Tuesday, July 22, 2014


The Groundhogs started out as a purist blues group led by master guitarist Tony (TS) McPhee and once backed John Lee Hooker when he toured the UK, and recorded with him. Allegedly The Groundhogs was one of the few groups of that time and possibly the only bunch of White British blues lovers who could keep up with The Hook's musical idiosyncrasies.

In the late Sixties, following in the footsteps of so many Brit blues boomers, they transformed their purist blues into heavy blues, became a power trio and had a reasonably successful career in the hard rock idiom.

At some point between 1980 and 1981, Sygma Records, my local record store in Stellenbosch offered the double album Groundhogs' Best 1969 – 1973, at a very decently discounted price and I bought it, partly because of the price and partly because I'd read about the band and knew of the John Lee Hooker connection. In fact, the second Hooker album I ever bought was probably the album he'd recorded with the Groundhogs although there was absolutely no information on the sleeve.

Another reason for buying the Groundhogs' hits album was that John Lee Hooker's "Groundhog" (the song from which the band took its name), was the opening track of the album. At that time I'd not heard Hooker's version of his song.

After I'd listened to the whole album I was torn in two. On the one hand there was quite enough tuneful blues rock but on the other hand the songs seemed to lean towards unsubtle sludge and bombast, really silly "meaningful" lyrics and excessive soloing. "Groundhog" was essentially McPhee on his own, in a long, somewhat sparse version of the song. "BDD" was to my mind the best tune on the album with great melody and awesome playing, a proper song. Songs like "Soldier", "Eccentric Man" and "Split" (parts 1 and 4) (two of the tracks on the eponymous concept album about schizophrenia) were just cringe worthy. The trio was not always a power trio and reminded me of Grand Funk Railroad in that the guitar did not have enough power to my taste, nothing like Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Who, or any number of true power trios. McPhee also did not have the most expressive of voices.

Most of the songs are built around blues based riffs and McPhee's virtuoso guitar playing, as befitted a blues rock band. Some of the songs are much too ponderous and rely on too much aimless jamming, and then you have "Bog Roll Blues", which is some kind of a joke about a, um, toilet roll in a public lavatory in Birmingham. Well, on close listening it is social commentary.

To my mind, then, The Groundhogs had some interesting songs but were on the whole not a band whose other albums I would buy. The Groundhogs were a band of their time and I could understand why the band did not last much beyond 1975. They would perhaps have stood a better chance of survival if they'd stuck to the purist blues thing.

As is the case with so many of those old bands, The Groundhogs did get together again, even if only with McPhee as frontman. I actually bought a low budget CD featuring a concert of the Groundhogs somewhere in the Nineties, which was more or less the same set list as the hits album, albeit played in a very rough and ready way compared to the studio versions. Perhaps a nice souvenir if one attended the gig but not a memorable album.

In late 2009, and in anticipation of a move of residence and because I never played the records anymore, I gave away all my records. In 2013 I realised that I could recover some of the lost music by way digital downloads from iTunes. I did not want to replicate my entire record collection but there were some significant albums I did want to hear again and that I never found the CDs of. Groundhogs Best was one of those albums.

I must say the iTunes album sounds a lot better than how I remember the record sounding. At the moment (2014) records (now called vinyls) are trending big time and I've seen a statistic that claims record sales are at a 12-year high. Even Musica is making an effort to sell records and turntables. This is all very well but back in the day vinyl deteriorated quite quickly and even if the analogue sound is meant to be superior to digital, the lack of scratching and surface hiss makes the digital versions a far more user friendly choice for me. The Groundhogs actually sound good on digital.

If I were to hazard a guess I would say that Tony McPhee wanted to position his band somewhere between blues rock and prog rock and not so much at the super heavy end of the spectrum. The blues influences are palpable. The prog rock part may be my fancy, but the lyrical concerns of some of the tunes and the conceptualisation behind albums like Thank Christ For The Bomb and Split must have come from a more ambitious mind set than mere boogie with long guitar solos. There is no bludgeoning bombast here and some bloody artful guitar playing and a good handful of decent tunes.

The blues rock songs "BDD", "Cherry Red," "Mean Mistreater" and "3744 James Road" show the band at its best, with relentless, catchy grooves and no pseudo philosophy. Having said that, though, I am much more impressed with all of the tunes on the album than I was way back when. Groundhogs were no mere boogie purveyors and no arty farty prog dunderheads either. Now I would be quite interested in exploring the albums from which this selection was extracted and, with iTunes, why not?

On reconsideration the songs sound much better than my recollection of the vinyl versions, and though some of the more po'faced, serious lyrics are still a bit much, they are in fact mostly quite good, and McPhee may ot have the most expressive of voices but he carries his tunes quite well. The band is very good and every now and then close listening reveals a gem of an arrangement and McPhee's guitar playing is always inventive, fluid, and melodic or fierce as may be required. The Groundhogs' sound and concerns are still very much of their time yet I can now honestly say that this is a late Sixties or early Seventies band I would rate highly as worth investigating and preserving the memory of. There has always been a lot of chaff in rock and Groundhogs does not count amongst that number at all.

Tony McPhee led his band on a truly progressive path from straight blues to innovative rock with a modicum of intelligence and subtlety that is rare in blues rock. The music married power and melody. One can hardly fault him for the changing times and the punk rock revolution of the late Seventies making his music non-commercial and forcing the demise of the band. There is no telling whether The Groundhogs will ever be rated as better than the B-list band it was even at its peak. It is good to have something to remember them by ad this best of album is a grand addition to my (digital) music collection.



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