wax Poetics
Photo by Dave Hendley.

City Too Hot

In 1978, Lee Perry was at the peak of his powers. Since reaching an agreement with Island Records two years earlier for the foreign distribution of his ethereal productions, Perry had enjoyed unprecedented levels of international success with Max Romeo’s War in a Babylon, Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, and George Faith’s To Be a Lover, while collaborations with Bob Marley had produced exceptional material like “Jah Live” and “Punky Reggae Party.” His unorthodox mixing techniques were bearing particularly wonderful fruit as he tested the limits of recorded sound in his Black Ark studio through extreme application of echo, delay, and phasing, while his own vocal material was progressing by leaps and bounds. After nurturing a new harmony trio called the Congos, whose debut album Heart of the Congos was perhaps his most intense masterwork yet, the future looked increasingly bright, but, by the end of the year, after conflict arose with an extreme religious sect that based itself at his studio, Perry would virtually abandon recording. In an extract from the newly revised edition of People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry (Omnibus), David Katz explores Perry at the precipice, one step away from an endless abyss.

published online
Originally published in Issue 20
By David Katz

In early 1978, several months after Lee Perry’s first connection with the Congos—a vocal duo he discovered and then expanded to a trio—the first copies of the initial Jamaican pressing of their album Heart of the Congos arrived in scarce quantities in Britain, featuring a restrained mix with few technical embellishments. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell traveled to Jamaica with his lawyer, Tom Hayes, to negotiate terms; contracts were signed and everything seemed set for Island to give Heart of the Congos an official release overseas. Perry then put a lot of energy into creating an alternate mix: he bathed many of the vocals, keyboards, and guitar in high doses of delay; the piano was made fainter; manic percussion and crashing cymbals were added; and several songs rolled into extended dub portions. Perhaps the most startling new element was a mooing cow sound present on several songs, created by the voice of Watty Burnett resonating through the cardboard center of a roll of tinfoil.

In addition to working daily with the Congos, Perry was also starting to have greater contact with members of the Niyabinghi Theocracy, a strict religious order that now formed a habitual presence at his studio. This Kingston-based order was centered on a congregation of Rasta Burru drummers, followers of Marcus Garvey who held regular Niyabinghi groundation sessions since 1960; their leader was an elder Trench Town resident affectionately addressed by the order as Pa-Ashanti. In groundations, the Rastafari faithful conduct extended drumming ceremonies to challenge the oppressive forces of Babylon; various ideas and solutions are debated through “reasoning” and grievances aired in sessions that can last hours, days, or even weeks. In the stricter Niyabinghi variant, the concept of “death to black and white oppressors” is central; the movement itself, and its attendant Niyabinghi sessions, take their name from an East African anticolonial movement inspired by the alleged spiritual possession of a Ugandan woman by an Amazonian Queen.

Gradually, Perry’s Black Ark studio became a focal point and meeting place for the order. Lee Perry was the most prominent producer making music that was relevant to the Rastafari cause; his records were consistently radical and uncompromising, and he was never afraid to express his religious beliefs. The brethren thus appointed him their “Minister of Music,” heightening his role within the movement. As member Jah Ned Willacy explains, “Scratch is instrumentally a representative of the Rastafari government; his musical contribution was enough weaponry for him to use to do his part. Scratch was responsible for the musical development within the movement of Rastafari itself, so Scratch was generally responsible for the music ministry of our movement. Everyone was looking forward to Scratch.”

Through the influence of the Congos and his interaction with the Niyabinghi brethren, Perry turned his attention away from worldly things to enact a more religiose lifestyle. However, he continued to decorate the inner Ark with pornographic photos taken from Hustler and Penthouse, reflecting his view that sex is an essentially sacred, divine act.

As Perry continued reworking the Congos material, he also became involved in other problematic, ill-fated projects. South African singer Aura Msimang Lewis and her Black American friend, Pamela Reed, had been working as backing vocalists for Perry on an increasing basis throughout 1977, appearing as Full Experience on a couple of Congos tracks and on some of Perry’s best solo work to emerge in 1978. While Perry was working on the Congos album, Candy McKenzie came to the Ark to record an album for Island; as she has previously sang with Aura on Bob Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party” at a session arranged by Perry in London, she wound up joining Full Experience too.

