Inspiration Information: A series of occasional essays to celebrate shaping forces and their tangents. There will only be words. And each essay will be presented in small segments to make life easier and to disrupt the flow.
Tuesday, 16 January 2018
A writer who goes by the name of Penny Reel is indirectly responsible for much of the activity here. For, a tale he told in an edition of the NME way back in April 1979, in what was a Bank Holiday mod special, has had remarkable consequences.
‘The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story’ was Reel’s account of the very early mod years set in and around his native North and East London. It was a secret history oozing with an extraordinary amount of detail, and it took years (in the pre-Internet age) to decode the mysterious range of references woven into the story. It also introduced a cast of characters that would remain with this reader.
What has also remained is the heady sensation of gradually processing so much new information, and the painstaking piecing together of odd facts and strange names. It is a delicious feeling of intoxication that has recurred potently whenever exploring new areas of musical and cultural activity.
This sense of having your world turned upside down and inside out was acknowledged in the very first issue of YHO back in 2008. The second issue, a month or so later, returned to the theme of Penny Reel’s writings, focusing on his book Deep Down With Dennis Brown, which was lovingly put together and billed also as a short story. It seems to have been first published in 2000, shortly after Dennis’ death. Its subtitle is Cool Runnings and the Crown Prince of Reggae, and it is quite simply one of the best books about music ever. The piece in the second YHO sort of concludes by stating: “I’m not sure what became of Penny Reel.”
Well, since that time, Reel has published three books, and there are hopefully more on the way. Like the beautiful Dennis Brown book, these are Drake Bros. publications, Reel’s own imprint, and all are fiercely independent affairs. The first of these, from 2012, is Monkey Business In The Monkey House, which is a beautifully researched account of teenage gangs and crime in and around Hackney in the post-WW2 years up until the original mod era.
The other two books are written by Reel under the name of Thomas Horace Whitmer. The first of these, which appeared quietly in 2014, is Up The Dreary Slope, a novel which tells the story of a man who has lived on the Pentonville Road for 44 years, but whose heart remains in the village of Shacklewell in Hackney where he was born and raised. In a way it tells of his struggle to escape from Shacklewell and ultimately his determination to return there. It is also an indispensable social history of London over the past 60-odd years, which weaves fact and fiction together with many a sleight of hand until it is difficult to tell what is real (or Reel) and what can be taken with a pinch of salt. In many ways it is really Reel’s own story, and often a way of wreaking revenge.
The most recent Whitmer novel is In Groves And Along Lanes, which is made up of four interconnecting tales covering all London’s compass points and taking in many of the capital’s significant events over the past 60-odd years. With Up The Dreary Slope it forms two-thirds of a promised London trilogy.
All of these books, to a certain extent, connect back to that 1979 NME story in terms of places, faces, themes and detail. And, amid this activity, there has been Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson’s book, Mods: The New Religion, pretty much an oral history of the original mod era, which is something it is harder to get right than most people assume. Not everyone can be Studs Terkel or, more relevantly, Jonathon Green. There is no shortage of mod-themed books on the market, but Paul’s is well-balanced, and right up there with the very best. And Penny Reel’s contributions to Paul’s book steal the show, particularly where he revisits and expands upon aspects of his 1979 story.
It may be unfair to harp on about a very particular part of one man’s writing career, one which may be unrepresentative, and which may not mean as much to anyone else, but then again Reel himself does keep returning to his mod tale or elements of it, like a jazz musician playing with a signature tune or one of Reel’s treasured reggae singers revisiting, reworking, reversioning an old hit. Whether Reel’s stories are true or not is totally irrelevant. He has created a specific legend or mythology, and has pretty much defined a particular aesthetic.
Penny Reel’s mod story was a shaping force here, as much a part of the teenage reading process as Kerouac and Sartre. His tale, as published in the NME back in 1979, was incurably romantic, and illuminating, in the absence of much else. There were fragments of Generation X or Revolt Into Style, but not much else around. Reel’s tale was absorbed here before discovering Absolute Beginners, before finding Gary Herman’s book on The Who (though certainly the Purple Hearts knew that one), before Richard Barnes’ Mods! book appeared, before Nik Cohn’s Today There Are No Gentlemen was found in the local library, before Jonathon Green’s Days in the Life came out, and even before the NME ran Steve Turner’s comprehensive interview with Peter Meaden, though that too became a sacred text here.
There are those among us who might make something of a specialised subject out of Penny Reel’s accounts of the origins and evolution of modernism among the youth of Jewish East and North London in the early 1960s. For us, maybe, back in 1979, most importantly Reel’s story would be the antidote to Quadrophenia at the cinema, and all the other kids roaming round in parkas with patches sewn on. It, more than anything else, celebrated the idea of mods being outward-looking, open to new ideas and influences, and being bright and smart, which seemed to have a lot more to do (here, at least, if nowhere else) with the early Subway Sect story (another enduring fascination) than it did with idiots fighting on the beach down at Brighton or saving up to buy scooters.
