Earworm of the Week #7 – Lovers Rock, Janet Kay and ‘Silly Games’

Well, you don’t experience an ‘earworm’ for weeks and then two come along at once. I wrote about the phenomenon last week in relation to another song, from an advert, but I defy anyone who has watched Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock not to have Janet Kay’s Silly Games on repeat in their head afterwards. Lovers Rock is the second film in Steve’s anthology film series Small Axe which tells stories about the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s. The title references a proverb – ‘If you are the big tree, we are the small axe’ – that was popularised by Bob Marley in his song Small Axe.

I was drawn to the episode after watching an interview with Steve where they showed the trailer. I was intrigued, as it was only last month that I first heard the term Lovers Rock. When writing my tribute post to those we have lost from the world of music this year, I found a quote from Boy George who had been saddened by the death of Johnny Nash.

‘R.I.P to the reggae legend Johnny Nash. One of the artists who made me fall in love with lovers rock and reggae music in the early 70s. So many amazing tunes and a voice like silk. I have never really known a time without reggae music. He was one of the greatest.’ – Boy George

At the time I thought it was a typo. I didn’t think it made sense, but then when sharing my story about a break-up, I found a suitable featured song by Alton Ellis who himself was a proponent of Lovers Rock. This short film was the third time it had cropped up in as many weeks, so time to investigate.

It seems Lovers Rock is not a genre or subgenre as such but a style of reggae music noted for its romantic sound and content. It became really popular in South London in the mid-1970s and combined the smooth soul sounds of Chicago and Philadelphia with rocksteady and reggae bassline rhythms. The style had particular appeal amongst women and produced many female stars. Dennis Harris set up a new record label, Lover’s Rock, at his South East London Studio along with Dennis Bovell, which gave the new style a name. It was Bovell who wrote and produced Silly Games, which reached number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in 1979. He got the inspiration for it from an advert where Ella Fitzgerald sang a note and broke a glass – ‘I wanted a song with a note like that. Little girls always try to sing a high note, so when I wrote “Silly Games” and put that high note in there, it meant that every female in the dance would try and sing that note.

Silly Games by Janet Kay:


Back in 1979 I was a great fan of radio and chart music so I know this song well, but I had never heard of Lovers Rock back then so wouldn’t have known it was part of something much bigger, almost spiritual. After watching Steve’s film I now get it. The film is really quite mesmerising and follows the events taking place over a night and morning during a London house party in 1980. There is very little dialogue, but somehow it doesn’t matter and we feel as if we are there with them.

For second-generation West Indian immigrants, who were denied access to white clubs, these parties were a haven where they could dance, drink, smoke and be themselves. It was common in a big house to clear the furniture and carpets to make a dance floor, set up the sound system and have curried goat served up from the kitchen. The main character, Martha, sneaks out of her devout mother’s house after dark and she and her friend Patty take a bus ride to the party. Once there, they pay their 50p to the doorman, cross the threshold and look forward to what the night will bring.

In 1980 I lived at the opposite end of the country from Martha and her friends and come from a totally different cultural background but what struck me most about this film is that there is a commonality amongst young people to want to get together, listen to music and dance. It’s biological. As the night wears on the tempo changes and the music inspires slow sensuous dances but every couple is in their own little bubble, oblivious to those around them. Not that dissimilar to the house parties I went to as a teenager before we were old enough for clubs and pubs. Many of the romances kindled during those parties have survived the test of time, but of course like Martha, our parents knew nothing of them. A lot of sneaking around and the creating of alibis had to be done in the run up to the event.

If you haven’t yet watched the film, I would thoroughly recommend it. I haven’t watched the others in the series yet but I plan to. As for this style of music, first I discovered Alton Ellis, and now I understand the background to some of the chart hits I remember from the 1970s. I’ll finish with Ken Boothe and his 1974 hit Everything I Own. It now makes sense that Boy George also recorded a version.

Until next time…

Silly Games Lyrics
(Song by Dennis Bovell)

I’ve been wanting you
For so long, it’s a shame
Oh, baby
Every time I hear your name
Oh, the pain
Boy, how it hurts me inside

‘Cause every time we meet
We play hide and seek
I’m wondering what I should do
Should I, dear, come up to you
And say, How do you do?
Would you turn me away

You’re as much to blame
‘Cause I know you feel the same
I can see it in your eyes
But I’ve got no time to live this love
No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games
Silly games

Yet, in my mind I say
If he makes his move today
I’ll just pretend to be shocked
Oh, baby
It’s a tragedy
That you hurt me
We don’t even try

You’re as much to blame
‘Cause I know you feel the same
I can see it in your eyes
But I’ve got no time to live this love
No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games
Silly games

Silly games
Silly games (No, don’t wanna play)
Silly games (Your silly)

No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games