Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hot Rod - Rod Felton and The New Modern Idiot Grunt Band

Three articles by Pete Clemons on Coventry Singer Songwriter Rod Felton.
As published in the Coventry Telegraph.
Lady Baby Gypsy Queen - Rod Felton from Rod Felton - Singer Songwriter on Vimeo.


Part One - Hot Rod Ignited the Folk Scene

The text to each article is under the image of the page as it'shard to read on the graphic.

               Part One - Hot Rod Ignited the Folk Scene

Pete Clemons 

YOU know how you are able to retain some of your memories from when you are fairly young? Well an unusual memory for me is being able to recall, fairly vividly even today, an orange and cream coloured transit van that would be parked up in the road just behind the street I grew up in and a few doors away from my best friend at that time. I am guessing that this would have been the late 1960s. So to get the opportunity to write a few words about the van owner, 40 odd years on, is quite a thrill and honour.

The inside of the transit van, I remember, was covered in posters that depicted the names of major folk and blues acts from that time such as Julie Felix. I remember asking the owner of the van what it all meant and he told me that they were names of artists he had toured with. We kids just knew him as Roddy and it was only when I hit my teenage years that I began to realise just how popular, and well respected as a musician and songwriter, Rod Felton actually was.

Rod began his working life as a commercial artist, or a sign writer as they were known, at Whitworth-Gloster Aircraft Ltd based in Baginton but, after five years there, he was made redundant. At the time of his redundancy in 1964 he had already been folk singing for around two years in his spare time. The redundancy then focused his mind and his thoughts turned to becoming a professional musician as soon as possible.

To make ends meet, and so that he could concentrate on his music during the evenings, Rod took a on number of jobs that included a warehouse man, a painter and decorator and even a bread salesman. But Rod was, and still is, his own man. He is certainly very strong minded and the type who makes his own decisions and lives with them.

By 1965, and at 22 years old, Rod was appearing regularly at folk and blues clubs in Coventry, Rugby, Leamington, Birmingham and London.

And at each venue he appeared at he was always being asked for a return appearance.

The folk music and blues scene during the mid 1960s was very strong and Rod was proving to be very popular on the circuit within Coventry and around the Midlands and beyond in terms of bookings. Rod was also using his natural artistic flair to create his own advertising posters.

English Ritual Drama group, The Coventry Mummers, were formed in 1966. During 1967 The Mummers were invited over to Kiel in Germany for a series of plays. I am not sure what involvement they had exactly, maybe they were active Mummers for a while, but the invitation saw Rod and fellow Coventry folk musician, Geoff Smedley, travel over to Germany with the group.

While they were there alliances were built and contacts made. And these contacts would prove useful for bookings in around Kiel on a return visit to the city during 1968.

1967 also saw the birth of 'The New Modern Idiot Grunt Band' who consisted of Rod and fellow fun loving musician Rob Armstrong. Rod and Rob had known each other well from the folk circuit. Rob had been performing as far back as 1963 and was equally well respected on the circuit. For a while Rob had been in a duo with Deserie Meikle who simply called themselves Rob and Des.

For the return visit to Keil, Rod Felton and Geoff Smedley, were, this time, joined by Rob Armstrong. Initially the trio went out there to give individual performances. But, so popular they became, the trio occasionally performed together and became known as 'The Gentle Idea'. The German folk fans were treated to blues along with a helping of traditional and English contemporary folk music. Rod and Rob would also get the opportunity to perform together and play a rousing 'Grunt Band' set.

According to Rod, 'The New Modern Idiot Grunt Band' band name came to him in a vision during a dream. But for Rob it was more succinct and a simple case of too much alcohol providing the inspiration. Either way, this was an era when bands could get away with a bit of silliness by coming up with names like 'The Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band'. The New Modern Idiot Grunt Band went out gigging under a variety of names. They used their full band name or were more simply known as as The Idiot Grunt Band, NMIGB and IGB.

The New Modern Idiot Grunt Band were not a folk group, they were not blues band. In fact they were not anything really. They were, however, a fun loving duo and existed purely to give their audience a good time. And whatever or wherever the gig was, you knew that it would involve much alcohol and general harmless outrageousness. And during those early days of the band the pair would, occasionally, be joined on stage by Sneaks Noise bass player Jon McIntosh.

