Say hello to the schoolgirl revolution and the shortest cut to cleaning up in UK reggae. And ya thought reggae was all about guns, ganga, and God. PENNY REEL puts you wise. (Ya no see’t etc.)
I DON’T exactly check lover’s rock, you no see’t, but it’s well cool in dark, crowded, perfum’d clubs.
The prerogative of any girl who ever wore a tartan skirt three inches from her ankles and black stockings, ‘Lover’s Rock’ is presently the commercial highspot of reggae music in the UK, and has been so for the past two years.
“Cover a soul hit, preferably with a girl singer,” says Greensleeves’ Chris Cracknell testily, “put it out on a discomix, and that’s the market.” He turns gloomily back to his Augustus Pablo dubs.
“We started the Hot Stepper’s label to cater for lover’s rock,” he continues, “and put out that Cygnus tune; but we’re discontinuing the label. I’m totally disillusioned with the music, it’s doing me head in Penny.”
A lot of people in reggae have little good to say about lover’s rock, but when it comes to the very serious business of getting it on everybody dances to it.
And that’s the whole point. The term “lover’s rock” itself has only been in currency since it was coined by producer and label owner Dennis Harris in 1977, but the motion it defines has been around ever since the first two people got it together. Say so.
And when the gathered congregation gets mellow and sweet around about 3am on a wet Sunday morning, in tune to a sound system like Chicken Hi Fi or Soferno B; and as cut succeeds sentimental cut on the turntable; for a while at least you can forget the Babylon pressure. When the rhythm hits you, you gotta stick with it, just hold up a dawta and wine; bwoy you don’t even check a next music!
Because the way the scene operates at the moment, lover’s rock and its derivatives and relatives is the single dominant musical style in reggae, with even dub-oriented sound-systems like Coxsone and Fat Man increasingly including it in their repertoire of stricter militant sounds, and attracting a greater proportion of female followers as a direct result.
Nor is lover’s rock confined to the sound systems alone. Whereas most reggae singles sell no more than a few thousand copies at most, lover’s rock titles shift in tens of thousands, and continue to sell. Every week new titles and new artists make their appearance on wax in response to a seemingly insatiable demand from its audience.
You got it: there’s a boom on, and at least in one corner of this miserly earth people are grooving on love.
GOLD RUSH considerations notwithstanding, lover’s rock can claim no real departure from mainstream Jamaican music. If its people didn’t exactly discover close dancing, they certainly invested it with more expressive nuance than hitherto.
Groups such as the Jiving Juniors (led by Derrick Harriott), duos like Keith & Enid, and solo vocalists such as Tony Gregory and Wilfred (later Jackie) Edwards were the popular names of sentimental balladeering in the early development of the recording industry, but it was not until the rock-steady era of the mid ’60s that the style took definite hold on its audience’s imagination — some would say reached its peak — eclipsing the traditional folk themes and moral tales (from Jehovah to Annancy) of ska, and which were to recur prominently again in the roots/Ras Tafarian preoccupations of the ’70s.
As well as distilling all the tonal elements that continue to exert pervasive influence on popular Jamaican music, rock-steady was also the generative of all its giant names; harmony trios like The Heptones, Paragons, Techniques, Silvertones, Gaylads, and Sharks; while fertile soloists like Alton Ellis, Slim Smith, and Ken Boothe, among many, deployed a style that has been the keynote of reggae vocals ever since.
John Holt from The Paragons went on to enjoy an uninterrupted reign of popularity in the genre that reached its climax with his 1,000 Volts LP of 1973. During 1974/5 a movement of teenage girls a flutter brought about a Ken Boothe revival on the reggae scene, culminating in a performance that eventually even penetrated the wider nation’s consciousness when ‘Everything I Own’ went on to become a No.1 national hit. Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and Pat Kelly are among the more consistent artists to ply similar expression in recent times.
This is all elementary, but the promotion of Bob Marley to a rock audience from 1973 onwards provoked media bias to the more ostentatious images of reggae, with a distorted, even spurious preoccupation with all things dread, dub, and ganga, and much remains unexplained. A more balanced reflection of the music’s true attitude was that reflected by its audience’s own personal taste, which has been largely disregarded.
During the 1974 summer season it was the Dennis Walks ‘Margaret’ moodisc, and local lady Ginger Williams’ ‘I Can’t Resist Your Tenderness’ that were dominating sound-systems everywhere. Both dealt with the boy-meets-girl theme, produced in the understated sentimental style that was to characterise lover’s rock three years on, and in many ways serving as its model.
The mainstay of the lover’s rock market was to consist of comprehensive schoolgirls; and, barely out of gymslips themselves, black female singers were accurately interpreting the same sentiments of their contemporaries and former schoolmates. It was this repository of disregarded womenfolk that, at the record’s peak, were buying ‘Tenderness’ in greater volume than many of the discs in the national top twenty were selling during the same period, even though it never charted.
Louisa Mark, who emerged the following year, was to emphasise this point. A Lloydie Coxsone protege of barely 14 years old, Ms Mark won instant favour with the reggae audience when her debut interpretation of Bobby Parker’s ‘Caught You In A Lie’ — a tune firmly embedded in the archetypal unconscious of the local Jamaican community — became the hit of the year.
