Groundhogs leader Tony “T.S.” McPhee passed away on June 6 at age 79, and the outpouring of love and respect that followed on social media was gratifying. Though he never became a household name in the US, the British guitarist/vocalist earned renown from discerning listeners for his inventive, explosive guitar playing and incisive, sociopolitical lyrics, as exemplified on albums such as Thank Christ For The Bomb, Split, and Who Will Save The World? The Mighty Groundhogs. McPhee was a cult guitar hero’s cult guitar hero, and he shined hard on one of Groundhogs’ best—and most underrated—records, Hogwash.
As many English musicians had done in the early/mid ’60s, Groundhogs began their existence as a blues-inflected rock group. In 1964, they even backed American blues legend John Lee Hooker on some of his UK dates and later cut an LP with him titled …And Seven Nights. Auspicious! Unsurprisingly, Groundhogs’ first two albums—1968’s Scratching The Surface and 1969’s Blues Obituary—trawled in traditional, gritty blues territory, but they began to expand beyond those strictures with 1970’s Thank Christ For The Bomb.
On Hogwash, the addition of Egg drummer Clive Brooks enabled Groundhogs to venture into more complex realms. This becomes apparent from the opening track, “I Love Miss Ogyny,” whose unpredictable, slow-fast dynamics and strange guitar tunings and riffs mark a bold move into prog-rock. McPhee not only sang like a more blue-collar Richard Thompson and wielded electric and acoustic guitars, but he also messed with an ARP 2600 synthesizer, Mellotron M400, ring modulator, and assorted FX pedals. These weapons allowed Tony to spice up Groundhogs’ tough and twisty rock, lifting it further out of their earlier bluesy muck.
“You Had A Lesson” is ominous rock that verges on Van Der Graaf Generator bombast, with Peter Cruickshank’s riveting and girthy bass plowing a devastating groove. “The Ringmaster” is an 83-second experimental interlude centering on a heavily FX’d drum solo. Some people can’t handle this sort of anomalous abstraction from a rock group, but those types are a drag; this is cool. The album’s longest and perhaps best song, “3744 James Road” contains over seven minutes of metronomic, Can-like bass and drum interplay, torrid guitar expressionism, and a surprising earworm chorus. “Sad Is The Hunter” rocks as ruggedly and threateningly as John Lennon’s “Well Well Well,” but with flashier solos and extrapolations by McPhee and Cruickshank.
The ridiculously fun and intricate “S’one Song” is a party-rockin’ tune for people with high IQs while “Earth Shanty” is chest-puffing, Mellotron-enhanced prog that makes you feel more heroic than you have any right to. It’s like the Moody Blues with wilder instincts and bigger biceps. The LP ends with “Mr. Hooker, Sir John,” a heartfelt homage to the god John Lee Hooker, fueled by McPhee’s hard and nasty acoustic guitar strumming. McPhee sings, “You taught so many people how to play/Your music is as timeless as a mountain and as earthy as clay/Your voice is clear and resonant as a bell.” Tony really lays it on thickly, and it’s touching. The song’s a curiously retrograde end to a forward-thrusting record, but, hell, JLH deserves all the tributes and Groundhogs had broken so much new ground before, so slack is cut. Call this album “hogwash” at your peril. -Buckley Mayfield
Located in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, Jive Time is always looking to buy your unwanted records (provided they are in good condition) or offer credit for trade. We also buy record collections.