Like any hip-hop and R&B-obsessed teenager in the ’90s, I tried to keep one eye on what was happening in the reggae world while growing up. This was not particularly easy while living in rural New Hampshire in the pre-Napster era, but I was able to keep up with the major hits thanks to a few savvy friends from New York and the Strictly The Best compilation series that VP Records would release each year. VP always released two volumes at a time: one focused on the hardcore dancehall club music typified by artists like Beenie Man and Red Rat, and the other focused on reggae’s softer side, including romantic slow jams by singers like Beres Hammond and Freddie McGregor who became associated with the genre known as “lovers rock.”
While I didn’t think much about lovers rock at the time—it basically just seemed like Jamaica’s answer to the ballads that dominated American R&B in the ’90s—a few months ago I was inspired to dig deeper into the history of this overlooked genre. It turns out that lovers rock was originally a British phenomenon, growing out of London’s sound system scene in the mid-’70s. It represented a clear departure from the masculine, overtly-political Rastafari reggae that dominated Jamaica at the time, focusing instead on tales of forlorn love sung sweetly over fat basslines.
The use of synthesizers in reggae—and popular music in general—was largely unheard of in 1975, and the inclusion of a Moog melody transforms 'Caught You In a Lie' from a pedestrian love song into something deliciously surreal.
“Caught You In a Lie,” performed by Louisa Mark, the 15-year-old daughter of Grenadian immigrants, is widely regarded as the genesis of the lovers rock genre. The song is an artful fusion of two songs that were popular sound-system staples at the time: the melody and lyrics are a cover of a 1967 b-side by New Orleans R&B singer Robert Parker, while the backbeat is a subtle interpolation of the 1974 Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced track “Curly Locks.” Despite it’s derivative origins, Ms. Mark's quivering, melancholy performance gives the song a vulnerable appeal that crushes its source material. “You said she was your cousin, but I found out that she wasn't,” she sings, sounding heartbroken. “Two cousins don’t kiss, especially like this.“
The song was produced by sound system DJ Lloyd Coxsone for his independent label Safari Records, but the music was actually arranged and performed by Matumbi, who would go on to become one of the best-known British reggae bands of the ’70s. Dennis Bovell, the mastermind behind Matumbi, added a crucial element while assembling the track at London’s Gooseberry Studios: the warm, slightly off-key Moog synthesizer melody that insulates the track like a blanket of pink fiberglass. The use of synthesizers in reggae—and popular music in general—was largely unheard of in 1975, and the inclusion of a Moog melody transforms "Caught You In a Lie" from a pedestrian love song into something deliciously surreal. It’s no wonder that Bovell went on to become one of England’s most innovative producers in the late ’70s, helming a wide variety of classics, including albums by punk trio The Slits and dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.
“Caught You In a Lie” is just the tip of the lovers rock iceberg, which grew into a thriving genre thanks to songs by a rotating cast of talented young British ladies like Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson that became hits in both England and Jamaica, influencing a new generation of reggae singers. I’ve found myself listening to nothing but lovers rock on my morning commute, perhaps because it puts me at ease amidst the body-smushing chaos of the NYC subway. For a deeper dive into the genre, I highly recommend checking out The Best of Original British Lovers Rock Volume 1 a quality compilation that is currently streaming on Spotify.