Journey To Inner Space With The Groundhogs

Built on stones laid down by John Lee Hooker, Tony “T.S.” McPhee’s The Groundhogs were labeled “post-blues” by the rock & roll press of the late ’60s and ’70s. The band was farther out than Cream, and they tapped into an end-of-flower-power darkness like a less disdainful The Doors, and shared the medieval attitude of Ladbroke Grove bands like Deviants, Pink Fairies, or Hawkwind—though they weren’t as high on acid as those groups. They found success in Europe in the early 1970s, but never made it in the States. It’s possible that McPhee’s ambition was more geared to an interior world. A place of customized studios and redesigned guitar/amp/synth effects. Where experimental proton rays could transform mere rock musicians into their other selves. 

Backing up John Lee Hooker on U.K. tours in ‘64 and ‘68 was a major factor in the Groundhogs’ Journey To Inner Space Program. So was Hendrix’s arrival in 1966. Though McPhee was not a Hendrix imitator, he knew how to operate an octave splitter and had a similar ability to make difficult feats like playing lead and rhythm at the same time sound casual. This ability increased across 1969—1973 when the Hogs made five albums: Blues Obituary, Thank Christ For The Bomb, Split, Who Will Save The World…The Mighty Groundhogs, and Hogwash. Six if you count the solo album: The Two Sides of Tony T.S. McPhee. With the dots connected, 1971’s Split shows up at the center of the literal and thematic picture. This was the big seller with their biggest hit, “Cherry Red” and, in retrospect, each of the surrounding works are like reflections, instigations, or consequences of Split. 

1969’s Blues Obituary found the band taking the power trio shape of McPhee, Peter Cruickshank (bass), and Ken Pustelnik (drums.) On material like the closing song, a twanged out broken slide guitar jam titled “Light Was the Day” (a possible response to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground”) the Groundhogs dug out from the remnants of both the conventional blues imitations and the crumbling Summer of Love. They followed with 1970’s Thank Christ For The Bomb, a meditation on war and mutual assured nuclear destruction and 1971’s Split—more on that one in a second. 1972’s Who Will Save The World…The Mighty Groundhogs came next, boasting a gatefold comic drawn by Neal Adams telling the story of superheroes who look a lot like the Groundhogs, doing battle with demonic personifications of pollution, politics, organized religion, and hard drugs. Losing the battle, they revert to their actual secret identities as the real life Groundhogs and endeavor to save the real life world. They haven’t done it yet. Then there’s, Hogwash, featuring a great ecological disaster song “Earth Shanty” with Cruickshank on bass and Clive Brooks from prog band Egg on drums. T.S. is on everything else including a wide expanse of effects and something called an Astronic Graphic Equaliser (sic.)

Sometime in the middle of all this, McPhee had a temporary mental breakdown, which may have been brought on by a reaction to some over-potent grass, causing the dark to become too dark and “the light too bright.” A split began between reality and dream. Between superhero and band. Human and nature, stone age and industrial, utopia and dystopia. A split in octaves. The splitting of the atom itself. The result was an album that distilled individual experience into a reflection of a larger human cultural shift. What C.G. Jung might have called an instance of synchronicity.

1971’s Split speaks to this cataclysmic personal moment, and its musical motifs give voice to the frantic spirit of the time. “Split: Part One” is a shuffle that evolves, oscillating between tempos and devoted to completely unhinged blues riffs. Confirming the elasticity of reality, the first descending string bend of “Split: Part Two” arrives with a reverse demented twist on the ascending note that kicks off a read of the Looney Tunes theme song. The patented shuffle comes in again before the band takes off, with McPhee using feedback, wah pedal, and intuitive wit to flip predictable song structure upside down—like Bugs Bunny diving in and out of holes forever eluding the pedestrian traps of Elmer Fudd. “Cherry Red,” as side two’s opener is a pinnacle of soaring shifts, both paean and lament, evoking Theseus coming out of the labyrinth with the speed and cosmic sadness of the Silver Surfer. A celebration and farewell to an ephemeral muse. “Junkman” picks up the pieces of a broken machine/psyche/world. The Fall do a stripped down primally absurd version, familiar as either Beefheart at his most surreal or post punk awaking from cryogenesis. What is not on that version is of course T.S. Mcphee’s guitar solo. It arrives at the end, but recalls the beginning of “EXP” from Axis: Bold As Love: dialing in sound from an intergalactic radio station, a noise struggling to break through like mutated alien ivy climbing toward sunlight, feedback fighting out of the dark through the Gibson S.G. of T.S.

“T.S.” might not stand for anything. It’s another piece of the persona. The rumor is McPhee once called a producer and asked about royalties he was owed, to which the producer quipped his initials stand for “tough shit.” Tough Shit at age 78 is still alive, though spending more time in the den these days. Which is a good place to play these records. Turned up loud with an herbal mixture. The sky is clear but it looks like a fuzzed shadow is stretching across the musical landscape’s lawn. There could be at least six more weeks of winter. | a ganderson

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