Scratch Feels the City Heat and Heads for the Hills

Lee Scratch Perry’s “City Too Hot” is a song that, through music, lyrics (included at end of post) and  arrangement, situates itself in a very specific time and place and as a whole, evokes much deeper issues than the song title or chorus would suggest.

SCRATCH WAS FEELING THE HEAT

Cover art for Scratch & The Upsetters "Super Ape" LP
Super Ape by Lee Scratch Perry & The Upsetters (1976)

Scratch’s deep roots track was released in 1977 as the “A” side of a 12″ single on his Upsetter Records label, featuring another hefty cut on the back called “Bionic Rats”. The single was released on the heels of his excellent 1976 LP, Super Ape, both coming at a time of great violence and political upheaval in Jamaica. When Scratch bewails the urban heat in “City Too Hot”, he’s evoking not just the noontime scorch, but also the intensity of conflict in Kingston and elsewhere at that time. Fortunately, the self-appointed Kojak (“my name is Kojak / meet me at the track with a dubble attack” – “Kojak” from Revolution Dub, 1975) knew of a physical / spiritual / metaphorical refuge within reach, capable of alleviating the heat at all levels, providing comfort, safety, spiritual fulfillment and community.

SCRATCH’S JAMIACA IN 1977 – TWO SEVENS CLASHING

Jamaica in 1977, was at a boiling point. Not only was political violence out of control, but the Rastafarians on the island harbored extreme anxiety about the  repeating sevens in the number configuration “1977”. The Rastafarian roots group, Culture, released their debut album Two Sevens Clash, featuring a title track recalling Marcus Garvey’s grave prophesy of apocalypse to occur in that year.

Interestingly, while Lee Scratch Perry’s “City Too Hot” documents the intensity of city life in a heavy roots style with Nyabinghi drums, Culture’s “Two Sevens Clash” is sweet, melodic, pleasant and joyful. There’s a conflagration on the horizon, but Culture doesn’t seem concerned. As Jo-Ann Greene writes in All Music:

The song swept across the island like a wildfire, its power fed by the apocalyptic fever that held the island in its clutches throughout late 1976 and into 1977. (Rastafarians believed the apocalypse would begin when the two sevens clashed, with July 7, 1977, when the four sevens clashed, the most fearsome date of concern.) However, the song itself was fearless, celebrating the impending apocalypse, while simultaneously reminding listeners of a series of prophesies by Marcus Garvey and twinning them to the island’s current state. For those of true faith, the end of the world did not spell doom, but release from the misery of life into the eternal and heavenly arms of Jah. Thus, Clash is filled with a sense of joy mixed with deep spirituality, and a belief that historical injustice was soon to be righted. The music, provided by the Revolutionaries, perfectly complements the lyrics’ ultimate optimism, and is quite distinct from most dread albums of the period.

THE UK CONNECTION: THE CLASH TAKE A CUE FROM SCRATCH

Culture’s darkened view resonated across the Atlantic in London, where one of the first British punk bands took “The Clash” as their name to signify the economic and social turmoil there at the time. The Clash then doubled down on this vision, and on their identification with roots reggae, with their song, “1977”, designating the year as a sort of musical and cultural “year zero” for England’s youth (“No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” – “1977”, B-side of “White Riot” 7″ single). The upheaval and punk genesis in the United Kingdom is a subject for another post, but it is clear that London was experiencing much “heat” that summer as well.

Not only were The Clash in sync with Scratch’s sense of sense turmoil, but they claimed a physical connection with it by recording a version of Perry’s “Police and Thieves” (originally recorded by Junior Murvin) on their debut LP, and later

worked with Scratch in the studio on their 1977 single, “Complete Control”. Perry was so intrigued by the first Clash album that he recommended it to Bob Marley, who included a reference to The Clash in his “Punky Reggae Party”.

STATE OF EMERGENCY OR CIA COUP?

