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Music

Remembering Paul and Linda McCartney’s ill-fated collaboration with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry

@SamWKemp

It’s said that Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry used to bless Black Ark Studios by blowing thick clouds of blunt smoke over the instruments. Located behind the dub pioneer’s family home in Washington Gardens in Kingston, Jamaica, the surviving photos of Black Ark show Perry squashed into a tiny shed jam-packed with audio equipment. It looks more like a modern audiophile’s bedroom than it does a professional recording studio – but don’t be fooled. Despite the rudimentary setup, Black Ark birthed some of the most innovative dub records of the 1970s while also serving as a creative hub for English rock royalty such as The Clash and Paul McCartney – who recorded at Black Ark Studios with his band Wings between 1972 and 1979.

Black Ark was operational for just under six years, closing its doors in 1979 after Perry, armed with a magic marker, scrawled unintelligible messages in black ink over every available surface before burning the studio to the ground. If someone had inspected the ashes they would have found kernels of the unrestrained creativity that defined Black Ark’s heyday – when Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry began honing the dub sound by taking old records and manipulating them; slowing the grooves and dropping long-tailed delays into the mix to create a highly-cerebral new form of reggae.

Black Ark opened the same year Perry became estranged from Bob Marley and The Wailers. Having helped transform the group from a suave vocal trio into the rebellious musical freedom fighters that they eventually became, Perry soon moved away from the band format altogether and began exploring the infinite possibilities heralded by innovations in music technology. Perry, as it happens, was the first producer in jamaica to use a drum machine, which he employed on Marley’s unfinished track ‘Rainbow Country’ and on ‘Natural Mystic’.

All of this innovation made Black Ark an object of fascination for UK punk pioneers and famed reggae aficionados, The Clash, who tried to travel to Perry’s studio in 1977 to record their Junior Murvin cover ‘Police and Thieves’, hoping to poach Perry as a producer for their next single ‘Complete Control’ at the same time. But it wasn’t to be and The Clash never made it to Kingston. However, their support of Perry’s work coupled with the producer’s famously unusual methods helped raise the profile of Black Ark significantly – so much so that Paul McCartney decided to ask Perry to help produce his wife Linda’s blossoming but ultimately ill-fated solo career.

Paul and Linda flew to Kingston in the late ’70s to record a selection of ’50s bubblegum pop covers, including ‘Mister Sandman’ by The Chordettes and ‘Sugertime’ by The Maguire Sisters. The tracks weren’t released until after Linda’s death, appearing on her posthumous 1998 album Wide Prairie. I can’t say it’s entirely to my tastes, but Perry’s production shines through, suffusing what would otherwise have been an unspeakably monotonous record with the low-slung cool of Serge Gainsbourg’s controversial reggae rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’.

Take a listen below and tell me what you think.