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Off the Beaten Tracks: Groundhogs Days

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THERE are certain musical acts which seem to have a special appeal to the male of the species. For example, I have only ever encountered one girl who liked King Crimson (her favourite album at the time was Still, by Pete Sinfield). And I have never knowingly met a female Groundhogs fan.

In the late sixties and early seventies, the army of Hog lovers (and there were many) comprised almost exclusively spotty herberts with long, greasy hair, RAF-surplus greatcoats and a tragic lack of girlfriends. Reader, I speak from experience.

Yet despite their single-sex appeal, Tony McPhee and the boys enjoyed a great deal of chart success with their morose, doom-laden blend of blues and heavy rock. At the invitation of Mick Jagger, they supported the Rolling Stones on a 1971 tour and their single BDD (Blind, Deaf, Dumb) was a number one hit, albeit only in Lebanon. Remind me later to tell you a story about Lebanon Street in Burnley.

Anthony Charles McPhee was born in Humberston, Lincolnshire, in March 1944. As a boy he was given a guitar for Christmas and formed his first band while still at school. His first love was skiffle but he soon gravitated towards the blues. Having seen several performances by Cyril Davies and Blues Incorporated, he moved to London and in 1962 joined a pop group called the Dollarbills, persuading them to become a blues band. In honour of the John Lee Hooker song Ground Hog Blues they renamed themselves the Groundhogsand in 1964 were honoured to be chosen as Hooker’s backing band on a British tour. Hooker was so impressed by them that he hired them for several more tours and made an album with them released in 1965 as . . . and Seven Nights, later renamed Hooker and the Hogs. 

By the end of 1965 the boys had decided to become a soul band and as John Lee’s Groundhogs, released a single, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, backed with a McPhee original, Over You Baby

It sold zilch and the band split up. McPhee released Get Your Head Happy, a duet single with Champion Jack Dupree.

Producer Mike Vernon suggested he called himself T S McPhee because it made him sound more like an authentic bluesman. The T S apparently stands for Tough Sh*t. He and Groundhogs bassist Pete Cruickshank then joined drummer Mike Meekham in a group called Herbal Mixture which combined blues and psychedelia in the manner of the Yardbirds. Here is their single Please Leave My Mind. 

Again sales success proved elusive and the Herbals disbanded at the end of 1967.

The following year Andrew Lauder of United Artists’ British branch offered McPhee the chance to make an album if he could put a group together. Back came Cruickshank along with drummer Ken Pustelnik and Steve Rye on harmonica. The LP, Scratching the Surface, was produced by of all people Mike Batt, the future Womble, then the label’s 19-year-old head of A & R. It was recorded live in the studio in just over a week and released in November 1968. According to McPhee, Batt’s production method amounted to saying ‘next’ after each take.

Scratching the Surface is a fairly typical product of the British blues boom, occupying the same territory as early Fleetwood Mac, Chicken Shack and Savoy Brown. It combines six McPhee originals with three cover versions, of which the pick might just be Willie Cobbs’s You Don’t Love Me with excellent work by Steve Rye. It failed singularly to set the charts on fire and Rye departed, leaving the band as a trio.

The following year saw the release of the album Blues Obituary, whose first track is BDD, which brings me back to Burnley. A former colleague on the local newspaper the Evening Star swore this was a true story. One slow news afternoon a young reporter was dispatched to Lebanon Street with orders to ask passers-by where Lebanon Street was. Even though they were standing under the street sign, no one could help him. Eventually in exasperation he told an old chap: ‘You’re actually on it.’

‘Nay lad,’ came the reply. ‘This is Le-bannon Street (to rhyme with Rhiannon). Why would you say it any other way? You’re not from Yorkshire, are you?’

If you’ll permit me another digression, I was once in the food hall of Marks & Spencer’s Burnley branch when I heard a woman ask a store assistant: ‘Where’s t’kwitchies?’ She replied: ‘Over there, love’, pointing to a shelf full of quiches.

Back to the Groundhogs. Blues Obituary, as the title is intended to suggest, features less blues and more rock than its predecessor. It’s still pretty bluesy, though, particularly on a version of the Howlin’ Wolf song Natchez Burning

Again, sales were disappointing.

Not so with the 1970 LP, Thank Christ For The Bomb. I have seen it suggested that McPhee had spent the preceding months listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix. If so, it was time well spent. Thank Christ represents a huge progression from its predecessors and deservedly gave the Hogs their first spell in the album charts.

The first two tracks, Strange Town and Darkness Is No Friend, are both riffy rockers. Soldier and the title track are powerful anti-war songs, the latter beginning with a potted history of 20th century conflict to an acoustic guitar backing before the musical sound of marching feet introduces a frantic spell of interplay between the three Hogs.

By far my favourite track is Garden, an insistent riff set against Pustelnik’s tom-toms which really takes off at one minute 15 seconds. Much of the credit for the album’s quality belongs to engineer Martin Birch, fresh from his work on Deep Purple in Rock. I have seen the final track, Eccentric Man, compared to a power trio playing early Captain Beefheart, which can be no bad thing.

Album number four, which arrived in 1971, is Split, as in personality, and was according to McPhee inspired by a psychotic episode he suffered the previous year. Side one comprises parts one to four of the title track. In a 2011 interview McPhee said it was ‘the story of one night after a very hot day when I had a mental aberration which actually lasted a few months until I managed to control my thoughts, basically a very long panic attack’.

Split Part One begins:

In the dying embers of a burnt-out day
When morning seems a thousand hours away
Dark prevails and the light gives up the fight to stay

The blackness thickens and surrounds
Masking all but distant sounds.

The poor chap clearly needs cheering up. I’d recommend a few pints of Bob and Abbot, a half-and-half mixture of Ridley’s Old Bob, a superb bottled beer, and Greene King’s draught Abbot bitter. It always does the trick for me.

Part Two begins with an inspired piece of distorted guitar before McPhee complains:

I leap from bed in the middle of night
Run up the stairs for three or four flights
Run in a room, turn on the light
The dark is too dark but the light’s too bright.

Parts Three and Four continue in similar vein, combining excellent guitar work with lashings of misery.

Side two begins with Cherry Red, which was recorded live in the studio in one take and, after being released as a single, earned the Hogs a place on Top of the Pops. The album stayed in the charts for more than six months, reaching number five and going gold. It concludes with Groundhog, based on Ground Hog Blues, which as I mentioned earlier gave the band their name.

The following year saw the release of Who Will Save The World? The Mighty Groundhogs. By now they were drifting into prog country, with McPhee even adopting the mellotron on songs which lambast overpopulation, pollution and politicians. The cover depicts the group as comic-book heroes fighting evil. The opening track, Earth Is Not Room Enough, gives you the general idea.

This was the last Groundhogs album to achieve significant sales and in 1974 the band broke up. Since then they have reunited several times with varying line-ups, always with McPhee at the helm, but he was forced to call it a day in 2014, five years after a stroke which left him unable to sing.

So that’s my brief take on the Groundhogs story. And if any female readers have made it this far, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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