parts out, but your ear became so used to the cycle that it didn't matter. Whereas the pieces I was working on had actual movements, so when he started pulling out information, they sounded really peculiar. I enjoyed them but couldn't use them because they were just too abstract.
Those tracks have never been released?
No. When I say abstract, I mean incomplete. He was applying this way of working to songs that couldn't stand it. I did four tracks with him and another eight songs in New York for an album called Double Fun. And when I put his tracks up against the stuff I cut in New York, they sounded not quirky or fascinating, but unfinished. They weren't going to communicate. But I never had any problems with him, because I always saw his eccentricity as kind of putting you on, to see how far you'd take him seriously. Once he knew you were a serious worker, he cut the crap. His routine was the same for anybody that came in the room. He'd sort of wink at you and you go, "here we go again." Most people were bewildered by him and didn't understand what he was doing anyway. They regarded him as over the line and not really human.
What year was this?
1978. The only reason you knew he was together was because he always had the best players on hand. The guitarist, Ernest Ranklin, was an old-school gentleman, probably in his fifties. He would be the mediator when I first met Sly and Robbie. I get on with them great now, they've cooled their act a bit. They used to be very, I guess provincial is the word. As far as Scratch was concerned, all that mattered was what came out of the speakers, and he had these incredible speakers, like, one eighteen inch woofer in a big metal box hung from the ceiling by chains. That was it. Cranked as loud as it would go. Everything was bassed. And those joke spliffs you see that are like nine inches long? They'd make them out of brown paper and just constantly smoke. He used to spray this vile-smelling rose-scented air freshener through his air conditioner. So you had this really heady mixture of ganja and cheap deodorizer. And these speakers, their main frequency was around 50, so it was quite an experience being in there, like 10 hours a day. You'd come out really spaced, you know?
You would stay in Kingston and go back to the studio in the morning?
Yeah, I was in the Kingston Sheraton. After the religious and political zealots weren't able to throw me off my stride, they started posting guys outside my hotel room and doing weird voodoo shit.
What a bad trip, man!
Sounds like it was, but it wasn't, actually. The thing was: just don't laugh. You had to take him seriously, but it was so hokey, so bananas. I've been on the road since I was 15, so with these guy's routines, I was like, give me a break! Of course, as soon as you act like that, they were "ahhh, fucking white man" and all this bullshit. They pulled all kinds of tricks on me. Like, this massive spliff goes 'round, you get dry mouth, so the next thing they offer you - do you know what a cream cracker is?
A cream cracker?
A saltine. So you're singing and your mouth's like sawdust. Of course I go out in the yard to bring everybody water, and they all think this is hilarious. It's like kids' game.
Was he himself a practical joker?
No. He was just this magnet for a scene that was the real musical cutting edge. His studio seemed like the spiritual and political center of the island. It was heavy, and it was all about getting this magic on the tracks. My faorite is called "Iron Gate." It's a masterpiece. Opens up with somebody flushing a toilet.
What was the food like?
Salt fish and ackee. Ackee is a fruit, and when they prepare it, it tastes like scrambled eggs. They mix that with salted fish. It's a breakfast dish. Also, fried plantain and breadfruit, which is a potato-like thing that tastes like chesnuts. It's very nice. A lot of cook out, barbecue style, you know, when everybody's got the munchies.
It was a closed shop. I got in through Chris Blackwell.
Was he still on good terms with Lee at that point?
Yeah. I remember Lee going over to Chris Blackwell's house and decorating it with hot rocks and spraypainting the whole TV room while everybody was asleep at night. It was a disaster. And when you asked Lee about it, he'd be real evasive and say it was something to catch a certain spirit that was missing. A great house guest!