Lee Scratch Perry: From Dub Star To Film Star
Lee Scratch Perry's Vision Of Paradise, the new film about reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry, has just been released on DVD after touring cinemas across the UK, warmly received and scooping prestigious awards at various film festivals. Simon Redley was at the world premiere and met up with the Jamaican star at the after show bash for a very brief experience…..
THE mention of Lee Scratch Perry in a game of word association among knowledgeable music fans, would prompt a mixed reaction. “Genius.” “Reggae” “Dub.” Bonkers.” “Pioneer.” “Eccentric.” And so on….
There is no argument that back in the day, in the fierce heat of his homeland of Jamaica., Lee was a trail blazer and if not the first, one of the very first to experiment with the traditional reggae music coming out of that rock, to invent what we now know as dub. He was also the first to work with then unknown reggae artist, Robert Nesta Marley.
Having just celebrated his 80th birthday, Lee is the subject of a new film, which the German makers call “a fairy tale documentary,” but having seen the film at the world premiere screened as part of the 14th East End Film Festival at The Genesis Cinema in London’s East End, I would call it part fantasy animation and part God knows what! But all in all; a fascinating insight into the man’s crazy and unique mind. It does not surprise me that it took 15 years to make. Having met the man himself and attempted (and aborted) to undertake a serious interview with him, I can imagine the stress it must have caused the film makers - and the financiers - to try to structure a meaningful film to capture the essence of this nutty musical professor, who is part jester, part philosopher and undeniable musical innovator. 15 years without chucking the cameras and sound gear into the Jamaican sea or off a snow capped mountain in Lee’s adopted home of Switzerland. Some feat.
Various critics have said the film is far too self indulgent and allows Lee to control things too much. But I say to them; there really is no other way with this guy. To tell him what to do and how to do it, is the equivalent of trying to push a fully laden HGV truck uphill, in treacle with the handbrake on. Forget it. In almost 40 years of journalism and zillions of celeb’ and VIP interviews all over the world, Lee Scratch Perry is the ONLY interviewee who ever had me beat. The ONLY interview I have ever waved the white flag at and walked away from with little to show for it.
Apart from some bizarre stream of consciousness rhyming and ranting into my tape machine, such as: “God bless Soul and Blues, God Bless Soul and Blues, God bless my nose, God bless my shoes.” Really. When I asked him what people would find out about Lee Perry from watching this film that they did not know before seeing it, his answer sucked the air out of the room. An audience of his wife, friends and the film makers in a very small office come lounge area above the after show party venue. “Those who get something about me out of watching it, I bless them. Those who don’t get something; I shit on them.” That was my cue to call it a day and get myself to the hotel bar. This was by now, past 2am after an arrival at the cinema around some eight hours earlier. A real shame, because I so wanted to get some serious answers to some serious questions out of an important man in the history of reggae music, and a true pioneer of recording techniques. I was told afterwards; “Simon, you should have known better and not expected to get anything useful out of Lee, if you know anything about him at all.” I now concede that point, but I’m a born trier and a big admirer of his work. You do not interview Lee Scratch Perry. It is more of an encounter, an endurance test and a bit of a battle of wills. Just like with a hyperactive toddler who has just consumed a bag of sweets and a large bottle of E numbers-filled fizzy pop. You have to just sit and listen. LSP is King. Always.
The after-party was held at London’s Red Gallery, in EC2A. Perry’s barmy, childlike artworks displayed in one room and DJ Ashley Beedle blasting out the sounds in the second room. Perry, his wife and their large entourage turned up hours late after going out for dinner and drinks. Despite being 79-years-old at that time, Lee still turned in a 90-minute set on the mike and tore the roof off the place in the wee small hours. He’s got far more stamina than me at more than a couple of decades older.
The psychiatry profession would have a field day watching this film and analysing Lee’s behaviour and personality. Mad as a box of frogs? Genius? Great actor using his eccentricity to stop anyone getting close to the real man? See the film and you tell me.
At the premiere, I sat a few seats from Lee, his family and friends. After the screening there was a Q & A with the star and the film’s makers on stage. When Lee had the mike, he incoherently mumbled on and on about everything but the film, with some eyebrow-raising comments about his attitude to certain people and things that few picked up on, because of the indistinct verbal delivery and his thick patois. But in this ultra PC age, he could well have landed himself in hot water. My tape machine picked it up perfectly! His wife Mireille – who Lee insisted join him on stage and he then told the audience how she had “saved him” and “rescued” him from “the ragamuffins” and “the devil” - and the film’s makers shifting uncomfortably in their seats as he spoke.
A few of the audience voiced their disappointment with the very low count of his music in the film. Met with a response from the director about issues over clearances and copyright. If your objective is to find out about the way he makes/made music and his inspiration, you are not going to learn much via this film. If you want a magical mystery tour of his 200mph mind, then strap in. The film is interspersed with fabulous animations of Lee, from animator Maria Sargarodschi, who for me is the second star of the film for her sterling work. Influenced by both Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church Art and the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.
It is by no means a conventional biopic or documentary and doesn’t get much serious stuff out of the man. Lots of rhyming rants and gobbledygook. But it is good fun and well worth the time for a distraction from the depressing news of earthquakes, immigrants drowning in the seas and dodgy politicians and their alleged off shore tax fiddles. In fact, LSP makes Donald J. Trump look sane!
If the CSI guys ever check the DNA of music history, they will find traces of Mr Perry all over it. But as previously mentioned; the film is very thin on the music content and a proper discography or cataloguing of his extensive work and achievements. Lee calls himself many things in the film; including “Eskimo from outer space,” “Music genie,” “The Upsetter,” and one of his many pseudonyms, “Pipecock Jackson." Apparently, he was a fish in a former life. He speaks about Hailie Selassie and he calls the Pope a fake and a fraud.
