Reissue Of The Week: Lee Perry & The Upsetters’ Battle Of Armagideon

Neil Kulkarni trains a clear-sighted eye on the myth of the mad genius, critical consensus and white connoisseurship, while revisiting a crucial Scratch LP from the mid-80s

Let’s be wary of ‘madness’, of the ‘loon’ or the ‘lunatic genius’ motif in popcrit. Beyond its insensitivity to the nuances and complexities of mental illness it’s notable how it’s so often used as a power game that gets played when white male critics talk about female artists, or Black artists. It’s a reductive way of thinking that stems from the assumption that having the medical condition of mental illness somehow promotes, feeds and sustains creativity. Sylvia Plath, Dostoevsky, Brian Wilson, Kristin Hersh and of course Lee Perry have all had the same ‘troubled’, ‘eccentric’ epithets thrown around their work mainly as a way of forestalling proper investigation into the motivations and meaning of their artistry.

In Perry’s case this othering of his mental state served two purposes: to make light of the exploitation of his work by US & UK labels, and to ensure that – as ever with Black genius – his work retained a comfortingly ‘instinctive’/’intuitive (as opposed to intellectual) animus. Black artists from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins & Little Richard to Perry and Kanye are not allowed to simply be creative geniuses. Their work can only be understood by a white critical consensus as emerging from some aspect of mental ‘failure’ or slippage in sanity. Crucially, the claim is that they hit upon genius only accidentally, and bring their vision to us like mad scientists or deranged prophets who are barely in control of their work; and this is to the point where it’s only down to the beneficence of white businesses, white record label bosses and a white music press that anyone gets to hear it at all.

The idea of Perry as a cogent, coherent artist who used drugs and spirituality to inform his music simply doesn’t appeal to a music press hungry for titillating glimpses into some supposed ongoing exotic derangement. Even when Perry passed in 2021 what got shared even by those offering fond reminiscence more often than not wasn’t insight into Perry’s sound, rather a litany of ‘eccentric’ moments rotated with seemingly no awareness that ‘madness’ may well have been one of Perry’s own strategies, a safe self-directed portrayal that kept people away, especially those that Perry understandably saw as vampirically interested in stealing his sounds, his work and his music. There’s a very telling moment in an NME piece from 1981 in which Richard Grabel meets Perry in New York, and in amidst Scratch’s usual Sun Ra-style assertions of his own immortality and purpose ("I am a prophet and a teacher, my name is Archangel Gabriel") the questions become less openly inviting to Perry’s grandstanding and become more closed and specific.

Richard Grabel: "About two years ago, when you took apart the Black Ark, people started to say you were crazy."

Lee Perry: "In the past the people I have dealt with are thieves, criminals, parasites and vampires. Not one is there that I can say ‘This is a good one’. None. All I see in this business is singing parasites, singing lies, singing something which they don’t mean. It really bothers me, man. It really get me mad. Of course, I am the maddest. You have witnessed it. Why, you think me wan’ deny it? Then if me see some guy who try to get mad like me and I have some competition me think it’s your fault. If people think you’re mad they stay out of your way. Right! I don’t mind ‘pon that. Ha ha ha."

You can see Perry’s canny building of ‘madness’ as a narrative in his work throughout music press interviews of the late 70s and early 80s, and one has to wonder if the endlessly reported growing eccentricity of Scratch in Jamaica at this time stems from a gathering paranoia incubated in the cultural crossfire of Jamaican politics, or whether it’s simply a tactic Perry uses to keep worshippers, adherents and antagonists away from his home, studio and music.

By the time Perry was recording Battle Of Armagideon (Millionaire Liquidator) in 1986 – currently being reissued alongside 70s classics like Battleaxe, Africa’s Blood and Cloak & Dagger – he was keen to go along with his portrayal as a lunatic, a demented seer, a shaman, and of course he was always able to furnish hungry interviewers with the requisite declamatory statements to further buttress that stereotypical image. We’d be daft however from our contemporary vantage, to read Perry’s interviews at face value. He was playing a game, and keeping himself safe, and crucially we must not let that ‘mad’ motif distract us from the music he was making. As the reissue of Armagideon proves, he was always possessed of a laser-like focus and discipline in his work that utterly belied the ‘out of his mind’ rhetoric and crucially it snapshots a time when Perry was finding new resonances with like minded musicians from outside of Jamaica.

Armagideon (like its follow up, the mighty Dub Syndicate collaboration Time Boom X De Devil Dead) was recorded in London. Crucial to the album’s genesis and creation were the personnel who Perry called the Upsetters at this stage. The band who recorded at Thameside Studios in South East London were UK session men, consisting of Peng (drums), Tarlok Mann (lead guitar), Russ Cummings (piano, synthesizer), Mark Downie (rhythm guitar, synthesizer) and Trevor Jones (trombone). Downie aka Marcus Downbeat was the key catalyst here. He’d run into Perry in London in late 1985, introducing himself as a fan, before being invited to rehearse with Perry and the Dub Factory band – initially in a friend’s garage and then finally in a studio for Trojan records. Dub Factory were a multi-racial mixed bunch of players featuring white British, Anglo-Jamaican and Anglo Indian players.

