The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


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


Hey Colossus’ Chris Summerlin on Hogwash (1972)

When I relocated to Nottingham in 2000, it felt like everybody I met was a fan of Tony McPhee and The Groundhogs. They seemed like the thread that tied everything together. The hardcore punks loved them; as did the rockers and metallers, and even the people making electronic music had a soft spot for them. They were entirely new to me but their records were cheap so I dived in and was instantly hooked.

I think 1972’s Hogwash is the underrated gem in the back catalogue and my own favourite of the bunch. Earlier albums like Split showcased the Hogs’ superpower: diving into frenzied wig-outs without fear and coming out the other side dazed - like they’d just hit the ground from a failed parachute jump. However, Hogwash seems more considered and adventurous and ultimately ends up weirder and wilder for it, as they stretch their sound in any direction that seems to take their fancy.

It reminds me of Sabbath’s Sabotage in that respect – you recognise familiar components of the band you thought you knew but everything is reconfigured and each time you listen to the album it feels different to the last. McPhee and Geezer Butler also share lyrical common ground, on one hand positioning themselves as a commentator on the world around them and their place in it (or outside it) and on the other hand pondering their own psyche in ways ahead of their time. It often feels like McPhee’s words were written to make sense of complexities in his own head and because of this, there is a vulnerability to them that is rare and endearing.

The sound of Hogwash seems to have been made with a ‘no rules’ approach. Elements are mixed according to a hierarchy of excellence; if something sounds awesome then it’s cranked high with no regard to normal conventions of taste and decency. If McPhee plays something wild on the guitar (as he does every few seconds) then it leaps out of the speakers as though in the room with you. The band is absolutely on it throughout, creating economic, addictive grooves that pulse and throb along. Hogwash also sees McPhee’s use of early synthesisers as a kind of dramatic Foley to act as a sonic weapon for his ever-questing brain.

The highlight is 'Earth Shanty', beginning with a collaged synth soundscape and acoustic guitar before McPhee is gradually joined by strings and – eventually - the whole band. There is even what appears to be a guitar-synth solo. It really is something. When he sings “In the night when the stars provide a reason for man to strive / He reasons that's the reason he's alive,” it’s like he’s discovered a spaceship off this cursed rock and he’s giving us instructions for the future as he blasts off forever. Yes Tony! Godspeed!

A year after Hogwash, McPhee would expand on this prehistoric/futuristic dynamic with the Two Sides Of T.S. McPhee album where he matched raw acoustic blues to a side-long analogue synth piece (The Hunter) in support of hunt saboteurs and animal rights. Eric Clapton he is not.

In his independent spirit, constant desire for creative growth and his political stance he feels like a guiding light in the music world in which I operate. The original hippy proto-punk. I’m sure Mark E Smith crediting him as Tony McFree on Middle Class Revolt was a compliment as opposed to a spelling mistake: he’s the outsider, the free man.

In the mid-00s the band I was in, Lords, opened for The Groundhogs at McPhee’s invitation after he found us through Myspace. They say never meet your heroes but he turned out to be as enthusiastic, enlightened and inspiring as I could have dreamed. It was a beautiful, energising thing. Of course, I told him Hogwash was a masterpiece and he looked at me as if I was crazy. It was perfect.