the Black Ark Studio
Lee Perry sure did get a lot of work done. Practically impossible to get a handle on, especially without a turntable and the right stack of vinyl–which takes me through a favorite doorway, to the latter half of the 1970′s.
Perry built the Black Ark in the back yard of the family home. A four-track tape deck, with, as I recall, 1/4 inch tape. Dirt floors. He’d made enough money working with Trojan Records, putting out Upsetters albums and others, to put together his own space in 1973-74. Those Trojan releases are plenty fun, but, for me, they can’t touch what Perry did at Black Ark, where he moved far beyond the Rocksteady instrumentals and insult songs and sexy boastings of the earlier years.
Max Romeo & The Upsetters
War Ina Babylon
Max Romeo was perhaps best known for a song called “Wet Dream”, typical rude boy stuff. This Black Ark recording with Perry, who co-wrote almost every song, was a change in direction. “One Step Forward”, “Smile Out of Style”, “Chase the Devil”.
“I’m gonna put on an iron shirt and chase the devil out of Earth.”
Lee Perry still had a relationship with Chris Blackwell, through Bob Marley and the Wailers, and so Island/Mango/EMI put out War ina Babylon in 1976. Distribution, press, radio–all triangulated upon the new spiritual, rich and dubwise sound of the Black Ark. They put out four records that year.
In my world, this Heptones record is a big hit. Big, fat bubbling rhythm tracks and three great singers. Can’t keep my mouth shut when it’s playing. And alongside the the easy, sunny vibe–no mooing cows here, or babies crying, no, none of the fog and echo and backwards tapes that Perry brought to many efforts–are some serious songs. “I Shall Be Released”, “Mr. President”, “Serious Time”.
There were more Island releases. George Faith’s To Be a Lover, from 1977, with Faith covering Gamble/Huff and Wilson Pickett. Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, instantly covered by the Clash. Jah Lion’s Columbian Collie (makes you jolly), which had beautiful closed-door dubs of the Abyssinians’ Satta Amasagana and Junior Byles’ Fever, and eight more of the tricked-out productions he was now free to explore and indulge in.
Heart of the Congos
Island didn’t put out all the Perry recordings of the period. If they dropped the ball, there was always the Black Ark label. This one might be a little harder to find, since the first pressing numbered in the hundreds. Mine, above, is a JA press–repress, more likely. I also have a Go-Feet pressing, issued by the English Beat’s label, which I just don’t play. Those Jamaican pressings can separate audiophiles from music lovers, but, wherever you stand, you need this record.
Other recordings from this period include an ML favorite, Super Ape (Mango), and Return of the Super Ape, which was way too wild for Blackwell. That one numbs my brain. Other Black Ark recordings came out on Clocktower Records, in the Bronx, including Ital Corner from Prince Jazzbo, which has long been championed by the Beastie Boys, and Blackboard Jungle Dub and Scratch and Co. Chapter 1. Still more came years later, via Seven Leaves Records in the UK.
By the way, after Brad Osborne, who owned Clocktower, was murdered, the rights to his records went to Abraham Records in Ontario CN. I don’t know if their pressings are any good, but the Clocktowers were always fine, and they’re what I’d look for.
In 1979, The Black Ark burned to the ground. Some say Perry set the fire, to remove “unclean spirits”, or in response to bootleggers. Some family members say otherwise, and that he tried to douse the flames. He was imprisoned for arson, then released. His wife had left him, taking with her many master tapes. The studio had been over-run by Rolling Stones, Robert Palmer, Linda McCartney, and countless other leeches and arrivistes.
Megaton Dub Vol 2
There’s no getting to the bottom of these stories. Besides, they’re great stories, even the ones that are true. All I know is what I hear on the records. All are invited.