Following a couple of years’ silence, during which time Louisa completed her education under the duress of seemingly endless management and record company wrangles, including a brief Trojan contract, she was taken under the wing of producer Clem Bushay to re-emerge last year at the height of the lover’s rock explosion with two of the genre’s most endearing discomixes: ‘Even Though You Are Gone’ and ‘6 Six Street’, both hugely successful in ’78, with the latter still in heavy demand now. A singer of impressive range and force, Louisa Mark always brings her personality to bear on the heartbreaking material she sings so evocatively, and her volatile spirit is already legend in reggae circles. I admire her courage tremendously.
It was Jamaica, though, which provided the final impetus, if one was needed. Immediately prior to lover’s rock definition as such, the style was being determined in the productions of studios like Channel One, King Tubby’s, and Joe Gibbs, especially in their regurgitations of rock-steady rhythms.
Dennis Brown’s Visions LP, Marcia Griffiths’ ‘Naturally’, Leroy Smart’s ‘Superstar’, as well as individual efforts from Ruddy Thomas, In Crowd, Cornel Campbell and others were further indications of lover’s rock’s commercial potential; and the point was finally driven home by Delroy Wilson’s recut of The Wailers’ ‘I’m Still Waiting’, which enjoyed perennial sound-system sponsorship through the length of ’76 and early ’77.
LEWISHAM label-owner Dennis Harris began his Lover’s Rock label in mid ’77 with issue of a tune entitled ‘I’m In Love With A Dreadlocks’ by Brown Sugar — a female trio. The girls had previously recorded a couple of unremarkable efforts for Mr. Harris’s Lucky label, and ‘I’m In Love With A Dreadlocks’ had already in fact been issued as a limited edition “pre” for the sound-systems. It was here that the tune first generated excitement, convincing Harris to make it available on general release.
The tune was an instant No. 1 hit, as was the follow-up, ‘Black Pride’, while a third release from the trio did almost as well; Barbara Lynn’s ‘Hello Stranger’ which came with an arrangement courtesy of the ‘I’m Still In Love With You’ rhythm, itself later to find national fame as ‘Uptown Top Ranking’. From nowhere, Brown Sugar had emerged as one of the year’s top selling singles acts, reggaewise.
Lover’s Rock consolidated its reputation as a hit label with similarly commercial waxings from duo Roland & Carolyn Catlin and ‘I Admire You’ (another No. 1), and ‘You’re Having My Baby’; Ms Catlin’s solo on Marcia Griffiths’ ‘Peaceful Woman’; Cassandra’s ‘If You’re Not Back In Love By Monday’ and ‘I’ll Never Let You Go Out Of My Life’; and the white songstress T T Ross improving upon her 1975 local hits ‘Last Date’ and ‘Single Girl’ with ‘Jealousy’ and ‘I Will’.
The same year brought about a rash of issues in the style, with local producers quick to see its commercial implications.
Undoubtedly, however, the greatest act in popular terms was the 15-16-17 trio, who were based on the Brown Sugar line-up, and eventually came to emulate them.
Recording for the DEB label under the guidance of Castro Brown, 15-16-17 began their career in less than auspicious fashion with a reedy recut of The Gaylads’ ‘Red Rose’, and struck gold with their follow-up, ‘Black Skin Boys’ (“are better”), a racist sentiment to be sure, but one readily echoed by the legion of black skin girls — not to mention a number of their white skin sisteren — who bought the record.
Throughout 1978 the girls notched up a string of lover’s rock discomix monsters that included ‘Emotions’ (yes, the Bee Gees number). But that was the peak of their success, and interest in 15-16-17, who often betray their untutored inexperience live, has somewhat diminished.
Another producer who reaped the benefits of his lover’s rock titles during 1978 was Delroy Witter, a Wembley-based sound-system operator who featured the genre heavily on his Success Sound.
Further triumphs came the way of Jama’s Cool Notes group on ‘My Tune’; Revelation’s ‘With You Boy’ out of the Leyton-based Write Sounds; Trojan’s Marie Pierre and ‘Walk Away’; and Junior English with ‘In Loving You’.
From Jamaica, The Tamlins group recorded for a variety of producers, recutting rock steady titles in a lover’s rock style to bewitch UK audiences with ‘Hurting Me’, ‘Ting A Ling’, ‘Undying Love’ and ‘Stars’.
In similar vein, The Heptones, garnered action on ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’, as did Pat Kelly who made a big impact during the year with ‘I’m So In Love’, ‘You Send Me’, and ‘No Love’. Big as ever, of course, was the inexorable Dennis Brown, scoring on ‘Money In My Pocket’, ‘How Can I Leave’, and ‘The Half’, among others.
Of the newer labels working the genre, Patrick Cann’s Arawak outlet is probably the hottest at the time of writing.
And if your interest has been sufficiently whetted, other recent releases in the style include T T Ross’ ‘Won’t Mention It Again’ and ‘Tonight’ on Dennis Harris’ new Love Bird Discomix label. Lover’s Rock now having been discontinued; Tabby of The Diamonds and ‘It’s Gonna Take A Miracle’ for Soundoff; I Society’s ‘Sad Movies’ and ‘It’s True’ for Starlight; Cornel Campbell’s ‘Whenever You Need Me’ for Thompson Sounds.
Or, as the anonymous graffitist in North London say: “Lover’s rock rools OK.”
© Penny Reel, New Musical Express, 27 January 1979