Despite their easygoing outlook, Rod and Rob were very professional and very serious about what they did. According to Rob 'we were serious but we were not very serious, we were professional but we were not very professional'. Rob then went on about their time together in the Grunt Band and, despite the great time together, how it was mostly him who took the lead, kept the band in check, and ensured that they both got to the gigs on time. Fairly quickly the Grunt Band became very successful and were very popular in many areas of the country.

Rob remembers well the Rugby Festival of 1969 which involved bands like Pink Floyd and King Crimson as well as the NMIGB. At the end of the festival, and late into night, there was still a sizeable crowd who still wanted more. So, much to the crowd's delight, the 'Grunt Band' returned to the stage and gave the revelers an extra couple of hours of fun.

A week later Rob got rather excited when he saw a headline on that weeks NME (New Musical Express) that proclaimed 'Jug Band rocks festival'.

Thinking that the late night festival goers must have included a music journalist Rob eagerly read the accompanying article. However, his joy did not last long when he realised that the article was on about Mungo Jerry who had performed the same weekend at a different festival.

Live recordings of the Grunt Band do exist as far back as 1967 but the band is barely audible. However, an acceptable live recording does exist from 1969 and from a gig that took place at The Three Crowns in Barwell.

It was recorded on good quality equipment and stands the test of time today.


Rod and His Mystery LP

Part 2 - Rod and His Mystery LP
Pete Clemons
Rod and his LP mystery; IN the second and final part of his story, Pete Clemons continues to chart the career of folk maverick Rod Felton...

THE New Modern Idiot Grunt Band never actually split up as such. There was no animosity or anything like that. It was a simple case that the band ceased being a professional outfit and, as such, never went after the gigs anymore.

However, that said, the pair still managed to play at least half a dozen dates a year right through to the mid 1990s. In fact, for the right occasion, they still find the time to play the odd gig together. The most recent get together I remember was during 2010 at the Dave Bennett memorial gig held at The Maudslay pub in Chapelfields. By 1971 Rod Felton and Rob Armstrong began to branch out more and had begun to build and concentrate on their new respective careers. Rob, of course, needs no introduction to the path he took of crafting handmade acoustic guitars to an incredibly high standard. And for more than 40 years he has built these instruments for the great and the good.

Rob also formed a new folk group called 'Music Box' who also included 'Pip' and then Colin Armstrong (no relation). Colin came across Rob when it was suggested he took a damaged guitar to Rob for repair. And between them they released the acclaimed album titled 'Songs of Sunshine' on the Westwood Record label.

Rod, however, began to concentrate on a solo career. He was also organising his own folk clubs at venues like the Three Tuns in the city centre, the City Arms in Earlsdon and many others. He was also spending a lot of time in London sharing a flat with the likes of Shelagh McDonald and Keith Christmas.

And in turn these clubs were attracting artists of the caliber of Shelagh, along with a host of other top quality names such as Shirley Collins, Mike Absalom, Alex Campbell and Magna Carta. The list is endless and all made several appearances at the various folk clubs around Coventry and Warwickshire at that time. The folk music scene during the first few years of the 1970s was very strong in this region.

Rod Felton also signed management and recording contracts with Barry Murray and Harry Simmonds who were managers and producers to the likes of Mungo Jerry, Savoy Brown and Chicken Shack. They in turn signed Rod up with the British Talent International Agency who handled the previously mentioned bands along with the likes of Prelude, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock. But one of the biggest unsolved mysteries surrounding Rod Felton is did he, or didn't he, make that all-elusive album.

It is widely rumoured that Rod did actually record two albums that were never released and, to all intents and purposes, still lay hidden in some vault somewhere. One of the albums was allegedly recorded for the Spark record label which was a part of the Southern Music group. The other album was apparently recorded for the Dawn record label which was a subsidiary of Pye Records and where he had been backed by a jug band called Bronx Cheer. The link up with Bronx Cheer is certainly very true because Rod supported them for an appearance at The Marquee club in London during April 1974 and a record of that gig is available to view on the Marquee website.

