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Groundhogs: Split - Album Of The Week Club review

Inspired by a panic attack, The Groundhog's four-part suite Split soundtracked a psychotic reaction

Groundhogs: Split
(Image: © EMI)
Groundhogs - Split

(Image credit: EMI)

Split - Part One
Split - Part Two
Split - Part Three
Split - Part Four
Cherry Red
A Year in the Life
Junkman
Groundhog

Grungy, aggressive and profoundly inventive, Groundhogs’ fourth album saw the increasingly smooth path the British blues pack was taking in the early 70s and ran in the opposite direction.

In doing so, it helped reinvent bandleader/guitarist Tony McPhee as one of the most radical and experimental musicians around. 

By their third album, 1970’s avant-garde Thank Christ For The Bomb, they’d carved out a reputation as a progressively-minded blues band. But it would be the follow-up, Split, that came hurtling out of the left-field. The album’s central theme was McPhee’s sole brush with drugs – he calls it his “mental abberation” – after a day out with his landlady and her son in London’s Green Park.

“I’d been passed a joint by Ken Pustelnik and it was particularly strong,” he remembers. “I woke up in a panic in the middle of the night – a door in my mind had opened which I couldn’t close. I ran to the kitchen and waited for the night to be over, but then I had to face the day.”

After gathering himself together psychologically, he put together a collection of acoustic songs called Nocturne In A Flat, only to throw the title away for being “too pompous”. Instead, a savage, four-part suite titled Split evolved, soundtracking his psychotic reaction.

McPhee debuted Split 2 at a soundcheck, encouraging Cruickshank and Pustelnik to play it that night. The band agreed and it become part of the live set. That November, Split was recorded over two weeks in Soho’s De Lane Lea Studios, with McPhee producing and future Deep Purple associate Martin Birch engineering. “He was simpatico with what I’d gone through,” says McPhee.

The night they finished, McPhee walked the tapes round to Andrew Lauder at his office. “We played it through and it sounded crap – then Martin realised the tape was on backwards!”

In reality, Split was revolutionary: McPhee played the role of mad scientist, wresting ever-weirder noises from his hand-built amps and instruments. The Split movement that took up side one went from melodic folk-blues picking to Beefheart-esque experimentalism. 

Side two was punched up by a newly acquired Dallas Arbiter Add-A-Sound octave splitter that tipped the incendiary, feedback-rent Cherry Red into schizophrenic overdrive, while Junkman’s condemnation of fast food spun off into nightmarish idiosyncrasy. There was just the final track, a low-key rendering of John Lee Hooker’s Groundhog, for the faint-hearted to cling to. But the group’s fans embraced it all – released in the spring of 1971, the album reached No.5 in the UK.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in March 1971

  • Alice Cooper - Love It To Death
  • Leonard Cohen - Songs Of Love And Hate
  • Black Oak Arkansas - Black Oak Arkansas
  • Jimi Hendrix - The Cry Of Love
  • Delaney & Bonnie - Motel Shot
  • Steeleye Span - Please To See The King
  • Humble Pie - Rock On
  • Amon Duul II - Tanz Der Lamminge
  • Mott The Hoople - Wildlife
  • Jethro Tull - Aqualung

What they said...

"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." (Julian Cope

"Split is not an album for the faint hearted, opening as it does with a four part progressive rock epic which was apparently written by McPhee during a panic attack. Perhaps this should indicate that Split is not the best place for a newcomer to The Groundhogs to start, as it’s pretty dense and heavy going stuff, though those of us that are more prog-rock inclined will find much to admire, especially given the perceived limitations of the power-trio format." (Backseat Mafia)

"Cherry Red may be the sickest, meanest classic I’ve never heard. How this masterpiece has evaded classic rock radio, movie soundtracks, and my ears altogether I’ll never understand. On the self-titled Groundhog, McPhee proves he can swat the devil blues out of his electrified acoustic as fine as Robert Johnson, providing the album’s only real taste of blues." (Rising Storm)

What you said...

Gary Claydon: The Groundhogs, one of the great 'lost' bands? Hmm I'm not so sure to be honest. I've always thought that, overall, their output was very variable. However, during their heyday as a bonafide power trio (around 1969-1972) they turned out some genuinely excellent stuff and in the shape of Split, something truly brilliant.

The Groundhogs are, of course, firmly rooted in The Blues. They acted as backing group in the UK for the great John Lee Hooker. They even recorded a live-in-the-studio album with him, dubbed Hooker 'n' Hogs. If that doesn't cement their credentials then I don't know what would. The band lost their way a bit in the late '60s, dabbling in soul & psychedelia before, under band leader Tony 'TS' McPhee, they reconvened with Pete Cruickshank on bass & Ken Pustelnik on drums. It was this line-up which was responsible for the 'hogs most productive, and successful, period.

Split was the follow up to Thank Christ For The Bomb which had been their most successful outing to then. There are many fans of the band who will champion TCFTB as their best album. I'm not among them. For me, Split is The Groundhogs' magnum opus. It's certainly their heaviest.

