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.