Although I am a great fan of Bob Marley, I have been long complaining that all the media attention has been on Bob to the neglect of the legions of other great roots reggae artists. Yes Bob was great, but what about Dennis Brown, Horace Andy, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor, Johnny Clarke, fellow Wailers Bunny and Peter, and legendary producers like King Tubby? In the wake of the recent massive publicity for yet another Marley bio-pic, this documentary on legendary reggae producer Lee Scratch Perry goes some way to help redress the balance.
The documentary starts quite naturally with his early life in Jamaica, cutting his teeth with producers like Coxsone Dodd and Joe Gibbs before breaking out on his own. Forming his own Upsetter label in 1968, and building the legendary Black Ark studios in his back yard he was one of the formative influences in the evolution of Roots reggae and dub music. The first third of the documentary is on comfortable ground charting his glory days in reggae’s golden era, when he produced tracks with the likes of Marley, Junior Byles, Junior Murvin, and Max Romeo, that to this day are still considered Reggae classics.
But then the doc takes a darker turn, just as Perry’s own life did. The Black Ark studio, and so his own house, was colonised by a large numbers of parasites and other hangers-on. As he explains it, in an attempt to get rid of them, he began behaving increasingly erratically, even driving around Kingston with a severed pig’s head attached to the bonnet of his car, causing great offence to the Rastas, and alienating friends and family. Eventually he burnt the studio to the ground, in an attempt he claims, to cleanse it of the evil spirits that had infested it.
Now I already know this story, and have seen Perry in interview before, and had always presumed that his eccentricity was part of an act, rather like George Clinton and his Dr Funkenstein persona. But seeing this documentary, and the lengthy interviews taken with Perry at the time, it is clear that this was no act. The non-stop work ethic, the long days and nights in the studio, fuelled by a steady diet of white rum and ganga, took their toll, and Perry clearly suffered some kind of a breakdown. The middle third of the documentary makes for uncomfortable viewing, with Perry rambling on non-sensically. Having worked on psychiatric wards in the past myself, I have talked to people in the depths of psychosis. You wait for their long rambling sentences to come to a sensible conclusion, but they never do, meandering on and on down further intellectual cul-de-sacs. It is gripping and horrific viewing, to watch someone in the midst of psychosis, and the camera does not shy away. One of the weaknesses of this doc, is that so many of his 70s classics, were played only in brief, but lesser known tracks made in this confused period, that are quite frankly rubbish, were played in full.
Thankfully for Perry, he managed to wrestle free from his demons, giving up alcohol and ganga, and, even leaving Jamaica, eventually taking up residence with a new wife and starting a new family in Switzerland. As shown in the last third of this film, for the last few years he has been back making music and touring the world. His demeanour can now best be described as eccentric, rather than stark raving bonkers, but his life story is a salutary lesson for all those who like to start the day with a spliff.