The trio recorded eleven songs that incorporated a range of styles, including the first instance of African traditional music done in reggae; despite the originality of the material, the Full Experience project would eventually fall prey to sabotage. As Aura Lewis explains, “We did this album in a wonderful environment, but in the middle of all this work, little aspects started coming in to create confusion. First there was Lee Perry’s crush on Pamela; Black Ark was in the same yard as his house, and [Perry’s common-law wife] Pauline and the kids were there... Pauline was saying that the album was going to be a flop. Then Candy had a big crush on a certain musician who was creating a lot of havoc with the musician’s family; also, Candy didn’t want to do her songs because Island was going to back her to do an album of her own; a lot of bad vibes starting coming on the scene. Since I had been working with Jimmy Cliff, I asked Jimmy if he would help me pay for the master tapes and pay Lee like a producer. I don’t think Lee Perry appreciated that, and, from the moment I did that, it was like I never existed. They made a deal between them and I don’t know what happened.”

“None of them wasn’t strong enough to be an individual star,” says Perry of Full Experience. “Candy didn’t strong enough, Aura didn’t strong enough, and Pam was good-looking and sexy, but she didn’t have a strong voice to help the sexiness, so the best thing was to use them to do something together; that would be very sensible. Jimmy Cliff bring Aura to Jamaica and would not record her; she finally come to me, and Jimmy Cliff did not like the idea. Him get mad about it, and me say, ‘You no have to get mad, just pay me back for the studio time.’ He was plainly vexed about the idea, so me just give back the four-track [tapes] that me have, and me didn’t mix it neither. I don’t know what happened after that.”

Lewis consulted a lawyer when Cliff refused to relinquish the master tapes, only to find that the contract she signed was worthless. Eventually, she retrieved a poor-quality tape with five songs on it, which were issued in 1987 by the Blue Moon label in France; the rest of the tracks, like Candy McKenzie’s album, remain sadly unreleased.

Much of the homegrown material emanating from the Black Ark directly addressed the oppression and corruption that was then engulfing Jamaica. David Katz
Wax poetics
Wax poetics

In February 1978, Perry received another notable visitor at the Black Ark: John Lydon, who had quit the Sex Pistols a few weeks earlier. According to eyewitness accounts, the resident dreads at the Black Ark gave Lydon plenty of kudos, but new versions of Pistols songs “Submission” and “Problems” recorded there were deemed too poor to release. Nevertheless, Perry says working with Lydon was “super.”

Meanwhile, much of the homegrown material emanating from the Black Ark directly addressed the oppression and corruption that was then engulfing Jamaica. The nation was truly in a terrible state, with unemployment at an all-time high and food shortages becoming more common; politically motivated violence had escalated as never before, the highest-ranking politicians of both parties directly implicated in its propagation. And at the end of the year, when the two sevens clashed, Jamaica’s anarchic state of affairs was directly exposed by a notorious incident, known as the Green Bay Massacre.

In the early hours of a December morning, twelve gunmen were lured to the Green Bay firing range under the pretext of gaining access to automatic weaponry. The rudies arrived in separate vehicles only to find themselves surrounded by members of the Military Intelligence Unit (MIU), a special branch of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). The soldiers fired indiscriminately at the defenseless men; though most were killed instantly, a slim few miraculously escaped. Among the dead were the five leading members of the South Side Posse, a group of political gunmen from a central Kingston ghetto.

Public furor erupted as facts about the case came to light. Though Prime Minister Michael Manley claimed those killed were leaders of ruthless criminal gangs that were terrorizing the residents of his constituency, the word on the street was that the killings were the work of a renegade MIU faction, which implied that the government was no longer in control of its armed forces. The manner in which the men were slaughtered also brought widespread public condemnation: no attempt had been made to arrest the men; they were simply rounded up and eliminated.

In the aftermath of the despicable incident, many Black Ark recording artists continued to draw attention to the harsh reality that formed the basis of ghetto existence in Kingston, though some positive changes were finally brought to such communities at the start of 1978, when the winds of change blew a peace treaty into the war-torn streets of the capital.

