Lee Scratch Perry is the legendary performer and producer whose experimentations have brought us dub, bass lines that seem to come from catacombs as well as reverb and echo of a depth and intensity that had never been heard before.
But like many of the sonic pioneers who have so revolutionized music production he appears to achieve this at the cost of wrestling with inner demons. How strange it is that often the most influential music producers have been the most troubled? Think of Joe Meek, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Martin Hannet – and the price they all paid (or caused others to pay) to give us Telstar, Good Vibrations, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling and Love Will Tear Us Apart? (Alongside this we should mention producers like Sir George Martin who could produce things like Strawberry Fields Forever while being as drama-free and phlegmatic as you could possibly wish).
However, like Brian Wilson, Lee Scratch Perry has managed to achieve some kind of accomodation with his demons, such that he continues to tour at the age of 83. I saw him at the Maui Waui festival in Suffolk where he headlined the final day.
As usual, he arrived on stage in a hat festooned with all kinds of badges and insignia. At times however, he took it off to reveal a still abundant mane of hair dyed extremely bright red.
The band he played with were extremely tight. They consisted of a drummer, bassist and guitarist, though on a number of songs they played to a click track containing piano chops and female backing vocals.
The opening song was Crazy Baldheads – which was played brilliantly though it was difficult to identify the song since Lee Scratch Perry was making up different words to the ones originally in the song. All the time, the bass was booming and beautiful. The (B-G-E – transpose if necessary!) movement on “Justice to the People” was sublime. The drummer was totally immersed in the rhythm and appeared to be leading the group in an hypnotic groove.
However, then the kind of inevitable oddness began. Between each song there were the usual LSP cod-preachifying (let the upright be upright, let the stupid be stupid etc), an invocation of the sin of Eve (which paraphrased was something like – women are dangerous because they have pussies, but they also give us life and so we have to live with them). But in addition to this there appeared to be some argy-bargy between him and the drummer.
One song, which in LSP’s estimation appeared to be going to fast, was simply abandoned. He stopped the song, had a rant about the wrong tempo, but did not restart, and instead went on to the next song in the set. And all the way through the set thereafter, he occasionally made fly-by cusses in the direction of the drummer – who on one occasion retaliated by starting a song right in the middle of the singer’s overlong introduction. That being said, one did get the sense that the band were used to it and took it with a pinch of salt in the same way that one might when visiting an elderly relative who inexplicably starts using the F word.
Alongside this were repeated calls to his collaborator Cookie the Herbalist to appear on stage – either to accompany him – or, on two occasions, to bring out some red wine flavoured with ginger for him to drink. Later he asked Cookie to put his herbalism to good use by rolling him a spliff. Threatenging to exceed their official ending time, he and his band had to be exhorted to finish by the organizers – which two songs later they duly did.
However, these things did not detract from the overall quality of the songs played. As I said, the band, notwithstanding the apparently uneasy relationship with the singer, did nonetheless perform brilliantly. Classics like Police and Thieves were given a great rendition, and as a measure of the comprehensiveness of the set in terms of Lee Scratch Perry’s career, they also played some of the more throwaway but whimsical hits of the 1980s such as “Inspector Gadget” – a song inspired by a cartoon series of the that era featuring a nice-but-dim cyborg detective.
Therefore, the whole experience was interesting. One was in the company of a genuine living legend, playing a very comprehensive set which involved many seminal moments in his career. There was also an extremely tight band delivering the music. But coexisting with this were some disconnected flights of fancy between songs, a kind of cantakerousness towards his band, and a sense that he was fully present in the grooves, but not so much in place and time.
But all that being said, with some performers, just being in their presence is enough to make it a memorable occasion. Their aura seems to count for more than the actual execution of their set. And this was certainly the case with Lee Scratch Perry, which made him an ideal artist with which to end the festival.