In 1973, producer, singer, songwriter, genius Lee "Scratch" Perry began work on creating a studio that would shape the way reggae was recorded and heard for the next generation to follow. Building in his backyard and putting roughly 12,000 UK pounds into it, the Black Ark studio was already starting to be used by December of '73. Using some of the simplest equipment available for his means (an Alice mixing console that was designed mostly for radio station usage, and a 4 track TEAC recorder), some of the most influential, and most ahead of its time reggae sounds were recorded there.
Scratch mostly recorded using a rotating lineup of musicians he called The Upsetters during this time. Usually they included people like Boris Gardiner, Winston Wright, Mikey Richards, Cinna Smith, Willie Lindo, Ernest Ranglin, Vin Gordon, Dirty Harry, Tommy McCook, Bobby Ellis, and whoever else impressed him. Using the Upsetters, Scratch created some heavy dub and roots rhythms.
Some of the most successful releases made at the Black Ark were through the deal made with Chris Blackwell's Island Records. Island released the deejay album "Columbia Collie" by Jah Lion (originally Jah Lloyd, but changed to the dreader sounding Lion by Scratch), as well as the influential instru-dub album "Super Ape" by Scratch and the Upsetters. Two of the greatest successes at this time though were "War Ina Babylon" by Max Romeo and "Police and Thieves" by Junior Murvin.
"War Ina Babylon" was a masterpiece, proclaiming not only Romeos faith in Rastafari, but also the tight rhythms the Upsetters were creating at the time. With songs about poverty, violence, love, and religion, this was truly Romeo's finest work, and the combination of him with Scratch only made things better, as it could be possible that the album might not have been as great had it not been recorded by Scratch at his Black Ark. The other achievement, "Police and Thieves", was just as successful as "War Ina Babylon" if not more so. Scratch's deft touch at the mixing console as well as Murvin's scathing lyrics about "police and theives fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition" made this a classic reggae album. English punk band The Clash even scored a hit doing a cover of the title track for their debut release (though Scratch himself said they ruined the song).
Other Black Ark hits of the time were Susan Cadogan's smash "Hurt So Good", The Heptones' "Party Time", Georgie Faith's version of "To Be A Lover (Have Some Mercy)" and Scratch's own "Roast Fish, Collie Weed and Corn Bread" album. Some say though, that the best album to ever come from the Ark was "Heart of the Congos" by the Congos.
"Heart of the Congos" was recorded during a time which is called the peak for the Ark studio. The Upsetters were as tight as ever with Boris Gardner, Mikey Boo, Ernest Ranglin, Winston Wright and others in the studio. Plus the album is filled with the beautiful, yet sometimes haunting, harmonizing of Cedric Myton, Roy Johnson, and Watty Burnett. Most of the songs sang of Africa and repatriation and are delivered with such power, emotion and conviction that "Heart Of" is an essential purchase for any fan of reggae music. Unfortunately, after the album was recorded, producer and artists went their seperate ways, to really nobodys benefit.
A little bit after that album was recorded, Scratch became a little mad. As Max Romeo puts it in the booklet for the "Arkology" box set: "Then I don't know what happened. Kapow! Everything went bust. Lee Perry went one way, the studio went another, and all hell let loose". By 1979, due to money beggers, hangers on, bad men and general pressure from all around, Scratch closed the gates of the Ark to all outsiders. During this time, Scratch was said to have been seen doing things like walking backwards while striking the ground with a hammer, eating money, and burying tapes in his garden. Some say this eccentric behavior was for real and that Scratch had really lost it, but others say its Scratch trying to scare off the bad elements that gathered around him during the later days of the Ark.
In 1980, Scratch dismantled the studio entirely before the studio caught fire. It is widely believed that Scratch lit the studio on fire himself, and though he was arrested for attempted arson, there was no proof he did it and he was released three days later. To this day the burning of the Ark remains a mystery (though Scratch has denied burning the studio in some interviews, in others he totally and unashamedly admits to doing it). In any case, the studio that was the birth place to some of the best reggae created ever, is now gone. Though Scratch has made a couple of attempts to rebuild it, he usually loses interest and it dosen't get done. Scratch currently lives in Switzerland with his wife Mireille and has never stopped creating music, working with other influential people like Mad Professor, Adrian Sherwood and the Beastie Boys, though he works these days as a vocalist rather than a producer. And though the burning of the Ark ended an era, it began a new one for Scratch Perry.
The Upsetter: Excellent Scratch site
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