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Lovers Rock, Gabicci Shirts, and ‘Rubbing Wallpaper’: Black Love Stories From The 70s and 80s

This article is in partnership with BBC iPlayer.

Ask any Caribbean person present for the best of 70s and 80s Britain about their memories of the time, and they’ll tell you about the house parties. Booming gatherings, with food just as rich as the bass-heavy music; eyes caught sheepishly across rooms; gyrating hips keeping up with rubber waistlines.

An extension of the festivities that West Indian shebeens and carnivals provided, these nights offered a sense of unbridled joy and escapism from the restrictive, harsh and very often racist confines of white Britain and wider society. Avoiding the expensive – or in some cases, exclusionary – nightclubs many young white Britons would have flocked to at the time, the parties gave way to underground sound system culture, birthing sub-genres of music never before heard in the cities and towns where they would later enter mainstream spaces. But it wasn’t just the freedom of tuning out the world for one night that made these nights so memorable – it was the chance of sparking romantic connections too.

McQueen’s Lovers Rock is an ode to his Aunt Molly’s experiences of sneaking out to blues parties.

Lovers Rock is one such manifestation of that energy. Birthed from the late-night parties enjoyed by Britain’s West Indian community in the 1950s, the late 1970s-80s hybrid genre of reggae, R&B and blues was the Caribbean answer to the slow jam – bringing together couples over slow and steady beats and high-pitched crooning. Think Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’, perhaps the most recognisable Lovers Rock classic, famous for that piercing chorus in falsetto.

Or award-winning director Steve McQueen’s nod to West Indian-British culture as part of his Small Axe anthology, which borrows from the genre’s namesake. Starring Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Top Boy’s Micheal Ward, McQueen’s Lovers Rock is an ode to his Aunt Molly’s experiences of sneaking out to blues parties – and his memories of witnessing these parties as a child.

In honour of the arrival of the already critically-acclaimed film, I spoke to West Indian couples about their real-life love stories in 1970s and 1980s Britain. 

Keith, a 62 year old Jamaican-born, London-raised man, met his wife, Lisa, in the early 80s through a mutual friend at a gig in Kensal Rise, North West London, when he was in his early 20s.

“I went there to see some reggae artist, I can’t even remember who it was. That’s where I met my wife. She was born here and her parents are from Barbados.

“It was kind of strange because she was telling me when I escort her home, I ought to behave because her parents think that people from Jamaica are thieves. The island rivalry was strong.”

With a self-described lack of “pulling-power”, Keith tells me the gig “wasn't intended to be a blind date”, despite progressing quickly afterwards. 

“I’d finished college and was going to work, but I didn’t really have a girlfriend. I wasn’t going out and wanting to meet people like everybody else was. Nothing really ever materialised.

“I’d like a girl, we’d go to a party and everything would be going OK, then a guy would show up driving a car, and she’d go with him because of that. I just thought, ‘Jesus Christ, this is difficult!’

“I used to have a very narrow-minded view of women in terms of the type I wanted, I was just following the trends.” When he eventually matured, realising that he was “looking for the girl that [he] was going to marry, as opposed to for the sake of it”, he met Lisa.

“She was charming and seemed level-headed and all those kinds of things, and she didn’t seem like a wild girl or anything like that. She was kind of perfect for me,” he says, adding mischievously: “little did I know, after a while, women can get vicious”.

“We were together for a long time before we got married. In the end, it was the respectable thing to do. It wasn’t kind of like, girl meets boy, falls in love and gets married. No. We’d gone through all that already. We just thought let’s just do it. You’ve got to remember, there was still an English stigma about people having kids out of wedlock. I think it was similar for black people, you felt that you’d come of age by getting married. For me anyway.”

Nancy, a Jamaican woman aged 73, met her husband Vernon, 75, a Jamaican bus driver who she’s been married to for 40 years on the way to work. Though they ended up sharing a lifetime together, arranging their first date wasn’t easy. 

“I was coming from work and I was on the bus behind his. I knew the conductor on his bus so I went and changed buses to go and talk to him, and then Vernon was introduced to me.

“My spirit just tek him there and then. I think I fell in love with him from the minute I saw him,” she says. 

After that initial meeting, Nancy “thought [Vernon] was married, so I asked my friend who worked in the bus garage and knew him to get some information about him. Once I found out he wasn’t married I kept leaving notes on his car but he wouldn’t reply to me.”

When things eventually fell into place, it was an invitation to Nancy’s party in Thornton Heath, London, in 1979 that did the trick. 

