Could Steve McQueen start a lovers rock revival with Small Axe?
One of the most memorable moments in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock – the latest film in his five-part anthology series Small Axe – comes when a room full of young revellers sing Janet Kay’s classic Silly Games with their eyes closed, lost in the music, as they imitate her signature falsetto.
A staple of the lovers rock genre, which emerged in the 70s and was a blend of pop, reggae and disco, Kay’s song is the centre piece of McQueen’s film, which is itself an ode to the house parties, or “blues”, that his auntie attended as a young woman.
Spotify and Apple Music both say they are expecting a rise in listeners searching for the genre after Sunday’s screening of the film on BBC One, while meticulously constructed playlists influenced by the film have already circulated online.
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Dennis Bovell – who wrote Silly Games, named the genre and has a cameo in the film – says a revival of the genre could be imminent. “Yeah, it’s always possible,” he said. “In fact, there’s probably someone planning it as we speak.”
Ed Bailie, the music supervisor on Small Axe, agrees that something could be brewing and says he has started to see hints at a revival with the singer Tiana Major9 recording a lovers rock remix of her track Think About You.
After he had written Silly Games, Bovell approached Kay after a session at Gooseberry studios in central London, where he was working as an engineer. He sang the song to Kay, who thought it was “alright” and agreed to record it.
Released in 1979, it took Kay and the lovers rock sound to No 2 in the UK.
It was the breakthrough moment for lovers rock, one that took it out of the house party scene and into the mainstream. “I think what made it special back in the day, was that it was a music that created by second-generation West Indians in this country,” said Kay.
“As kids we were fed rocksteady, soca, calypso, pop, R&B and Motown – what made lovers rock was the mix of all of those things that we were exposed to growing up.”
By the 1980s, lovers rock was an established genre and the house parties were taking place all over the country: from St Ann’s in Nottingham and Broomhall in Sheffield to Handsworth in Birmingham and Hulme in Manchester.
Illicit and promoted through word-of-mouth, the events took the name of the person hosting: Donkey Man’s and CJ’s were notorious parties in Sheffield, while Duke’s, Sonny’s and Maxi’s were brand names in Leeds.
Kay, who recently took part in a seven-hour online reggae marathon as part of Brent’s borough of culture celebrations, says lovers rock was also about being immaculately turned out.
“It’s a complete turnaround to what the kids now look like,” says Kay. Men would wear Gabicci shirts and Farah trousers, while women would opt for gold belcher chains and pencil or pleated skirts.
Music journalist and author Matt Anniss researched blues for his book Join the Future, and says that as well as being a haven for black youth who found themselves barred from city centre clubs, they were breeding grounds for cultural creativity and mixing.
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“All kinds of people would end up going there because they knew that they could get in. They also knew they would have less chance of having their head kicked in by football hooligans on a Friday night,” says Anniss.
While McQueen focuses on the experiences of his aunty at London blues, Anniss says that Leeds was arguably the best place for the parties in the country at one point and provided the inspiration for the British techno sound.
Lovers rock and roots reggae may have ruled at the early house parties, but as the 80s ended, a more diverse mix of hip-hop, house and reggae was being played and would eventually inspire Bradford’s Unique 3 and Nightmares on Wax, who DJed at blues.
“A lot of those artists would make music to be played on blues soundsystems, which favoured heavy bass,” says Anniss. “Would British dance music have developed without that reggae and dub influence people heard at blues? Probably not, would be my argument.”