In the late 1960s and ’70s, from his tiny four-track Black Ark recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica, Lee “Scratch” Perry unleashed a musical revolution – creating the genre that became known as “dub” reggae; helping Bob Marley to launch his career; writing and producing a series of classic tunes; and elevating the art of the reggae producer to that of a kind of high priest. It’s an over-used word, but he deserves the epithet “legend”.
But, as anyone who has seen a Bob Dylan concert over the past 20 years will know, being a legend doesn’t necessarily mean that you are still actually any good on stage. Especially when, as is the case with Perry, that status was earned behind the mixing desk. In recent years, though, Perry has forged a career of sorts as a live performer, acquiring a reputation for sparky eccentricity with his silly hats, his bizarre pronouncements and his idiosyncratic, squeaky-scratchy singing voice.
So here, on the second of two sold-out nights in London, a heterogeneous crowd – curious youngsters, seasoned reggaephiles in pork-pie hats – had come to see an object of curiosity as much as a hotly anticipated musical act. In fact, Perry – or, rather, he and his crack band – delivered on both fronts, with Perry serving up some typically odd pronouncements (“Jesus is in my cock”; “God bless the United Kingdom, and God curse the United States”, that sort of thing) while his band delivered terrific, loping reggae grooves.
Perry, small, compact and heavily bejewelled, arrived on stage carrying a suitcase, wearing a Haile Selassie T-shirt and a shiny peaked hat plastered with icons and topped off with what looked like a 1950s crystal door-knob. He rambled, wandered, preached, squeaked and periodically held a cigarette-lighter flame up to his microphone (an echo, perhaps, of the day in 1979 when he deliberately burned his Black Ark studio to the ground). But the music was fabulously tight, the band poised on a razor’s edge between tension and relaxation. The tunes, mostly, were variations on old themes – “Return of the Django” (a chart hit for Perry’s Upsetters in 1969), “Police and Thieves” and a marvellous, extended, extemporised, hypnotic “Have Some Mercy”.
At 75, Perry’s best years as a producer are long behind him. But with his magnetic oddness and his simmering band, he continues to weave a beguiling kind of musical magic.