Deep Down With Dennis Brown: Penny Reel
Drake Bros Books
Penny Reel’s writings in the NME (New Musical Express) during the 1970s turned a spotlight on many artists who were little known outside the world of reggae. He also wrote for other magazines of the time like Black Echoes and Let It Rock. Before this he wrote for the underground magazine International Times. For Louder Than War Frank Bangay reassesses his biography of one of the greats of reggae.
This book, subtitled Cool Runnings And The Crown Prince Of Reggae, (a title given to Dennis Brown by Bob Marley) is the result of Penny Reel‘s conversation with Brown during his frequent trips to the UK in the 1970’s. The sudden death of Dennis Brown in 1999 sent shockwaves through the world of reggae and Reel traces the story of his career from his days as a child star to his hit with Money In My Pocket in 1979. In doing so he digs below the surface with this gifted performer. Dennis Brown’s career started at the age of nine when he became known as the boy wonder. Between school he would be recording and performing. At the age of 14 he fell ill and was hospitalised. There were rumours going round that he only had one lung, though he denied this rumour.
A big part of the book’s appeal is the large supporting cast who get brought into the story at relevant places. Reel introduces us to many little known reggae artists. I found myself going to you tube to check out their work.An added bonus to the story is Penny Reel’s knowledge of London’s history. For example early in the story when talking about Colombo’s night club in Carnaby Street he traces the history of the club back to the post war years. He also traces Carnaby Street’s history back to that time. Describing what the area was like in the days before it was transformed by the 60’s fashion revolution. Indeed in this book we get taken to many parts of 70’s London including an early sound system clash at the Four Aces club in Dalston.
As the story progresses we see Dennis Brown approaching adulthood. He attends a meeting of the Twelve Tribes Of Israel and joins the Rastafarian faith. He makes many trips to England to set up his label DEB records. We see him producing and promoting fellow reggae artists, and having many records released himself. His creative output is extremely prolific.
Money In My Pocket appears on a number of occasions in this story. It seems that the song was around in various forms over the years before it became a hit. Towards the end of the book Penny Reel gives a history of Jamaican music in Britain showing how the music has been compromised and marginalised over the years either by putting strings on the music, or by the production of novelty records. He explains how many hardworking artists have been unable to get played on daytime radio and readdresses the popular notion of Bob Marley being at the centre of reggae by explaining that while he had won over a rock audience, his records were rarely played on the sound systems.
The story ends on a cold February day in 1979 when Money In My Pocket was in the pop charts and Penny Reel interviewed Dennis Brown for the NME (including a front cover photo.
This is a wonderful story that leaves you wanting more. This is also essential reading if you want to learn more about reggae music, and many of the artists who helped to make the music the inspiring force that it was in the 1970’s.
All words by Frank Bangay. More work by Frank on Louder Than War can be found here.