To coincide with Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s series of TV films,
Andy Polaris has chosen a dozen songs that he remembers
enjoying and buying in the 70s and 80s – not a purist
list of lovers but to include similar lilting grooves of the period. . .
Lovers Rock, Steve McQueen, Small Axe, TV drama, music
A scene from Lovers Rock, episode two of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe drama series airing on BBC One. (Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh/BBC/McQueen Limited)

Janet Kay – Silly Games


Janet was pivotal to the Steve McQueen TV drama in the opening scenes as the women prepared a feast in the kitchen and again in a community celebration on the dancefloor. There is no doubt there was a sense of pride at her penetrating the established music business to peak as the UK number two in 1979 with Silly Games  (14 weeks in the top 75; re-entering again for three weeks in 1990). Today the track is regarded as a classic of the genre which introduced the sound to a national audience. It also earned Janet a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the first black British female artist to achieve a reggae song high in the British charts. It was written by famed reggae producer Dennis Bovell who also appeared in the drama. He worked with other artists including Sade, Fela Kuti, The Pop Group, Orange Juice and remixed Animal Nightlife’s Native Boy. I actually only met for the first time last year.

Louisa Mark – Caught You In A Lie

This is so much a hallmark of the genre as to be considered the first Lovers Rock track, especially with that voice epitomising the sound and flavour. Along with a cover version of The Beatles’ All My Loving and an album Breakout, she remains one of the best loved voices. She passed in 2009.

Victor Romero Evans – Slacks and Sovereigns

One of the vanguard of reggae’s British-based popular male vocalists. He has an acting career which includes two respected British movies Babylon and Burning An Illusion. McQueen’s TV series really does show the importance of fashion and this song celebrates sartorial style of reggae boys on a night out. The TV show emphasised menswear through the character Bammy who was a tailor resplendent in a white suit and perfect afro on which perched an uptown hat. Unfortunately the camera was too focused on the hip movements to identify the men’s footwear.

15 16 and 17 – Emotion

These girls used their ages as the group’s name and were very popular on the scene. This cover of the Bee Gees hit was also covered by Destiny’s Child and you do wonder whether they had heard this version. Extended with the dub breakdown, it certainly would have been a party favourite.

Carroll Thompson – I’m So Sorry

From a million-selling debut album Hopelessly In Love in 1980. Carroll is one of the names for ever associated with Lovers Rock. She has also lent her voice as backing vocalist to artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder and Pet Shop Boys. Along with Janet Kay and Victor Romero Evans, they form a touring group who annually perform their hits while telling stories.

Barry Biggs – Sideshow

A soothing falsetto and top-five hit for Jamaican born Biggs whose reggae cover versions (a dominate trend recording already popular hits) proved favourable with the British record buying public. Sideshow reached no 3 in 1977.

Black Slate – Amigo

A reggae group who we first heard with the more political song Sticks Man. Black Slate had their biggest hit with the melodic Amigo and a video that seems to be inspired by prevalence of spaghetti westerns at the time.

Susan Cadogan – Hurts So Good

Originally a stateside hit for Millie Jackson in ’73. The reggae cover by Susan Cadogan reached no 4 in in 1975. This song of seduction became a hit for the third time by Jimi Sommerville in 1995.

Sugar Minott – Good Thing Going

Leading male reggae artist Sugar Minott really crossed over with this feel-good romance which has retained its chirpy appeal over the decades.

Sheila Hylton – The Bed’s Too Big Without You

Written by Sting and originally performed by The Police, inspired apparently by an ex-girlfriend’s suicide. This is a great version and vocal by Sheila Hylton was a chart hit in 1981. The production by Harry J is crisp, with the unforgettable slick production elevated by legendary Sly and Robbie.

The influence of Lovers Rock still continues and here are
two successful artistes who bear witness.

Alicia Keys – You Don’t Know My Name (lovers version)

This song definitely lends itself to the Lovers Rock treatment. A less than chance meeting between a girl and boy, an invitation to get to know each other better (not dissimilar to Silly Games). Heavenly harmonies by The Moments giving an almost doo=wop feel. (Visit the live original rendition of Ellen on YouTube). This was a remix reggae version.

Sade – Lovers Rock

Sade paid tribute to the genre with their fifth studio album in 2000 followed up by a tour from which this performance is lifted: You are the Lovers Rock/ the rock that I will cling too. It delved into the multi-cultural roots that many of us shared. McQueen’s light drama paid homage to an era of black British culture often overlooked but however paved the way for a love affair with reggae, especially the sweetly-sung, harmony-filled and positive vibes variety. The early artists featured here along with other pioneers like Ken Boothe, Johnny Nash (mid-seventies), although not Lovers Rock artistes, opened the BBC airwaves for the sub-genres to flourish. Their musical hits without doubt helped inspire successful mainstream bands like UB40 and Culture Club to mine the same territory. Little is mentioned of the family entrepreneurial spirit of charging a small fee for these blues or shebeens with a paid bar and Jamaican fare (optional). So a light was shone in that dimly-lit sweaty room blaring out bass-heavy delights to echo a teenage memory for a generation. I can almost smell the Brut, Tweed, Babycham and Afro Sheen floating in the aromatic fog of smoke.

❏ Essential reading: Lloyd Bradley – Bass Culture When Reggae Was King