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Deep Down with Dennis Brown by Penny Reel / 31 October 2013

close-up photo of the face of reggae performer Dennis Brown on the cover of the biography about his life by Penny Reel

Front cover of Deep Down with Dennis Brown by Penny Reel (ISBN: 9780954195908)

Zoom in to this image and read text description

Deep Down with Dennis Brown was published in 2000, but is still available on the internet. In Penny Reel’s writings in the NME (New Musical Express) during the 1970s, he would often sing the praises of reggae artists who were little-known outside the world of reggae. Penny Reel 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.

Deep Down with Dennis Brown is subtitled Cool Runnings and the Crown Prince of Reggae (a title given to Dennis Brown by Bob Marley). During his many visits to England throughout the 1970s, Dennis Brown would spend time in conversation with Penny Reel. A whole supporting cast appear in this book as a result of those talks. Penny Reel introduces us to a number of little known reggae artists. I found myself going to YouTube to check out their work.

The sudden death of Dennis Brown in 1999 sent shockwaves through the world of reggae. In this book Penny Reel traces Dennis Brown’s career from his days as a child star to his hit with ‘Money in My Pocket’ in 1979. He digs below the surface of this gifted performer.

Dennis Brown’s career started at the age of nine when he became known as the ‘Boy Wonder’. When not at school he would be recording and performing. At the age of 14 Dennis Brown fell ill and was hospitalised. There were rumours going round that he only had one lung, though he denied this.

An added bonus to this book is Penny Reel’s knowledge of London’s history. For example when talking about Colombo’s nightclub 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 60s fashion revolution.

This book also takes us to many parts of 70s London, and to a sound system clash at the Four Aces club in Dalston. Penny Reel’s writing is extremely descriptive, helped by the photographs, concert posters and record labels that accompany the text.

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 of his own records released.

‘Money in My Pocket’ appears on a number of occasions in this story. 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. He shows how the music has been compromised and marginalised over the years. Either by putting strings on the music, or by novelty records.

He explains how many hardworking artists have been unable to get played on daytime radio. He also 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.) 

The book finishes with some words of wisdom from Dennis Brown. 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 1970s.

‘Penny Reel’ is the title of a reggae song from the ska days, recorded by Justin Hinds and the Dominoes and Eric “Monty” Morris. I imagine this might be where the journalist and author got his name.

You can buy Deep Down with Dennis Brown by Penny Reel by clicking on this link to xraymusic.co.uk
Alternatively the book is also available at www.regaeregaeregae.com and www.ukrockfestivals.com