Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Groundhogs - Split


AOTM #1, June 2000ce
Released 1971 on EMI
In the post-Hendrix fallout of the aimless, wandering early '70s, only the Groundhogs harnessed the fury of lost '60s Dream idealism in order to capture on record their very own pre-punk onslaught. Many of the British groups such as Juicy Lucy and Sandoz turned to the post-blues of Zappa and Beefheart for inspiration, but nowadays the results sound as contrived as their mentors; overly intellectual and, ultimately, stridently un-British. London squats of 1971 resounded to the fakery of bogus Delta blues singers, as though only a desert twang could infuse rock'n'roll with a truthful alienation. But, like the obscure genius of London's short-lived Third World War, Tony McPhee's Groundhogs proved that this need not be the case at all, and Split is the album that provided the main body of evidence. This album of paranoid delusion and post-drug trauma was seen by its author as a straight account of a real event. As he said at the time: "I seemed to lose my entire personality … I never talked to anyone, because nothing seemed to be worth saying … I don't reach any conclusions - it's just … what happened, that's all." Both musically and lyrically, Split speaks for a lost time, a nomad time when ideals took to the hoof and musicians stayed on the road rather than confront the fact that the '60s 'war' had been lost.

Unlike other contemporary bands, economy of notes was not part of the Groundhogs agenda. On Split, more than any other Groundhogs album, they played in a shamanic whirling that shattered and scattered the beat around in several directions at once. The frenzied drumming of Ken Pustelnik reduced the kit to the role of moronic streetgang defenseless against one lone Kung Fu hero. Stun-guitars wah-wah'd and ricochet'd at random against concrete walls, leaving passers by mortally wounded but deliriously happy. Even Pete Cruickshank's bass, that one remaining anchor, was no anchor at all, but a freebass undermining the entire structure. As McPhee explained in a Zigzag interview of the time:
"[Ken] just wallops everything in sight and sometimes I lose him completely. Like I often come back in during a solo and can't work out where he is - so I just have to play a note and let it feed back until I can find my way back in. And Pete doesn't help either, because he's all over the place and he follows me rather than Ken … so when we fall apart, we really fall apart."

The brutal honesty of this quote showcases Tony McPhee's determination to follow his muse to the end. His singing is confused and compassionate, dazed and un-macho at a time of hoot'n'holler chest beating. And despite the wonder-fuelled strengths of Split's first side, each song is reduced to the anonymity of mere numbers: "Split 1", "Split 2", "Split 3" and "Split 4". Yet each is complete and each is anything but anonymous. The furious "Split 1" careers through its description of McPhee's "suicidal derangement" as he termed it with murderous bass and wah guitar interplaying. "Split 2" de-tunes itself into awesome/awful life with a chasm guitar riff that snare shatters into a tearing riff account of McPhee leaping out of bed in black hole terror, before the floor of the room gives way and he ends: "I must get help before I go insane". Ghost Hammond organ chords punctuate the ends of this piece. Song 3 is a chiming clean bell-tone blues which breaks off into formidable noise rock and tears the roof of the sucker, before "Split 4" sees the singer get "down on his knees and pray to the sun". The heathen one-chord flailing of this song is occasionally interrupted by more squeezy wah, but the highway blues riffs and car crash guitars see the track open out into a wide blue horizon'd escape, before McPhee's distorto-feedback bursts into flames like Barry Newman's Dodge Challenger at the end of Vanishing Point.

Side Two opens with their most famous song of all: "Cherry Red". Another sonic clatterwail in the Groundhogs' more-is-more/hit-everything methodology, the propellant bass and plate-spinning cymbals undermine ernie-ernie guitars and a vocal, which shifts from alpha male to soul castrato. McPhee's guitars swallow the rhythm section whole, then he undermines us all by becoming his own female backing singer.

The dark ages ballad that is "A Year in the Life" grubs around in the soil like low church bell-ringers on vacation from Black Sabbath's first album sleeve. Invention and dignity and mystery. "Junkman" is insane. A ramshackle Fall-type Steptoe & Sonic boom of a song, which veers into staccato Guru Guru stop-start, before collapsing into freeform slide-toilet bowl FX guitar for several minutes. Then we hit the last song of all, a blues standard called "Groundhog Blues", approached with the same attitude that inhabited their Blues Obituary album. Drums are here reduced to cardboard box/frontporch patterstomp like Beefheart's "China Pig", while McPhee's blues is a sorrow-drowning greysky of seagull guitars. Split falls to the ground in a massively underplayed style - as though Evel Knievel had chosen to mount a unicycle for the three-minute encore of his hour-long 1000cc show. That's confidence.