Formed in 1962 by brothers Peter and John Cruikshank, this band was originally known as The Dollar Bills. Tony McPhee joined later that year and steered them in a more blues direction, renaming the band the Groundhogs after the John Lee Hooker song “Groundhog Blues” (they even supported Hooker on his tour of the UK in 1964).
By the time the band got to record their first album “Scrathin’ the Surface” (1968) brother John had relinquished the drum stool to Ken Pustelnik. This album was produced by a young man named Mike Batt, yes he of the Wombles fame. The next album “Blues Obituary” (1969) was a step in the right direction, but the next three albums hit pay dirt and set the Groundhogs up as one of Britain’s hottest rock acts. All three albums went to the top ten in the charts. It’s the middle of this trio of albums that we will concentrate on now.
“Split” would definitely fall into the blues/rock category, but there are certainly tinges of progressive rock in this power trio’s fiery instrumental breaks. Of course, by now the focal point of the group was Tony McPhee, singing in his distinctive fashion and ripping the blues out of his guitar with great long solos in the live arena, although they were kept more compact on studio recordings.
The first side of the vinyl version of the album was split into four pieces, “Split Parts 1-4”. All feature a solid rhythm section with McPhee laying down some spectacular guitar over the top. Whilst the music is very much of its time, credit must go to the production crew who by using many layers of guitar gave the required effect of a massive band. The lead guitar will often leap from speaker to speaker before roaring back in for another whiplash later.
This album was produced by another young man with a big future in front of him, Martin Birch, who would later go on to produce Deep Purple, Whitesnake and Iron Maiden among others. Each part of the first side has a different feel about it, but all are very hard hitting.
The second side of the vinyl album opens with the Groundhogs’ classic “Cherry Red”. This was recorded in one take and is a storming rocker which was always used as the closing number at Groundhog gigs. It was released as a single and earned the band a place on the BBC’s Top of the Pops. Never have I seen a bunch of musicians so out of place miming to a backing track. But live “Cherry Red” would often clock in around the fifteen minute mark.
For the final three tracks McPhee leads us back to his roots with more blues based songs, closing with an adaptation of Hooker’s aforementioned “Groundhog Blues”.
This is not perhaps an earth moving band or album, but they had their few years in the spotlight and sometimes it’s nice to take a step back and listen to some fond memories. Mott The Dog was only a pup when this came out.
After the next album the Groundhogs faded away, never really making much of an impression again. There really is only so much you can do with a blues/rock trio.
Useless fact to finish with: Tony McPhee had the longest hair of any male rock star of his era.
Album Rating: 4 Stars.
Split Parts 1-4
A Year In The Life
Tony McPhee – guitar and vocals
Peter Cruikshank – bass guitar
Ken Pustelnik – drums