Back in Jamaica, however, fear, paranoia and anxiety cast a spell over the island nation and its people. Things were so bad that Prime Minister Michael Manley declared a “state of emergency” for much of 1976 and 1977. This “state of emergency”, writes Manley in his book, Struggle in The Periphery (Third World Media, 1982), was in response to “acts of destabilization in 1976, such as unexplained fires and violence apparently designed to create panic and make the Government unpopular to get them voted out of office” (Michael Burke, Jamaica Observer, 6/15/16). An explanation offered in rebuttal to Manley’s avers, “prominent members of the Jamaica Labour Party stated that the 1976-77 State of Emergency was really a plot to rig the general election that was held on December 15, 1976, by arresting supporters of the Opposition who would stop the rigging if they were not deprived of their liberty” (Burke, 6/15/16).

Scratch would've seen this front page of Jamaican newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, July 12, 1977
State of Emergency, Jamaican Daily Gleaner, July 12, 1977

Competing claims and explanations aside, what was clear was that “there was certainly a new and unusual form of violence prior to the 1976-77 State of Emergency” (Burke, 6/15/16), and “unusual” violence lends itself to explanations beyond the ordinary. There are some who have argued that this was a false crisis wrought by the CIA in response to Jamaica’s warming relations with communist Cuba. The food shortages, violence and Trench Town fires seemed to some to come straight out of the US Army Manual of Psychological Warfare (Burke, 6/15/16). Whatever the origination of the upheaval, the effect on Jamaican’s daily lives was palpable and the anxiety and fear felt by the populace was duly expressed by the roots rockers and dub poets of the time. Yet another example is the superlative instrumental LP, State of Emergency, released by producer Joe Gibbs and his studio band, The Professionals, in 1976. It is an album The Clash would cite as an essential influence.

Scratch would have been aware of this info from from the book The Clash: Return of The Last Gang in Town
Early Reggae Influences from The Clash: Return of The Last Gang in Town

SCRATCH’S “CITY TOO HOT” IN CONTEXT

In truth, the Kingston thermostat in 1977 did not indicate a particularly scorching climate. The weather forecast in The Daily Gleaner for  July 12, 1977 was in the high 80s, suggesting Lee Perry’s heatwave was spiritual, psychological, emotional, social, etc., but not literal. And yet the musical texture of “City Too Hot” conveys all the combusting, sweaty, melty, sticky, thick, stifling, claustrophobic feelings one experiences in an urban setting at summer’s peak. The Nyabinghi drums set a plodding tempo echoing the singer’s struggle to march across his metropolis of residence under the scorch or the summer sun. The muddy, phased, warbling guitars and piano plunks evoke a blurred confusion akin to heat stroke, while the bleating horns seem to announce a determined march across the desert. The reverb-drenched echo feels like the inside of Scratch’s heat-stifled brain as he asks himself over and over, “Why?”, while the repeating percussive sounds rebound across his frontal lobe. The “Why?” is a clearly rhetorical question aimed at the senseless violence and unrest underlying the declared state of emergency, for we know that the sun is the source of literal summer heat and that it was not unduly hot in Jamaica in 1977.

“City Too Hot” is a dirge in which Scratch expresses a dire need for refuge, release and relief.  Where might a young man, so stressed and oppressed by the ongoing violence, find sanctuary? Where might Scratch go to “cool out”, to hide, to decompress? If he is a reggae singer, musician, dee jay, or fan, “I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top”, in the lush hills outside of the city where the violence has not taken hold. Scratch paints a cool, verdant picture of a breezy hilltop outside of the city, where he can go to escape the state of emergency. The hills, he confidently informs us, exist in a state of grace, where it is “fresh and clean”. None of the urban rot, killings and harsh laws that plague the Island and oppress the average citizen.

Lee Scratch Perry knows where he needs to be and who will be there to receive him, for the hills are home to the true believers in the Rastafarian faith. It is where dreadlocks and Nyabinghi meet to converse in the ancient drum language, calling and responding, evoking the rhythm of the natural world. And being passed from one dread to another in this spiritual circle is a chillum, or kutchie, filled with the mystical herb of spiritual elevation. The singer may be singing about retreating to the hill to find peace and solace in a Rasta gathering, or he may be suggesting that partaking of ganja and producing reggae music provide a worthy, meaningful escape from the stresses and pressures of the “war in town”. Scratch can’t abide the chattering teeth (“too much teeth a clap”), signifying fear, or perhaps too much talk, because clearly there is too much happening in the city (“Too much things a gwaan”). He must escape the heat, but it takes a long time, as the full song clocks in at just under nine minutes.