This is also an idea that Steve Sparks famously put forward eloquently in Days in the Life, a quote which has been recycled often. Steve, incidentally, puts in a brief appearance in Thomas Horace Whitmer’s Up The Dreary Slope, and also crops up in the story of The Deviants. In his great book Give The Anarchist A Cigarette Mick Farren wrote about the early days of his group and said: “The second recruit to the team was Steve Sparks. Steve had a Romany gypsy background and was another ex-mod from East London, who thought that pop music had ended with Phil Spector, but still took a delight in anything that might cause trouble. He was one of the old-style mods, the ‘modernists’ who pre-dated – and rightly thought themselves infinitely superior to – the scooter boys who followed. The ‘modernists’ were essentially stylish beatniks, working class existentialists who smoked Gitanes, drank Guinness, looked at the pictures in Saluts Les Copains although they couldn’t read a word of French, and worshipped Miles Davis in his golden era of cool, copying his silk suits and perfect mannerisms.”
In his original 1979 story Reel introduced a memorable cast of characters. The opening is gripping, and this can be recited from memory: “In the beginning - or so the story goes - there are only three real mods, and one of these is flecking Lea Davis' brother. Mind you, it is Lea Davis himself who first puts this about in general currency, which means it is not necessary true, as it is known locally and wide that Lea Davis is more than somewhat fond of his brother, whose name is Wayne and who is said to have the best collection of Jimmy Witherspoon records in London.” It is a line Robert Elms misappropriates in his novel In Search of the Crack, but at least it is in there.
Among the other characters we meet are Charley (or Charlie) Steiger, Yonker Malcolm Chiswick, Beardy Pegley the foppish hard nut with an apparent fondness for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and ,the particular favourite here, Lennie Tyler who we are told is “a very intense and temperamental character, much disposed to extended bouts of broody, sulky silence”. He first appears on Tower Hill doing the Continental Walk and, with odd echoes of Hercule Poirot, brushing imaginary flecks of dust from his simple midnight blue mohair suit. These are all characters we will meet again.
As well as the dramatis personae, the locations seem particularly important and, to those of us from elsewhere in London and beyond, oddly exotic. The 1979 story is set in and around Stamford Hill and thelocal schtip (or amusement arcade) and the bowling alley(which was the first in the UK), Tower Hill, Pentonville Road, Mare Street, the Chez Don in Dalston, Kingsland Waste, and the markets in Middlesex Street, Club Row, and Ridley Road. Farther afield, of course, there is the exotic world or the promised land of Soho.
These parts of London are recurring features of Reel’s books. In particular Thomas Horace Whitmer in Up The Dreary Slope is a living witness to the way that part of London has changed. He celebrates what successive waves of immigrants have brought to his city. He has similarly watched in despair as middle-class incomers have brought about the creeping gentrification, so much so that those born in the area 60-odd years ago, like him, find it nigh on impossible to live there. But Thomas is still there, long after the shops, pubs, cafés and restaurants he remembers have closed and the people he once knew have moved away. He is still there to tell his tale, and it is such an odd delight to have a book ostensibly about London written by someone who has lived there all their life.
In Absolute Beginners the father figure with his unfinished history of Pimlico is portrayed as rather a pathetic individual, but Penny Reel or his altered ego Tommy Whitmer unrepentantly loves local history, and has a vast collection of books on the subject (only Eddy Grant has a larger collection, apparently), and though he loves walking around the metropolis he doesn’t make a big song and dance of it like Iain Sinclair whose books, particularly the one on Hackney, Tommy loathes, echoing Jah Wobble’s comments in his memoir about the so-called scribe of Hackney never having anything to do with local working-class London people.
Reel, rather like Jack Kerouac, seems to have a prodigious and perhaps faulty or selective memory. He stands as a willing witness, an inside outsider, listening and observing: he was known as The Observer was he not? He has a complicated love and hate relationship with London, with the native Cockney’s convoluted set of prejudices and twisted snobbery (like the memorable dismissal of a couple of old NME colleagues as pretentious provincials), so that it is possible to mourn the disappearing working class while despising them as ignorant peasants. Who said we have to make sense?
In his 1979 NME article on mods Penny Reel declared: “The maiden wave of modernist youth emerges out of the East End and Essex sometime around 1960, as reaction in style against the coffee-bar cowboy definition of check shirts, striped drainpipe trousers, winklepicker shoes, Tony Curtis hair styles, Marino Marini records on the Durium label, and Old Compton Street in Soho. Precursors of the new look wear their hair short in the French style, back-combed, and with a centre parting, carry umbrellas and LPs of the soundtrack from On The Waterfront, smoke Sobranie cigarettes, and put their hands in their back pockets, Bette Davis style.” That reference at the end there to Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ is a typical Reel touch, and an allusion only really understood, here when Kevin Rowland, circa 1981, made quite a thing of mentioning Bob’s Highway 61 Revisited prompting an investigation.