The unexpected truce was called by two of the highest-ranking political gunmen: Claudie Massop and Bucky Marshall. Massop was first commander of the greatly feared Shower Posse, the ruthless Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) gang that controlled Edward Seaga’s Tivoli Gardens constituency; Marshall was a leading member of their most prominent enemies, the People’s National Party (PNP)–backed Spanglers posse of central Kingston. The gangs had a bitter rivalry that dated back to the late 1950s, which intensified under their subsequent political alignment during the mid-1960s.

At the start of 1978, Bucky Marshall found himself in the same jail cell as some JLP gunmen. Contemplating their mutual captivity, they began to realize they were mere pawns in a politicians’ game in which common ghetto folk would never be winners; much like the gunmen that had been rounded up and obliterated at Green Bay, they were certainly expendable in their role as “enforcers,” regardless of political affiliation. They thus began to speak of unity as the only solution to Jamaica’s seemingly endless spiral of self-destruction.

After being released on January 9, Marshall made contact with Massop to discuss a peace treaty; Massop agreed and the “rankings” held a reasoning session throughout the night in the Tel Aviv ghetto of south central Kingston, attended by members of the Niyabinghi Theocracy. At the next day’s dawning, they announced an official peace treaty from the corners of Beeston and Oxford Street, the accepted boundary between JLP and PNP-affiliated areas. They then began making arrangements for the One Love Peace Concert, a live music event that would help publicly cement the peace and raise money for the impoverished communities that had been destroyed by decades of political factionalism; their proposed headliner was Bob Marley, the island’s biggest international star.

After having consulted with Massop and Marshall in London, on February 26, 1978, Bob Marley returned to Jamaica for the first time since fleeing the country after his attempted assassination in 1976; around two thousand people are estimated to have pushed past police barricades to swarm the airplane when it came to a halt on the runway, the largest public gathering at the airport since Haile Selassie’s visit in 1966. Several functions had been organized to coincide with Marley’s return, which also marked the fiftieth anniversary of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA: the National Arena at Heroes’ Park had been given over to a Rastafarian rally, at which Bob Marley gave an informal performance in the evening, followed by several of the island’s emerging dub poets (including Mutabaruka, Oku Onoura, and Mikey Smith); flanked by bodyguards, Marley then joined Lee Perry and the rest of the inner-city’s most devout brethren for a night-long groundation held by the Niyabinghi Theocracy downtown. Marley was overcome with emotion at seeing so many formerly at war to be gathered in a spirit of oneness; then, midway through the proceedings, Kingston was shaken by an earthquake as though in acknowledgment of the magnanimity of the event.

Photo © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot.
Photo © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot.
We were all victims, all sacrificed to make the Marley empire, but we thank God for it because the world would hear reggae music. Max Romeo

Although Marley was busy making preparations for the One Love Peace Concert, spending many days visiting ghetto areas to help bolster the peace, he also found the time to lay the foundations of a couple of new scorchers with Perry one Sunday at Dynamic Sound studio. Recorded in front of an array of onlookers that included Claudie Massop and Bucky Marshall, “Blackman Redemption” and “Rastaman Live Up” were optimistic proclamations of righteousness, harder than the bulk of Marley’s recent Kaya album; the rhythm of the historical “Buffalo Soldier” was also laid at the same session. Perry’s influence is readily apparent on the first two songs, particularly “Rastaman Live Up,” which contains a favorite refrain of his about Daniel slaying the Philistines with a donkey jawbone.

Despite a hectic schedule during these weeks, Bob Marley spent considerable time with Scratch. Later in the year, the old cronies would join forces for another couple of impressive tunes; for the moment, Marley had other commitments to fulfill.

The One Love Peace Concert turned out to be a truly historic event. The National Stadium was filled to capacity, the unusually low entry price allowing the common citizenry to witness some of Jamaica’s top acts at their peak of form. Peter Tosh delivered an expletive-strewn lecture aimed at the island’s wealthy few; he also implored Seaga and Manley to take up the principles of the Peace Movement and stop victimizing the poor. But by far the most incredible moment came at the climax of the Wailers’ triumphant performance, when Marley managed to get Manley and Seaga to join hands onstage, an event that would have been unthinkable until Marley precipitated it.

