We interviewed David Katz, author of People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry in Brixton.
what is your take of origin of dub siren. Who started to use siren sound in the sound system?
KATZ: I can tell you a little bit more about studio techniques with sound effects, but I am not sure about the origin of the use of the siren on sound systems. I not sure when it started and who did it first. And the siren, the first time I ever heard the siren was at a Jah Shaka dance.
DS: Jah Shaka, yeah. When was that? Like 1980’s, right?
KATZ: That was 80’s. That was – yeah, like ’87 or ‘88. But you know, he had already been using siren for many years before that, I think.
KATZ: And then I don’t know who was using it in Jamaica or what. But the one I can tell you more about has to do with some of the studio sound effects. So, the early studio sound effects in Jamaica, a lot of them came from sound effects records.
DS: Oh — from America?
KATZ: BBC did a series of sound effects records.
DS: Like cowboy stuff? Based on cowboy?
KATZ: All kinds of different stuff and if you listen to Lee Perry, as usual, he was one of the first to make use of this stuff. So if you listen to “People Funny, Boy” you know, he recorded that in 1968. So, a lot of people thought and there is a lot of misinformation about this put out by his ex-wife and by musicians that he worked with, they all will tell you about how Scratch took his baby into the studio and spanked it.
DS: Yeah, I thought too.
KATZ: Yeah. That’s all fake, fake misinformation. Scratch told me about two years ago that that sound of a baby crying came from a sound effects record that the engineer Linford Anderson had because he said – he used to call him Andy Cap – he said Andy knew about sound effects and he knew about all these foreign records because he was the studio engineer and he was also the mastering engineer that would master all the records. So he said – Andy said to him, “Hey Scratch, listen to this,” and played him the baby crying , and he went, “Oh, fuck me, man. We’ve got to put that in the record.” Then there’s another early Scratch record, “Caveman Skank,” it’s on the album called Cloak and Dagger which I guess is ’72, and it’s got screeching car tires and the record also begins with a Native American reading a passage of the bible in his own language, and both of these elements come from a sound effects record. And then later in the same song, which is a strange heavy dub thing with Scratch on the mic, there are screeching tires and breaking bottles and all this kind of stuff. So, a lot of those early ones that come from sound effects records.
KATZ: Then later with Lee Perry, he started to do — you know the famous thing with the cow sound? Yeah. And it’s with this inside roll of some cardboard of – yeah, the tinfoil and then goes, “mwaa,” that’s the fake sound of a cow and he would get Watty Burnet to do it because he had a deep baritone voice. Watty Burnett from the Congos. Scratch said that he originally tried to put microphones on some cows that were in a field nearby but when he went with a microphone they would run away. So that’s why he had to do the fake one. Okay, so, a little bit later what a dub mixers started to do dub, they started to…first you had the test tone, okay, I noticed you put it on here (Dub Siren App). So, you know the test tone, you know what it is.
KATZ: It’s at the beginning of master tape.
DS: Uh-huh. 1k tone.
KATZ: Yeah. To make sure all the channels are picking up properly. But in the hands of somebody like King Tubby, you wouldn’t just have it go “Eeehh.” You would have it become an element of percussion. So you would shorten it or stretch it, or…
DS: Yeah, it sounds different from original test tone copy.
KATZ: Yeah. And the one that really became the master of test tone for me is Scientist. Scientist had a way of stretching the tone, like if you listen to those dub albums on Greensleeves…
DS: So many, yeah.
KATZ: The albums that Scientist mixed at Tubby’s. Yeah. Particularly the one “Scientist Rids the World of the Curse of the Vampires”.
DS: Right. Right.
KATZ: Like a dub of Michael Prophet’s song, “You are No Good.” He starts with the test tone long (demonstrating) “bliiiiing!” Like with maybe some reverb on it, and then he’ll just do it very short (demonstrating) “bling!” and then make it with the delay. So first it’s like (demonstrating) “bliiiiiiiiiiiiing!” and then it goes (demonstrating) “bling, bling, bling, bling, bling…” but like perfectly in time with the music. So it becomes an artificial piece of percussion. So this is where, you know, the dub creativity. The other thing that was a little earlier than Scientist’s use of the test tone, although Tubby was doing it for many years by the way, that was the submarine sound.
KATZ: The submarine sound is another one of those – it was like the test tone but it was a multiple frequency. So it would make sure that you were getting the entire audio spectrum on your tape machine. So it would go (demonstrating) kind of like a “do re mi fa so la ti do” scale but an electronic one that again would be there to test that your equipment was functioning properly. So this became a trademark sound at Channel One in Jamaica, the Channel One submarine sound. And It’s interesting to see how dub mixers who were working at Channel One would use this because some of them used it in different ways. Some of them would speed it up in the middle of a dub mix, and you’d go, “Huh, what’s that?!” And then some of them would slow it down and stretch it to put it in time with the rhythm. So it would be like, Sly and Robbie on drum and bass, and it would just start with the bottom tone, like “boom,” with again, some kind of reverb or delay on it, and then like the next tone up, you know, and kind of keep going up, and again you’d be thinking like, “What’s that?!” So again, it’s like some piece of testing equipment that becomes like…
DS: Part of the music.
KATZ: Yeah, some part of the music. So that’s dub artistry at work. I know it doesn’t really answer your question about the siren, but…
DS: No, but the music has good sound effects that work with the music. We tried to put sound effects on some techno and other music but it only works with Reggae.I thought it was funny, but now I can see why it work on Reggae/dub music…