According to Reel, the early modernists were “at first, very rare and wonderful people, such as you might see no more than a half a dozen, and probably not even that, on a Sunday morning saunter along Middlesex Street and Club Row markets.” In the Monkey Business book Reel writes about this same small band, made up of teenagers from semi-affluent Jewish families, hanging around Stamford Hill bowling alley, “favouring conservative smartness, clothed in knitwear of the same shade”.
These kids adopt clothes of modern French and Italian style, hence maybe the term modernists, which is abbreviated to mods as gentile youth adopt and adapt these fashions. More glorious detail by Penny Reel on this, the clothes, the shops, the music, clubs, etc. is scattered through Paul Anderson’s mod book, including a great passage about mods’ fondness for continental films which again has echoes of the early Subway Sect story.
Reel persistently makes the case for the early mods as progressive, pioneering, porous beings. He writes again, as Tommy Whitmer, in his book In Groves And Along Lanes, about the origins of modernism among a small cool crowd of Jewish youth, hanging out at the Stamford Hill bowling alley, and playing pinball at the schtip down the road: “It starts as a kind of club with a group of arty, intellectual boys at the Stamford Hill Boys Club who are reading books by French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and US beat writers such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, listening to raucous US R&B records”. He mentions again about dressing in identical outfits, matching knitwear, like the ubiquitous grey crew-neck sweaters which are a recurring Reel motif and, dare one say it, an early Subway Sect one.
This Whitmer passage comes within his story of Frank Stokes, a youth who grows up in the East London of the time, and who adopts aspects of the mod look, notably buying a leather-trimmed olive-green suede jacket from Johnny Gould’s leatherware and hats place of Dalston Lane. Frank’s story at times is rather like Reel’s, and Frank even knows Charley Steiger from Bodney Road, Dalston. As things move on Frank becomes a hippy, in line with developments in Reel’s 1979 story, though these are likely to be missing from any transcript you might find online, but then again you might find them quoted in a Simon Frith book.
As Peter York (not a favourite person of Reel’s) puts it in an article he wrote on the 1979 mod revival for Harpers & Queen in September 1979, and which was later included in his Style Wars collection: “The embarrassing reality is precisely this: that in 1966/7 most of the top Mods, the originals, the Faces, whatever their backgrounds, went some kind of psychedelic. Mods became hippies. And the only writer I’ve come across to bring this out explicitly is a man called Penny Reel, on the New Musical Express, in a brilliant piece in April based on his own memories.”
In Reel’s piece there came a time when The Scene Club's coolest couple were to be seen "dressed in exotic Tibetan smocks, with Indian silk scarves affixed to their wrists, sandals on their bare feet, wooden beads around their necks, daisies in their hair, and looking for all the world like, as one observer put it, two flecking gypsies. They proceed to tell anyone who will listen that love is all what really matters."
Mickey Tenner, one of the names cited by Reel as being among the early modernists in his area, mentions in Paul Anderson’s book about the mod thing being left behind and how after being deported from Franco’s Spain (a badge of honour, no doubt) he came back to London and frizzed his hair up and wore cow bells around his neck. There is a lovely picture from that time too of Mickey “embracing the new style”. Even in Richard Barnes’ Mods! book Mickey looks (in gently mutated clerical garb) as exotic as Anthony Blanche in Brideshead or at least Nickolas Grace’s splendid performance as him in the TV adaptation.
Frank Stokes in the Tommy Whitmer book becomes devoted to The Doors (and there are some rousing passages relating to the group which is great to see), and also to Love (not coincidentally these are two of the very small number of ‘rock groups’ in the loosest sense to get the Reel/Whitmer seal of approval). There is a mention of Frank growing his hair long and listening to da capo by Love lying on his bed, “eyes closed, lost in the sweet, jangly music.”
Reviewing an Elektra reissue of Love’s da capo for the NME back in May 1981 Penny Reel memorably wrote: “Expressions tell everything! I see one on you. Pace the jangly guitars and Jaggerstrutta vocals, all are faithfully worked into the faded weave, inscribed in myth, as is the debt to Johnny Mathis, or how up close Arthurly is so hip it like really phases you out. I mean, you know the buzz you get off of really good Moroccan? With pictures and words, is this communicating? Personally, I always consider that Bryan Maclean is crucial to Love’s apparent dichotomy. He provides the flower power motif that lends many ears to regard this music as artefact.”
Reel added: “Nor must we forget the huge debt the world owes to Mr Tjay Cantrelli’s sunglasses, neither neglect mention of John Echols, who provides not altogether proficient but certainly peppermint guitar noises. We may also make issue of harpsichords from Telemann, the fact of Karl Marx having lived above Leoni’s Quo Vadis restaurant in Dean Street, the recommended reading of Ralph Ellison for greater insight into ‘She Comes In Colors’, the apparent dated aspect of ‘Orange Skies’, even though sunsets are blessed with as roseate a blush as ever they were in 1967, and the K in ‘The Castle’.”
