“Sing great song, down inna Babylon, show them your culture, down inna Babylon”
— ‘M.P.L.A.’, Tapper Zukie
It was October 1978, and the NME interview-feature was titled ‘The Keith Hudson Affair: A Dread Tale’. It was written by Penny Reel, it was about this same singer-producer, Keith Hudson — who had of course worked with Ken Boothe, John Holt, Delroy Wilson and King Tubby’s toaster-DJ U-Roy, as well as Big Youth — and it launched into itself as follows:
“ONE NIGHT I AM standing outside the Jamaican pattie shop in Portobello Road partaking of the same when a car pulls up on the street and from it emerge certain characters from Kilburn by the name of Militant Barrington, Tapper Zukie and Jah Lacey, which is by no means an unusual combination to see, as these are very intimate idren and frequently keep each other's company, except that now there is a fourth person with them in the rear approach, one known as King Saul.
“Now if I know in advance that this King Saul is stepping in my direction I will not even be there at all, for King Saul is a guy I do not require to share an intimate relationship with whatever. Furthermore, nobody else in this town requires the immediate co-existence of King Saul, except sometimes in the capacity of bailiff or bodyguard, as he is known locally and far and wide by one and all as an extremely callous integrity indeed.”
Some decades later, I was myself trying to describe the effect on a reader — not least this one, born in the very sheltered agricultural West Midlands — of a first encounter with this mode of prose, in such a context: “No one writes better lists than Penny Reel. His jewel-like essays for New Musical Express in the late 70s, describing the work and travails of such figures as Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown, Keith Hudson, Culture’s Joseph Hill, and… Boney M, were startling for their highly individual style, every sentence rigorously set in the historic or dramatic present (a device adapted from Damon Runyon), and the immense knowledge of reggae and its precursors knit together into lists that… were intimations of gorgeous mysteries still to be unpacked and explored. The NME in those days was a clearing house for serendipitous arcana of many unlikely kinds, highly variable in quality: and if one kind was Reel’s topic, another was his unmistakeable voice.”
This was the spring of 2015, and I was about to run a conference at Birkbeck on just this zone of media, the UK music press in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and what there was to be discovered there, as topic and as perspective. And I very much wanted Penny to be part of it. He seemed historically remarkable and stubbornly unique — given to feuds, some said, a little sour now and then about other participants (though by no means all of them), but also, as I found him, generous, interested and I think entertained by it all. I had a plan to sit down with him afterwards and ask a great many questions about his voice — how he’d come by it, his choices and intuitions, the reasons behind all the masks, the deft fictionalisation in its detailed surround of fact — but caught up in the admin of the anthology that’s followed, I never got round to it. As the years pass, time speeds up and you slow down — and suddenly he was gone, in the middle of August. He was 70.
Reading the tributes on Facebook and on message boards, I realised that even now there were people who hadn’t realised he was a man; that Penny Reel was a pseudonym derived from a traditional folk song become ska and made famous by Eric Morris: “Long time me never see you, Penny Reel-o/And you owe me little money, Penny Reel-o/And you no have it there to gimme, Penny Reel-o”… Always there was a dance going on here, between this register of address both striking and disorientating, and the self-disparaging, almost self-mocking storyteller, slight and off to the side and almost out of frame, yet somehow also always unbiddable, even indomitable. Of course given the glamour and the absurdity of gangsters, the jump — from the spheres of song and stage in Runyon’s Broadway during Prohibition to the same in Kingston or even Dalston in the 60s and 70s — was not so vast if you were familiar with Runyon. But many reading the pop weeklies then likely weren’t — which is where the jump turns from literary conceit into a sleight-of-hand conjuration. How exact to fact even was this King Saul anecdote? The uninitiated reader found themselves plunging right in and also (I think) holding just back a little — and this ambivalence was key to Reel’s allure, and to his mastery of his tone.
I mentioned his masks: Penny Reel was just one. Another was Observer, derived from a mid-70s song by the producer Niney (Winston Holness). Fusing man and medium, Reel became ‘Observer Station’, as if his column (and later his DJing) were his own rebel broadcast. It suggests a preference for standing back, not interfering. But the need for an observer tells us there’s an urgency to the situation, and dangers we need to be kept abreast of.
For many, the 70s was decade of unhappy exhausted retreat and worse, of course — but I think there’s a particular emergency closer to mind. Reel was born Peter Simons in the first year of the Windrush arrivals, 1948, in working-class Shacklewell in East London. Falling hard for ska in his early teens, he had found friendship and places to linger in and around the clubs and record shops that catered to such a taste. By the early 60s, as with many drawn to such things, he was a mod, or anyway distinctly mod-adjacent. By the mid-late 60s this had led him and others like him to the Round House and the UFO Club, and to the crucible of a utopia: the underground press, the locus of the British hippie dream, and the possibility of a world rid of racist and class division. Which had always already been Penny’s dream.
