Lovers Rock: remembering when reggae went romantic

Tone poem: Francis Lovehall and Ellis George in Small Axe: Lovers Rock - Parisa Taghizadeh/BBC
Tone poem: Francis Lovehall and Ellis George in Small Axe: Lovers Rock - Parisa Taghizadeh/BBC

Tonight, the second of director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, Lovers Rock, is on BBC One. It takes its name from a feel-good musical movement that emerged from the British West Indian community in the Seventies.

It’s set in a fictional party in a large house in west London in 1980, before Notting Hill became Hugh Grant-rified, and a considerable portion of its 68 minutes is spent on the dance floor. There’s still time for lots of chatting-up, confrontation and queues for the loos on the stairs, but in some ways it’s a mood piece, a tone poem of a film that sets out to capture the genuine feel of a time and place. Lovers rock, a blend of sweet soul and reggae, had reached the peak of its popularity in the UK charts in 1979.

It was romantic, heartbreak music, created by brilliant, innovative Seventies producers such as Dennis and Eve Harris, who set up the Lovers Rock label in Brockley, south London, and Jamaican Dennis Bovell, who specialised in adding quirky melodic elements to a rocksteady beat.

It owed little to the dominant reggae forms of the era – effects-laden dub, “toasting” MCs, and hard-edged political Rastafarianism – and much more to the love songs that began to make their way from Jamaica into the UK charts in the early Seventies, like Ken Boothe’s cover of Bread’s Everything I Own, which went to number one for three weeks in 1974.

Lovers rock tended to replace the beautiful male falsetto vocals of those songs – which had made it into ska and reggae all the way from Chicago via the early Sixties’ doo-wop soul of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions – with teenage girl singers, though not exclusively, which gave the songs a wistful, wide-eyed quality.

Willesden-born Louisa Mark, for instance, whose Keep it Like it Is gets a spin in McQueen’s film, was just 14 when she made a stir with Caught You in a Lie, while the ages of the girl band trio 15-16-17 are not hard to decipher. Their debut album featured a lovely cover of the Bee Gees’ Emotion, produced by reggae star Dennis Brown, who had relocated to the UK from Jamaica, and in 1978 re-recorded his 1972 track Money in My Pocket and made the Top 20. Meanwhile, before she went “back to life, back to reality” with Soul II Soul, singer Caron Wheeler was part of lovers rock trio Brown Sugar, who sang the adorable I’m in Love with a Dreadlocks in 1977.

Hitting the high notes: Janet Kay (with Aswad's Drummie Zeb) in 1979 - Lennox Smillie/Camera Press
Hitting the high notes: Janet Kay (with Aswad's Drummie Zeb) in 1979 - Lennox Smillie/Camera Press

Lovers rock was to reach its apogee, though, with Janet Kay’s 1979 hit Silly Games, which reached number two in the charts, and is still popular to this day. It’s the high point of McQueen’s film, too, quite literally. He dramatises Bovell’s desire to make the London-born Kay go all the way up to the sort of glass-shattering high note that he’d seen jazz great Ella Fitzgerald deliver in a TV advert for Memorex cassette tapes.

“When I wrote Silly Games and put that high note in there, it meant that every female in the dance would try and sing that note,” he said in 2014, and that’s what happens in the film: the DJ turns the volume down and all the women try to get up there with Kay; it’s a joyous sequence.

Lovers rock never really caught on with the Skinheads who embraced ska in the early Seventies, while the punks that came through in the late Seventies genuflected to Jamaican music, but preferred dub and political reggae. The Clash, though, did famously include the (frankly terrible) paean Lover’s Rock on their 1979 masterpiece London Calling. All of which meant that lovers rock felt from the outside like a scene that belonged to its creators and the young women and men who danced and flirted to it at parties like this one, until it finally hit the Top Ten. There’s an exclusivity to the party in McQueen’s film – and likely a deliberate role reversal, whites are on the periphery for once – but it looks like a lot of fun, especially landing in the middle of Lockdown 2, and the music is fantastic


Small Axe: Lovers Rock is on Sunday November 22 at 9pm on BBC One

Lovers rock: 11 tracks you need to hear

1. Minstrel and Queen – The Impressions

Not lovers rock, but an influence on it. This 1962 single by the Chicago doo wop soul group fronted by the young Curtis Mayfield mixed heavenly high harmonies with Mayfield’s sweet falsetto. Jamaican band The Techniques later covered it as Queen Majesty.

2. Queen of the Minstrels – The Eternals

The Impressions’ influence can be heard years later on this 1969 reggae soul classic – high harmonies and singer Cornel Campbell’s beautiful falsetto make its “I love you so” verse sound utterly heartfelt.

3. My Conversation – The Uniques 

Another great Jamaican falsetto singer, Slim Smith, lights up this song, with its irresistible quirky piano motif.

4. Silly Wasn’t I – Sharon Forrester

Jamaican singer Sharon Forrester’s influential 1973 single is as close to soul as to reggae. It’s a short leap now to British lovers rock.

5. Caught you in a Lie – Louisa Mark

The sound of homegrown lovers rock can be heard in this 1975 single by 14-year-old north west Londoner Louisa Mark, with her Ronnie Ronnette-like vocal style.

6. I'm in Love with a Dreadlocks – Brown Sugar

Before she went “back to life, back to reality” with Soul II Soul, singer Caron Wheeler was part of this lovers rock trio, who released this adorably quirky love song in 1977.

7. Silly Games – Janet Kay

Written and produced by Dennis Bovell, this tale of a will-they, won’t-they relationship  with its irresistible high-note vocal was recorded in 1977 but would reach number two in the UK in 1979

8. Money in My Pocket – Dennis Brown

Originally released in 1972, before Brown relocated to London and began producing lovers rock groups like teenage trio 15-16-17, this 1978 re-rerecording hit the Top 20.

9. Breezin’ – Tradition

Just to prove that lovers rock wasn’t all about the girls, this north London five piece produced a supremely laid-back groove, where the “sun is shining down” and pouring out of the speakers.

10. I’m So Sorry - Carroll Thompson

This self-written 1980 break-up song by the Hertfordshire-born Thompson is clearly influenced by Silly Games, but has a charm all of its own.

11. Night Nurse - Gregory Isaacs

“Tell her it’s a case of emergency – there’s a patient by the name of Gregory.” Lovers rock would make its way back to Jamaica, where a stream of brilliant reggae love songs would emerge in the Eighties, including this big club hit from 1982. Is Isaacs singing about a woman? We’ll leave you to decide.