When it was first released da capo was not glowingly reviewed in IT or the International Times, part of the underground press Frank Stokes would have read (for he did the whole hippy thing of moving across town to Notting Hill to share a house, etc.). Penny Reel actually got to write for International Times back then, having himself become fully immersed in the hippy milieu.
Parts of Penny Reel’s review of Love’s da capo for the NME in May 1981 are quoted in the YHO publication A Moment Worth Waiting For (a book about shaping forces which remain, in a section related to the emergence in 1982 of Pale Fountains, the young Liverpool group who were evangelists for Love as well as Bacharach & David, and who probably prompted many of us to buy that reissue of da capo. That particular section goes on to refer to a July 1974 edition of the International Times (IT) where there had been another (Penny Reel) short story featuring several of the characters that appeared in his 1979 NME tale ‘The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story’.
The IT fable is credited to Peter L. Simons (Reel’s alter ego), and entitled ‘Maximum Enjoyment: The Politics of Piss Takin’’. It is a somewhat surreal tale set in an East London school (Upton House Secondary Modern), making it almost an early 1960s Cockney Decline and Fall, where ‘failed mod’ is the biggest insult of all. The story has its serious points though: “The birth of enjoyment, like the birth of the blues and the death of hope, took place in a ghetto. Not a black ghetto, the product of racism, but a white working-class ghetto; disease of heart and mind. Neither was enjoyment a cry against poverty and oppression, although these did exist, but more a nod and a wink in the direction of fatality. An acceptance of the facts of death, squarely faced and bitterly resented. Moreover, enjoyment was never an offspring of love, but one of hate.”
Within the text there is a reference to the legendary Lennie Tyler, with his hands sunk deep in the pockets of his Kingfisher Blue mohair slacks, doing the Continental Walk and sulking. It continues: “He brushed what might have been a speck of dust or might have been imagination from his light dog-tooth jacket - cut in the French style with pleats and a double vent - and again regarded the minute stain of milk on his pastel jersey; designed by Pierre Cardin.”
Charley Steiger also appears, and it is revealed what happens to him after leaving Upton House: “The Charley becoming Chas (without a full stop), discovered Kerouac, Van Gogh and the road. He learnt that an old raincoat will never let you down, applied for Art School, ate chips and drunk beer in Parisian bistros, loved Yeats and Brecht, and later went to LAMDA. Presently he realises his life-long ambition. An out-of-work actor.”
Oddly enough there is a vague recollection here of a part missing from the online text of Reel’s 1979 mod story where Charley buys a raincoat and goes off to Paris to join the existentialists. That may be one’s fanciful imagination playing tricks. In Up The Dreary Slope Tommy Whitmer sees Charley again, performing in a production of Troilus & Cressida at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, in the early part of this century.
Beardy Pegley also appears in the Upton House tale where he is reported to have bought “a brown bri-nylon mac, a Lambretta, and joined the Mods, the most ironic blow of all”. This is the same diminutive dandy who “bought a shotgun, maimed Buttons Walsh in Mare Street, and went to Borstal”.
A dialogue between Beardy and the narrator forms the core of Reel’s 1979 story, with plenty of the one-upmanship that goes on between kids discussing music. There is a mention too of an incident where Beardy insults the singer Eden Kane (whose 1964 hit ‘Boys Cry’ would be charmingly covered by The Distractions in 1980) in the Chez Don nightclub, in Dalston. In Reel’s book Monkey Business it is revealed what Beardy tactlessly said, as part of a larger account of the incident where the greaser Buttons gets shot.
An anecdote about Beardy Chris Pegley, at Upton House Secondary Modern, stealing a Crombie overcoat from the cloakrooms, thus popularising the garment among the mod fraternity, is retold in Paul Anderson’s book. Beardy also appears in Up The Dreary Slope when Tommy Whitmer attends his first dance, which is held at Hackney Down school. Beardy’s gang of mods are present, as are the local rockers, and lots of non-partisan young girls, though reportedly the “prissy mods are more interested in each other’s clothes than in the girls”.
It might be fun at some stage to do a thorough search of the International Times or IT archive to see what else may be there Penny Reel-related. There is one article, uncredited, in a December 1970 edition, on reggae music which ties in with the release of Horace Ové’s remarkable Reggae film, which seems to have Reel’s fingerprints on it, with mention of the pioneering R&B label and how “the black labels were the result of Coxsone Jamaican tapes being pressed by Mrs King in Stamford Hill and handed out with the groceries”.
If you are not familiar with the story of the Jewish couple Rita and Bennie King, their shop in Stamford Hill, and the family of labels they ran, including R&B, Ska Beat and the UK arm of Caltone (there is an excellent round-up of the Jamaican label’s 45s on Pressure Sounds), then have a look online for a piece by Malcolm Imrie, for the formidable Mrs King plays an extremely important if unlikely part in the story of black music in the UK, rather like Ma Palmer of Groove Records in Soho.