He had also, though he’d quit school the first moment he could, always known he would be a writer. Here suddenly — wildly experimental, ungatekeepered, extremely middleclass — was a space that offered this opportunity. But the underground press was always doomed — some wanted it shut down, pretty much the only money coming in was from record company ads, and it paid its contributors in drugs, if at all. Around 1973, in the wake of the Oz trial, when the doors were slamming, a gaggle of undergrounders fled towards the music weeklies, at that time flailing in the face rock’s sudden, to-them inexplicable pre-eminence: a generational playpen of idealists and chancers fomenting the revolution from the heart of the entertainment-industry beast. From the mid-70s for more or less a decade, Penny was a writer and sub-editor at NME, until the music press began to convulse again, adapting to the new pressures of the new times, and he was marginalised, then exiled. Did some of the urgency come from a prophetic inkling this expulsion was always on its way, that reasons were always already being found?
For a not very disguised version of this tale, read his Up the Dreary Slope: A Novel by Thomas Horace Whitmer, the book I was reviewing for The Wire (Whitmer yet another of Reel’s panoply of masks). Here’s how I wrote it up: “There’s a malicious fun to be had from these sections, especially if you were faintly involved: but for those not so unlucky the more important takeaway of these passages, in their intensity and barely veiled dislike, are the glimpses of the unfolding of a class war within media, as synecdoche for a wider story about changing London. Both the underground press and the trade press, in the 60s and 70s, were come-as-you-are spaces where people of all backgrounds could mingle and make their way; where quite unexpected voices could find a platform for a season. But by the 80s, as the rock press gained visibility and even respectability, this was under threat, from editorial tailored to demographics and niche-marketing. Contributors did still arrive brandishing self-made fanzines, but as the sector expanded, diversified and fragmented, upper-level editors increasingly swerved towards the ideals of middle-class university-nurtured professionalisation. The narrator spits this story out almost in passing, and in highly partisan fashion, husbanding far more expansively affectionate space for topics he thinks matter more – but his perspective, of someone present throughout, a proud, well read, highly intelligent, more or less self-taught artisan, is as unusual as it’s invaluable.”
In the 70s in the UK, everyday life in this parochial and decaying post-imperial nation felt meagre and limited — and for many, routes of escape, real or imagined, mattered greatly. Imagine a time when all the world’s information didn’t hourly bear down on us, as relentless distorted promise and threat, in which discovery could be a matter of quiet and patient care, a choice not a hideous defensive pressure. It may sound bliss now; stranded on the far side of it, it seemed less so then — and the UK music press was a cultural lifeline, as voices of many backgrounds improvised squabbling alternatives, with at least the chance that you too could become a contributor to the debate.
This was the promise and the lure: rock and rock-writing as a way for the young of the 70s to negotiate the fact of the existence of others not at all like them, and to find purchase on the many clashing forces shaping the day. Above all, they were an encounter with an extended family set of black musics, African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latin, even a little African African. Rock was of course largely a mutant form of electric blues and 50s R&B, fumbling towards comment on those aspects of life locally repressed: desire, dissatisfaction, disdain, the glamours of ritual and performance, reaches of politics still untouched by more grown-up outlets.
In the film The Blues Brothers, the absurd white hipster doofus comes to the rescue of the helpless black genius. Good-hearted in its silly way, the film half-knowingly parodies rockwrite’s sense of mission. A self-regardingly benign cartoon, and not the reality some were battling against. In my review of Up the Dreary Slope, Penny told me, I failed at all to mention the “mass coverage given to colonial white music and the way in which great black music is mostly ignored.” A key message “hammered throughout” the length of the book, as he sternly put it (closing as ever with his benevolent sign-off, “Ites, Reel”).
In 1975-76, with Nick Kimberley, he had published two issues of a fanzine, Pressure Drop (“the world’s first reggae read”), with stories on Tapper Zukie, Big Youth, the Maytals, Delroy Wilson, Niney, Studio One and more. Full of deeply researched material about backstory and record releases and labels and context, and very engagingly written, the abiding tone is a trust in its own seriousness. There’s no melodrama, no hyped-up justification — it absolutely believed in the self-motivated curiosity of its readers. And it was breakthrough-important because of this diligent care. The music was beginning to be covered in the weeklies, yes, but there was a tart editorial note: “Superficial knowledge has been allowed to pose as authoritative.”
There’s an obvious story to tease out here, about voices amplified and voices muffled in the rockwrite zone — about who will top the never-ending bill and enter the general canon, and who will be shuffled away into the specialist cellar-archives. There’s another subtler story too, and another cleavage: I’ve mentioned class war at work in these papers; Penny talks of the struggle against “colonial music”. The model of his utopian space was much more street-based than any magazine office, with its rivalries and management agendas and page quotas. In his own obdurate sensibility, the poor, black and white and all the others, had already fashioned a togetherness — and this, as the music so often insisted, was the message to be carried everywhere.
