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High On The Hogs: Artists On The Genius Of The Groundhogs
Patrick Clarke , August 5th, 2021 09:59

Artists including Brix Smith Start, Luke Haines, Underworld's Karl Hyde, reflect on the overlooked genius of Tony McPhee and The Groundhogs, and pick their favourite albums and tracks


Heather Leigh on Split (1971)

I discovered The Groundhogs first through their 1972 album Who Will Save The World? The Mighty Groundhogs. I must’ve picked it up in high school at my local treasure trove, Sound Exchange, in the heart of Montrose, the coolest area of Houston to a young girl in search of hedonism. As was usual in this pre-internet era, I bought the record for the cover, I was obsessed with comics at the time, particularly Love & Rockets, Eightball, Hate - all the Fantagraphics classics - so The Groundhogs spoke to that obsession, though musically, I can’t recall what that album even sounds like.

A few years later while attending University Of Texas, I discovered The Groundhogs’ Split at the Austin branch of Sound Exchange. The staff in Austin weren’t as knowledgeable or as friendly as the Houston crew so I was left completely on my own, which worked well with my lunch break schedule as I was able to visit the shop on a near daily basis and get first dibs on the used records passing through the store. No matter what, I’d search every genre bin every time, because there were always sneaky customers like myself who would hide records in sections you thought no one bothered with so you could come back and pick them up later when you had a bit more cash.

Split was in the discounted section and it was once again the cover that immediately drew me in. It spoke to the pre-teen me who had been initiated into rock’s sexual power through my uncle’s eight-track and heavy metal vinyl collection. That was in Welch, West Virginia, so his record collection wasn’t massive, pretty much the only place in town to pick up records and tapes was Murphy’s, a general store like Woolworths where the music options were limited, though you could fill up on ‘80s confectionary and even buy a live monkey (no joke). Perhaps the small nature of his collection meant I poured over every release to such a degree that I always found some sort of magic that seemed perfectly keyed to me, Heather Leigh. Ted Nugent’s Scream Dream was always at the front of the stack though I hated the music except Wango Tango, yet I found the grotesque cover strangely alluring, the way Nugent’s arms morphed into the guitar and all those bulging veins. AC/DC’s If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It featured photos of Angus Young being impaled by his guitar which I took as 100% real.

So staring at Split for the first time hit my pre-teen G spot. I was drawn in further by the fact that all three musicians had their eyes closed in ecstasy. The live action shot on the back confused me, was this actually a live record? I loved the ambiguity of it all. The cover looked like a reflective pool, a sound mirror exaggerated by the laminated sleeve. I was desperate to listen to it immediately but that would mean testing it on the shop’s only record player that blasted through the whole store, and a week previously while checking out a few Jimmie Rodgers records, a woman and her young son had left in a rage and the chick behind the counter told me they’d never had anyone complain so angrily.

So I picked it up along with Harry Partch’s Delusion Of The Fury, clocking that the first side of The Groundhogs was the album’s title split into 4 pieces; was this also a conceptual record with an avant-garde nod? Blasting it alone at home I thought, 'Now this is a guitar sound that delivers on the promise.' The searing guitar on Split along with Tony McPhee’s smeared vocals, elevated the group above an average white blues band and made them seem a hell of a lot weirder than ZZ Top (who to be fair were so ubiquitous in Texas that it took me some years away from the state to recognise their genius). I rate McPhee’s playing close to Hendrix, just pure sex electric, the body as instrument with a perfect fuzz tone.

It’s a record I put on to energise. Any time of day it works instantly to brighten whatever space you’re in. The definition of a mood brightener. The last occasion was just a few weeks ago. I live in a top floor tenement flat and unusually, a squirrel was scaling the neighbouring roof precariously until he tumbled into the gutters. As ‘Cherry Red’ played, he slid down the long black pipe on the side of the building, stopping on a window sill here and there along the way to avoid splatting to the bottom in one swoop, his movements seemed perfectly timed to the music or rather this record is so supremely psychedelic that it echoes its environment, the shimmering blades of sound bouncing and reflecting off of every surface.

This is a huge sound for a trio and a rock record you can really dance to. The slowed down guitar invokes the sounds of another childhood favourite of mine, The Chilling, Thrilling, Sound of The Haunted House and every time I hear ‘Junkman’, it reminds me of MEV’s Leave The City. The trio went as far out as possible only to come back in. Is Split the sound of a man losing his mind? “I can't accept life isn't a dream, it doesn't seem real any more.” I feel you, McPhee!