During the film and when meeting him, it reminded me of the lack of attention span a young child has. Constantly gurning, using props to cover his face and looking around with wild eyes for a distraction to the here and now. Sometimes hitting on something that sounds like it could make sense, perhaps woith a profound and deep message attached, and then veering off into his own zany world that makes little sense to anyone but him. While here for the world premiere, he did a Channel Four interview where he turned up painted in gold and much of what was recorded, got cut. What was screened has been viewed 1.5 million times on one site alone. There is still a big global fascination with this man, despite his sparse musical output in recent years.
In the film we did get to see inside his “secret laboratory” at his home in Switzerland, where he makes (ahem) “art” and music, and spends a lot of his time on his own, usually not going to bed until 6am. Since the film, that too has burned to the ground; Lee posting a recent message on social media to say his wife Mireille was not very happy about it! “I am sad and she is mad.” Mireille has since blamed the fire on Lee leaving candles burning. The fire destroyed all of Lee’s stage clothes, his hand decorated shoes and boots, and his collection of “magic hats.” But he also lost a lot of unreleased music saved on memory sticks, and all of his recordings of many of his live shows, which he was eventually due to release as a live album.
The film includes interviews with music producers Adrian Sherwood and Dennis Bovell, who pay tribute to Lee as a mentor and music genius. Director Volker Schaner and his team should be congratulated for hanging on in there to get this film in the can, which I bet they never thought they’d finish. The filming took in Jamacia, Ethopia, Germany, Switzerland and London, and is 15 years of their lives they’ll never get back! Some say they let Perry’s ramblings go on way too long, neglecting the musical context that would explain his status as a cultural icon. Having sat face to face with him and experienced the Lee Perry phenomenon first hand, when he even refused to sit where myself and his wife asked him to sit for my interview, you’d have more luck trying to knit fog or juggle soot than you would trying to get a focused, in depth, credible documentary chronicling his life and career, these days. But a fly-on-the-wall film documentary of what the film makers went through over the 15 years of working with Lee to get anything at all, would be an eye opener and compulsive viewing, I bet! Love to see the out-takes.
The DVD version comes with a photo gallery of Lee's Secret Laboratory studio, a behind-the-scenes documentary, director's commentary, unreleased footage and a 24-page book. It is available via iTunes, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and on the film's website.
Born Rainford Hugh Perry in March 1936 in Jamaica, Lee Scratch Perry’s fame took off in the 1960s with his studio band The Upsetters, when he formed his Black Ark Productions. But he had already began making music in the late 1950s for Clement Coxsone Dodd's label. After a period at Joe Gibbs's Amalgamated Records, Perry formed his own imprint, Upsetter, in 1968 and released the label’s first album “Upsetter” in 1969. The first of more than 100 albums he has produced or appears on. There are many unauthorised bootleg compilations too. In 1973, he built The Black Ark studios, where he produced records for Bob Marley, Junior Murvin, The Heptones, The Congos and Max Romeo, among many others. By 1978 The Black Ark had fallen into a state of disrepair and eventually burned to the ground; Perry claiming he torched it in a rage.
He has recorded with many non-reggae artists who cite him as a major influence on their music, including The Orb, Keith Richards, The Beastie Boys, George Clinton, David Lynch, Moby and even a porn star; Sasha Grey. Perry won a Grammy in 2003 for Best Reggae Album with Jamaican E.T. In 2012 he received Jamaica's Order of Distinction, Commander class. Perry features as the DJ on the radio station Blue Ark in Grand Theft Auto V. The station includes a number of dubs by Perry and the Upsetters including Disco Devil and Grumblin' Dub. Perry recorded an album with Daniel Boyle in London, released in May 2014 as Lee "Scratch" Perry – Back on the Controls. The album received a Grammy nomination. He co-wrote then timeless "Police and Thieves" with Junior Murvin, covered by The Clash on their 1977 debut album - some versions of which include their Perry-produced single "Complete Control". He is "Dr. Lee, PhD" on the album Hello Nasty (1998) by The Beastie Boys. He appears on two tracks on the album "Nairobi meets Mad Professor: Wu Wei" (2009) by Argentinian dub band Nairobi. Bizarrely, Lee starred in a series of Guinness advertisements in 2008.
• His latest project is an aim to return to Jamaica to create a self sustained community with perma culture farming, eco friendly housing, solar power, own water system, a LSP magic healing house, arts, crafts and learning. A website has been set up to assemble a group of interested parties and investors who will work together to make Lee’s dream a reality. Described as; “a place with no problems where sensefull (sic) people love and live life in peace and harmony with each other and nature.” They are seeking land around Westmoreland or Hannover areas, where Lee was born.
“This tropical paradise is a place for free-spirited, self-determining people who want to resonate with nature and live healthy, cooperative, genuinely happy and meaningful lifestyle. If you feel the calling you can acquire your home on the community property to be a part of our paradise. We plan to bring to life a center to assist you in your healing process with integrated holistic approach of healing the spirit, mind and body. We will operate our own restaurant with own grown organic food. The property will include cottages for residency and cottages for rent for visitors and seminar guest. In the planning is also included housing for volunteers and helpers.”
• Lee Scratch Perry’s "Vision Of Paradise," is available on DVD & digitally via Cadiz Music. There are on-going cinema screenings too, including 10th May @ Palace Cinema, Broadstairs, Kent.
Film site: www.visionofparadise.de
Video On Demand: www.visionofparadise.de/vod
Lee Scratch Perry’s site: www.lspparadise.com
Words SIMON REDLEY