The Story Of Lovers Rock

The other night, scouring the cable channels for something half-way decent to watch, I stumbled on The Story of Lovers Rock, on the Africa Channel. Any outlet for such a delightful documentary is to be welcomed, but it would have been better served if hosted by BBC America, for The Story of Lovers Rock could easily be sub-titled The Story of British Reggae.

For those who might not know, Lovers Rock is a highly melodic, commercial and (per its name), romantic sub-genre of reggae, one that emerged in the UK during the time I was growing up in multi-racial South London, and the credit, at least based on this 2011 documentary, goes largely to the productions of Dennis Bovell, especially his mega-hit for Janet Kay, “Silly Games.” Jamaica had something similar going on, what with the likes of Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown, but The Story of Lovers Rock deliberately pays only lip service to the Caribbean musicians. This is very much about UK assimilation and adaptation – both of a music, and a people.

The Story of Lovers Rock is a palpably upbeat and positive movie, in part because director Menilik Shabazz hired black comedians for droll nostalgic interludes (while getting round the paucity and cost of period footage with what seems to have been an Lovers Rock reunion package show at the Brixton Academy), but also because everyone involved seems to remember primarily the good times. Institutionalized racism is most certainly discussed, with Linton Kwesi Johnson highlighting the New Cross fire of January 1981, in which 13 young blacks died in a fire at a house party, and the police rapidly closed its investigation into the cause, drawing a connection to the subsequent Brixton (and national) riots – but most other politics, and all politicians, are mercifully excluded from the story.

Instead, we hear from the likes of Bovell, Kay, Tipper Irie, Sylvia Tella, Maxi Priest, Levi Roots, Earl and Astro from UB40, Mykaell Riley from Steel Pulse, author John Masouri, Dub Vendor proprietor John MacGillivray, and the Mad Professor, among other producers, musicians, and, especially, club-goers. For those of us who didn’t go to the parties, it’s an education to hear of the various dance styles, and the universal familiarity of finding yourself in a dark room dancing close for hours with someone only to realize, when the lights go on, that they are repulsively “ugly.” And that is not male sexism, as the anecdote comes from the charming writer and comedienne Angie Le Mar.

Le Mar says she’s from Harlesden, though her voice brings me straight back to South London. Indeed, one of the delights of the documentary, other than reliving so much good music, and so many cultural development, is to hear the accents. Almost nobody in the documentary speaks in Jamaican patois, though plenty utilize the modern cockney as charted by Tipper Irie with “Hello Darling”; we also get some solid Brummie and some wonderful Manc – as well as a few snippets of the Queen’s English that our teachers of the era despaired of us ever using. It all serves to demonstrate that Lovers Rock was the product not so much of Caribbean immigrants to the UK, as the children of those Caribbean immigrants – the first generation of British blacks. There were plenty tough times between blacks and whites during this era (as copiously detailed in Boy About Town), but The Story of Lovers Rock serves to remind us that for every racist white youth, there was another who embraced the music and the culture. The Story of Lovers Rock is neither filmed in, not is it a story of black and white; it is a movie all about color.

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October 2021