I have scoured the archives of both the Spark record label and Dawn records but to no avail. The closest I have got so far to solving this mystery was when I spoke to Roger Lomas. It certainly seems as though a single was destined to appear. During the early 1970s, and I think this must have been closer to 1973, Roger Lomas was signed to Southern Music Publishers in Denmark Street in London. He introduced Rod Felton to Southern Music and, according to Roger 'we recorded two tracks there together'. However, and also according to Roger, 'I don't know whether he ever recorded an album though'.

My own gut feeling is that, at some point, Rod did record several other tracks - his songs really were that good - but, for whatever reason, they just did not see day of light. Either way, later on during the 1970s Rod settled back in Coventry and continued to play the folk clubs during the rest of that decade.

The 1980s then saw Rod playing regularly at The Freemasons Arms and Water Wine Bar while the 1990s saw Rod take up residencies at venues at The Foresters Arms and the Old Ball Hotel. These gigs were solo or with a variety of top players like Mick Stuart.

At the turn of the century Dave Bennett and Rod Felton had formed a formidable outfit in a similar vein to the NMIGB. They called themselves 'Im and Im' where Dave described it all as 'a duo with a meteoric rise to obscurity!' 'But we had a lot of fun doing it'. Sadly Rod's gigs nowadays are extremely rare, mainly down to the fact that he has been unwell of late.

The best passage of words I ever read that tried to describe Rod's music was that they can range from the beautifully serious to the bizarrely hilarious. His lyrics have covered the subjects as diverse as love and Riddy's army surplus store. And he really does have that rare ability to captivate any given audience. On stage he always exuded enthusiasm and a joy for what he does.

And, even today, musicians the like of Rod Felton are still fondly remembered. You do not have to go far around the city to get a positive quote or a memory about him which is normally accompanied by a bout of laughter. And it is not just in Coventry either that he is fondly remembered but even further afield it seems. Mike Harding, in a recent blog for the BBC folk site, reminisced about the old days and how he missed the characters from back then. He actually name checked The New Modern Idiot Grunt Band in a list of other well known names from the genre. And finally, Rod Felton could well be immortalised on a Shelagh McDonald album. The opening track of her second album release from 1971, Stargazer, is titled 'Rod's song'. This tune is widely understood to have been written about Rod.

'Hey it's been along time, good to see you again. You've been around this land and back again, yet you are never without a friend. You have a gypsies face, you wear a golden ring. And things you learn from travelling are written in your songs. You say no one will tie you down, it's your way of being free'.

These are some of the words from that song. And when you hear them you cannot help but think to yourself that it couldn't be anybody else really.

Could it?


Part 3 - Farewell to Folk Star Rod

Part 3 - Farewell to Folk Star Rod

Pete Clemons 

SO, as widely reported by way of many tributes and remembrances in the press and other media, the world lost Coventry singer songwriter Rod Felton on Wednesday, March 26. Born on August 28, 1942 (Editor's note - Rod's funeral photo says he was born April 24th 1942) Rod was just 71.

A bout of chemotherapy for throat cancer had left him very weak and he finally succumbed to bronchial pneumonia and emphysema.

But, in keeping with Rod's 'doing it his way' approach to life, even the lead-up to his funeral was not as straightforward as these things would normally be. And those who were close to him had to admit that, giving his family a final runabout, would have been in keeping with Rod's sense of humour. You see, and not for the first time, Rod went missing for a while.

After his passing, Rod, was transferred to hospital. At some point in-between the incident documents were accidentally mislaid and this resulted in Rod being listed under the name of Donald Felton (part real name and part stage name) instead of his real name of Donald Rodney Feltham. As a consequence of the coroner not receiving any information Rod became 'lost' for a while. It resulted in Rod's brother- in-law Alan and niece Kelly, a nurse at University Hospital, touring its catacombs and having to make a visual search until he was found. Apparently a joyous 'there he is' went up when he was discovered.

