Publication date: January 2021
The Outer Limits: Groundhogs
(Read this article online here. Read more of my writing for Prog here.)
They helped to spearhead the British blues boom before taking a turn into rock’s left field for a quartet of classic albums. They bolstered their sound with Mellotron and synth. They even recruited the drummer from Egg. So it’s high time we asked: How prog are the Groundhogs?
Formed in 1963, and part of the first wave of the British blues boom, the Groundhogs initially came to public attention as John Lee Hooker’s backing band when the veteran bluesman paid a visit to the UK in 1964. Further gigs followed with the likes of Jimmy Reed and Champion Jack Dupree, and in 1968, they were signed to Liberty Records by future Wombles supremo Mike Batt. However, it wasn’t long before the band were embracing the new progressive aesthetic, with their 1969 album //Blues Obituary// proclaiming in no uncertain terms a move away from blues purism towards pursuing a more experimental direction.
The Groundhogs are a classic example of a band that incorporated progressive elements into their music, while retaining their core sound, a process that was rife in the early 1970s. For instance, think of hard rock’s big three at the time – Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath – and then consider songs such as //Stairway To Heaven//, //Child In Time// and //Wheels Of Confusion//. But under the leadership of singer and guitarist Tony McPhee, the Groundhogs pushed out further than most. In particular, the four albums they recorded between 1970 and 1972 – //Thank Christ For The Bomb//, //Split//, //Who Will Save The World?// and //Hogwash// – saw the band become increasingly ambitious, both compositionally and conceptually, with the deployment of Mellotron and synth helping to create an exciting progressive/blues rock hybrid.
Looking back at that period today, McPhee isn’t entirely sure how the progressive influence seeped in: “As a jobbing musician, there was little time to follow others. We were gigging constantly and if it wasn’t on the car radio, we hardly got to hear it.” But McPhee was determined to move the Groundhogs forward: “I’ve always liked going in new directions away from ‘the crowd’ – the blues can be limiting to an extent and I wanted to explore.”
Operating as a power trio of McPhee, bassist Pete Cruickshank and drummer Ken Pustelnik, the band were determined to make a statement with their next album: “The idea of the title came from a discussion with Roy Fisher, Groundhogs manager at the time. John Lennon had said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and got a lot of publicity, so we were trying to think of something that was as contentious as that. Roy said ‘Thank Christ for the Bomb’, and it all clicked in my head.”
McPhee set about writing a set of songs full of contrasting riffs and chords – still recognisably blues rock, but skewed into dynamic new shapes. The lyrics too were also a major advance from traditional rock & roll platitudes, with the first side of the album based around the theme of alienation, while the second tells the story of a rich man who renounces his status and embraces poverty instead. Stand-out track //Soldier// deftly portrays the brutalising effects of war, set to an irresistibly catchy riff: “We really got our boost when John Peel played //Soldier// on his programme, he liked the song and the lyrical complexity.”
//Thank Christ For The Bomb// got to number nine in the UK charts, and significantly raised the Groundhogs’ profile. They also started playing alongside many of the emerging prog bands, including Yes, Curved Air, Gentle Giant and Colosseum, although McPhee admits, “I wasn’t enamoured by some of the bands in the progressive scene at that time – I didn’t like the soft, fluffy sound that they produced.” Instead, he drew inspiration from the darker, edgier sounds of groups such as King Crimson.
The Groundhogs were also one of the coterie of underground bands on the Liberty/United Artists roster, which included Hawkwind, Man, Can and Amon Düül II. McPhee remembers an incident at a festival in Hamburg: “When we opened the van, and much to our surprise, it was filled with a load of ‘Orange’ gear which wasn’t ours. The record company had bought it for Amon Düül II because VAT was cheaper in the UK than in Germany. They came and whisked it away, but when they played, they over ran their time slot so much that the Groundhogs didn’t get to play. Not only had we unknowingly acted as a free taxi for their gear, but we’d driven all the way to Hamburg without playing the gig!”
The first side, and four-part title track, of their next album //Split// was another conceptual piece, this time focused on mental breakdown and schizophrenia. The lyrics were based on a frightening experience that McPhee himself had undergone. Having previously smoked cannabis to no ill effect, he recalls politely accepting a joint: “It was the start of a nightmare. I suffered what I now call my ‘aberration’. The day had been hot and I’d got burnt in the park – a mix of heat stroke and cannabis led to a month of terror and confusion. Writing about it probably helped work my way through it, although I got anxiety flashbacks for a long time afterwards. I never touched drugs again.”
