Reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry is best known as the architect of reggae and dub, his mind-bending solo productions and his work with everyone from Bob Marley and the Wailers to the Clash to Beastie Boys. Less known by the general public, though, is the role he played in trying to extract Paul McCartney from a Japanese prison following a marijuana bust.
On January 16th, 1980, McCartney flew into Tokyo’s Narita International Airport with his wife Linda and their four children. He was five days early for Wings’ tour of Japan, an 11-date stint that would wrap up with three nights at the Budokan in early February. But all of that was cancelled when officials found 7.7 ounces of marijuana in his luggage and the Beatle spent nine days in a Tokyo prison.
“I didn’t try to hide it,” McCartney recalled in 2011. “I had just come from America and still had the American attitude that marijuana isn’t that bad. I didn’t realize just how strict the Japanese attitude is …my first night was the worst. I couldn’t sleep. I was frightened about the possibility of not seeing my family for years.”
Perry had previously worked with the McCartneys in 1977, when they cut Linda’s covers of “Sugartime” and “Mister Sandman” at his Kingston studio Black Ark. He sent a letter to Tokyo’s Minister of Justice voicing support for his friend.
RIP Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, reggae legend and proud defender of Paul McCartney. pic.twitter.com/GxLD1a3vVI
— Letters of Note (@LettersOfNote) August 29, 2021
“Dear Sirs, I LEE PIPECOCK JACKSON PERRY would LOVE to express my concern over your consideration of one quarter kilo to be an excessive amount of herbs in the case as it pertains to master PAUL McCARTNEY,” he wrote. “…I find the herbal powers of marijuana in its widely recognized abilities to relax, calm, and generate positive feeling a must. Herbs is his Majesty’s. All singers positive directions and liberty Irrations. Please do not consider the amount of herbs involved excessive. Master PAUL McCARTNEY’s intentions are positive.”
McCartney was released from prison after nine days. Perry’s reaction was kinder than McCartney’s former bandmate John Lennon, who reportedly said, “If he really needs weed, surely there’s enough people who can carry it for him. You’re a Beatle, boy, a Beatle. Your face is in every damn corner of the planet. How could you have been so stupid?”