Be the delivery never so unofficial, he was a self-taught working-class scholar — and scholarship was becoming a class-inflected issue, in an insidious new way. By the late 70s a dreary gradient was being inked back in. Know-nothing rage was suddenly the only acceptable proletarian face: bookishness and informed care were the bailiwick of the better-born and those who aspired to their affectations. Proud at first of its admiration for its black sources, UK white rock had for a time shown a certain goofy regard for learning and autodidact craft. Punk in its belligerent narcissism baulked at this. A noisy and often undemanding DIY hemmed in the underdog energies it fed off, until everything was pseudo-heroic fabulation and quasi-authentic pose.
And Penny’s narrator-character was a performance too, of course it was. But it was a performance — set as it was in this dense, highly stylised, fabulous prose — that protected what it cherished from cliché and oversimplification. Here was dub, for example, its structurally avant-garde technique offset with old testament warning, toasting rhythms gleaned from the King James rendering of the Hebrew, the whole sutured together from just the prettiest Jamaican pop, some of it gleaming, some of it rough and ready. It isn’t an accident that dub is recognised today as the sheer clashing essence of a future sublime — Reel helped us to this realisation.
By contrast, perhaps there’s Mod: contrast because, as an iteration of yesterday’s street modernism, he was unable entirely to shield it from history’s lazy distortions. ‘The Young Mod's Forgotten Story’ is his (very funny) 1979 memoir of life on the early 60s London scene, a corrective dropping just as the film Quadrophenia pushed this waning subculture back into the public eye (note: the version at this link for some reason cuts off rather suddenly some way from the end):
“Not only is [Beardy Pegley] the first guy I ever see wear hair lacquer and lipstick, but he is also the earliest on the scene with a pink tab-collar shirt, a grey crew neck jersey, knitted tie, scarlet suede jacket with matching leather collar, navy blue crombie overcoat, white half-mast flares and candy-stripe socks, as well as being the first mod to sing the praises of Laurel Aitken, James Brown, the Pretty Things, the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and marijuana, insult Eden Kane in the Chez Don and is still the only guy I ever meet who owns a pair of bright emerald green fur booties, all this circa 1962.”
The description is exact: this striking dandy who approves Reel’s tastes in records, but whose company and penchant for violence Reel deplores and would prefer to avoid. It celebrates a style and a time, draws out its dangers, but also draws in its unexpected connections. Here, wittily drawn and socially acute, is the crime that puts Pegley inside (Mod mini-boss shooting a Ted leader in the chest in an amusement arcade on Mare Street in 1965): “Later, a fully recovered Buttons Walsh goes on to become commander in chief of the UK Hells Angels and ends up alongside Flann O’Brien, Damon Runyon and Anita Loos in Picador Books, who publish his autobiography Buttons in the 70s.”
On one hand, you had to work to engage with non-local sensibilities in those pre-internet days. On the other, it was sometimes just a long walk away. Picador Books, for example: cheap paperback editions of every kind of past classics and present scandal, right there to be opened in a nearby bookshop. And Penny’s own voice, a weekly page-turn away in almost every newsagent in the land.
Reel trusted you to allow yourself be led deep into spaces you were entirely unfamiliar with, full of words and ideas only sometimes quickly decodable — and there was something intoxicating and affirming about all this, especially to any whose sense of adventure came wrapped in shyness. Here was a way in, to the places where ska or bluebeat or soul or reggae were made or played or sold, and an introduction to the people there, very much as themselves, that neither presumed on this community’s welcome, or offended against its interests. Here was a voice that wove the romance and the fascination and the deep knowledge of a milieu, its energy, its humour, its joys, into a subtly ironised critical grasp of its troubles and its fears and its surprises and its tangle. There was something kind-minded about his deep moral care, and how, as a guide, he allowed you to move your own way through your anxieties towards a complex understanding and enjoyment. His head was a vast redoubt of facts — not itself unique in the record-nerd universe, perhaps, but in others something that often also entails walling yourself in from politics. Penny always absolutely and very radically had a politics. I’ve retold this story casting readers like me as his foremost concern, but this really wasn’t so: he was a man widely loved in the reggae community itself, and trusted. Boldly and brilliantly and cunningly — and just a tiny bit cheekily — he fashioned his voice and his superb ear from elements borrowed (Runyon, the high millenarian cadences of 70s reggae), and from what he found just wandering round the London he loved best of all. London is everywhere, in everything he wrote.
There was a lively discussion a while back, about today’s working writers and their backgrounds: about who now gets to make a living as a journalist, and where they’ve arrived from. Could someone like Simons, whose official education ended the moment he was able to end it, break through now? Yes, he had enormous talent and a cussed, wily persistence — and he absolutely seized his moment, and made what he could of it. And yes, of course he had an ego — all writers have an ego — which very much manifested as an unwillingness to bend towards approved inflections and official shared beliefs and registers. His self-abnegating poetics of care and curiosity, his rich and strange obliqueness of approach — it’s hard imagining something like it threading or battering its way through the present-day maze of needless professional credentials. He invented his own credentials — who can even do that now? He was one of a kind, and I’m glad I met him and knew and worked with him a little. I miss him. All Hackney misses him. All London and all writing miss him.
RIP Penny Reel (1948-2018)