SPLIT DECISION

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.

Filched from the net

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]

49 comments

  1. Ya know, VC, that there is a maximum ceiling on the number of times this sort of manipulative marketing can be successful, right? I am assuming your side gig is selling sugary cereals to preteens as “part of a complete breakfast”…

    On a complete aside: Hey 1537, if you are reading this, have you noticed how much the latest Municipal Waste album calls to mind Tangerine Dream, what with its phaedric allusions and post-Froeseian phrasing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry, Vic, can’t talk. Have to order something by a band called Municipal Waste.

      PS. Need some alcopops for your teens?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. You realise, of course, that next time the text will read:

      BUY THIS NOW VICTIM OF THE FURY

      Liked by 1 person

  2. OK. Your description of Split actually got me off the couch in the middle of my second cup of coffee and into the next room to fetch my headphones. The guitar solos are simply amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aren’t they? We have all heard similar guitar sounds, but there is something oceanic about McPhee’s work on this one. So pleased you enjoyed the trip, Jeff. 🙂

      Like

  3. Split and The Groundhog sound awesome. I don’t believe I had heard of either before.

    I guess when it comes to music, time and again I feel like a groundhog in some sort of permanent hibernation state – and I’m afraid it doesn’t seem to get much better the more I listen! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So much music, eh? Still, we persevere, don’t we? (grin)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    You’re lucky you have a “suburban second hand emporium” like that, those must be getting more and more rare. And “slipping out” like that has the surreptitious quality of a drunk going for an old nipper! Ha! I always think of that goofy band the Jon Spenser Blues Explosion, who seemed to throw back to some of these earlier bands I never knew. I loved JSBX and they had their time, as I suppose we all do. Thanks for this Bruce! You’re right, brilliant cover on that album too, the obit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently Melbourne has more record stores per head of population than almost anywhere else in the world. But competition does not seem to have forced down prices. 😦

      I only have one JSBX, but I can certainly hear the connection. As Iggy might have said, Raw Power.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        Nice…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A clever ending and motivating enough to get my mouse hand moving to a YouTube search to find Split. Some really inspiring guitar work going on there. Many thanks for introducing them. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A pleasure, Marty. The core mission for Vinyl Connection is engaging writing that piques curiosity. I’m grateful for good folk like yourself who have stayed for the long haul!
      All the best, mate.
      -Bruce

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great, great band. Split is one of those records that never gets old.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. There is a timeless quality in Split, while it remains rooted in its time. Those paradoxes are very special in popular music. Thanks for visiting and sharing your observations, ts.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Glad to read the young man is learning the clarinet.
    I suppose when learning, it doesn’t necessarily emit the most pleasant sounds. But when played well, among my favourite instruments!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The first few years were a little like living in a goose abattoir, Geoff. But as he is preparing for Grade 7 this year, it’s really only those very high notes that disturb the peace.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ahh yes, I believe that’s referred to as ‘crossing the break’ ? Glad to hear the first register is sounding much less abattoir-y!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Like you I appreciate the band rather than love them but cherry red is an awesome track and let’s not forget it inspired a record label.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point! I wonder who re-issued the deluxe vinyl version of Split 1537 has? Must investigate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fire Records.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve been talking to the lovely Alice at Fire but they aren’t gonna ship vinyl Downunder without a major mortgage being involved.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Cheaper to come here, buy one and fly back the same day?

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Pretty much.

              I’ve had contact via my reviews/interviews with Nick Salomon (Bevis Frond).

              Liked by 1 person

  9. I love Split, I have borrowed it from the library on two continents, taped it ripped it to CD(I am individually killing music it seems) as they say and never owned it. You and the numerical one are making me ashamed to be a fan of music.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, we all have dark corners of our musical psyches, Neil. Glad to read you outing yourself as a Split fan, too. 😉

      Like

  10. Chris Blackman · · Reply

    Have always loved Split 1-4, especially 2. The wah-wah… OMG.

    And may I put a word in for Cherry Red on the other side of the album?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You may. ‘Cherry Red’ is getting a lot of votes. 🙂

      Like

  11. That looks like a pretty good find, Bruce. I only have three Groundhogs albums here – Thank Christ for the Bomb, Split, and Live at Leeds 71. A pal had thrown them my way a few years ago as he suspected that I might find plenty there to enjoy and, well, he wasn’t wrong. Of the three, Split made the biggest impression of first listen… it’s pretty special. Like you, Thank Christ… took a bit of work.

    Anyhoo, this one is great and if I didn’t already have it, I’d be tempted to go buy it (again, as I’ve been tempted to buy the expanded LP that our pal 1537 was recently talking about)… I will give it a listen in a couple of minutes, though… cause Monday’s are for warped blues, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know, I think they are, J. Though I’m thinking Mondays and warped blues probably should suggest caution around vinyl purchases.

      Now, where did 1537 say that album came from?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fire Records. A special RSD release, but they still have it available through the website… I shall proceed with caution.

        How are the other Groundhogs albums, by the way?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The first two are straightforward British blues LPs – very well done, but unexceptional. Then ‘Bomb’, ‘Split’ and ‘Who will save the world’, which is fine, if not particularly memorable. I reckon ‘Split’ is the pick of the bunch.

          What’s the live album like?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I guess that explains why those three albums were thrown my way.

            The live album is pretty exceptional.

            Liked by 1 person

  12. I have “Who will save the world” with it’s rather nice vinyl cover artwork opened for a comic book format. I enjoy music enough to check some more, so “Split” it will be 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice one iwarti. I think you’ll enjoy ‘Split’.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. 365musicmusings · · Reply

    Sounds interesting- gonna check them out tonight!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The jury seems to have come down strongly in favour of Split, so hope you enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Hang on, hang on – have I somehow made it through the looking glass here? this is strangely familiar yet Australian!

    Really enjoyed this one Bruce, as usual, of course. Oddly, I introduced my dad to them recently and not vice-versa – he’d totally managed to miss them at the time, although he did see McPhee perform at a blues club in Swansea about 10 years ago without knowing who he was, said he played a set of blues and was really good too,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was late to Groundhog Day too, Joe. But Split has long been on my radar so your fine post was a catalyst.

      Ah, the pubs of Swansea. 🍺

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, that’s kind.

        Very small club owned by Terry Williams of Dire Straits/Man/Rockpile fame. Very down home, had some great bands on. I can’t remember what it was called now.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. I have the Hooker/Groundhogs “Hooker and the Hogs” as a DVD audio set. Won’t play in a stereo, which makes total sense, but hey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an historical document, that is.

      Like

      1. Oh hell yeah!

        Liked by 1 person

  16. I have already “acquired a taste for Groundhogs” but when Vinyl Connection and 1537 are on the same page at the same time I become a pig (close relation to a groundhog) for the music.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you are a happy piglet, then I’m sure I speak for 1537 when I say, we are happy too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I have you two in my corner I am in “Groundhog Heaven”.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m going to search out ‘Split’ now on YouTube so that I can play it on the way to work tomorrow.
    I wonder what mood I will be in when I arrive at a Supported Rediential Facility to perform my first vocational duty of the day. A little adventure?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Y e a h . . . look forward to reading the report on that, DD. May be worth trying it at the end of a trying but energising day, too. 🙂

      Like

      1. A rollicking good start to the day, but with the golden sun rising on my left, shining under the elevated rail track and through a long row of trees, creating a moving silhouette, and with the shades of sounds that evoked Jethro Tull, Canned Heat and more, how could my introduction to Split be anything but enjoyable?
        And what a big sound too.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sounds super. It sure has eased into a classic Autumn day. Hope you enjoy it, DD.

          Like

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