Like a blue tit pecking milk bottle tops to satiate his own perverse urges with scant regard for those he was impacting upon, Lee Perry arrived at the end of the Sixties emboldened by a decade spent sipping from the cream of artists both at home and abroad to concoct a greatest hits of patched together sound. With the establishment of his Upsetter Record label in 1968 and a hit big enough to warrant extraordinary self-indulgence (People Funny Boy), his rotating house band, The Upsetters, essentially any group of artists he decided to use, embarked on an instrumental recording which became a production milestone.
With its drunken saxophone lurch and lolloping gait, Return of Django went top 5 in the UK, the perfect release at one of the points in musical history where truly anything was up for grabs in terms of capturing the listening public’s imaginations. To demonstrate the point, alongside The Upsetters in the top ten in that October week of 1969 were Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, The Hollies, and at the top of the tree, Sugar, Sugar by The Archies. With no lyrics to ponder upon, the eminently catchy tune found favour amongst the growing skinhead movement, black immigrants who had been waiting patiently for a Caribbean act to breakthrough and the floating voters who hadn’t quite decided if glam, crooning or novelty cartoon acts were going to be the next big thing in 1970.
Adding to the exoticism of the release was the Spaghetti Western imagery, though this was scrambled slightly by the fact that Django would have meant little to British audiences, having being denied a certificate or even the opportunity to trim the film for an X certificate. Indeed, even in America, it played in only four cinemas. The track itself was a failed attempt at covering Fats Domino favourite, Sick and Tired, with Val Bennett’s saxophone playing salvaged and the rhythms constructed around it. It would take a Cadbury’s TV advert to use it for it to seep fully into the British consciousness.
The success was such that an album was constructed around the track, similarly bobbing instrumentals which explored funk without conforming to any template and experimentation without becoming studiously prog or krautrock. The Spaghetti Western imagery was not spread across all the tracks – The Man From M.I.5 (a notion which out-trumps even Elvis’ spy-offering services) was huge in the dancehalls and clubs, whilst the almost Hammond and Wurlitzer trills on Medical Operation and Cold Sweat with its ominous Perry intro are excellent examples of the sound of a London which wasn’t swinging but swung, looking for a new beat to construct new beginnings upon.
The follow-up, Eastwood Rides Again, certainly demonstrates Perry’s obsession with the film genre, and feels slighter in some ways – the cowbell clop of the title track mirroring the fun Perry was happy with the freedom he now found in the studio environment, ever-eager to experiment with keyboards rhythms and, not forgetting, guitars, to create glimpses into whatever was in his mind’s eye, before stumbling onwards, always before outstaying his welcome. Interestingly, neither album rips off the Morricones and Bacalovs of this world, the themes for Perry’s Westerns being entirely of his own imagining. It is largely the guitar which sets this album aside from its predecessor, the steely twang on Popcorn mirroring the emerging US funk sound, whilst the beats are more scattershot machine gun than the more downbeat blunderbuss of before. Capsol’s cuckoo refrain perhaps suggests Perry’s drug intake at the time, though already he was looking forward, ready to leave his ghost town drifter personae behind, never one to conform to expectations. Both albums are a fascinating exploration of one of music’s great explorers, extraordinary to think these are now nearly 50 years old, yet still sound incredibly bold and leftfield.