Tiggerlion on Lee “Scratch” Perry & The Upsetters Super Ape released August 1976
Lee Perry is a true maverick, a diminutive ball of energy, stubborn and irascible, a genuine musical ‘visionary’. Max Romeo and Bob Marley wrote protest songs. Perry’s whole life has been a constant protest, resisting authority, challenging norms and generally being a total pain. His notion of breaking free from the tyranny of Babylon is to doggedly pursue his flights of fancy in a blinkered intensity that set him apart from the rest of the world. He has fallen out with almost everybody he worked for and ended up building his own studio in his back yard, Black Ark Studios, so that he could be his own boss. He is known as The Upsetter for good reason.
He started out selling records for Prince Buster, then as a singer for Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodds and moved on to being a studio jack-of-all-trades for Joe Gibbs. He burnt his bridges with all of them. For his own label, his first single, People Funny Boy, was a nasty attack on Gibbs. In a world dominated by spritely, uptempo ska it was notable for its behind-the-beat loping, a rhythm that would soon be described as reggae. The Upsetters became known in the UK for instrumentals inspired by cowboy and kung fu movies. Once he heard King Tubby’s early work, he enthusiastically embraced the studio trickery of dub, 1973’s Blackboard Jungle Dub being a landmark of the nascent genre. His work with The Wailers is legendary. Unfortunately, he sold the tapes to Trojan and kept all the money himself, much to The Wailers’ chagrin. Chris Blackwell took the opportunity to whisk The Wailers away to Island Records. For years, Perry referred to him as a vampire. Disputes with various distributors and bigger labels were frequent. However, in his Black Ark, he was in his element, free to exploit his ear for a hit tune and, more importantly, his unique knack with a ‘riddem’.
The Black Ark was a rudimentary Heath Robinson affair, a perfect representation of Perry’s bizarre imagination and personality. The equipment was largely secondhand and outdated. Perry used a TEAC 4 track reel-to-reel powered by a Marantz stereo amplifier that could be found in many people’s homes with a very basic Alice mixing desk bought for £35 in London. He had an Echoplex tape delay and a Grampian spring reverb. That’s where the mysticism and pathological attention to detail began, as he spent many hours recording, dancing enthusiastically at the centre of a whirlpool of sound. He stuck rubber balls on the walls, placed the drums in a cage of chicken wire, blew sacred ganja on the tapes, buried a microphone and banged a tree for an ‘earthy’ bass and regularly opened proceedings with a bible reading. One favourite was a moo-ing sound captured by Watty Burnett impersonating a toy moo-cow box into a toilet roll wrapped in foil. At a time when his rival studios had 16 tracks to play with, Perry managed to multilayer more than anyone else, continually bouncing down the tapes to make more room for additional instruments, resulting in a characteristic dense, organic sound. The success of Susan Cadogan’s Hurt So Good prompted an upgrade. A Soundcraft mixing desk, a Mutron Super Phasing effects unit and a Roland Space Echo enabled him to phase two instruments in time, creating a synchronised shifting effect that blew people’s minds. Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon was such a breakthrough, it led to a deal with Island. By 1976, Perry had the resources, the time, the musicians, the drive and the vision to do as he pleased. With a signature hazy sound, derived from his dub experiments, and like-minded souls to exploit the creative aspects of Rastafarianism, marijuana and music, plus a sprinkling of secular cocaine for enthusiasm and LSD for abstract psychedelia, Perry entered his peak.
There are seventeen musicians and singers on Super Ape but the album is an artistic embodiment of just one man. Initially, it was more accurately entitled Scratch The Super Ape, not as an instruction but as in Scratch is The Super Ape. On the sleeve, Tony Wright depicts Perry as a giant gorilla marauding through the country side, belly full of roast fish, roots, cornbread and makka, ripping up trees and smoking an enormous spliff. He ‘played’ the musicians, through his studio, as though they were his instrument, blending them into a single, complex mesh of sound, rearranging a collection of his greatest hits of rhythms, rhythms he’d previously used to underpin tracks by Devon Irons, Max Romeo, Clive Hylton and The Blue Bells.
Super Ape opens with a defiant proclamation of African identity. The dense, heavy drums thud ominously on Zion’s Blood. By contrast, the voices of Earl Morgan and Barry Llewellyn, from The Heptones, are clear and assertive, treated only by a touch of echo. “African blood is flowing through I vein.” At the centre of it all is the thick, brawny bass of Boris Gardiner. Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith’s guitar weaves in and out of the craters left by the pounding of the drums and the crashing of the cymbals. ‘Skully’ Simms’ conga and other percussive elements ripple through the cracks. A small cloud of horns gather but fails to fully materialise. It’s a powerful and demanding introduction to an album that refuses to be ignored.
