Reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry — from whom Bob Marley, The Clash and the Beastie Boys took notes — heads to Santa Monica to play a free show on the pier
By Michael Aushenker
Reaching Lee “Scratch” Perry by an overseas phone call comes with an interesting set of circumstances. Perry, 77, is hard of hearing and often hard to understand as he delves, with heavily accented English, into detours about the Illuminati, witchcraft, Biblical angels and how white magic trumps black magic.
Yet there is a warmth to Perry’s patter, his good-natured sentences often punctuated by a hoarse chuckle, that makes this affable reggae legend endearing.
The word “legend” is not cheap hyperbole. Perry — who performs Thursday, Aug. 28, as part of the free Twilight Concert Series on the Santa Monica Pier — is one of reggae’s biggest stars.
In addition to making his own critically acclaimed music since the late 1950s, Perry has worked as a vocalist or producer with Bob Marley, The Clash and the Beastie Boys. He’s lived in Europe with his wife Miri for the past 25 years, but continues to produce and record.
“I live in Switzerland because I did have to be here to communicate with my good vibrations with the nature itself, a lot of mountains, a lot of trees. I love the people who love trees. Trees are our beings, they’re alive,” Perry said.
Perry began his musical journey in Jamaica in the 1950s. A decade into his career, Perry started his own label and began recording with his studio band The Upsetters, creating beloved albums such as “Clint Eastwood,” “Super Ape” and “The Return of Super Ape.”
“The music comes from the jungle, the Earth and the spirit of the animals,” he said of the inspiration for the latter two albums. “The whole thing is Africa, the African jungle.”
Given his many roles in the music industry, Perry prefers the experience of appearing in concert.
“I love to perform live. You can understand me more. I prefer to perform live. They make it so hard, you don’t want to think about doing it anymore,” he said of making albums in the record industry.
By the mid-1970s, as England experienced social turmoil, reggae music and its underlying anti-authoritarian messages of rebellion were embraced by the burgeoning punk rock scene.
“It was so great and it was wonderful,” he said of the first-wave English punk scene that included The Clash, whose aggressive rocker “Complete Control” Perry produced on their seminal 1977 self-titled debut. He also co-wrote, with Junior Murvin, the classic reggae anthem “Police and Thieves,” which The Clash covered on that same album.
In the studio, “everyone was smoking ganja. They were very calm,” he said, laughing. He loved “the energy of the music” and “there was no special occasion to be Illuminati.”
If Perry gave any direction to The Clash during the recording of “Complete Control,” it was that they were “playing their instruments too loud. I said there was too much distortion and turned their instruments down.”
Collaborating with Clash frontmen Joe Strummer and Mick Jones was “wonderful, wonderful! The love inside those people, it was perfect people,” he said.
In fact, making music with The Clash and, decades later, with the Beastie Boys (for the song “Lee Ph.D.” on the 1998 album “Hello Nasty”) was “easier with the white boys. They give more respect. What you give is what you get. People give me more respect, I get more energy, more power.”
Whether working with reggae musicians or rock stars, “when I’m working with musicians, you got to be good,” he said.
Many of Perry’s ‘70s albums refer to classic Spaghetti Westerns (“Django,” “Clint Eastwood”) and kung-fu movies.
“I was a big fan of all those movies, the Hollywood scene, Clint Eastwood, I was loving the action,” Perry said, lapsing into quotes from said movies with a chuckle: “‘You were the gringo who come to challenge the king, well?’ ‘Pow! Senorita you insult me?’”
When asked about how the success of the 1972 Jamaican blockbuster “The Harder They Come” and its soundtrack enriched reggae’s cache globally, Perry is quick to make the distinction between Marley’s music and that of “Harder” star Jimmy Cliff (who capped off last year’s Twilight Series).
Marley’s music was “spiritual music; the music [from the film] is rock steady, not reggae. It’s ska and something different. It was a different type of thing. Completely different,” he said.
Perry appears to prefer 1980s reggae sensation and albino dancehall legend Yellowman: “He was the best DJ — the most modern singer modern DJ and he was funny. He bring the DJ to the top. We need more DJs like Yellowman, he brings good vibrations.” (In reggae parlance, the DJ is the MC or vocalist.)
However, Marley reigns supreme.
“Yes, he was the best,” Perry said. “He did not have any competition. He was sent to me by magic to do the job.”
Perry has a special affection for his album “Blackboard Jungle,” from which he will perform cuts next week.
“The music is international,” he said, also promising tracks from “Inspector Gadget” and “Super Ape.” “We take some of the good songs from each album.”
Plus, expect Marley covers “One Drop” and “Sun is Shining.”When asked if he was looking forward to returning to Santa Monica, Perry responded, not so directly,
“I was sent from heaven to legalize marijuana,” before offering one more hoarse chuckle.
Lee “Scratch” Perry performs at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 28, on the Santa Monica Pier. Free. Visit santamonicapier.org.