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.”