In 1968, reggae pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry launched his first record label, Upset Records, with the single “People Funny Boy.” The title might seem odd, but try this: mentally insert a comma so that it reads “People Funny, Boy.” It's a complaint, as in “boy, people are funny.”
That raises the question: who was Perry complaining about? Who was acting “funny?”
The answer: his former employer, Joel Gibson, AKA Joe Gibbs.
Working for Joe Gibbs
Two years earlier, Perry had begun working for Gibbs, ostensibly a music producer. In reality, Gibbs was not a music producer, but an executive producer — he financed the operation. Perry was the music producer. He scouted talent, supervised sessions, arranged and wrote songs, and promoted records that appeared on Gibbs' Amalgamated and Pressure Beat labels.
In this role, Perry produced — and probably wrote — “Long Shot,” with the Pioneers providing vocals. The song tells the tale of a man who loses money betting on a long shot horse:
Why? Why? Long shot bust me bet Him gallup, him gallup, him gallup But him couldn't bust the tape Him gallup, him gallup, him gallup But him couldn't bust the tape Man tis lick him, him whip him, him lash him But him couldn't bust the tape
And now the hapless man must go home, where there's sure to be an argument over his foolish bet:
Why? Why? Chugga chugga war a yard Why? Why? Oh me a go home tonight
It was a hit, one of many that Perry provided for Gibbs. And yet, despite the success, he didn't feel he was receiving the credit and compensation he deserved. Thus, only a few months after producing “Long Shot,” he quit.
Perry Records His Revenge
Perry financed his next record, with himself as vocalist, for a cut titled “People Funny Boy.” And rather than give it to another producer, he launched a new label, Upset Records.
“People Funny Boy” is essentially a reworking of “Long Shot” with different lyrics. Instead of lamenting a loss at the race track, the updated song laments the greed of his former employer:
Now that you reach the top And you turn big shot All I've done for you You no remember that When you were down and out I use to help you out But now that you hit jackpot You no remember that Now that you turn big shot Boy you have big chat
You lucky, you lucky, you lucky, you lucky To have rice and peas a yard But me, poor me don't have none at all A what a, a what a, a what a, a what a, a what a oomph! a ya tonight
Some lines are new, others are clearly adapted from the earlier Pioneers' record:
|The Pioneers: “Long Shot”||Lee Perry: “People Funny Boy”|
Perry based not just the lyrics but also the music on his previous hit. The bass and, in particular, the rhythm guitar of “People Funny Boy” closely match the bass and piano of “Long Shot.”
“People Funny Boy” is celebrated as one of the first, maybe the first, reggae records. For what it's worth, I'm not so sure. Admittedly, I have no musical training, so discussion of notes and beats is more often than not lost on me. That said, I think the almost doubled piano rhythm of “Long Shot” strongly suggests the emerging reggae style, and distinguishes it from the simpler bass and guitar patterns of rock steady.
If “People Funny Boy” wasn't the first reggae record, it was one of the first. It was also one of the first to use sound effects. There's a baby crying — wailing, really — throughout the record.
Why a baby crying? Is it supposed to be mocking Gibbs? Perry is the one complaining, so maybe it represents him? It's hard to say, but it works aesthetically. And that would become a trend for Perry. In the next decade, he often used sound effects that on paper seem odd but on vinyl come off really well.
Joe Gibbs' Retort (Such As It Is)
Gibbs didn't appreciate getting badmouthed that way, so he decided to respond on vinyl with “People Grudgeful.” The Ethiopians provided the vocals, but the label doesn't mention them, crediting instead Sir Gibbs as the artist. It was, after all, important that the record buying public know who was doing the trash talking.
Like many an answer record, “People Grudgeful” takes the music from the song it is responding to, changing only the lyrics:
Why? Why, people grudgeful boy When I was down and out You didn't help me out Now that I win jackpot You want to talk about Now that I turn big shot You start to chat You can walk and talk Walk and talk But me no care at all
Well, Sir Gibbs, you recorded an answer record, so apparently you do care.
Unfortunately for Gibbs, his effort is derivative and uninspired.
The music is a copy of Perry's stylistic changes, notably
the scratchy guitar.
But it's overdone to the point that it grates on the ear.