KINGSTON CLAMPDOWN: UNDER HEAVY MANNERS

When Prime Minister Michael Manley declared a state of emergency for Jamaica, he referred to the program as putting the citizens “under heavy manners”. Another Jamaican reggae album released in 1977 addressed this directly. The dee jay / singer, Prince Far-I, had his first major hit with his “Heavy Manners”, the featured track on the Under Heavy Manners LP.  Far-I expressed his disgust at the extreme measures, mocking the government, singing “Manners is unto a dog, discipline is what the world needs today baby, heavy, heavy discipline”. Jo-Anne Greene, again writing in All Music:

The populace awaited a new election, while rumors flew that the CIA was surreptitiously planning a coup against the government. These tales were given credence by the mysterious flood of guns onto the island, which inevitably turned up in the hands of supporters of the opposition JLP party, and seemingly confirmed by former CIA operative, James Agee, who publicly identified a number of alleged CIA agents. The US ambassador’s vigorously denials were treated with disdain by most Jamaicans who remembered all too well the fate of Chilean President Allende.

Whether or not the CIA was involved in an attempted coup is left to the reader to discern, although recent revelations in America about the extent of corruption plaguing our Intelligence Services suggests that Greene is probably correct.

If Scratch believed in the Rastas as a refuge from political turmoil in the city, Prince Far-I sought to make this clear in his “Heavy Manners”. Greene continues:

And heaviest of all, Prince Far I, prophesising “War in the east and, war in the west, war in the north, war in the south, crazy Joe get dem out, what a terrible bout.” And with that, he attempted to remove the Rastas from the fray, leaving the baldheads to fight amongst themselves. And some did indeed do just that. The more pragmatic, however, remained behind Manley, and helped the PNP sweep the elections later this year.

SCRATCH WAS NOT ALONE

In other words, Scratch wasn’t only seeking leave from a “City Too Hot”, but also seeking to join a community that existed outside of the violence-plagued population, away from the warring factions. The song is almost messianic in its vision of a community co-existing in harmony and peace. Perry had been made sick with spiritual heat stroke by the never-ending Trench Town battles, and wanted to step out, to cool out, to hide away until the heat was gone, by smoking herb, by communing with the Rastas, by leaving his oppressed state of being. With “City Too Hot”, Lee Scratch Perry proffered the roadmap to sanctuary, escape and redemption in just over eight and a half minutes, enough time to draw from the chillum and settle into a state of peaceful release, to live confidently and securely and to resume the never-ending struggle on some other day.

May Jah intercept your mission.

LYRICS

City Too Hot (Lee Scratch Perry, 1977)

Why, why, why, why
Why, why, why

This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top
This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top

This city red hot
Too much things a gwaan
This city red hot
Too much teeth a clap
This city too hot
Too much things a gwaan

I’m heading for the hills
I’m heading for the hills
I’m heading for the hills
Yeah, where it fresh and clean
Fresh and clean

This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top
This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top

Cah the war in town
? fight for ?
Cah the war in town
? fight for ?

This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top
I’m heading for the hills
I a go cool out, upon the hill top
I’m heading for the hills
I a go cool out, upon the hill top

This city too hot
I and I a go cool out, I a go cool out
This city too hot
I-a man a go cool out, I a go cool out

(..)

Too much teeth a clap
Too much teeth a clap
Too much teeth a clap
It’s like a ??

This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top
And, this city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top
Oh

This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the mountain top
This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top

But teeth a clap
Too much teeth a clap
Too much teeth a clap
Too much things a gwaan

This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top
This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the mountain top

This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the hill top
This city too hot
I-man a go cool out, upon the mountain top

This city too hot
This city too hot
This city too hot
This city too hot

(..)

?? come to town
?? come to town
?? come to town
Hey

This city too hot
I a gonna cool out, I gonna cool out
This city too hot
I a gonna cool out, I gonna cool out

This city too hot..

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry lyrics are copyright by their rightful owner(s) and Swedish Flying Saucer in no way takes copyright or claims the lyrics belong to us.

Primitive Zippo
Doing high dives into the California cannabis industry, cannabis culture, cannabis-friendly music and anything else cannabis-related residing in the vast expanse of my turgid cranium.

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