Tony 'TS' McPhee is one of those criminally underrated musicians who are scattered throughout the annals of rock history. A true guitar hero. Dynamic, inventive, it's always perplexed me how he has never been feted among the great blues/rock guitarists that the UK has produced. I used to think the 'TS' was his initials but he was tagged this by producer Mike Vernon and apparently it stood for 'Tough Shit'! Why, I don't know, but anyway, it stuck. As well as being a brilliant player he also liked to experiment and modify his gear, a trait he carried over into his music.

Split is very much an album of two halves. Side one comprises a four song 'title' suite. The songs are linked lyrically but four distinct songs in their own right. They are best listened to as a suite and on the bounce though. They tell the tale of a panic attack which McPhee experienced after an ill fated experiment with some rather potent weed. Prevalent here is the manic, dirty, heavy electric blues that characterises this album. But it's more than that. McPhee is the main focus of course, with brilliant riffing & soloing but a lot of credit should go to the rhythm section. 

Cruickshank helps drive things along with some excellent bass lines. Pustelnik had a drumming style which always seemed to me to be centred around a philosophy of 'hit everything in sight hard, then, just to be sure, hit it again'! That's not to say he wasn't talented, he is a very good hard rock drummer. 

Julian Cope, of The Teardrop Explodes fame, is a big fan of The Groundhogs. He has written a couple of really good pieces about them on his 'Head Heritage' website which are well worth digging out. His review of Split is particularly neat. He describes the band's playing as "a shamanic whirling that shattered and scattered the beat around in several directions at once" and it's easy to see what he means. 

Nowhere is all this better illustrated than on Split 2. To me, this is the pivotal Groundhogs track. It really is a 'lost' classic. With the choppy guitar riff propelled along by a driving bass and some frenetic drumming, Split 2 nevertheless swings and the incendiary middle eight is fantastic. All in all side one really captures McPhee's manic, panicked nightmare.

Speaking of incendiary, side two opens with another fire-breather in Cherry Red, probably the band's best known song and a genuine hard rock classic. I've always thought that A Year In The Life is the weakest song on the album while the denouement of the ramshackle Junkman drags on too long and descends into self-indulgence (you might be interested in listening to the cover of this song by The Fall on their Middle Class Revolt album). 

Groundhog is straight-up blues and a re-work of John Lee Hooker's Groundhog Blues from which the band originally took their name. This gives a perfect illustration of McPhee's picking style of playing and was particularly good live.

A great album? I think so, though I suspect many will judge it to be of its time. And Tony 'TS' McPhee was never better than on Split in my opinion. He had recently added a wah-wah pedal to his armoury and it give his playing an extra dimension.

As a footnote, the last time I saw The Groundhogs was about a dozen years ago in a small pub on the outskirts of Barnsley in South Yorkshire. McPhee wasn't a well man at the time. I can't actually remember if it was just before or just after he suffered the first of, what is now, four strokes. What I do remember is that his playing was still mesmeric and brilliant. A version of the band is still going under the moniker 'Ken Pustelnik's Groundhogs' but I've not been tempted to check them out. Without the great Tony McPhee, it just wouldn't feel right.

Nigel Lancashire: When I was 10, the Neal Adams album art for the Groundhogs 1972 Who Will Save the World captivated the American comics-obsessed boy in me, but buying a whole album for the over alone? My pocket money would not stretch to that!

It would be 1979 before I actually got to hear the Groundhogs, when I started going to a long-existing local rock club where Cherry Red was a weekly staple for the biker/rocker contingent there. Split itself has remained un-listened to by me in the interim years, so this is almost-new territory.

To listen to Split I think you’ve got to see it in context of the times — this 1971 record is going to sound pretty sludgy to anyone raised on late 80s-onwards rock and metal — although fans of stoner might find something appealing. It’s absolutely a ‘heavy’ blues-rock with one foot partly still in the psychedelic late 60s of Cream and Blue Cheer. Bring on the wah-wah pedal, whammy bar and controlled feedback baby!

The four-part title track is all over the place and a bit aimless, either ‘groovy baby’ or ‘heavy man’ depending on where you are, but quite schizophrenic and utterly forgettable. The album improves after you turn over.

Flipping the album (in vinyl terms), Cherry Red motors along, and is absolutely the standout track, although it’s definitely dated, even for the remastered 2003 version. A Year in the Life is stately in the way that Cream’s Ulysses is and Junkman is filler, a twee pop song with the last two minutes occupied by guitar de-tuning and feedback experimentation. The last track, Groundhog is John Lee Hooker’s Ground Hog Blues given a typical British blues makeover and is great, for what it is.

For me, Split really isn’t a classic of the genre, or even the year, but Cherry Red is still a keeper.

Tom Dee: Amazing songs and guitar playing by a master Mr McPhee. 10/10 alongside Argus as one of my all time favourite albums.

John Stout: Funnily enough I was listening at the weekend to a compilation I picked up in a used store. An interesting band with one foot in the blues and one foot in the underground progressive scene. Wish it was easier to get hold of their albums.