Meanwhile, Perry became involved with another tainted Black Ark project: an album called Monama recorded with two Congolese musicians from Zaire, Molenga “Seke” Mosukola and Kawongolo “Kalo” Kimwangala. Though conflicting information has been put forward about how the pair ended up at the Black Ark, Congos member Roy Johnson says they were brought to Perry’s studio by Nadette Duget, a record executive then working for CBS France.

The duo recorded a total of twelve songs with Perry, ten of which were sung in Lingala, creating an unprecedented blend of Jamaican reggae and Zairean soukous, but at some point during the realization of the project, Duget switched her focus onto the Congos. As Johnson recalls, “Some white people working for CBS France came down to Jamaica; they was recording these African guys in Scratch’s place. They see us do three or four tracks a day, and when those guys come, they can’t finish one track for a day, so one day they say, ‘Shanti, you know where we can get some congo drums?’ I took the lady to get some drums and she asked me, ‘Would you like to do something with us? We would like to do some business.’ ”

As Lee Perry continued working with the African amateurs, his connection with the Congos was severed. Lured by the promise of a lucrative contract, the group left Perry’s camp to work with Duget after a bitter parting that came towards the end of 1978. It was at this point that Perry trimmed off his budding locks, rejecting their view that an inward belief in Rastafari must be manifest through visible dreadlocks on his head.

Though conflicting views have been put forward by group members about the circumstances of the rupture, all agreed that it ultimately stemmed from Island’s failure to issue Heart of the Congos; although the company issued publicity of its upcoming release in April, they ultimately chose to keep it on the shelf. As the album would never cease to be in demand, and would be re-pressed on at least seven labels in four nations, achieving a high volume of sales when lovingly reissued by Blood and Fire Records in 1996, Island’s refusal to issue the Congos’ debut is difficult to understand in retrospect.

Roy Johnson suggests that Island feared the album would be potentially damaging to the sales of Bob Marley’s albums, which they were chiefly concerned with promoting. “Leslie Palmer used to work in the A&R Department in Island, so he know what’s going on; he said to me, ‘When that album come from Jamaica, we have meeting for a month straight about who we was to put the promotion on, Bob Marley or the Congos.’” Max Romeo has made similar claims about Reconstruction, his self-produced follow-up to War Ina Babylon, which he felt suffered from a lack of promotion at Marley’s expense. “I realized that they sign all the artists that was a threat to Bob Marley and put them on the shelf so they can send the King ahead and crown the King. We were all victims, all sacrificed to make the Marley empire, but we thank God for it because the world would hear reggae music.”

Roy Johnson recalls that tension had already been growing between Perry and the group after Cedric Myton’s son started a rumor that Perry deliberately fed him pork, the most taboo of meat for Rastafarians. “Cedric’s little boy go and tell a lie that Scratch cook pork and give him to eat. Scratch get vexed; maybe he tell Chris, ‘Just keep that on the shelf.’ When we did Heart of the Congos, it stay so long to surface, for Chris Blackwell have it there doing nothing with it, Scratch have it there doing nothing with it.”

The Congos outside the Black Ark in Kingston. Photo © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot.
The Congos outside the Black Ark in Kingston. Photo © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot.

Watty Burnett says the friction really stemmed from Perry’s view of Roy’s vocal abilities. “There was no pork cook in that house, but Roy and Scratch had a feud because Scratch always say Roy couldn’t sing, and Roy knew he didn’t have a great vocals, so he take it offensive; it start from that, and Cedric is easily led. When they had the feud, I was very upset because I didn’t want to leave Scratch. It really fuck me head up until now; I sleep and I dream about it. When CBS took us, I didn’t want to leave Scratch. Scratch feel a way badly; Scratch take it very hard too.”

