The Fantastic Mr Fox

Over the last few days via the miracle of Spotify I have been indulging in a bit of a beach boys binge while reading the biography of Carl Wilson. I still find it a humbling event, being able to listen to an entire back catalogue at the touch of a screen ( also makes me glad I never had to buy any of the records, patchy is the word)

It was, of course a different world in the early 70’s when I probably spent more time deliberating over an album then I would over buying a car these days. For this reason it paid to have friends who might trust you with their purchases or, at least, invite you round to their houses to hear what they had. My mate Phil had an older sister who, as far as I can remember only bought a couple of records in the entire 70s but when she did we would make sure to check them out, usually when she was not at home of course.

And so I got to listen to a compilation album on the Transatlantic label. Transatlantic were pretty folky being home to the likes of Bert Jansch and Stefan Grossman but I do remember it containing a hard rock track ‘Nature’s Way’ by Stray which persuaded me to part with some hard earned money on a compilation album by them in the future.

But, as its folky(whats left of) January (snappy title I just made up) I’m switching my attention to another track on the compilation ‘Elvira Madigan’ by Mr Fox. This was a catchy little ditty with guitar picking and tambourine bashing which sounded rather like an upbeat version of Ralph McTell’s ‘streets of London’, itself on Transatlantic.’Very nice’ I thought ‘but it’s no Nature’s Way’. And so I dismissed Mr Fox just like I dismissed Pentangle and The Humblebums and all the other artists on the record who weren’t Stray.

A couple of years later, I was waiting for the headlining band, not sure who, possibly Curved Air. The support act was introduced as one Carolanne Pegg and on came a hippie chick peering out from curtains of hair and clasping, horror of horrors, a violin. In fact Carolanne was quite good and mercifully to the point, I remember she did a song called Gay Goshawk and that was about it, she sang and droned on the fiddle and got off the stage while we still had some patience.

Over the years I thought more about Carolanne’s solo set than I did about the headliners, I started to quite like the idea of drones and then I discovered the Velvet Underground and suddenly droning string instruments started to seem quite cool. In fact, as I was to discover, Elvira Madigan was as typical to Mr Fox’s repertoire as ‘who loves the sun’ or’ I’ll be your mirror’ were representative of the Velvets. Mr Fox were hardcore.

The core of the band were Bob and Carol (later to add the anne) Fox who, defying the ancient law that people from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire should never have sex with each other, had married and become quite prominent on initially the Nottingham folk scene before switching their base to Yorkshire where Bob was studying at Leeds University. The Peggs were smart and had attitude, by the end of the 60’s they had done some recording, run some clubs and played up and down the country and in the course of it had made friends and enemies on the rather claustrophobic folk scene.

Although they subsequenly decamped to the London commuter town of Stevenage the Peggs had been most influenced by Yorkshire folk music, the sort of thing that only a few decades previously would have been played in dance halls and churches. There were no blues bands or rock bands in their background, their music was ancient but in 1970 it was nowhere as ancient as it is now, the couple were folklorists and had sought out people still living who could remember the old traditions.

The Peggs almost became SteeleySpan as Ashley Hutchins had been spending time with them in Stevenage and was looking to explore a purer folk route away from Fairport Convention but for whatever reason that was not to be and the Peggs formed Mr Fox.

And so a standard rhythm section was recruited along with a cello and a woodwind player. Although it wasn’t a standard rhythm section, drummer Alun Eden wilfully ignored all the nice shiny things that make drumming so worthwhile, concentrating on rolls around his toms for most songs, Barry Lyons on bass was free to play as a lead instrument as there was no other competition Bob Pegg being happy to drone away on organ or melodeon aided and abetted by Carol on fiddle.

Carol’s fiddle was a contrast to the Peter Knights or Dave Swarbricks, there was little diddly diddly in her playing. Her singing was equally earthy, this was folk music played at a standard that ordinary folk might achieve, there was no showing off in Mr Fox.

The opening ‘Join Us in Our game’ is the closest the band come to standard folk rock and Eden is at least willing to dust off the high hat for this.

But this is closer to the feel of their début record.

Mr Fox had a dark dank sound reflecting the moors and valleys of Yorkshire where one might come across a hanged man or bunch of gypsies or a village dance.

Just like a cocaine habit is nature’s way of telling you have too much money so employing a cello player points to a band being very rich or living beyond their means, Mr Fox fell into the latter category and the cello and woodwinds had gone by the next album released only a few months later. Live performances were rather uneven there were no guitar solos or jolly jigs to reach out to a rock audience. Even in with the folk crowd Bob Pegg was able to alienate a potential audience. At a Loughborough folk festival he had said something along the lines of the band only being in it ‘for the money’. The following year resentment had grown, anti band pamphlets were handed out, after a set blighted by technical problems the band were booed off-stage. Yep folkies are a weird bunch but failing to find an alternative audience they were all the band had, and they didn’t appreciate irony!

So, now a four piece the band produced their last album The Gypsy. I miss the woodwinds and cello but the band were trying hard with Bob Pegg playing guitar and the others diversifying into singing and multi instrumentation.It also enable the band to become more brutal

It wasn’t a happy band though, the Pegg’s marriage was at an end, in fact I’m sure I read somewhere that Bob was having an affair with the bass players partner who was working as a nanny for the Peggs. If this isn’t true I must have dreamt it which is worrying to say the least. But anyway I like to believe that Mr Fox were having some sort of Fleetwood Mac thing going on as the band fell apart.

In the end Eden and Lyons left, the latter being replaced by no less than Richie Bull later to resurface in the Kursall Flyers but the writing was on the wall and Carol jumped ship.

Apart from changing her name Carol(anne) recorded both solo and with Bob before joining forced with Graham Bond in some weird hippyshit magik band which didn’t last long (Bond threw himself under a tube train not long after the band’s demise) but probably is worth a separate story. By the time I saw her at The UEA she was embarking on an academic career in anthropology and she probably out there somewhere performing and showing off her knowledge of Mongolian music (true!).

Bob had a similar off the wall career with some solo projects, his 1978 single The ‘Werewolf of Old Chapeltown’ actually attracted the attention of the police looking for the Yorkshire Ripper. He now does community folk project type stuff in Scotland which is probably the only part of the UK that funds anything like that these days.

There is no film of Mr Fox and relatively few pictures, apart from two LPs very little of the band remains. Despite being of the C20th the band have melted into history with hardly a trace.

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