Lovers Rock, a unique sub-genre of reggae music, has made an indelible mark on the global music scene. Characterised by its romantic sound and content, lovers rock has not only influenced other musical genres but has also played a crucial role in the formation of a Black British identity during a politically and socially turbulent era. This article delves into the captivating history of lovers rock, from its roots in the late 1960s to its continued influence on contemporary artists and the music industry today.
Origins of lovers rock
The roots of lovers rock can be traced back to the last days of the rocksteady era and the early days of reggae. Jamaican and American singers like Ken Boothe, Johnny Nash, and John Holt enjoyed international success with their renditions of well-known love songs. As a style particularly suited to the London reggae scene, lovers rock provided an apolitical counterpoint to the conscious Rastafarian sound that dominated Jamaica at the time.
Lovers rock combined the smooth soul sounds of Chicago and Philadelphia with rocksteady and reggae bassline rhythms, resulting in a distinctive and appealing sound. Rooted in the sound systems of South London, its popularity among female listeners led to the rise of numerous female stars, including Carroll Thompson and Louisa Mark.
Key figures in lovers rock
Dennis Harris and the formation of the Lovers Rock label
The emergence of lovers rock as a distinct genre can be attributed to visionaries like Dennis Harris. Harris, a Jamaican immigrant, opened a recording studio in South East London with John Kpiaye and Dennis Bovell as the in-house players. Together, they crafted reggae cover versions of Motown and Philadelphia soul ballads with vocals from artists like TT Ross, Cassandra, and the harmony trio Brown Sugar, which featured future Soul II Soul vocalist Caron Wheeler.
Harris later formed a record label called Lover’s Rock, borrowing the name from an Augustus Pablo dub B-side. This move solidified the new genre and gave it its name.
Dennis Bovell: The prolific producer
Dennis Bovell was a key figure in the development of lovers rock. He worked as a songwriter, producer, and musician. Bovell’s unique skills and vision played an essential role in shaping the sound of lovers rock. He produced Louisa Mark’s “Caught You in a Lie,” which became a major hit in 1975 and later worked on Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” which reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in 1979.
Mad Professor and the Ariwa label
Neil Fraser, better known as Mad Professor, was another influential producer in the lovers rock genre. With his Ariwa label, Fraser enjoyed widespread success with both lovers rock and roots reggae. He played a crucial role in the rise of artists such as Sandra Cross, Lorna G, Kofi, and John McLean, helping to shape the sound of lovers rock in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The emergence of conscious lovers rock
South London trio Brown Sugar, including a young Caron Wheeler, pioneered a sub-genre known as ‘conscious lovers.’ Their songs, such as “I’m in Love with a Dreadlocks” and “Black Pride,” combined themes of love and romance with political and social issues. Other artists who released records in this sub-genre included Winsome and Kofi.
Lovers rock in the charts
Lovers rock produced several chart-topping hits, most notably Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” which reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in 1979. Other successful artists included Dennis Brown with “Money in My Pocket,” Sugar Minott’s “Good Thing Going,” and Maxi Priest with “Wild World” and “Close to You.”
Influence on mainstream music
Despite being primarily an underground phenomenon, lovers rock had a significant impact on mainstream music. Pop acts such as The Police, Culture Club, and Sade drew inspiration from the genre’s romantic themes and distinctive sound. In particular, The Clash introduced the term to a wider audience by including a song called “Lover’s Rock” on their 1979 double LP, “London Calling.”
The international spread of lovers rock
Lovers rock enjoyed popularity beyond the UK, with its influence reaching as far as Japan. Established Jamaican acts like Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, and Freddie McGregor have also dabbled in lovers rock.
The Role of lovers rock in Black British identity
Lovers rock played a crucial part in the formation of Black British identity during a politically and socially turbulent era. As a genre indigenous to Britain with strong Jamaican influences, it provided cultural continuity for the second generation of black Britons, albeit with a distinctive British sound.
The politics of lovers rock
Although not as explicitly politically conscious as other reggae sub-genres, lovers rock was inherently political. It engaged with politics for both the female face of the genre and the male-dominated production and ownership of the genre. The music portrayed patriarchal discourses through its creation of politically contentious erotic spaces that challenged racism while also encapsulating the struggles of gendered oppression dealt with by women.
Lovers rock today
The popularity of lovers rock has continued well into the 21st century. Contemporary artists like Peter Hunnigale, Lloyd Brown, and Donna Marie have enjoyed success with the genre, and several British stars have performed at Reggae Sunsplash. Lovers rock remains a significant part of the global music landscape, continuing to influence artists and listeners alike.
The history of lovers rock is a testament to the enduring appeal and influence of this distinctive British reggae sub-genre. From its roots in the late 1960s to its continued impact on contemporary music, lovers rock has left an indelible mark on the global music scene and played a vital role in shaping black British identity during a challenging era. As a genre that has transcended borders and inspired artists worldwide, lovers rock stands as a powerful reminder of the power of music to unite, empower, and inspire.