When asked about Island’s decision not to issue Heart of the Congos, Chris Blackwell hesitantly states, “I remember at the time thinking that there was one great track and the rest of it was weak.” However, he denies Marley was venerated at the expense of other artists. “People think a guy like me does an incredible job to make and break artists, but you don’t at all; you’re around to try and help the artists you’re working with make it. The main role is to help guide, to try and be a friend, help develop choices and open doors. I didn’t push Bob above anybody else; Bob just had more going for him than anybody else; I honestly believe that is the case. Lee Perry, like most reggae artists, was more embraced by the press than the radio; the press gives you credibility but radio is really what sells records, so Lee Perry never sold a lot of records in the same way like how Bob sold a lot of records. Songs like ‘Roast Fish and Cornbread,’ these are absolute masterpieces, but we weren’t able to make them hit singles at that time.”

Photo © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot.
Photo © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot.

Perry eventually sent Island Records a rough mix of the Monama album, along with four extended Lingala grooves for an additional disco 45; though they would consider releasing the album at several subsequent points, the company has kept it under wraps to the present day. However, when the Congolese vocalists left Jamaica, Kalo Kawongolo was given a rough mix of six of the most finished tracks by Perry, which were subsequently pressed on the French Sonafric label in 1979 as their self-titled debut album, Seke Molenga and Kalo Kawongolo; the remaining tracks have yet to be released.

Before his final rupture with the Congos, Lee Perry was putting the finishing touches on two albums of his own. Roast Fish, Collie Weed and Cornbread, issued in Jamaica in late April, was the first to entirely feature Perry as a vocalist, and although some have felt that singing was not his strong point, the album showed that Perry could excel on inspired material written and produced by himself. Perry was then negotiating with Island for a planned “Upsetter Revue” tour; the proposed package would bring the Congos, Junior Murvin, George Faith, and Perry’s ace session players to U.K. audiences in the summer. The dazzling spectacle of such an array of high-caliber talent could only have raised Perry’s profile to a higher level, but the tour was unfortunately another utopian project never realized.

At the ever-evolving Black Ark, an inner wall had a portrait of Perry that proclaimed him “The Mad Scientist,” while outer walls were now heavily adorned with painted handprints. Ever present at his studio console, Perry completed the more experimental Return of the Super Ape by July, a mixed bag that transcended category.

Both Roast Fish and Return of the Super Ape are certainly fine achievements, marking a high point of Lee Perry’s career as a self-produced solo artist. They are complex and dense experimental works on which Perry’s individual personality is strongly evident, equally indicative of how far his creations were from reggae’s mainstream. But the price of such uncompromising originality was that Perry’s work was not achieving much mainstream popularity in his native land; though he had a fierce reputation as a sound originator and was noted as the most vocal of producers espousing the Rastafari cause, his productions were simply not ramming the dance halls or generating the sales of his chief competitors, which brought increasing frustration.

When Island chose not to issue either album, it would prove to be the final straw; frustrated by their refusal to handle his complex creations, Perry’s relationship with Island was effectively over.

“Chris did not like that album,” says Perry of Roast Fish, “and I didn’t too happy that he didn’t like the album. He didn’t pay it much mind because of the lyrics; it wasn’t with what was happening at the moment, it was just something about exercise and different views, how to live good, what to eat and what not to eat, and I don’t think they were ready for anything like that. I forgive him, but I was really upset about it, that he didn’t like an album like that.”

“I think he got pissed off with us because we didn’t issue some of his records,” Blackwell consents, “and it must be that I didn’t think they were great.”

Meanwhile, the overly long hours of work were beginning to take their toll on Perry, the endless series of disappointments heightening his dissatisfaction and confusion. Perry’s behavior was becoming increasingly extreme, especially when fueled by rum, but still the tapes kept rolling. Though a large portion of his creations from this period would never be released, the music that sprang forth showed an overloaded genius at the peak of his powers.

Among the wealth of significant late-1970s creations that have yet to surface was a second Junior Murvin album, recorded with the nucleus of the band now known as Axx of Jahpostles just before Perry severed his ties with the Congos. George Faith also recorded a second Black Ark album, completed by the end of 1978, of which precious little has been released.

In contrast, “Bafflin' Smoke Signal” was one of the final and most notable solo singles Perry released in this period. This provocative jingle had Perry’s double-tracked voice commenting on the controversial election of Pope John Paul II after the mysterious death of his predecessor on September 28, 1978; the song spoke of the endless black smoke that blew from the Vatican chimneys while the authorities deliberated about who would be the new Pope, interpreted by Perry to be a representation of the black supremacy claimed by radical Rastafarian theology. The record is marked by a tongue-in-cheek delivery, with Perry’s obvious mirth bubbling under his incendiary lyrics. Recorded around the same time was “Captive,” another double-tracked Perry proclamation; the song revealed the continual enslavement of Black people in the West, calling for mental and spiritual liberation.