The Kings’ R&B shop is referenced in Reel’s In Groves And Along Lanes within the story of Marvin Cohen who runs his own small record shop in a basement on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station. Marvin we are told is a “small, balding man in his fifties, wears mohair suits and Fred Perry shirts and a pair of moccasins on his feet. His shack is called Aphrodisiac Records and is patronised by people of Marv’s ilk, old mods and skinheads for the most part, as well as an assortment of West Indian and African customers searching for ska, reggae, calypso, highlife, Congolese music, Northern Soul, deep soul and rhythm and blues”. There is a mention of Marvin hearing ‘Skank in Bed’ by Scotty on the Tommy Vance show circa 1974, and how he “buys the record the following day for 50p from R&B Records on Stamford Hill. It is Rita King who serves Marv and she asks after his family.”
Reel’s 1979 mod story features the memorable conversation between the narrator and Beardy Pegley during which they discuss ska and blue beat, mentioning in passing ‘Too Much Whisky’ by Errol Dixon, ‘Gypsy Woman’ by Derrick & Patsy, and ‘King of Kings’ by Jimmy Cliff. And, to put this into some sort of context, this story would have been published at around the same time that initial independent editions of The Special A.K.A. ‘Gangsters’ vs. The Selecter single came out quietly, in a stamped plain-white paper sleeve, just as Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister for the first time.
In Up The Dreary Slope Tommy Whitmer mentions first hearing ska at a record stall, Nat’s Records, in Ridley Road market. In Paul Anderson’s book, Reel mentions that ‘Railroad Track’ by Laurel Aitken on Blue Beat was the first ska tune he bought, followed with ‘Gypsy Woman’ by Derrick & Patsy. Steve Barrow, of Blood and Fire fame, is also featured in the book and mentions how he first heard ska at a place called the Limbo, in Soho, and this was ‘Sea Wave’ by Derrick & Patsy, and how eventually he learned he could buy such records on Angel Lane, Stratford, in an ironmonger’s shop.
Steve has also spoken of how in the mid-1970s he became friends, for a while, with Penny Reel and how they would go hunting all over London for secondhand records. There is a lovely passage in Up The Dreary Slope where Reel as Tommy Whitmer tells a great story about going on a protest organised by the Movement for Colonial Freedom, in East Ham, back in 1974, opposing the imprisonment of Desmond Trotter in Dominica. After the demo Tommy walks along Green Street, browsing round the secondhand furniture shops with their boxes of old singles, all at 5 or 10p each.
Tommy buys some old reggae 45s, and more unexpectedly finds a selection of old psychedelia and acid rock releases, some very rare items, on white labels and so on. He presumes these belong once to Ian Sippen, who was one of the leaders of The Firm, the gang of anarchist East London mod wreckers who steal the show in Days in the Life, and also in Mick Farren’s autobiography. Apart from Ian, there was Peter Shertser, and they both got involved with The Deviants too. And then there was Dave ‘Boss’ Goodman, and Adrian Gurvitz (before he thought of writing a classic in his attic), Lawrence Silver, and Malcolm Chiswick, too, so that there was some nice overlap with Reel’s mod tales. Reel recounts some of their antics in Up The Dreary Slope.
Ian Shippen died in 1973, having drowned while on holiday in Morocco, an incident about which there were questions in the House. In a fit of pique his mum reportedly gave away his precious record collection to a local junk shop, a fabled collection which apparently included three Ral Donner albums according to Mick Farren. There is, incidentally, a pen sketch of Ral Donner (and for some reason there is a memory of him being mentioned in Reel’s 1979 story, though again that is not online) along with ones of other recurring names in Reel’s myths and legends, like Gary U.S. Bonds and Hank Ballard.
As a footnote to the story of the demo and the subsequent record shopping there is the anecdote about Reel wearing a woollen hat which his mum knitted for him in Rasta colours, which somehow seems the most lovely thing in the book. Elsewhere there is a description of Reel as Peter L. Simons, a local poet and crazy local character: “He is part hippy, part Rasta, part working-class chancer, part-time scoundrel.”
It is as the NME’s reggae regular correspondent that Penny Reel is best known to many of us. And it is a front-page feature for the paper on Dennis Brown, from February 1979 which forms the basis of Reel’s Deep Down with Dennis Brown book. This article coincided with the imminent crossover of a Lightning release of Dennis’ ‘Money In My Pocket’, which became a big UK hit the following month. Oddly Reel’s book, with its gold-embossed cover and portrait picture of Dennis Brown, is somehow reminiscent of the luxuriously glamorous sleeve of Snatch’s ‘All I Want’ / ‘When I’m Bored’ which came out in the UK on Lightning in 1978.
