Lee "Scratch" Perry
Chicken Scratch: Deluxe Edition
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2008, Volume 15, #3
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Sun, March 9, 2008, 11:00 AM CDT
The re-release of Chicken Scratch, which features the first solo recordings by Lee "Scratch" Perry, could not have come at a better time. Now in his seventies, Perry currently is experiencing an unprecedented level of media attention. Not only was he recently nominated for a Grammy Award, but also three studio albums as well as two films about his life and art are now in production.
Though he is known primarily as a producer, engineer, and enabler of artists from Bob Marley to The Clash, Perry’s original dream was to be a popular singer and songwriter. The 18 tracks gathered together on the deluxe edition of Chicken Scratch mostly were recorded during 1965 and 1966, which typically are known as the ska years at Studio One. While listening to these diamonds in the rough, it is clear that all of the elements of Perry’s mature style are present, albeit in embryonic form. Husky vocals peppered with sexual double-entendres bend ska’s already wonky rhythms, thus illuminating the strange and disturbing world of Perry’s imagination. Work songs, children’s nursery rhymes, and folk dirges are all thrown into his creative blender, and one can understand how audiences responded to his early live performances by throwing rocks and bottles. Even as a young man, Perry was an artist who would not compromise his vision, and he often seemed to be helpless in the face of the demands of his muse.
Perry was born in the countryside, and if the pull of destiny had not been so insistent, he very well might have remained a laborer and tractor driver in a rural parish. One day, however, while working on his rig, he claims that the stones started talking to him and that they told him to move to Kingston and try his hand at singing. By this point, he quietly had been writing songs for years, and so, he needed little further encouragement. When he arrived in the capital, he found shelter on the floor of a local tailor shop before he landed a job with Arthur Reid, a former policeman who ran Jamaica’s largest sound system. He presented Reid with one of his own compositions (Rough and Tough), but Reid promptly stole it away by recording with another singer. This was an important early lesson in the nature of the Jamaican recording industry that Perry would never forget.
After being stung by Reid, Perry went across town to work with Clement Dodd, the legendary producer whose Studio One recording outlet was responsible for releasing thousands of classic Jamaican singles. Dodd gave artists from Bob Marley to Burning Spear early opportunities to record their songs. Perry started out as an apprentice who did everything from sweeping the floor to physically pressing singles at Studio One’s record plant. Gradually, he became an indispensable employee by taking responsibility for auditioning singers, mixing sessions, and eventually writing songs for the artists to perform.
It is uncertain whether Dodd merely was humoring Perry or rewarding him for his dedicated service when he let him record and sing his own songs. Dodd was reluctant to promote him as a singer on his own label. Nevertheless, before Perry struck out on his own in 1966, he had managed to record nearly three dozen tunes for the Studio One imprint.
It’s hard to pick favorites amongst the 18 tracks collected on the new edition of Chicken Scratch. The songs — like all Studio One singles — were primitively recorded and mastered. Yet, they more than make-up for the lack of technical polish with the joy and enthusiasm that bubbles forth from them. More than 40 years after their creation, songs like Feel Like Jumping, Roast Duck, and Run Rudie Run are still guaranteed to get any partying hopping.
Unquestionably, there are better albums within Perry’s catalogue that deserve to be heard before Chicken Scratch. Compared to his work at the Black Ark during the 1970s, these songs are rudimentary and undeveloped. Nevertheless, there is no reason to have only one of his records. In fact, everybody should own at least a dozen of them as a safeguard against depression as well as a balm against taking life too seriously. Chicken Scratch is a delightful album that not only stands on its own musical merit but also illuminates the development of one of the world’s greatest living artists.
Chicken Scratch is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box