Perry also began concentrating on recording Niyabinghi material, completing a fruitful collaborative work with Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, one of the most important proponents of the genre. But during its completion, Perry’s behavior became resolutely drastic; he entered a new phase that centered on graffiti, painting cryptic proclamations on the walls of his studio. Then he began placing the letter X over certain letters of his proclamations, as though to erase or blot out the cipher; later still, whole words would be covered with X’s. In time, entire walls would be carpeted with nothing but the letter X, or completely overwritten by a series of words or statements scrawled in paint or magic marker. As Sons of Negus member Sidney Wolfe explains, “During that period of time, he got a little bit upset, or probably got mad some people would say. He was writing up a lot of X’s and shit like that around his place, and refuse to do any more recording. That was about the time that Black Ark studio started to get demoralized.”

Lee Perry began spending much of his days writing on the walls of his studio, building junk-sculpture fetishes in the yard and antagonizing all that appeared there, after tensions arose during a new religious project initiated with members of the Niyabinghi Theocracy. “Me decide that me want to close the reggae factory because reggae is a dog,” Perry explains, “a monster dog. Me decide to close the reggae shop and open the ears, close the reggae campaign. The reggae people didn’t have nobody else to live off of; vampire always want something, so me decide to close it, then Niyabinghi is a church me start now.”

Perry had been strengthening his bond with the sect after they increased visible displays of musical and social activism; in truth, they were planning a revolution together that would usher in a new era of theocratic government, and part of the motivation behind his declamatory graffiti seems to stem from prolonged involvement with the group. The order are said to have taken the linguistic code of Rastafari I-words to even more radical heights, placing great importance on letters and sounds as well as on the more standard Rastafari word usage; Lee Perry adopted their methods with an incessant fervor, seeking another vehicle with which he could express himself. “Even now, in Jamaica, certain words to the Rastaman don’t right,” explains his brother P-Son, “so it’s a vibes like that. I think in his mind, he was back to school studies; I think it was just inspiration and the good from the bad, like you have X stand for the Devil, D for Death.” Jah Ned explains the process more succinctly: “The realization came to Scratch that certain words did not belong to His Majesty, some words really belongs to Satan.”

The Niyabinghi Theocracy held a thirty-day Niyabinghi from Marcus Garvey’s birthday on August 17; Perry then funded a forty-day Niyabinghi from late September, initiated just before the death of Pope John Paul I, which the more radical members of the order claimed was caused partly by the energies released at their Niyabinghi.

Some time after these non-stop drumming sessions, Perry made more regular use of the Niyabinghi drummers on specific new works for an album tentatively entitled Niyabinghi Slaughters the Dragon. Jah Ned details the gradual process by which they came to work together: “Scratch was the one who had changed the whole phenomenon of the music, because Scratch was the one that brought everyone to the path of singing about His Majesty. We were doing some live recording at the Niyabinghi that we had in the city, and then we decided to add a portion of studio recordings; Scratch was responsible, because he was the General responsible for the music ministry for the movement. After the One Love concert, I had taken full duty with Scratch strictly for doing recordings now to make funds to help do what we want to do. We did quite a number of recordings but Scratch never release.”

The group appears to have undergone a period of ostracism from the end of 1978, along with the other dreadlocked Black Ark regulars, whom Perry castigated and rebuffed in a series of hostile confrontations. Though the Black Ark gates were generally closed to visitors from this time, with the premises becoming increasingly marked by declamatory words, members of the Niyabinghi Theocracy would later be admitted at key intervals, being present at the studio as late as April 1980; unfortunately, the album was never completed and the master tapes eventually mislaid.

While Perry was undergoing his linguistic transformation, “Blackman Redemption” was creeping up the Jamaican charts, peaking at a number two position in September. “Rastaman Live Up” would make a similar impact, reaching a number three Jamaican chart position the following February. But by the end of 1978, Lee Perry had reached a breaking point after experiencing overwhelming pressures.