Despite being featured in The Clash’s ‘Hitsville UK’ Lightning is not an independent or small label that is mentioned too often in connection with Rough Trade, Factory, etc. There is not even much about the label online. It got mentioned in one of the editions of YHO (which was titled Skimming Stones) where it was described as “a strange old concern, probably best known now for its reggae releases such as Althea & Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ (a UK number one), Culture’s ‘Two Sevens Clash’, Dennis Brown’s ‘Money In My Pocket’, and the Joe Gibbs African Dub series, some of which were in turn licensed to WEA. It’s tempting to go on and mention Prince Far-I’s ‘Heavy Manners’ and the mysterious Elizabeth Archer’s ‘Feel Like Making Love’ and its astonishing dub side. Lightning just to confuse things also released a bizarre array of punk cash-in singles (e.g. Lloyd Grossman as Jet Bronx) as well as a series of football related records which would make Mike Alway drool.”.
Other labels that were associated with Lightning were Scope (which had reggae hits in the UK with Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ and Errol Dunkley’s ‘OK Fred’) and the Old Gold label which in the days before the salvage industry took off was an invaluable outlet on the high street for sought after sounds from pop’s past. Lightning’s main man Alan Davison went on to run the Laser label whose roster included Dennis Brown, Can and Samson, though as predicted by Reel it proved impossible to replicate the success of ‘Money In My Pocket’ in the UK singles chart.
In the second edition of YHO it said about the Dennis Brown book that “the amount of detail in this short story is striking. It is of the sort that only an obsessive who has been in the right places at the right times, and has kept the right records, can provide. The jumble of memorabilia and whatnot is as fascinating as the words. Flyers and photos tell their own stories. If there is a subtext to the story it is that of how reggae music had an impact on the UK.”
The book really provides a great snapshot of reggae in London during the 1970s, and highlights the different ways of working, the contrast between an artist and their music being released in the reggae world and the comparatively orderly manner and logical sequence of, say, the UK pop underground. The litany of Dennis Brown’s releases in the book is positively labyrinthine. The book also makes clear the incredible network, outside of the mainstream, of clubs, studios, labels, distributors, shops, sound systems, blues parties, shebeens, characters, chancers, all active within the London reggae scene, of which Reel again is an observer, an outsider on the inside. Have a look online for a tale Reel tells about when Keith Hudson came to town, and that gives a good illustration of his strange position as part of the reggae world.
Deep Down is filled with great writing, like a description of ‘Money In My Pocket’ selling like hard dough loaves from Mr Tom’s bakery in Ridley Road. Dennis himself is a great choice as lead character, being a fascinating figure, somehow achieving a precarious balance between militant roots reggae and sweet lovers rock, and achieving great popularity across the reggae spectrum, including headlining for three nights at The Rainbow theatre in Finsbury Park, in September 1977, with his guitar held high like Subway Sect would at the time, with perhaps a shared taste in fine knitwear too.
The book opens with Lloydie Coxsone’s residency at Columbo’s on Carnaby Street. There is some lovely history of the venue, going back before it was the Roaring Twenties, and there is overlap here with the opening part of Tommy Whitmer’s In Groves with mention of the Mau Mau gang and so on. Later, well into the 1960s, Reel describes how the club is frequented by “predominantly West Indian teenage males dressed in Crombie overcoats and Church’s brogues and sporting bluebeat titfers, together with their similarly attired English peers, hard mods with crewcut hairstyles known as suits.”
In the concluding chapter of the Dennis Brown book Reel deals with the growth of ska and reggae in the UK, and there is mention of how “during 1963 certain sides like Jimmy Cliff’s ‘King of Kings’, Derrick & Patsy’s ‘Gypsy Woman’ and Prince Buster’s ‘Madness’ acquire cult status among modernist white youth,” and how young West Indians in London adopt the “bluebeat titfer which joins the ubiquitous grey crew neck sweater and gingham check shirt as de rigeur dresswear and by early 1964 a bluebeat craze is well under way.”
Delightfully Reel credits the playing staff of Chelsea FC with helping to popularise Prince Buster after they return from Jamaica in the 1966 close season, and how at home matches that season the captain Ron Harris leads his team out to the strains of ‘Sammy Dead’. Reel is a passionate Spurs fan, but in Up The Dreary Slope Tommy Whitmer admits that in the early 1960s he catches the bus across town to watch Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge, which throws up the intriguing possibility of Tommy sharing the terraces with B.S. Johnson, though it would be just too early for the kids from Subway Sect to be there too.
Despite being so closely associated with reggae, and being so dismissive of rock music in the wider sense, Penny Reel’s taste in music as detailed in his books demonstrates a wider musical taste. Essentially, generalising madly, he loves the righteous rhythms, or the 3Rs: rock ’n’ roll, rhythm ’n’ blues, reggae. In this he has much in common with Roger Eagle, though there is no real clue as to whether they knew one another, and perhaps they were just kings in their own arenas.
