The Groundhogs

by Julian Cope, 26/03/2000ce
The Groundhogs:
Men of Destiny with secret thoughts of Saving the World

In the very early 1970s, the Groundhogs were an ultra-hip, Utopian musical force playing their Top 10 album songs on Top of the Pops and recording alongside Can, Hawkwind and Amon Düül 2 for Andrew Lauder’s groundbreaking Liberty/United Artists record label. And, like the above mentioned groups, the Groundhogs’ albums were housed in supercool gatefolds or triple-gatefolds or even 12” x 15” unfolding comic books which portrayed the individual group members as superheroes. The Groundhogs referred to themselves as ‘Men of Destiny with secret thoughts of saving the world’, and gave their albums titles such as Thank Christ for the Bomb, Split and (best of all) Who Will Save the World? The Mighty Groundhogs!

And the Groundhogs music was something else entirely. It was a frantic and unresolved post-blues played at breakneck speed with a hard non-hippy idealism and drumming that sounded as though the god Thor was using the gasworks as tom-toms. At a time when the likes of Eric Clapton were brown-nosing the blues with Spanish galleon-sized ensembles of horns and extra percussionists, the trio known as the Groundhogs were taking blues riffs into the same uncharted territory as the MC5, the Stooges and the Krautrock groups. Their frantic songs of alienation would piledrive along only to disintegrate into whoops of feedback and sonic wah-distortion. Most white blues-based groups were latecomers straitjacketed by their need to cop what they saw as ‘the formula’, but the Groundhogs’ experience with John Lee Hooker in the early ‘60s had shown them that the real bluesmen adhered to no formula. Subsequent work with free-form freaks ‘60s Hapshash & the Coloured Coat opened the doors still further until the Groundhogs refused even to boogie. Indeed, to call them the blues is to call Ash Ra Tempel the blues. The Groundhogs surfed the hinterlands between California’s The Misunderstood and George Clinton’s epic early-Funkadelic guitar histrionics. It was a post-Hendrix yawp that kissed your sonic ass goodbye.

But who were these Groundhogs? And why are they not household names nowadays? Well, I'll tell y’all. The Groundhogs were led by an underground legend of the British music scene called Tony (T.S.) McPhee, a man with no apparent desire for self-promotion and certainly no time for the power-that-were who had to be placated during the early 1970s. At a time when rock‘n’roll was calling itself Progressive Rock, T.S. McPhee was the real thing. At a time when his labelmates Hawkwind were stagnating to the point of un-ironically naming their greatest hits album Stasis, T.S. McPhee was evolving as any true Utopian should. Like contemporaries such as Todd Rundgren, T.S. McPhee did not burn out on the one riff but hurled himself projectile-like into experiment. He played with Amon Düül 2, he bought Mellotrons and synthesizers, and took his music off into the reaches where even his fans and the rest of his band could not follow. Damn! I for one bore the brunt of his commitment to experiment during the punk era, when, as a member of Liverpool failures A Shallow Madness, I bought a copy of T.S. McPhee’s solo album from a second-hand shop in Belmont Road. Our singer, the pre-Bunnyman Ian McCulloch, jeered me all the way back to rehearsals and, from that moment on, the cracks in our relationship began.

Though T.S. McPhee has done nothing at all to advertise the fact, the Groundhogs have often played together from time-to-time since their early ‘70s peak. But since I've begun to tell others that they are playing at this April’s Cornucopea, I've been amazed to discover that there are still loads of Groundhogs fans waiting to see them again. The members of Wire and Spiritualized, even the comedian Vic Reeves; they’re all proclaimed Groundhogs fanatics. The Fall have even recorded a version of ‘Junkman’ from the ‘Hogs’ legendary Split LP – apparently Mark Smith credited it to ‘McFree’! It should be noted that those looking for the easiest way into the Groundhogs could do no better than buying a copy of Split, and pronto, Tonto. It reveals all the headlong rush and roar of the band whilst simultaneously demonstrating T.S. McPhee’s singular approach to the mysterious rock‘n’roll muse: for example, the four songs on side one were known simply as ‘Split 1’, ‘Split 2’, ‘Split 3’ and ‘Split 4’. On side two is ‘Cherry Red’, the song they played on Top of the Pops and which became the name of one of punk’s most famous record-labels. Oh, and of course there's the Groundhogs’ own version of ‘Junkman’. As a 15-year-old, I’d sit in the living-room of local axe-hero Trevor Mugglestone and watch him mime ecstatically to the guitar freakout in which T.S. makes his Stratocaster sound like the flushing of an electric toilet! Hey, who else could do that? Twenty-nine years later, I’m so proud to have them play at Cornucopea. Come down and see if we can collectively coax a new bog-flush version out of T.S. McPhee. As Paul Smith from Blast First Records said recently, the Groundhogs is a revival just waiting to happen.