Music

When Reggae Became Lover's Rock: An Interview with Don Letts

Photo: Turtle Bay / Courtesy of SLK Associates

Don Letts' latest endeavor, as part of his Turtle Bay Reggae 45 series of podcasts, is to tell the story of a notable but probably less well-known genre that helped to shape the identity of many young black Britons during the '70s: lover's rock.

As a filmmaker, musician, DJ, and radio host, Don Letts has just about seen it all and is still here to tell the tale. And what a tale it is. From spinning reggae and dub to the punk crowds at the Roxy as punk was wrenched, spitting, and snarling into the world, to joining with Mick Jones in the first incarnation of Big Audio Dynamite, to winning a Grammy for his seminal film on the Clash, The Clash: Westway to the World, Letts has always brought his own particular energy and aesthetic into whatever he does.

Being at the vanguard of many of the monumental changes in music and filmmaking in the '70s and '80s, as well as a witness to seismic shifts in British culture and society makes Letts uniquely qualified to tell the stories of the movements and events that shaped British society. His latest endeavor, as part of his Turtle Bay Reggae 45 series of podcasts, is to tell the story of a similarly notable but probably less well-known genre that helped to shape the identity of many young black Britons during the '70s: lover's rock.

Lover's rock emerged in the late '70s as a reaction to the reggae that was synonymous with those who had originally come to Britain from Jamaica as part of the so-called "Windrush" generation. With records like 1974's "Caught You in a Lie" produced and arranged by Dennis Bovell, and T.T.Ross's "Last Date" produced by Eve and Dennis Harris, the genre was finally given a name after Harris started his Lover's Rock label.

In terms of sound, lover's rock smoothed down the edges of roots reggae as it fused different musical styles, as Letts describes, "It had the bass that we all loved from Jamaican music, but it also had influenced a lot by American soul. More melodic things. It was that juxtaposition of melody against the heavy bass line that gave the British production its distinct identity."

At the time, the music of the older generation was still dominant and reflected their experiences growing up in Jamaica. "The predominant form of reggae at that time was very militant, very politicized, and that reflected the social, cultural climate of the time in Jamaica," explains Letts. Although this did translate to the experiences of young black people growing up in Britain to a certain extent, there was something important missing from the music coming out at the time. "The truth is, we weren't feeling like that all the time. You can't be on the frontline fighting all the time. Sometimes you do want to chill and relax and get more into your emotional side. We were all in our early twenties and matters of the heart were coming into the mix. There was a generation that needed a soundtrack relevant to the way that they felt."

That was hugely significant for a generation of young black people, who had been brought up in Britain and were looking for an identity that was not dictated by their parents' Jamaican roots, as Letts remembers. "The whole lover's rock thing was very much part of my generation trying to find its own way. I'm what you call black British, right, which kind of rolls off the tongue these days but back then it was a confusing concept. We were looking to America a bit, but we were obviously not American, and we were obviously taking a lot of tips from Jamaica, but we were not Jamaican. We were sort of this strange hybrid. lover's rock was very much part of that journey of trying to find our own identity, to bring something to the table."

Nevertheless, lover's rock can be viewed as something of an anomaly in youth culture. Rather than sticking two fingers up to a stuffy, crusty older generation with music designed to shock like the birth of rock 'n' roll or punk, the softened reggae of lovers rock was anything but antagonistic. "It didn't scare anyone off, man! It was all inviting," laughs Letts. Instead of music intended to shake the status quo, lover's rock appealed to young people on a more primal level. "The thing about Lovers rock is that it was designed for romance and matters of the heart but also for couples to dance to. Political reggae was designed for skanking on the dance floor, predominantly on your own or in groups of boys and girls. Lover's rock was for young lovers. An easy sell for young teenagers, especially with that bassline, man."

Despite the central message encouraging romance, lover's rock wasn't entirely apolitical. Most significantly, its emergence finally gave a voice to young, black, British women. "I think the most interesting thing about the whole lover's rock movement was that it was lead by young women across the board. Something that's never happened since in reggae. Let's be honest, reggae was a very male-dominated genre, but at that moment in time, it was all about the women who totally took over. That was a very empowering thing; it gave them not only equity but a kind of political equity in a weird way. They were all women doing that thing. Political with a small p kind of thing." A prime example of that was one of the defining moment of lover's rock era. In 1979 Janet Kay reached number two in the UK charts with the song "Silly Games", something Letts remembers well. "A tremendously empowering moment man. I think that was the first time a black British female artist had got that high in the charts."

Crucially, lover's rock also allowed young people to engage in the emotional side of the black British experience. That was particularly significant for young black males, as Letts explains. "There's a track called "Men Cry Too" (by Birmingham reggae band, Beshara). That's a big deal for people of Afro-Caribbean descent. It absolutely opened the doors for people to be a lot more honest." Lover's rock also addressed what it meant to be black during a turbulent time for black people in Britain. "One of the things I hope I got across was that they weren't just singing love songs. There were songs about black identity. There was a song called "Black Pride" (by Brown Sugar). It was tough in the '70s, man. I think people have to put it in the context of the cultural climate of the time. This was all against the backdrop of arrests and all the rest of it. There was a lot of pressure, man, a lot of pressure."

"Silly Games" marked the pointed where lover's rock really arrived, and Letts was there to see it move far beyond its London roots. "I tell you what I recognized primarily was the next journey that I saw happen was that this version of reggae that came from the UK caught the ears and imagination of the people in Jamaica. All of a sudden you had people like Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, they're making lover's rock tunes. Then the Jamaicans are coming over here and cashing in on it and almost took over." At last a generation of young black people, born and raised in Britain, identified with a style of music that was distinctively their own. "It was empowering for us as they were copying us rather than us copying them because that's how it had been up until that point. We were always emulating what was going on in Jamaica."

That recognition and success, maybe surprisingly, saw it resonate with artists from another emerging music genre, looking to define young British identity -- punk. "Later on I'm working with the Clash, and they do a bloody track called "Lover's Rock"! (from London's Calling)." Something that Letts takes no credit for. "I've got to say the whole thing about Don Letts turning everyone on to reggae, I mean people like Joe (Strummer), Mick (Jones), Paul (Simonon), and John Lydon, these guys were hip to reggae before they ever met me. That has a lot to do with Trojan I have to say. I'd love to take credit for it all but credit where credit's due; those guys were halfway there already because of Trojan and apparently some of them were even into lover's rock!"

To a certain degree, both scenes complimented each other. "Anything they would have hit me with, I would have already known, and I think that's the reason that we became friends because of our mutual love and I could introduce them to stuff that wasn't quite so obvious, let's put it that way. They knew about U-Roy, for example, but I could take them a bit deeper. We shared a mutual love of Jamaican music, and I was turned on by what they were doing with the whole punk thing. It was about turning each other on through our respective cultures. It's what cultures are all about really. I'd say the whole punk, reggae thing was not so much a musical connection but one of attitude, we were like-minded rebels."

The peak years of lover's rock were from 1975 to 1985 and, while its influence has reemerged over the years with artists like Sade, Lily Allen, and No Doubt, it had effectively served its purpose. Lover's rock left an indelible imprint on many young black Britons and, through his Rebel 45 series, Don Letts tell its story as few others could. As with all of his projects, his sole aim is to inspire people by keeping alive the spirit of the music he grew up with. "I was inspired by things that came before me. I put them into my creative mill and put my own spin on things. At the end of the day, I'm just trying to pass on the energy that made me who I am today."

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