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.