Although (The) Groundhogs were formed in 1963 it was a few years before their style of authentic Blues Rock burst into the mainstream, helped along by the British Blues Boom scene of the late sixties. They became John Lee Hooker’s backing band on his 1964 British tour and later recorded with the Blues legend but their first proper album as Groundhogs, Scratching the Surface was released in 1968. This was followed by Blues Obituary 1969, Thanks Christ For The Bomb 1970 and Split in 1971. Split found its way to No. 5 on the British charts.
It’s a classic in its genre, a powerhouse trio in the blues tradition featuring Tony McPhee on guitar and vocals, Pete Cruickshank on bass and Ken Pustelnick on drums. What sets the album apart is the dynamic explosive guitar playing. It’s a man possessed, McPhee didn’t play the guitar he wielded it like a scythe, cutting down marauding armies, leaving a trail of inspired melodic destruction in his wake. I always thought Blues was the hardest music to play, the hardest music to make mean something because the framework, the structure has intrinsic limitations, so to break through you have to be particularly special, just listen to Peter Green. Every time you hit a note, play a chord, sing a line it has to kill you – or there’s no point.
Split kills me every time I listen to it. Whether it’s the anarchic madness of Junkman, the slide and the bass drum feel adaptation of John Lee Hooker’s Groundhog Blues or the psyched out, incendiary Cherry Red. On A Year In the Life, the bass and guitars mixed together make for odd harmonics and with a strange vocal effect, I just love the sound of 1971.
But from the first moment of the first note Split (Part 1) in its four parts is a captivating, exciting guitarists dream with tuneful vocals – a real song, not at all restricted by its genre. The mix throws out chords so far into the front that they almost sit on your lap – purring. Pustlenick and Cruickshank push them out in front of your face, staring you down.
Split (Part 2) has Wah Wah, special rhythm tones, soloing, a single note riff, stops and starts, melodic vocals, dynamics galore.
Split (Part 3) starts with dark organ and acoustics but the fuzzy guitar is soon back with rousing chords that stop before a rumbling bass and splashing drums before veering off into slide and a quick fade out.
Split (Part 4) is a concrete boogie that develops into a wah wah riff and stops in mid air, it could almost be a boogiesque Nirvana careering down the road in an out of control bus crashing into a soup kitchen.
On that note, make a point of discovering Split and Groundhogs albums before and after it, they will split your head in two – and you’ll thank them for it.