As vocalist Ansel Cridland explains, some of the most serious stress was generated by increasingly threatening financial demands from a variety of sources, including disgruntled musicians, studio idlers, and members of the Niyabinghi Theocracy. “After ‘Blackman Redemption’ came out, a lot of people used to be down there during the day, asking for money from Scratch. Musicians, people that work for him, everybody come for money.”

Police and soldiers are also said to have regularly formed menacing presences at the studio, while singer Earl Sixteen says Perry was being extorted by known and feared gang members, perhaps the most significant of all his pressures. “I hung out in the studio all the time: Heptones come and did Party Time album and Bob Marley did ‘Blackman Redemption,’ until Perry started drinking too much rum and smoking at the same time. Then there was this elder dreadlocks who used to come across and preach a lot, and he used to get on Perry’s nerves. I don’t know what happened, Perry went on this trip; he was getting focally rich, really rich: companies used to come from America and would want to film the studio and Perry would take their money and kick them out, literally. Then there was the bad boys called Spanglers, who was coming up for money every day; they wanted weekly paid protection money and Perry didn’t need that. He was building up the studio, Jah Wise came and painted up the studio all nice, did some nice stuff leading right into the Ark; Perry just tripped out and started making X on all the A’s and E’s.”

Furthermore, Perry’s extended family continued to look to him as the breadwinner. In addition to Pauline and children Michelle, Sean, Omar, and Marsha, Scratch was providing for his brother P-Son and nephew Enoch on a daily basis; his mother regularly relied on him for money, as did his sister Girlie, who lived in town with plenty of other children, while demands for support were sometimes made by the family of an illegitimate child allegedly fathered by Scratch.

The financial pressures were an ongoing source of worry, but other elements also had a decisive impact. As a faithful servant of His Majesty, Perry was chiefly concerned with using his music to elevate Rastafari, but had begun to take issue with the wearing of dreadlocks following his rupture with the Congos. His anti-dread sentiments were shortly to intensify, remaining a negative focal point for decades to come.

Photo © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot.
Photo © UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot.
Photo by Dave Hendley.
Photo by Dave Hendley.
It just take me by surprise, and I couldn’t be a prey to Scratch’s stupidness. If I was, probably I would be in the asylum. Pauline Morrison

As the pressure brought on by various conflicts continued mounting, achieving peace of mind was a necessity, but also an impossibility, in Kingston. If he had followed the direction of his spirit guide and gone to the tranquillity of the Blue Mountains or some other unspoiled country retreat, he may have been able to clear his head and find a practical solution to his troubles. Unfortunately, Lee Perry did no such thing. As he had regularly done for the last five years, Perry remained deep in the bunker of the Black Ark, immersed in his creations day and night, hardly stopping to eat or sleep; the most regular forms of sustenance were herb and alcohol.

As Perry’s behavior became more drastic and less predictable, Pauline began to feel the strain. She had suffered a variety of indignities at Scratch’s hands over the years, particularly regarding his adulteries; she has spoken of him frequenting an illicit Hanover Street night spot in the early days of their relationship and of enduring several prolonged affairs (though some say Pauline was also known to be promiscuous). As she explains, “Scratch was so wild, he had so many women when I was with him. I beat up some, I broke up some, and I broke him up too; it’s kind of disturbing, so I said I want to leave that part of my life behind.” They also came into conflict over her decision to keep the dreadlocks she started growing in 1977. But it was Perry’s extreme behavior that finally became unbearable. “Even now, it kind of marvels me. It put me in a state of mind where I’m saying, ‘What’s this guy saying?’ If you see our house, this guy write all kind of shit on the wall, on the fence...he used to build sculpture into the wall! I spent years of that, wondering if I’m going to go insane, until I finally just went, ‘Rah!’ It just take me by surprise, and I couldn’t be a prey to Scratch’s stupidness. If I was, probably I would be in the asylum.”

