The world is not a fair place. If it were, Tony McPhee and the Groundhogs would be championed across the board as the purveyors of some of the greatest classic-boogie rock of all time. There is no song that rocks harder than "Strange Town." Seriously, listen to this! Packed with stellar riffs, great lyrics, and awesome grooves, Split, Thank Christ For The Bomb, and Who Will Save The World? amongst many of their others stand as titans of rock'n'roll. This music will kick your ass and leave you crawling back for more.
I was delighted to interview Tony McPhee via e-mail about a week or so ago. Check it out after the jump!
The Groundhogs first came to prominence playing with John Lee Hooker. How did this come about? Was Hooker a big influence on you when you began to play the blues? What did you gain from playing with him?
I had "discovered" Hooker on a compilation blues album and immediately loved his "primitive" style. There was a lot of open tuning on numbers like "Boogie Chillen," and everything he played with us backing him used the key of E.
That happened because he came to the UK in 1964 backed by John Mayall. I saw them at the Flamingo Club in Soho, London and he looked so stern, I think that was because he wasn't enjoying himself as the band wasn't "loose" enough. However, the tour was so successful the agency booked in more dates but Mayall already had gigs booked in for that period. The agent knew we played Hooker's numbers and asked if we'd like to back him for the last gigs.
We didn't rehearse with him at all and met him at the first gig the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. He started off (in E) a number I'd never heard of (James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy"!). At the end of the gig, he said to me. "You guys know my shit." That was praise indeed!
He liked us so much he asked for us to back him when he came back for a full tour later that year. He even travelled in our Commer van with us.I had already decided to quit using picks and play finger-style like him. I wearing the guitar strap over my right shoulder, as he did too, so that was my personal "gain" from playing with him, along with my memories of one of the nicest men I've ever met, for his humour and great personality.
You had the chance to replace Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers, but turned down the offer, with Peter Green taking the spot instead. Do you think your career would have fared differently had you been in the Bluesbreakers? What do you think of Peter Green?
We were supporting Mayall at a gig in Windsor and I met Eric outside the gig beforehand and he told me that he was leaving John's band as he wanted to go round the world while he was young! He also told me that John was a megalomaniac.. When when Mayall asked me to join him, he even tried to persuade me saying John McVie was playing bass with him and the name McPhee would rhyme with his... but I said "no" because I wanted to do things my way without "interference" from anybody else!
Also, as Peter found out, John told Eric that after he came back from his "world tour," he could have his job back, and as Eric only got as far as Greece, I would have been out of work after a few months!
I'd been previously asked to join the Chris Barber Band which would have been great financially and for seeing the world in style, but I'd seen Chris backing Howling Wolf, and the thought of playing alongside a trombone didn't appeal to me at all!
"Thank Christ For The Bomb" is one of my favorite albums. How did that record come together? Did you record it live in the studio? Is there a good amount of improvisation within the Groundhogs?
Following on from the last question when I heard "Oh, Well" by Fleetwood Mac I knew we had to record in the same studio because that was an incredible recording. In fact there was a Karlson Speaker cabinet which Martin Birch, who was the engineer there, told me was used by John McVie, that name again... This was/is an incestuous business! I used to make speaker cabinets for Pete Cruickshank at the time, in fact he used one on the album which is why I was so interested in the Karlson enclosure (too difficult for me to build at the time).
We played the basic tracks live in the 8 track studio, De Lane Lea in Kingsway, Holborn but I overdubbed guitars (e.g. two extra parts on "Status People"). I overdubbed acoustic guitar on "Soldier," but, as it was only 8 tracks Martin had to "drop in" where there was nothing else recorded... usually the vocal track which could cause a problem, but Martin was very quick on the buttons!
The lyrics in many of the Groundhogs' songs have a very strong political message within them. Are your lyrics partially a reaction to sing something real in the face of the "my baby left me" attitude that many blues rock folk had at the time in their words?
I didn't want to write "normal" lyrics but I had no objection to "love" lyrics, in fact my most popular song is "Cherry Red" which is basically a love song(ish!) and Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts" is one of my favourite songs but Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" beats it because the idea of writing a song about a guy who shins up poles (albeit with a love content) is magnificent.
Saying that, I have something to say about many and varied things. My lyrics tend to be somewhat dark and left politically, but I have always written lyrics after the backing track is finished. I've had to write lyrics in the toilet before now before the recording session finishes (I'm not the only one who's done that!).
You've said that "Split" was the only record you had written under the influence of drugs. The time of the late 60s and early 70s in rock is storied as one full of indulgent abuse on many levels. Is just an exaggeration? If not, how did you manage to escape this?
After '"Thank Christ for the Bomb" was released some people would ask me, " What were you on when you wrote that?". My answer would be, "About 6 cups of Earl Grey a day." I hadn't used any drugs in the early '70s but had seen their effect on other people and didn't like it but I was told "It's cheaper than booze" and tried a little dope, but nothing happened!
Then Ken Pustelnik was given some grass at a gig, some of which was given to our roadie, who invited me and my wife to his house for a curry. He had a lodger who'd made some joints out of the dust of the grass. I smoked some expecting nothing to happen again, I then had the most horrific time, my heart rate was going so fast I thought it was going to burst, I felt myself growing like Alice In Wonderland. I kept "phasing out" and his garden looked to me like an alien landscape.
Finally, I "came down" vowing never to touch it again, which I haven't , but a few weeks later I had the experience I describe in Split. The album wasn't "under the influence," it's about what happened to me BECAUSE of drugs and has really an anti-drug theme.
Speaking of "Split", the song "Junkman" has a few minutes of free improvisation and noise. Where did you get the idea to incorporate this into the music?
Chicago (originally Chicago Transit Authority) had a great album out where the guitarist played a extended "Freak-Out" and I loved that, so I had my wah-wah and a volume pedal, and let loose at the end of the track. The song is about "junk" food before that term was popular. I'd like to think that I coined it first................ !
Mick Jagger requested that you support the Rolling Stones on their 1971 British tour. What was this experience like? Do you ever wish the group was able to achieve the level of success they were? Are you happy with the band's cult status?
That was incredible. Mick had gone to watch a band he thought would be a good support for them for their 1971 tour but he preferred us, we were playing that night at the same gig!
What really made it for us was playing gigs with them that we packed out by ourselves a month later. I'd like to be more financially secure but I could have had that playing next to a trombone!
My main wish is to be recognised for my contributions to Blues & Rock & the Guitar, that's all the status I need.
Here are two Grounghog related videos: Tony McPhee playing acoustically on The Old Grey Whistle Test and the band backing John Lee Hooker in London, 1964.