“I was having a housewarming party, I’d just bought a house on Colvin Road, so I left a note on his car inviting him to it.” When the day came, Nancy waited “with one eye open”, half expecting Vernon to be a no-show. Not this time.

“He turned up, he came. And you know, I think we were both smitten from then,” she adds. 

When Nancy greeted Vernon, she was wearing a white, fringe dress, à la Tina Turner. 

“When you move, it shake,” she adds, while Vernon mumbles in the background.

A man of few words who declined to be interviewed directly, Vernon chimes in throughout our chat, completing some of Nancy’s sentences, or lending help when a date or a name of a venue escapes her. 

“He just talking about ‘I used to wear that dress everywhere’,” she says, adding: “I loved it. I was very slim at the time so, you know, it sat nicely.”

I ask Nancy if she turned a lot of heads, to which she modestly responds, “Possible, possible. I don't know. There was only one I was interested in. 

“He used to pick me up every Friday night and take me to, um – what's the name of the club?”

The Hilltop”, Vernon answers. 

“Yes, Hilltop Club in Kent, Maidstone.”

But what makes their relationship work to this day?

“We're both miserable,” says Nancy, cackling, before becoming more sincere. 

“No, you just tolerate each other, I suppose. And be independent of each other. Not, I'm trying to tie you down or you're trying to tie me down. No, no. You have to trust each other, you know?”

Sexual liberation too, usually in the heteronormative sense, was a huge part of the pull of the house party scene, especially if you were a young adult. 

Women and men alike were free to express themselves through dance, wining as close as possible with their partners, pelvis to pelvis, or backside to crotch, in ways their parents likely discouraged. Nancy calls it “rubbing off wallpaper”.

“I don't know if you've ever been to a real, proper, reggae home party,” she says, “but basically back in the days, right, the dance was: the man would stick his back to the wall and the woman…” Nancy laughs sheepishly, “I think you need to go online and look it up.”

I asked my mother, Everine Shand, who came of age at the same time as Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is set, what it was like attempting to go out to parties in West Bromwich, a town in the West Midlands, in the face of her mother’s strict rules. 

“I was about 15 when I started going out in the early 70s. Parents were usually at work in factories, so kids were just on the streets. So a vicar in the local church gave us a hall and on a Friday we'd have a proper dance there. It went on until one o’clock in the morning,” she says. 

When it was time to get ready, Everine would “throw her clothes out the window” to a friend waiting outside. “Then we’d go to my friend’s house and I’d get changed there. It was difficult getting back in, because [my mother and I] shared a bed. 

“A couple of times my mum found out and locked me out of the house, one time in the middle of winter, so I’d have to sleep in my friend’s car. She’d never argue with you about it, she just wouldn’t talk to you for days afterwards.”

Everine stands in the centre of a group of friends, posing for the camera and holding up drinks
Everine and friends at a house party in 1979

It wasn’t until she came to London that she heard Lovers Rock, the music genre, in the early 80s. 

“My first time going to parties there, my great uncle introduced me to some friends, and we’d go to parties all the time. They went out with these local Harlesden guys who called themselves ‘Sticksman’. They used to dress in these Gabicci shirts, shiny shoes...they were just cool. There was one that I fancied called Lawrence. I remember one time we went to a party and we were dancing together all night. When the night ended, nothing else really happened. I found out that he had a girlfriend, but he was a really nice guy, handsome as well.”

She adds, “The parties we went to were amazing. The music was good, although Lovers Rock wasn’t really my thing, they’d play Carroll Thompson, Sugar Minott, Janet Kay. We’d go to parties at 1:30 and then get home at seven in the morning.

“Clubs were too expensive and a lot of us didn’t have cars, so it was difficult to travel. The host didn’t have to buy much besides food,” she says, adding that flirting with a man who had a car was often an essential means of guaranteeing a lift home for her and her friends at the end of the evening.

A group of young black people crammed into a living room.
Everine and friends at a house party in 1979

“First thing we'd ask a guy was ‘You got a car?’” she says in a mock high-pitched voice, admitting that “one of us would stay with that guy all night, he’d buy us all drinks and then at the end of the party, he’d drop us to each of our houses. We couldn’t afford cabs!”  

As lockdown mark two restricts us from enjoying nights out, house parties and more traditional means of stumbling on our love stories for the ages, the idea of being young, free and smitten couldn’t sound more alluring.

With many of today’s singletons robbed of the option to forge our own romances in the same way due to restrictions, we at least have the opportunity to live vicariously through the stories of our elders, whether their stories stood the test of time, or lasted for just one dance.

Small Axe is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.