RIP Tony McPhee – The Groundhogs (1944-2023)

9th June 2023 · 1970, 1970s, 2020s, 2023, Blues, Music

Tony McPhee never achieved the fame and fortune of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck, his fellow British guitarists to emerge from Britain’s blues boom in the 1960s.

But he deserved it. For aficionados he was every inch their equal on his instrument, if not better.
Unlike his fellow bluesman Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, McPhee never had a hit single; like another contemporary, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, he was more of a guitarist’s guitarist in an era of “albums bands” like his.

As frontman of The Groundhogs, he enjoyed a trio of top ten albums in the early 1970s – Thank Christ For The Bomb, Split and Who Will Save The World. This track, Garden, showcases his talents at both the acoustic guitar and the electric slide guitar.

Those three albums were popular at my school with the boys a bit older than me and I have to say I never really “got into” the band, though their song Cherry Red still sounds familiar half a century later and I can instantly recall McPhee, with his iconic look of long straggly hair and walrus moustache.

I did see them once, nearly 30 years ago at The Garage in London playing a benefit concert for McPhee, who had fallen on hard times. I’m sure it was long before he had a stroke in 2009, prompting another round of benefits.

As so often, it is only now, reading obituaries, that I learn his full story: starting out in the 1960s with The Groundhogs backing bluesmen like John Lee Hooker (“the best band in England,” Hooker reckoned).

Striking out on their own, they released their first album in 1968 – produced by a 19-year-old Mike Batt – before a tour supporting The Rolling Stones in 1971 brought them to wider attention.
As the blues revival receded McPhee – nicknamed TS for “Tough Shit” – embraced a proggier, jazzier electronic style, dabbling with the trend for concept albums on Split.

Meanwhile McPhee pushed the envelope on a solo album that blended acoustic blues with a 20-minute tirade against the upper classes in general and fox hunting in particular called The Hunt, mixing synth, drum machine and spoken word vocals.

As they slipped from view in the mid-1970s The Groundhogs were embraced by a new generation of punk bands including The Fall (who covered Junk Man), Joy Division and The Damned who had grown up with their music.

Later they found favour with a new generation including such diverse fans as Underworld’s Karl Hyde, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys and Queens Of The Stone Age (who covered Eccentric Man).

All of which goes to show that Tony McPhee deserves to be remembered as much more than a footnote in the annals of music history.