Pauline says she was preparing a meal one afternoon when she noticed an odd smell coming from the kitchen; when she checked the pot, she found that Scratch had emptied the simmering contents into the mud of the yard, substituting a pan full of rocks in their place on the fire. He had also taken a week’s worth of newly purchased groceries out of the refrigerator and thrown them to perish in the mud. As Kingston was hit by harsh flood rains towards the end of 1978, Pauline knew she had to make a change to retain her sanity; she thus started spending nights away from their home at Cardiff Crescent, beginning an affair with Danny Clarke of the Meditations.

As Pauline was in and out of the Ark, Perry’s grasp of the line between reality and fantasy gradually deteriorated. He told certain key people that he was not really crazy, that he was just enacting an elaborate charade to rid himself of unwanted attention, but at some point the charade seems to have superseded his control. Many close to him have testified that he underwent some sort of breakdown, though even this is disputed; others insist his behavior is simply an elaborate act. In any event, a chaotic new persona emerged to take charge of his actions; though his perceived “madness” would wax and wane from this point onwards, he would never quite be the same again.

Though he did not want to admit it, Pauline’s departure greatly affected Lee Perry. She had long handled much of his business affairs and provided some badly needed stability in his life. That she would take up with one of the musicians whose career he had helped build hit him hard; that the man was a dreadlocks was worse still.

Perry soon found fault with almost everyone around him and enacted drastic measures to shake them off. Danny Clarke notes some of the elements that contributed to Perry’s surreal charade: “Scratch was a Rastaman from way back. At the time you have Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus used to go by Scratch, you have the Niyabinghi people them used to come and sit down, and everybody come want money; everybody always looking money, money, money, money! So them drive Scratch to zero, take Scratch to country, say they’re going to kill the Pope and them shit, so all those things just kind of get to Scratch; because Scratch is a scientist, Scratch just come with something to get rid of these people.”

Max Romeo remembers certain incidents that took place as Perry struggled to shake off the predatory idlers who congregated daily at his studio. “He had a Rastafarian church he started with a bunch of dreads; I don’t know what happened, but these dreads fall out of grace, so he wanted to keep them off him. He put a pound of pork on his antennae and rode around town until it rotted and maggots were falling from it, claiming that he don’t want no Rasta round him because Rasta come give his kids lice; after he put the pork on the antennae, the dreads was still coming, so he wrote on his car back, ‘I am a batty man [that is, a homosexual –Ed.].’ That’s when the dreads run in all different directions! His situation continue a little further with the game: he had a nice orange Pontiac, took the bonnet off, planted flowers in and was driving around; the dirt lodges in his carburetor, so the car can’t go no further.”

Though Perry concretely denies these assertions, he agrees he enacted strange deeds to keep people away. “I don’t remember doing anything like that, but definitely I did have too much dread around me anyhow: me would have to support the dread and support the dread family so me did want to make different changes that could drive them away; them think me mad and some of them would disappear.”

George Faith added other memories of Perry’s changed behavior. “At one stage, I was supposed to go on a tour. Scratch was supposed to make the arrangements with Island, but he went away and when he came back he was a changed person; he started to deal with something else. For instance, equipment or anything in the studio that had the letter R, he would throw it outside because it represent Rome, and he begin his routine of making X all over the place. I didn’t think anything was happening to him; I think, ‘That is just Lee Perry,’ because when you’re working with him, he do some strange things too.”

By the end of January 1979, the Black Ark was entirely devoid of visitors. Though the mixing desk and tape machines were still connected, the studio became little more than an abandoned shell covered in words; despite retaining a basic functionality, it had virtually ceased to exist.

David Katz is the author of Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae.

The revised edition of People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee Scratch Perry is published by Omnibus Press. Purchase it at musicroom.com.
Lee Scratch Perry’s Panic in Babylon (and 12-inch remix by George Clinton) is available on Narnack Records (narnackrecords.com).

Drag left & right to navigate channels
  • Documenting the music trailblazers, cultures and stories that shape the sounds of yesterday, today, and beyond.

  • Joining the dots.
    Groups of articles that bring stories to life.

  • Explore classic, rare, or forgotten records.
    Digging on your desktop.

  • All of our mixes, playlists, and podcasts in one place.

    powered by
  • Documenting the music trailblazers, cultures and stories that shape the sounds of yesterday, today, and beyond.