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These versions illustrate the way Perry used a rhythm track to sculpt different tunes. But this was a habit born of economic necessity -- young artists couldn't always afford to start from scratch in the studio -- rather than a prescient vision of a drum and bass future. Five versions of a tune is overkill by anyone's standards, even when the song is as galvanizing as Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves." Studying the variations in the mixes -- dramatic as some of them are -- is an activity that is going to appeal only to obsessive collectors and academics, just as casual listeners have little use for the early demos on Peel Slowly and See, the Velvet Underground box.
The alternate mixes of lesser tracks are even more superfluous. Perry may have been a sonic prankster, but he wasn't much different from other producers like Phil Spector and George Martin, in that he was ultimately as good as the songwriters he was working with. Paired with talents such as his old friend Romeo or reggae veterans the Heptones, the result could be magical. But not even Perry's chirping crickets and bellowing elephants can elevate a cookie-cutter reggae jam of Errol Walker's "John Public."
The secrets of Perry's success were good taste in choosing the right collaborators (though you can't always tell that from the tracks on Arkology) and the ability to create a vibe that encouraged artists to use their imaginations to transcend the ordinary. In order to summon the ghosts, he would blow ganja smoke on the master tape as it rolled. The feeling of druggy disorientation permeates Perry's work to such an extent that you can get a pot hangover just by listening to too much of it. This places him firmly in the continuum of psychedelic rock: Perry wasn't reinventing the use of the recording studio or abandoning conventional song structure as much as he was trying to capture the experience of being stoned, plain and simple.
Like psychedelic avatars Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson, Perry eventually flew too high for his own good. He overindulged in rum and ganja, split with his wife and children, angered his business partners, unwisely ignored the thugs who shook him down for protection money, and finally saw Black Ark destroyed in 1979 by a fire that many people believe he started himself. (He covered the ruins with cryptic graffiti such as "Moses + Satan + dead spit" and "All robots all winds all seas all brains all minds all water all air.") He's been playing the role of the mad genius ever since, granting colorful interviews in which he rambles on about outer space, aliens, sex, Rastafarianism, and being ripped off by the "bald head" white man, then returning to the house overlooking Lake Zurich in Switzerland that he shares with his second wife.
He's crazy like a fox, that Scratch, and he's more than happy to have the bald heads credit him with whatever damn fool thing they can come up with -- as long as it contributes to the legend and helps move even mediocre collections such as Arkology.
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