Russ Cummings remembers the recording process taking place over the course of a couple of stoned, busy weekends – in which the band slept in sleeping bags in the studio, spending all day recording, following Lee’s instructions. Perry was proud of this new iteration of the Upsetters. Cummings recalls that when pushed by London Rastas to explain who "dem white boys" were Perry would always answer, "This is my band, the Upsetters, they white but they got the soul of a Black man." It was this immersion among London musicians, a new Upsetters, that set Lee on his late-80s trail back to prominence, especially when he subsequently hooked up with devotees like Adrian Sherwood and the On-U stable where he found both confederates and sanctuary. But before that could happen, Battle Of Armagideon – after a period in which Perry’s work seemed unfocussed and indulgent – became his sharpest release since the Black Ark years, containing new classics like ‘Introducing Myself’ and the doomy, ambiguous ‘I Am A Madman’ which would soon become mainstays of Perry’s live set for decades to come.

The ‘mad’ motif is neatly both accentuated and dissipated by the treatment of Perry’s vocals throughout the record – double tracked to the point where it seems as if Scratch is talking not just to the listener, or the wider world, but to himself. The opener ‘Introducing Myself’ immediately suggests that with these new musicians Perry had found a way to reinvoke the fetid majesty and apocalyptic insight of his old Black Ark recordings but crucially it sounds fresh – not just a retrograde search for old roots textures and sounds but an album far more akin to similar low-end explorations being made by the likes of African Headcharge and Bill Laswell at this time. ‘Drum Song’, despite its jaunty almost-Cajun backing is thick and seething with detritus – voices, chants, joyfully abandoned playing and Perry split between personas as gentle toaster, brimstone-fuelled preacher and conductor of his new Upsetters. ‘Grooving’ feels almost like sampladelia – sweet lovers-rock chorales blended beautifully in with a swelling righteous roots-reggae undertow, Perry clambering vocally around the track much as the lyrics jump around the planet – reflecting Perry’s itinerant life at the time, his raps and croons and whispers popping off in your peripheries, refusing to occupy the centre but making damn sure you know he’s proud of this amazing new music he’s making.

‘All Things Are Possible’ positively fizzes with freshness, and you start realising that not only has Perry multi-tracked himself, he’s actually stepped into multiple vocal personas that range from freewheeling falsettos to the close-up, intimate and intensely controlled rage that beats at the heart of this record. It’s as if you’re seeing and hearing Perry in the crossfire of his own life, his life that for so long was so emblematic of precisely the cultural and political crosscurrents of his Jamaican base. Now he’s a world-citizen he’s attained an objectivity but also a desire to reflect the chaos he’s emerging from. ‘Show Me The River’ trades in old soul imagery of deliberate stasis while watching a river flow but there’s no escaping the fact he’s got ‘nothing to do’ while watching the Thames flow by. It’s a track that’s strangely reminiscent of the Specials’ ‘Do Nothing’ and sounds like the brackish depths of Perry’s deep past rushing towards a possible future.

‘Time Marches On + In/Out Mix’ is perhaps the most brutal track here – an absolutely desolate blasted soundscape nigh-on industrial rhythmically, over which Perry crawls singing a strangely hopeful hymn to redemption and immortality. On ‘I Am A Madman’ Scratch calls himself a madman, a badman, a cultist, always with the tellingly disinterested refrain ‘yeah yeah yeah’ following every affirmation – his ambiguity, his strategising around these stereotypes is clear to hear, as the new Upsetters hunker down into perhaps the album’s most molten grooves and Perry plangently asks: "[What happens when you] speak the truth and see what it costs?" Oft-characterised as a fatal disco misfire ‘Sexy Lady’ actually points ahead to the dub-house connections made by electronic artists in the early 90s and the album closes out with a straight version of ‘Time Marches On’ which leaves you in no doubt that far from being lost, loony or neutered by ‘legendary’-status, Scratch in 1986 was someone with a lifetime of music already living within him, who was crucially over something, tired of his own paranoia and stasis and starting to find new ways of mutating both that lineage and his own place within it.

As I’ve previously discussed on tQ there’s a tendency when discussing reggae to reduce and simplify, to pin the music down to certain eras that play well to the critical consensus. This enables lazy listeners to tokenistically tick off an artist as contained within just a few key texts. Perry is too good for that & if you think you’re good to go with just Super Ape and maybe Blackboard Jungle this reissue reminds us that you’d be crazy not to be digging deep into his 80s resurrection that starts with the superb Battle Of Armagideon. This reissue is a much needed and timely reminder that there is way more to Scratch than the waywardness that even his most ardent obituarists overemphasised. The man, when he worked, worked hard, and made music that retains an impact and incisiveness that utterly belies both Perry’s own deflective tactics and the media’s lazy parochialism.

Battle Of Armagideon (Millionaire Liquidator) is out today on Trojan/Music On Vinyl

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