And the lyrics just naysay Perry's accusations. For example,
when you were down and out, I use to help you out
when I was down and out, you didn't help me out.
Forgive my being harsh, but that's about the level of
a grade school taunt.
The Pioneers' Sequel
Let's return for a moment to the song that began this dispute. Apparently, the steed in “Long Shot” was a real race horse who died in 1969, a year after Perry and Gibbs traded barbs. An entirely different producer, Leslie Kong, decided to capitalize on the poor creature's misfortune. He produced a sequel, “Long Shot Kick the Bucket,” voiced once again by The Pioneers. As before, the better loses his money, this time because the horse he bets on dies during the race:
It was [?], Combat, Carousel Long Shot on the rail Combat fell Long Shot fell All me money gone a hell All me money gone a hell Long Shot him kick the bucket Long Shot kick the bucket
Though to my ears the earlier record is both musically superior and more entertaining, the sequel proved to be the bigger hit, especially in the U.K. where it was a favorite among skinheads. A decade later, second wave ska band The Special AKA covered the song for the live EP Too Much Too Young. That prompted a reissue of The Pioneers' “Long Shot Kick the Bucket,” which cracked the British charts a second time.
Lee Perry Updates the Theme and Rhythm
There are a couple of tangentially related cuts released by Lee Perry in the late 60s/early 70s. In 1969, he recorded “People Funny Fi True.”
The lyrics might come as a bit of a surprise:
When you're down and out Nobody tries to help you out But if you reach the top Everybody wants a lollipop So say it to me now now Oooh, people funny fi true
Ah, the irony. Now it's Perry who has “reached the top,” it's Perry who resents hangers-on trying to take the rewards.
Then, a year or two later, he recorded “People Sokup Boy,” which once more updates the “Long Shot” rhythm.
Perry wrote new lyrics (again!), though here he was not attacking his musical rivals. Perhaps he figured he had won the arguments and was ready to move on. Besides the vocal cut, there were several instrumental and deejay versions using the “Sokup” rhythm, including Dennis Alcapone's “Back Biter” and an instrumental/dub mix on the once extremely rare Rhythm Shower LP.
While Joe Gibbs' “People Grudgeful” doesn't do much for me, post-punk band The Fall thought it good enough to warrant a cover version, released in 1993 as “Why Are People Grudgeful?” Fall singer Mark E. Smith added some new lyrics to the cover version, but he mostly relied on Gibbs' composition. I say “Gibbs' composition,” but again, he was not a producer; it's likely someone wrote and arranged the answer record, and he took the credit.
Release Notes for “People Funny Boy”
You can find “People Funny Boy” on numerous compilations. I have it on these two:
- Lee Perry and the Upsetters, Some of the Best (Heartbeat)
- Various Artists, A Live Injection: Anthology 1968 To 1979 (Trojan)
Versions and Recuts
For obsessive collectors, here's where you can get some of the other records mentioned in this article.
The Pioneers “Long Shot”
- Various Artists, Explosive Rock Steady: Joe Gibbs' Amalgamated Label 1967-1973 (Heartbeat)
Sir Gibbs “People Grudgeful”
- Joe Gibbs & Friends, The Reggae Train 1968-1971 (Trojan)
Lee Perry, “People Funny Fi True”
- Various Artists, The Complete UK Upsetter Singles Collection Volume 1 (Trojan)
The Pioneers “Long Shot Kick the Bucket”
- Various Artists, 20 Reggae Classics (Trojan)
- Various Artists, Trojan Originals Box Set (Trojan)
Lee Perry, “People Sokup Boy”
- Lee “Scratch” Perry and The Upsetters, The Upsetter Shop, Volume 2: 1969 To 1973 (Heartbeat)
The Upsetters, “Sokup”
- Various Artists, Rhythm Shower, disc 2 of The Upsetter Compact Set (Trojan)
Dennis Alcapone, “Back Biter”
- Dennis Alcapone, Guns Don't Argue (Trojan)
- Various Artists, The Complete UK Upsetter Singles Collection Volume 4 (Trojan)
- Various Artists, Keep On Coming Through the Door (Trojan)
The Fall, “Why Are People Grudgeful?”
I learned about this song from a colleague during my days at community radio station WMUA, but I don't own a copy myself. However, the interwebs informs me that it was issued as a 12-inch single on Permanent Records.