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More than a scratch

He regards Bob Marley as a creature of his making. That was before Lee `Scratch' Perry's `Ark' period, when he made spookily beautiful roots reggae. And no doubt he still would if he hadn't burnt his studio down. Nick Coleman talks to the father of all producers

Nick Coleman
Thursday 24 July 1997 23:02 BST

There is a Website on the Internet entirely given over to the cult of Lee "Scratch" Perry, his exploits, his sayings and his position vis a vis the motions of the cosmos. It reads like a cross between a religious text and the transcript of a schoolyard bragging session. In one item, Perry describes his affinity with Superman: "I came, I saw, and I conquer. I capture Lex Luthor with my teddy bear, my hair, my invisible chair and my 144,000 mosquito angels that sting with lightning!"

You don't have to be an orthodox Freudian to sense that the greatest producer in Jamaican music history is keen to feel like a very small child. And you don't have to be entirely bonkers, either, to get to grips with the fact that Lee "Scratch" Perry is also the only figure in pop history, other than Phil Spector, to fully realise the oft-essayed, creative role of author/producer - the studio helmsman whose credit takes precedence over those of the artists.

"Little" Lee Perry earned his first stripes as factotum to Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd at Studio One in the mid-Sixties. By the end of the decade, he was producing records for his own Upsetter label. In the mid-Seventies, Perry began making idiosyncratic, spookily beautiful roots reggae records in his purpose-built recording studio, the Black Ark.

Before the Ark was built, however, Perry tinkered competitively with dub pioneer King Tubby and recorded the Wailers. Messrs Marley, Tosh and Livingstone were notinternational celebrities at this stage, and the material the group delivered is crunchy, fervent and shaped in all its glory by the fierce imagination of Perry's production. Some hard-hats will even insist that the Wailers never sounded as good again. Whatever your ears tell you, the fact is that Perry still regards Bob Marley as a creature of his making, and remains contemptuous of the way that the singer went on to betray Scratch's vision to the forces of Rastafarian "dread".

Still, even as the Wailers began to go global in 1974/5, the Ark began to be raised in a bunker in Perry's backyard in Washington Gardens, a suburb of Kingston, where it served for the rest of the decade as social nexus and temple to Scratch's peculiar art, until its owner suffered a radical breakdown and burnt the place to the ground.

Island's brand new three-CD, 52-track survey of that period, Arkology, is a basic but well-thought-out primer to the music of that period. It covers the full range of Perry's achievement, which is infinitely subtle and characterised by delicate shifts in tone, texture, space, light, shadow and heft.

Lee Perry is an inscrutable little man. He is in his early sixties but seems entirely spry. He favours clothes and hats adorned with CDs, icons and bits of electronic hardware. On the day we meet in the basement of a record company outpost in Notting Hill, he has on a pair of trainers and crimson athletic tights. He sits up straight on his chair and fiddles occasionally with a video camcorder he has set running at his feet, focussed on the contents of a suitcase from which spills a tangle of wires, papers, fairy lights and Christmas decorations.

I ask him how he finds England these days, given that he's lived in Switzerland for years. He turns a pair of tilted, almost whiteless eyes to mine and declares, "England is my country. Is no longer ruled by the Queen but is ruled by my music and my theocratic government, and ganja Rastafari." He then gabbles through a litany of conquests and correspondences between parts of the body and elements of the rhythm section; he talks about the importance of children, computers, and the evil power of boredom. He explains how his music comes from outer space, and that he, Captain Lee "Scratch" Perry is "the master of the pounds, shillings and pence, taking over from the US currency department.''

I ask him what he recalls about his relationships with the principal figures he recorded at the Ark: Max Romeo, Junior Murvin, the Heptones, Jah Lion?

"Well," he continues, "we were creating a spiritual army to take over from the heads of government, and take over all the money. We needed young boys who want to fight spiritual warfare in the battle of the Armagideon war. They were learning from my music, the ark of the covenant, the sunship of fire."

Nowadays Scratch is of the Christian faith, following his rejection of Rastafari around the time of his trouble at the Ark.

"Fully," he confirms. "Here's my teacher." He fishes a dog-eared image of a white-skinned Jesus from the suitcase. "He is my angel."

I read somewhere that you have mosquito angels...

"Yes," he says and laughs. His Swiss wife, Mireille, joins in the laughter from her sofa. Perry then expounds on the rottenness of much of the world and how he and his space army is going to rescue it from corruption. He is looking for more volunteers. "We can help you humans to make it right on this planet." He points at my somewhat elephantine ears. "And you must understand this or you would not have those ears."

I ask him if he likes living in Switzerland.

"I would be very old and ugly if I didn't live in Switzerland," he says. "I like it because of the mountains, the stones, the visions. Not much pollutions. In England I feel the poisons."

Is poison the reason you destroyed the Ark?

He pauses to think for the first time since we started talking. "I was given the part of Noah to build the ark. So I was calling the animals and some of the animals hear me. But on the ark, some of the animals turn out to be cannibal and eat the other animals. And Noah said, `What the hell am I doing here?' So I burn down the ark, because I cannot support cannibal. It's too dread," he says simply and looks at his suitcase.

I ask him why he carries around a suitcase full of Christmas tree lights. "That's my eye," he says. You take it wherever you go? "Of course. I do not want to walk around in darkness."

Perry has said before that he likes records because they are made of black vinyl, which is the colour of shadows. How does he feel about compact disc?

"CD explain who I am," he says, holding his hat up to the light so that the CDs on it glint. "When you look in CD, you see I. I am CD. And I would rather be CD. Or DD - doo-doo.." He giggles, as do Mireille and I.

We turn to his relationship with Mireille, who, she says, rescued him from his increasingly perilous day-to-day life in Kingston after his breakdown.

"She is my wife and my knife," says Scratch. "And also my cloak and my dagger. We met in Jetstar." Jetstar is a distributor of reggae records in Harlesden.

"I took him from a place where he was not supposed to be," says Mireille, referring to her subsequent rescue flight to Jamaica. "He was calling for help and I had to go - take him from hell to a place where he can be safe: eat properly, put life in order, look after body."

"She is a great torturer," interjects Scratch. "She want to execute anything of dust. She is the enemy of dust and ashes. But then she has to take my mess."

"He tortures me with mess," says Mireille. "I am clean and tidy and he's messy. So he has to learn to be clean, and clean the toilet every time. And to find salvation, we have to move to a house where he can have his own area, where I don't have to put up with mess."

"If I don't make mess, it not lovely. If you don't let me make mess, you in terrible trouble," says Perry. "Without mess I cannot work. You know why? Mess is energy. That's the life source of the energy of the earth. The mess. You come first with piss and shit, as a baby."

He then moves on. He reaches into his suitcase and comes up with a picture of Charlie Chaplin, which he shows me.

"Bring back Bruce Lee," he says.

Is that Bruce Lee? I say, dull-wittedly.

"In his other form," says Scratch.

In his Charlie Chaplin form?

"Bruce Lee," says Scratch, as if to an idiot, "is coming back as Charlie Chaplin." We all laugh and decide it's the end of the interview. He presents me with a farewell gift, a chocolate Christmas tree bauble wrapped in blue shiny paper. "It's a chocolate from Mars," he says. I thank him and ask if it's OK to keep it for later. He doesn't seem to mind n

`Arkology' is out now on Island Jamaica. The Lee Perry Website, `Black Star Liner Sounzs from the Hotline', is at HTTP://

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