A little later, and after Rod's whereabouts had been discovered, he was visited by his sisters Gill and Jan who remarked at how peaceful he looked. They likened him to 'lying in state' blissfully unaware of the events that had been going on around him.

Rod lost his mother May during November 2013 and had not been very well at all during that period. However, a few weeks before his passing, he seemed to be rallying around. He even phoned his sister Jan to announce that his voice had returned and to prove it he began singing down the phone to her. My darling girl, he said, the old vocals are getting stronger and the calluses on my fingers are returning.

The night before his funeral there had been a gathering and a celebration of Rod's life at the Royal Oak in Earlsdon. As Rod once played a large bass drum for them, apparently never missing a beat, the celebration included Morris men dancing and singing out in Earlsdon High Street.

There was even a re-creation of a team photograph taken during Rod's own Rod in younger Morris men days. His friends took up the same positions that they had stood many years ago but Rod's sister Jan took front row centre position behind the bass drum. Poignantly, this had been the very position that Rod had taken up on the original photograph.

The Morris Men will be having a ceremony in October where, apparently, they nail a plaque to a tree in his honour. This particular honour dance will take place on Hearsall Common and is normally reserved for respected members of the group only.

The thing that passed my mind, that particular evening, was when it suddenly occurred to me as to how late the daylight had remained. I just happened to think that, for April, it seemed unusual for the darkness not to draw in until at least 8.50pm. Just me I guess.

Rod's funeral took place on April 29 at Canley Crematorium. I remember that that particular Tuesday morning had started off rather damp and misty. There was even a drop of rain. But by midday glorious sunshine had broken through.

The chapel was packed with Rod's friends and family. Not only were people stood in the aisles and at the rear of the room but there were masses of folk outside who could not get in. Despite the high turnout it all remained very orderly and dignified. Even the minister who conducted the service commented on the fact that in 20 years service at Canley he had never witnessed a crowd like it.

The theme of celebration, that was prevalent the previous evening, continued throughout the proceedings. One of Rods songs 'And I Love You' heralded the mourners into the chapel and another, and possibly the one he will be most remembered for, 'Curly', was heard during the service.

Now I will admit that I do not know who 'Curly' is. Maybe one day I will find out. But I had it on good authority that 'Curly' was present on the day. The ever traditional 'Morning Has Broken' was also heard. The readings included a eulogy, a poem written and read by Rod's sister Jan, and a bible reading from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 'To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven' which was adapted into a song by Pete Seeger and made infamous by the Byrds.

At times, throughout the service, spontaneous accompaniment could be heard from the mourners which made for a most wonderful and memorable event. Rod would have absolutely loved it. And with donations being requested, a considerable amount of money was raised for Rod's favourite charity the British Red Cross and Cancer Research.

Then after the formalities it was all back to Whitefriars Olde Ale House on Gosford Street where acquaintances were remade, stories of days gone by swapped and memories revived. Apparently by the end of the afternoon, due to the size of the crowd who had attended, the pubs supplies of alcoholic beverages had began to run into short supply.

Rod's ashes will now be taken to Scotland where they will be released during a Spiritual Native American Ceremony. Originating from the head of the 'Bear Tribe medicine clan', Chief Two Trees, the ceremony releases you to the four elements of earth, wind, re and water. is form of spirituality was something Rod very much believed in.

Everyone I have spoken with recently seemed to agree that, as a lyricist and songwriter Rod could have 'made it.' .' Yet the thought of 'making it' was not, I think, what Rod would have wanted. There would have been demands and expectations that he would not have enjoyed.

A legacy website has been talked about, as has a 'Concert for Rod' which is due to happen during August. e intention being that a website will contain his music, photographs and cuttings. But of course this will take time and can only be achieved when Rod's possessions have been sorted through. And as Rod was in the process of moving house then his bits and pieces are currently in various locations.

Many people crossed paths with Rod during the various stages of his life. He seemed to have been known by a wide and varied range of folk. And he did have some very good and close friends who knew him better than most. But I am not sure if anyone actually ever knew the real Rod Felton. He was indeed a unique and special character.


July 1965 - Coventry Standard

Rob Armstrong with a guitar he made for Bert Jansch


1 comment: