19 Gerrard Street — formerly Gooseberry Sound Studio

Louisa Mark • Song: Caught You in a Lie — Louisa Mark

This is part of the Walk on the Wild Side project by Jackie Hopfinger and Mike Press. Read more at the project publication page.

Louisa Mark was still just fourteen when she entered 19 Gerrard Street and made her way down to Gooseberry Sound Studio in the basement. She was about to make the first recording in a musical genre that transformed black music in Britain and gave a voice to the new generation of black Londoners born and raised here.

Currently a hair salon, 19 Gerrard Street dates from the 1680s, with some major renovations in the mid 19th century. During this period, Gerrard Street attracted many European immigrants, with one account from the 1930s describing the area as “a little state of Italy joined to a fragment of one of the more distant of the French departements.” With an influx of Chinese refugees in the 1950s, Gerrard Street acquired its current identity as the heart of London’s Chinatown, and in 1968 Peter Houghton opened Gooseberry as an affordable demo studio. It was later used by the Sex Pistols for recording their demos, but on an autumn day in 1974 it was used by Louisa Mark to make history.

Born in 1960 to Grenadian parents in north west London, Louisa grew up in Shepherd’s Bush and was a keen and talented singer. As a young teenager she would have been familiar with roots reggae music and its references to militancy and marijuana through artists such as Bob Marley. As Lloyd Bradley writes in his brilliant history of black music in London: “Even if reggae at the time enjoyed its highest-ever status, the truth behind the enthusiastic acclaim of the UK music press was that many sons and daughters of the Caribbean simply couldn’t relate to those records.”

Young people like Louisa had grown up hearing ska and reggae — but alongside watching The Beatles, Dusty Springfield, The Supremes and Jackson 5 on Top of the Pops. Pop and soul from white and black artists was the soundtrack of their youth, and despite the considerable racism experienced by black Londoners, they shared with their parents a culture of aspiration — they were here to do better for themselves. “All in all,” explains Bradley, “it’s hardly surprising that London’s take on reggae music was far less confrontational and had a lusher, more conventionally pop-and-soul vibe, than what was being made in Jamaica.”

Having won a slew of singing competitions run by sound system man Lloydie Coxsone in Dalston, Louisa was invited by him to a recording session at Gooseberry. Coxsone also invited Dennis Bovell and his band Matumbi to the session. These three people did more than anyone else to embed reggae within the heart of British culture.

Sir Coxsone was one of the first sound-systems to play reggae in central London. Beginning at the Flamingo Club — just yards from Gooseberry Studios — he then moved to Colombo’s on Carnaby Street where he had a residency through from the sixties to the seventies. Bob Marley dropped by often, especially when he was living in London, and wrote Kinky Reggae after an evening at Colombo’s when the club was raided by the police.

Dennis Bovell was still just twenty but was well known in London for his Jah Sufferer sound system and his band Matumbi, which was formed initially as a backing band for visiting Jamaican musicians. The year before they had opened for The Wailers during their first UK tour. Bovell has since become one of the UK’s leading producers, working with I-Roy, Bananarama, Fela Kuti, Orange Juice, Madness and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

They had decided that the session would be used to produce a cover of a minor 1967 southern soul hit — Caught You in a Lie. Slowing the pace, and adding a Moog riff (which was unusual in reggae), Louisa recorded her vocal over the top of Matumbi’s backing. Coxsone took it up to his club at the Four Aces in Dalston that evening: “Immediately I cut it on a dubplate, and that first night took it back to the club. From the first time I played it, the whole place went haywire… It’s with that record that lovers’ rock truly started.”

10,000 copies were sold in the first two weeks it was in the shops, and was followed swiftly by Lennon and McCartney’s All My Loving. Louisa Mark opened the way for other black British artists to produce music that spoke to their interests, their aspirations and their culture — notably Janet Kay, the first black British woman to secure a number one hit.

Lovers’ Rock represented a profound shift in the culture of reggae, bringing women singers to the fore and lyrics that focused on romance rather than politics. Interviewed by the New York Times, Dennis Bovell described Lovers’ Rock in terms of a spirit of defiance: “When we came to look at making reggae in London and to give it a London identity, we were struggling against all the doubters that said, ‘You can’t beat reggae outside of Jamaica.’ You bet we can. And we’re going to do it here and show it to you.”

Reggae historian David Katz how this “offered an antidote to the male-dominated space of Jamaican roots reggae, whose Rastafari iconography and political specifics were often alienating for many black Britons. Lover’s rock became crucial to the formation of a black British identity during a politically and socially turbulent era.”

Initially very much a London and somewhat underground phenomenon, Lovers’ Rock had a significant influence on the pop mainstream through artists such as Sade, Culture Club and Police, while Jamaican artists such as Sugar Minott and Gregory Isaacs later sang in that style.

But the singer who kick started the whole genre was still at school when she made her pioneering recordings in the basement of 19 Gerrard Street. Putting her music career on hold in 1975, she returned to school to finish her studies, then signed to Trojan gaining Artist of the Year at the 1978 reggae awards. After a few years she left music entirely, moved to The Gambia and was involved in charity work. In October 2009 the first Queen of lovers’ rock died unexpectedly at the age of 49. The Guardian’s obituary writer described how her hit singles “are rightly regarded as classics of the genre and have never gone out of fashion.”

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