Brilliant Triumphs, Brilliant Flops

Eccentric reggae producer/ songwriter/ mixologist Lee "Scratch" Perry established his own label in the late sixties.

By the late '60s, Lee "Scratch" Perry was one of the most important figures

in reggae, a producer, songwriter and occasional singer with a touch that

was golden as often as not. He had also become a complete nutbar. Since

reggae records sold at least as many copies in England as they did in

Jamaica, his Upsetter label established a beachhead in the U.K. and started

cranking his productions out as singles. The first volume of this proposed

series is a nicely annotated, illustrated two-CD set with the A- and

B-sides of the first 25 singles the English Upsetter label released in 1969.

That description, though, doesn't prepare you for the insane,

amazing songs and productions within. Perry would run just about anything

up the flagpole: lunatic covers, rip-roaring instrumentals, mindbendingly

crass exploitation, self-exploitation, self-recycling, self-celebration,

skank-by-numbers drivel and frequent strokes of genius, all accompanied by

production so weird that it couldn't help but make for hits (and, often,

couldn't help but make for abject flops). Sometimes, his audacity is

startling: the Bleechers' "Check Him Out," on examination, is simply a

close-harmony ad for Perry's record store, including directions on how to

walk there. Nora Dean's awkward sex joke "The Same Thing That You Gave To

Daddy" is even weirder when you consider that its original single release

was backed up by a messy bit of reggae gospel called "A Testimony,"

credited to the Upsetter Pilgrims. And the unlikely covers, like Louis

Armstrong impersonator doing the reggaefied version of "Hello Dolly" -- not

to mention the quick-and-dirty versions of "He'll Have To Go," "Leaving On

A Jet Plane" and, swear to God, "The Farmer In The Dell" -- are somehow as

charming as they are awful.

But then there's the unambiguously great stuff. The instrumentals

are locked in and rocking, including the classics "A Live Injection" and

"Return Of Django"; there are also a couple of Perry's far-out experimental

sides, like "Mad House," three minutes of deranged laughter and

instrumentation that mimics it, and the spare proto-dub workout "The

Tackro." The vocalists who were part of the Upsetter stable weren't always

the best by conventional standards (Busty Brown sounds like he'd be a lot

happier as a straight-up soul singer, and like we'd be a lot happier if he

took some voice lessons first), but their rough conviction is a delight to

hear. Best of all are the tracks where Perry himself sings, more at home in

his slanted sound-world than anyone else could manage. "People Funny Fi"

True," the continuation of the great series of singles he'd started with

"People Funny Boy," has a wobbly, drunken start-stop rhythm and sweet

harmonies, over which Perry yelps, rants and opines that "if you reach the

top/everybody wants a lollipop." It's kind of wacked-out, but it's true,

all right.