Veteran British blues-rockers Groundhogs deserve respect. They were there, in one form or another, from the early days of the UK blues explosion, taking their name from a John Lee Hooker song (‘Ground Hog Blues’) and backing the legend on his mid-60s visit to old Londinium. After a debut album in 1968 showed them in lockstep with the electric blues zeitgeist, the 1969 follow-up reveals a more adventurous side. The title—Blues Obituary, with a brilliant cover photo by Zorin Matic—indicates a desire to break out… which is precisely what they did on their third record, Thank Christ For The Bomb. This is the one most often talked about in reverential terms, and it is a strong LP of thoughtful songs delivered in Tony McPhee’s limited (almost deadpan) voice. The concept that war isn’t really a very good thing was certainly of its time (1970) but none-the-worse for repetition. I’ve listened to TCFTB several times over the years and slowly come to appreciate it, but I don’t love it. The one I pull out when I want some guitar-based blues-rock psychedelia is the next album, Split.
There’s a lie in that last sentence; I don’t own a copy of the 1971 Groundhogs record, nor even the CD. Or didn’t, until a few weeks ago. Slipping in a quick visit to a suburban second-hand emporium while the boy was having his clarinet lesson, I came across a three-CD collection of the first five albums, Thank Christ For The Groundhogs: The Liberty Years (1968—1972).
Despite having a good selection of the tracks on a 1992 collection, I sprung for this edition to get those first two albums and the whole of Split. So keen was I that I didn’t blink at the fact the album is, er, split over discs two and three in a most fragmented way. I figured it’s like getting up to turn over a vinyl record, something I’m passing familiar with.
So. What is ‘Split’, the four part song-cycle that fills side one of Split? The writer has suggested it is an evocation of drug induced psychosis, maybe a vague stab at describing schizophrenia (and missing, medically speaking), or most obviously a sweat-inducing description of a major panic attack. Or it could be a serious attempt to capture that ‘dark night of the soul’ where existential issues crash through our everyday armouring and leave us shivering and alone in the dead of night. As all of those scenes are as valid in 2021 as fifty years ago, it hardly matters.
The blackness thickens and surrounds Masking all but distant sounds I seek for thought to occupy still conscious mind
A sense of isolation and fear is palpable in both the music and the lyrics of the four ‘Split’ songs. McPhee, singing in the first person, sure is having a bad night. The imagery is stark and unsettling and underpinned by some of the best guitar work coming out of early 70s Britain. Being basically a trio, Tony McPhee’s fretwork carries most of the burden of communicating his musical ideas, and here it does so with a fuzzy, ragged intensity, buffeting the listener with a churning electric squall. It is potent, driving. Powerful psychedelic surges pull like an ocean undertow, threatening capture in ever deeper waters. Swim for your life.
Part 2 starts with a series of distracted abstract runs before crunching into a tortured boogie. The vocal melody is identical to the opening part, the lyrics offer little respite, and it all gets spooky at the end. Again.
I try to think of things mundane To get this terror from out of my brain Everything's so mad, I can't explain I must get help before I go insane
Some basic organ drones open Part 3, a different melody and some guitar arpeggios. The guitar lines (more multi-tracking) build, with the drums coming and going to add drama (if more was needed). In the final part, the tortured soul is driven by his suffering to embrace religion—‘I confess to a priest and accept his command’—but enlightenment is certainly not a sunny dawn.
Revelation is near but is lost in the murk Of man’s own small attempt to explain life on Earth
Though the more straightforward boogie of this final movement suggests the pilgrim made some progress. The freak-out ending isn’t exactly comforting, spiritually speaking; the panning distorted guitar suggestive that the mind-body schism is far from healed.
It’s one dense slab of lysergic guitar-rock, this side of ‘Split’, and without doubt my favourite cut of Groundhog. Fans of early Trower, jagged guitar and psych-blues should check it out.
The other side opens with one of Groundhogs most revered songs, the mighty ‘Cherry Red’. This fast-paced blues is driven by the bass-line of Pete Cruikshank, thundering throughout. Ken Pustelnik pounds his drums (ceasing briefly for effect, when required) and the whole thing simply rolls like a speeding freight train. The story, by the way, is of an exciting liaison that, sadly for the narrator, is not repeated.
‘A year in the life’ is a slow song, mournfully presented by TS McPhee. His voice is limited, leading to a sameness in the melodies. Yet across Split this works better than some other Groundhogs albums, mainly because the guitars are cranked up so high in the mix, and our Tony beats some amazing sounds out of them. After the rant of ‘Junkman’—replete with freakout middle-n, an indeterminate middle eight—Split closes with ’Groundhog’, a well-worn blues about a mangy back door critter dispatched by a murderously over-possessive husband. It’s full-strength John Lee Hooker and provides a robust yet spacious ending to this guitar-drenched epic.
If you haven’t acquired a taste for Groundhogs, maybe it’s time to Split.
Groundhogs—Split [Liberty 1971]