From reading the NME religiously at the start of the 1980s there are faint memories of Reel reviewing old doo wop or whatever compilations from Charley or Ace, and also a vague recollection of hearing Reel’s name, unexpectedly, while listening to a rock ’n’ roll show on the radio sometime in the 1980s, possibly on Capital, maybe hosted by Stuart Colman, in connection with some arcane point of specialised knowledge.
Reel is particularly good on the music from the dawn of the 1960s, kind of after the initial rock explosion and before what people tend to think of as mod sounds came into circulation. A definite highlight of The Faber Book of Pop, edited by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage, available in your local library or wherever, is a piece Reel wrote for the magazine Let It Rock in 1975. It is ostensibly a celebration of Jimmy Jones’ ‘Good Timin’’, a number hit in the UK in July 1960, but it sort of sets the scene for much of Reel’s hagiography, with its use of a transport café in Chatsworth Road, in Homerton, with its magical jukebox, the best in all of Hackney, blasting out Eddie Cochran, Brenda Lee, Dee Clark, Gene Vincent, The Coasters, and Jimmy Jones’ ‘Handy Man’, though it was slow off the mark with the follow-up ‘Good Timin’’, which Reel heard for the first time on Radio Luxembourg:
“Few records have that instant impact, that purely subjective élan of half-hysterical, stomach-constricting, sublimated sex ecstasy. The description suffers; it cannot be described, only felt. U.S. Bonds’ joyous ‘Quarter To Three’ was one, so was The Doors’ ‘Love Me Two Times’, also Lorna and Scotty’s ‘Skank in Bed’, Jessie Hill’s ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’, and maybe half a dozen others.”
Reel mentions hearing on the caff’s jukebox Hank Ballard’s ‘Finger Popping Time’. In Up The Dreary Slope Hank Ballard’s finger pop is adapted to take in the great tradition of flicking the Vs, which he uses against Boris Johnson in the aftermath of the 2011 riots in a hilarious episode where Tommy Whitmer encounters Boris and his cronies on the streets of Hackney. At times like this Tommy comes across as an avenging angel, stalking the streets, and haunting all those who get right up his nose.
The phrase that Reel used in IT back in 1974 springs to mind about the politics of piss taking. There is no doubt about the man’s hatred of politicians and the establishment (including his teachers, the police, and so on), and in particular the likes of Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph, Cyril Smith, and Tony Blair all come in for direct attacks.
One of the most appealing parts of Reel’s 1979 NME story was the mention of mods teaming up with taxi drivers in 1962 in Ridley Road market, Dalston, to drive out the fascist Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts who were attempting a comeback. In the 1974 tale there also was a reference to Lennie Tyler and his mates throwing stones at Mosley in Ridley Road. The incident was front page news at the time. “Mosley Beaten Up” screamed the headline on the front of the Daily Mirror, adding that his son Max was arrested. Now it is easy enough to call up newsreel footage of the day’s events, with the immortal line: “They cried ‘down with Mosley’ and down he went.”
The Mosley incident forms a central part of Jo Bloom’s debut novel Ridley Road, a historical romance, and one of the best books of modern times. Set in the summer of 1962 it is the story of young Vivien Epstein and her love affair with Jack Fox, a brave young Jewish man from East London who infiltrates Colin Jordan’s vile and openly Nazi-supporting National Socialist Movement. Jack is affiliated to the newly formed 62 Group, which was set up among the Jewish community of East London to take direct action against the resurgent fascists, and their activities include disrupting a fascist rally in Trafalgar Square, and stopping Mosley from speaking in Ridley Road.
In Reel’s Monkey Business he links the rise of violence among the Hoxton boys, and the rise of fascism after WW2, with antagonism towards the Jewish population of East London. This in turn leads to the formation of the 43 Group, precursor of the 62 Group, an organisation set up by Jewish ex-servicemen with the specific intention of fighting the fascist threat on their doorstep. The group is successful, and, as Reel writes: “The 43 Group is able to disperse within four years of its inception”.
The Green Lanes section of Tommy Whitmer’s tale In Groves and Along Lanes opens with a wave of arson attacks by the National Socialist Movement and its leader Colin Jordan speaking at the 1962 rally in Trafalgar Square which becomes a riot. In the Frank Stokes part of In Groves there is talk of the Kray Twins, who work for Jack Spot, the ex-Cable Street figurehead, back in 1936, who became a notorious gangster, and apparently also helped fund the 43 Group.
Plenty of the other significant events in the timeline of London unrest and disorder appear in Reel’s books, including the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and 1976, Brixton in 1981, Broadwater Farm in 1985, and the strange series of 2011 riots which followed the death of Mark Duggan who was shot by police in Tottenham. The last two disturbances feature in the story of veteran journalist Betty Hayes in the Whitmer book In Groves and Along Lanes.