Building on their popularity as an explosive live act, and coming off the back of opening for the Rolling Stones on their 1971 UK tour, //Split// was the Groundhogs’ most successful album, peaking at number five in the charts. Another set of spiky, twisting songs, it includes their most well-known number, the punk blues stomp of //Cherry Red// (where the record label takes its name from) which, despite not being released as a single, even secured them a slot on //Top Of The Pops//. But McPhee had higher aspirations in mind.
//Who Will Save The World?// is where the band’s prog inclinations really start to become apparent – just listen to the jazzy riffs and dramatic Mellotron of //Earth Is Not Room Enough// and //Music Is The Food Of Thought//. It’s another loosely conceptual album, addressing the various evils threatening the world – overpopulation, war, big business… But its presentation was anything but po-faced, with Marvel Comics’ artist Neal Adams brought in to create a fold-down comic strip sleeve, with the band reimagined as superheroes ‘The Mighty Groundhogs’ – “I was a big fan of //Silver Surfer//, as drawn by Neal,” says McPhee. “Once I saw the artwork he’d come up with, I wanted to write all the songs to link with it.”
However, despite getting to number eight in the charts, it got a decidedly frosty reception compared to the previous albums. “A lot of fans and the press didn’t like it. To be honest, it was rushed and I never had the time to work on the production or even think about what we were playing, and I agreed with them for a while. It was only a few years later, when I could listen to it objectively that I realised its strengths. We often get people now saying that it’s their favourite album.”
Undaunted, McPhee continued to take the band in a more progressive direction, adding an ARP 2600 synthesiser to their musical armoury. And following the departure of Pustelnik, the band’s new drummer was none other than Clive Brooks from Canterbury scene stalwarts Egg, who had supported the Groundhogs on tour. “Clive was a lovely man and practically speaking, there was a lot less stress involved with getting together on time playing and touring,” says McPhee. “He was a powerful player who suited the times and new material that I was writing.”
That new material would emerge on the brilliant //Hogwash//, the band’s most overtly progressive album. Not only are Mellotron and synth more to the fore than ever, in particular on tracks such as //You Had A Lesson// and //Earth Shanty//, but the clever arrangements and segues between songs make for a genuinely sophisticated and powerful listening experience. McPhee’s lyrics are also some of his most challenging, especially for the times – for instance, opening track //I Love Miss Ogyny// is a chilling depiction of domestic abuse from the point of view of the abuser, the song’s stop-start dynamic reflecting its dysfunctional subject matter.
Alas, the public weren’t receptive to McPhee’s increasingly outré take on blues rock, and //Hogwash// failed to chart. It also proved to be their last album for United Artists, with the band signing to WWA, the short-lived label set up by Black Sabbath’s management team. They released the album //Solid// in 1974 – which as the name suggests represented a retreat from the more expansive sound of //Hogwash// – before splitting up for the first time the following year.
Yet before that had come the apogee of McPhee’s experimental impulses, with the release in 1973 of his first solo album, //The Two Sides of Tony (T.S.) McPhee//. While the first side was a collection of folk blues numbers, the second was something else entirely, an avant garde electronic symphony entitled //The Hunt// performed on the ARP 2600 and a Rhythm Ace drum machine, which still sounds completely out there today. “I’d been using the ARP 2600 during gigs for the //Hogwash// tour and wanted to explore its potential. It also gave me an opportunity to express my loathing for people who hunt foxes. I stand by what I said then, there are still a lot of arrogant people who get a kick out of cruelty.”
The Groundhogs may have existed on the periphery of the prog world, but the way it informed their music in the early ‘70s is a fascinating example of cultural cross-fertilisation. And while they perhaps never quite made it into rock’s premier league, they released some of the era’s most innovative and exciting albums, and retain a devoted fanbase to this day, with a selection of their more well-known admirers including Captain Sensible, Julian Cope, Ty Segall, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, QOTSA’s Josh Homme, and Underworld’s Karl Hyde.
A stroke in 2009 and an accident at the end of 2018 may have knocked McPhee out of action for the foreseeable future, but Fire Records are keeping the band’s legacy alive with an ongoing re-issue programme of their classic Liberty/UA albums, in full consultation with McPhee. With any luck, a new generation of fans might discover one of the most distinctive bands that Britain has ever produced. As McPhee humbly concludes, “It’s gratifying to think that people regard the music as still being relevant.”