Earlier this summer, a Philadelphia psych outfit known as Ecstatic Vision announced the cover artwork for their latest album, For The Masses on Instagram. The image they used stopped me mid-scroll and elicited a genuine audible reaction – an incredibly familiar photo of a guitarist mid-ecstasy, split up into a psychedelic smear of guitar-driven rapture. The reference was unmistakable, and it brought an immediate sense of anticipation to myself and those ‘in-the-know’ few spouting off excitedly in the comments. Paying homage to a nearly 50 year old piece of blues rock history called Split, Ecstatic Vision was schooling all of us on exactly where they came from – the mighty Groundhogs.
Formed in 1963, and performing in some form or another all the way until 2014, London’s The Groundhogs have influenced countless psych and blues acts over the years and have produced some of the finest guitar worshipping freak-outs ever to blow out a speaker. What would become known as the Groundhogs started the year before as the Dollar Bills, by brothers Pete and John Cruickshank. They were soon joined by Tony McPhee, the lead guitarist in an instrumental group called The Shcenuals who decided they should rename themselves after the John Lee Hooker song “Groundhog’s Blues”. It was a serendipitous move as they would join Hooker on tour only one year later under the name John Lee’s Groundhogs. John would shortly depart and be replaced by drummer Ken Pustelnik, a lineup that would stick until just before their initial breakup in 1974. As the name would suggest, the band was rooted fully in blues influence and stayed true to that as they found their own sound.
In 1968 the trio, joined by harmonica player Steve Rye, released their first record, Scratchin’ the Surface, which was produced by Mike Batt, the mere 19 year old head of A&R for Liberty Records. This is their most straightforward album, as far as blues influence goes. They hadn’t quite yet found their distinctive blues rock style, but it is a mighty fine record nonetheless. The real mind melters started two years later with the first of three near flawless contributions to the world of rock music.
The first of this holy trinity came in 1970 with the release of the classic Thank Christ for the Bomb. Featuring an adaptation of a photograph taken in 1916 of the Royal Irish Rifles during the Battle of the Somme, this album makes a stark impact before you even put it on. Sans Steve Rye, the power trio of McPhee, Pustelnik, and Cruikshank would make up the quintessential Groundhogs sound, which finally finds its footing on Bomb. The record has gems all over it, including one of my favorite tracks of theirs, the hermit’s anthem “Garden,” and a haunting and chaotic title track. A shining moment also comes at the end with “Eccentric Man,” the goofy but decidedly heavy predecessor to Saint Vitus’ “Born too Late”. Thank Christ for the Bomb is incredibly strong from start to finish, but it somehow pales in comparison to what came next.
The Groundhogs third album, Split, released the following year, is truly their studio masterpiece and the one most often cited by slobbering rock fanatics like myself as a huge influence. The first half of the album is split into a four part opus that McPhee explained in the liner notes for a 2003 reissue was influenced by a panic attack he had experienced the year before. Completely unhinged and manic, it is some of the best guitar lunacy I’ve ever heard and if you asked me to choose one song to listen to for the rest of my life, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better choice than “Split Part 2”. And once you’ve made it through that, the second half does not disappoint. The frenzy of the various “Split”s is continued with “Cherry Red”, legitimately one of the most perfect blues rock songs ever penned. And that’s not just me blowing smoke because I’m such a big fan, real deal contemporary heads like Earthless and Ty Segall have been covering that song for years and doing it some serious justice. I could say great things about this record for hours, but really I just suggest you find a copy of it the second you finish reading this.
In 1972 the band released Who Will Save the World? The Mighty Groundhogs, a heavily political take on superhero lore. The big standout with this record is the cover, which features the band as superheroes fighting the personified evils of Over-Population, Pollution, and the Warmongers of Politics and Religion as drawn by repeated Hall of Famer Neal Adams, who is responsible for some of the definitive Batman and Green Arrow imagery. It is a bit calmer than the prior two records but has some excellent tracks on it, including a really gorgeous take on “Amazing Grace”. All three records would spend time on the Top 10 of the UK Albums Chart and have had a notable impact on heaps of music to follow.
Though the aforementioned trio of studio albums are considered their distinctive era, they weren’t quite done yet. After you’ve fully absorbed the power of the Groundhogs, the next step (and my earth shattering introduction to them back in 2016) is to listen to Live at Leeds one of the most insane live albums I’ve ever heard. Recorded on their 1971 British tour supporting The Rolling Stones at the legendary Leeds University, Live at Leeds provides some absolutely zonked takes on their best songs, including the full “Split” monolith. It truly has to be heard to be believed, I almost can’t believe the Stones didn’t drop off the tour in shame.
1974 saw the release of one final return to the charts with Solid, which is – true to its name – a nice solid record but doesn’t quite reach the heights of those that came before it. Following the release of Solid, the band broke up briefly before coming back with a new lineup. Tony McPhee remained the sole original member through a series of lineup changes until health problems forced him to retire in 2014 – though he has since worked with David Tibet’s Current 93 occasionally. Not a shabby career for a John Lee Hooker tribute band. Have I drooled enough? Yes? Excellent — now go get your head split open.