Prince Jazzbo provides a laidback toast about ‘the Natty Dread skank’ over the Chase The Devil rhythm. There’s a spring to The Upsetters on Croaking Lizard, as washboards creak and the tail end of the vocals skitter onto the next line and into the next track, Black Vest. Horns then take the lead role, Vin Gordon’s trombone the most prominent, relegating the voice to a ghostly presence lost in the dense musical tangle. Three minutes in, Perry himself loudly interjects, like an unruly gatecrasher to his own party, declaring that a Rastaman is a peaceful man and decrying war in-a Babylon.
Aurora Lewis and Pamela Reed of The Full Experience are like angels delivering good news from above: “Underground roots are collie roots” they tell us, with clear eyes and a smear of echo. Underground is sparse, just Gardiner’s reverberations, Michael “Mikey Boo” Richards’ cymbal taps and Chinna’s quivering guitar, but it is still as smoky as a billow of ganja. The Heptones, Vin Gordon and Skully all reappear for Curly Dub, augmented by Egbert Evans’ flute and ‘Dirty’ Harry Hall’s sax. It is the lightest track on the album, in keeping with it being a celebratory song for children, the Children of Jah.
Side two follows the same pattern as the first, opening with the meatiest track and shedding weight as it progresses. Dread Lion is a return to the dizzying heaviness of Zion’s Blood. Here is Perry striding through the jungle as a lion, rather than an ape. Melodica, percussion, and The Heptones’ voices swirl together in a hallucinatory haze, as whips snap and thunder claps. Only the sturdiness of the drums and bass prevents the track from tipping over the edge into madness.
Three In One is a positive blend of African roots, a love of collie weed and Rastafari. No wonder The Heptones sound happy but it’s Evans who excels. His jubilant flute flows unhindered through the track as one long improvised solo. It’s the single most impressive musical contribution to the whole LP.
Patience is the only real instrumental on Super Ape, though a distorted voice keeps asking mysterious questions in the shadows. As elsewhere, whenever the voices step back, the horns blissfully step forward. Dub Along matches Underground for space. The Full Experience summon us to a full-on ‘Scratch’ dub of The Blue Bells’ Come Along. The bass is the dominant instrument, of course, gently coaxed along by Keith Sterling’s organ chords, while deeply echoed hi-hat and snare scurry around.
The closing title track is the most stoned. The Heptones sound as though their eyelids are drooping as they sing in the soothing tone of a lullaby. A recorder, probably played by Perry himself, is used as a percussive instrument rather than one that can carry a tune. Even the drums seem sluggish. “This is the ape man, trodding through creation, are you ready to step with I?” Super Ape ends on a high, the kind of high that sends you off to sleep. That huge spliff on the cover must have rendered him incapable of taking on Dread Lion.
Released in the UK in August 1976, its outrageous cover earned it a prominent position in shop displays, especially those that sold a lot of reggae. It became the go-to record for anyone with a passing interest in dub.
It had already been issued in Jamaica, on Perry’s own Upsetter label, with a different cover (Perry looking more like a lion than an ape), a different running order (the Heptones tracks at the front, the two Full Experience at the end) and a different mix (less distortion, clearer vocals and instrument details, louder bass, softer drums). Island probably made the right decisions especially with the running order. If you want to hear the Jamaican mix, what could be salvaged was included on 2007’s Ape-ology set with the subsequent Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Cornbread and Return Of The Super Ape plus bonus tracks.
There followed a fruitful period in the relationship between Black Ark and Island. In 1977, The Heptones Party Time, Junior Murvin Police And Thieves and George Faith To Be A Lover all enjoyed critical acclaim. Perry even had the pleasure of entertaining The Clash and Paul McCartney. However, the cocaine and LSD started to exact their price, gangsters spotted an easy prey and recording projects stalled or were rejected, including Candie McKenzie, The Return Of Super Ape and, most surprising of all, Heart Of The Congos. A dejected Perry closed the Ark in 1978 and claims that he burnt it to the ground in 1983. He exiled himself from Jamaica, living in London, the USA then Switzerland, but continues to have a career performing and recording right through into old age. In his eighties, he can still dance on one leg for a whole hour non-stop. Perry’s influence reverberates through the decades. You can hear him in most electronic and dance music today. The likes of The Clash, Beastie Boys, The Orb, Burial and The Prodigy would be lost without him.
Super Ape is a fusion of dub, roots reggae, psychedelia, soul and jazz. It is Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s most complete statement, one that transcends race, culture, religion and musical genre. Everything about Lee Perry’s genius is expressed here: his extraordinary ideas, his obsessive attention to detail, his charismatic effect on musicians, his love of drugs, his exuberant sense of adventure and his singleminded quest for freedom and redemption. As with all the best albums, Super Ape inhabits a captivating sonic world entirely of its own. It’s a world that’s well worth a revisit decades later.