Peter Dawson: Still love this album as much as I did when I first heard it, always remember when the BBC started having artists on TOTP playing a track from an album in the album charts, one week they had The Groundhogs on playing Cherry Red from Split, it was hilarious watching the teenyboppers trying to dance to it.

Simon Fraser: A great album, the second album I ever bought. It was the front cover that caught my eye. I asked the assistant in the shop to play it, and only seconds into the first track I knew I was buying it. Still a huge favourite of mine.

Tom Owens: Underrated album from an underrated band. This is heavy rock at it's best

Michael Baryshnikov: Well, it may be a great album, possibly, but it's 100% weaker than the previous Thank God For The Bomb and the following Hogwash. I think that the group is still in doubt what kind of music they are going to play

Donald Robertson: Great album but preferred Who will save the World, especially Bog Roll Blues which is hilarious and oddly apt in the current environment.

Graham Tarry: I've never been able to get into any of their other albums, but this is a classic of its time, and Cherry Red is just one sublime pile of rock. Engineered by Martin (I've been on a few top credits) Birch.

Billy Master: Fantastic album. Tony McPhee's blend of blues and rock, quite unique. File under great, under appreciated British bands of the early seventies, alongside Budgie, Man, Atomic Rooster, to name but three. 

Adam Ranger: An album of two halves as it were. The album feels to me like it does not quite know what it wants to be. The songs Split 1 to 4 are of a psychedelic freak out trippy nature and I sometimes find them hard to listen to. The other four songs are more modern (for the times) Blues Rock.

Of the two sides I prefer the second part. Groundhogs and McPhee are sadly underrated by too many.

Alexander Taylor: Fantastic album, a monster mix of garage blues, prog and almost punk.

Mike Knoop: I stumbled across Cherry Red on a compilation CD a few years back and thought it was FANNN-tastic. Another instance of meaning to track down the album but fouled by too much music, too little time. The full album hasn't hooked me yet. Much of it reminds me of Cream or Canned Heat, i.e. crazed blues rave ups, like Split, Part 1 or Groundhog. There's nothing here that excites me as much as Cherry Red, but like past picks by Spirit or the Pretty Things, it's a grower with melodies and lyrics becoming clearer with each listen.

Roland Bearne: Oh crikey, I have no idea what the heck is going on here. Psych/Blues ramblings, interspersed with some really great song ideas. Some of the bands and albums which passed me by as I was a toddler when they were around have really inspired me to seek out more. I'm just not getting that feeling with this album and it sounds really dated to these ears. I'm sure it's great, it wouldn't have made it to Album of the Week if it weren't but I think I've actually hit my "meh" threshold with this one. I'm heading back to Suzi and Floyd.

John Davidson: So this was a total mystery to me before this week. Never heard of the band or the album, but blues rock is where it started so why not.

The album opens well with the first track of the four part song Split. For me, track one was the immediate stand out. It has energy and some great drum fills as well as layers of harmonising guitars. This carries forward into Part 2 which has a nice fuzzy riff .

Parts 3 and 4 take a bit more getting into and see Tony McPhee introduce more experimental sounds into the music. Mostly feedback effects and strange string bends. I'll be honest and admit these aspects put me off quite a bit.

Side two starts with Cherry Red, another solid blues rocker with plenty going on. After that though the album kind of peters out. The song structures are precarious and the final song is a reworked blues classic that somehow doesn't grab the magic.

Production is opposite pretty decent and having Martin Birch on engineer duties makes for a substantial, clean sound. At times the band sound constrained by the format of a classic blues trio where the bulk of the work is produced by the singer/guitarist.

It's a combination of duties I'm always wary of and song structures inevitably devolve into a form of call and response between vocal and guitar duties followed (if we are lucky) by some interesting guitar wigouts.

Overall it's a decent album with a couple of tracks that I will probably add to my collection, but the experimental aspects sound dated now and too often break the flow of the songs for my taste. A good choice for the group but ultimately not one of my favourites.

Brian Carr: With this, uh, interesting week, I was unable to delve into this week’s selection until today.

There is music for everyone’s taste, which the Club shows repeatedly. Split by The Groundhogs had plenty of positive comments, and not all by Mr. Claydon (great review, sir), but not for my tastes. It’s a testament to this group that albums are brought up not only that I’ve never heard, but artists I’ve never heard of. 

The first thing that turned me off was the ‘psychedelic’ aspect, a sound I’ve just never been able to enjoy much. During my second spin, I discovered that I couldn’t stand the drumming. I assume he followed in the style of Ginger Baker and Keith Moon, but it just sounded to me like he was continually falling off his kit. The guitar playing was decent, but I didn’t feel like the songs really went anywhere. Add me into the ‘meh threshold’ I guess.

Bill Griffin: I probably would have liked this if I had heard it when it was released but now, with the exception of the final (namesake) track, Groundhog, it sounds really dated. Actually, it even sounds dated for when it was released. I would have guessed 1967, not 1971.

Final Score: 7.09⁄10 (105 votes cast, with a total score of 745)

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