In Betty’s tale she outlines her hostility towards the career politicians Bernie Grant, Diane Abbott and David Lammy. Reel’s own views almost certainly will not differ from these, and he is a man whose books are filled with strong dislikes, including brilliantly Gilbert & George, Mark Ellen, plus several old NME colleagues, some sacred cows in the music world, and more generally East and North London’s middle-class incomers with their overpriced coffee shops and the white working class with their noisy pubs and foul beer. To balance this, there are plenty of people Reel has a good word for in his books, such as Jah Shaka, Jah Bones, Dennis Morris, Green Gartside, Ray Lowry, Fred Dellar, Chris Lane, Tony Rounce, Charlie Gillett, and Chas Hodges, among others.
There is no denying that sections of Penny Reel’s Tommy Whitmer novels are scabrous, scurrilous, blasphemous, vicious, vitriolic, malevolent, poisonous, plain offensive, and downright nasty, though some people may take delight in this approach. These parts, however, make for uncomfortable reading here, but there is far worse all around us and often among our own friends and followers on social media and in real life.
These troubling parts of the Whitmer books are balanced by many passages of incredible insight and beauty, and these are often to do with attention to detail and specific references to music which sometimes form a special kind of list poetry. For example, towards the end of Up The Dreary Slope, the narrator Tommy Whitmer has been contemplating the music of Gary U.S. Bonds, and proceeds to dance around his flat to a succession of old R&B jump records and some ska singles, winding down later with some fruit, sweet tea, and a plate of Garibaldi biscuits, while listening to The Notorious Byrd Brothers.
There is a similar passage in In Groves And Along Lanes where Marvin Cohen takes a day off from his record shop, stays at home and plays a load of old records, while his wife is out at work, starting with ‘Skank in Bed’ by Scotty, working his way through a load of old rock ’n’ roll, soul, highlife, jazz, and much, much more, until he ends the day blissfully with tea and oranges and Leonard Cohen’s debut LP. It is difficult to think of any other writer that can make such potent and beautiful use of a list of records.
There is, also, right at the end of Up The Dreary Slope a lovely piece where Tommy heads out to sit on his favourite seat in Shacklewell Green, to smoke a spliff, and whistle down the wind. The tone is meditative, contemplative, and quite moving. There is an earlier variation in another Reel piece featured in The Faber Book of Pop. This is an article called ‘Better Must Come’, the opening piece from the Pressure Drop reggae fanzine, the first of two editions, from Autumn 1975, which Reel ran with Nick Kimberley of the Compendium bookshop in Camden, and Chris Lane, later of Fashion records. It opens with Reel walking across town the morning after a party, and ending up in a caff (Reel being far more of a café type than a pub dweller), where luxury is a toasted ham sandwich, three cups of coffee drunk hot, and a copy of the Mirror to read from cover to cover.
It is an extraordinary piece, very political and confrontational, about racism and missed opportunities. It is filled with abstract polemics, and is written in a freewheeling ’talking blues’ style, with what are now familiar Reel tropes and tics: locations like Dalston and Ridley Road market, the shebeens and blues dances, Prince Buster’s ‘Ghost Dance’ and Herman Hesse in the same sentence. There is mention too of Laurel Aitken, and “bombers, blues and dizzy dexes”.
The Pressure Drop piece also links to the opening of Tommy Whitmer’s In Groves with its setting of Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, with Peter Rachman being more sinned against than sinning, Stephen Ward too, plus appearances by Michael X and Johnny Edgecombe, Lucky Gordon, the Ethiopian World Federation, the first Rastafarians in London, and so forth. Prophetically there is also a reference to Dennis Brown’s ‘Money in My Pocket’
There are allusions too to horse racing and betting, which conjure up memories of being a kid and reading Reel’s columns which he wrote as The Citizen in the NME circa 1980, which were filled with references often too abstruse to appreciate here, being too young to know Jim Haynes from Johnny Haynes, though a mention of Damon Runyon’s racing tales did prompt a visit to the local library and triggered a long-lasting love affair with his stories.
Reel describes himself as a stylist, stating that like Damon Runyon he writes only in the present tense, which works. The Dennis Brown book is a great example of this, where he stays within the timeframe of the original NME cover feature, which came with brilliant shots by Dennis Morris of the reggae star in the snow of a London park, without using his knowledge of what happens to the singer subsequently. And the book includes a wonderfully Runyon-esque description of a soundclash in the early days of 1977 in the Club Four Aces, Dalston, between the upstart D Unis Hi-Fi and the ruling sound system operator Count Shelly.
Perhaps partly because of personal obsessions, what really appeals enormously about Penny Reel’s writing, despite or because of the way his words are scattered all over the place, is the way it is riddled with references which echo and repeat and loop around over and over, forming patterns, rather like one might once have done with a Spirograph set. There is an art in that, and hopefully it is one we will be able to enjoy often in the future. In the meantime the Reel and Whitmer books mentioned here may well be available from the Muzik Tree or Dub Vendor sites, and they are very much recommended, whatever your taste in music or clothes.