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Baker's Dozen

No Boundaries: Dennis Bovell's Baker's Dozen
Neil Kulkarni , October 20th, 2021 09:48

From his time working on classics like The Pop Group's Y, The Slits' Cut and Janet Kay's Silly Games, to the inspiration of Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles, Dennis Bovell takes Neil Kulkarni through his thirteen favourite records


Janet Kay – ‘Silly Games’

As featured recently in Steve McQueen’s magnificent Small Axe, could you tell us about that scene and your cameo?

I wanted to play a bus conductor! My dad came to this country in 1958 and he was a bus-conductor, he was the guy who had that machine on his hip issuing tickets. There was a part for a bus-conductor but instead Steve said he wanted me to play the neighbour upstairs at the party where ‘Silly Games’ played. He didn’t tell me he was filming me, and I thanked him because he had the presence of mind to politicize that song - that line “We’ve got no time to live this lie, to play these silly games” - he really gave it that political aspect that even I wasn’t aware of at the time.

‘Silly Games’ is just totally different structurally and sonically from other reggae songs of that period isn’t it?

Yes, deliberately so. I set out directly to write a hit, and I pictured a girl in her room singing into a hairbrush and I knew that that moment where Janet goes high was going to be a moment. Most reggae songs either didn’t have choruses or followed conventional reggae structures - ‘Silly Games’ for me took on everything I’d learned from songwriters like the Beatles, it was a pop song structurally, verses, choruses, a bridge, a little tickle at the end, all the parts with slightly different rhythms - perfect for the dance. And I wanted it to sound different too. Only 3 people are on that record. I play guitar, bass and synthesizer, Janet sings and the drums are by Zebbie from Aswad. The drums were key - the hi-hats are playing afrobeat, the kick is disco, there’s some Ghanaian hi-life in there as well. I knew how I wanted it to sound but I knew I couldn’t play it for three-minutes straight - Zebbie loved it and nailed it - juggling all these styles - and threw in a few fills as well that I couldn’t predict but that really worked with the lyrics and emotion of those moments. I was in that position of playing on the record but also the writer and the engineer and that was key in getting the sound I wanted.

As a musician, a producer, and a DJ at the time you must have been in a unique position to actually road test new songs with the people who really matter - the dancers.

Yes, just across from my studio I’d play in a youth club called the Metro Money every Friday night and I’d play my own dubplates - to see how the people reacted to things and test things on a sound-system, I loved that, that feeling of being tested and letting new sounds just fly out there. Always fascinating seeing people’s reactions immediately like that.