Groundhogs – Scratching The Surface – Liberty /Parlophone LBS 83199/Pure Pleasure PPAN LBS 83199 stereo vinyl, 44:03 ****:
Obscure British band’s debut is released on audiophile vinyl.
(Tony McPhee – guitar, vocals; Steve Rye – harmonica vocals; Pete Cruikshank – bass; Ken Pustelnik – drums)
British Blues developed into a marketable brand in the 1960s. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Long John Baldry and Savoy Brown led a vanguard that respected the American musical genre. These bands played with veteran blues acts in England and eventually re-introduced (and in some cases, introduced) blues music to younger audiences in the U.S. Many of these British bands modified their sound to assimilate into the mod, psychedelic scene. Like their American mentors, they learned that it is difficult to get rich playing the blues.
One of the lesser-known British blues standard-bearers was Groundhogs. Formed in 1963, the group built a fan base, touring extensively for over five years. Finally signed by Liberty records, they recorded their first album, Scratching The Surface in 1968. Groundhogs continued to perform and record, but never garnered the commercial success of their UK counterparts. Albums like Thank Christ For The Bomb (1970) and Who Will Save The World (1972) cracked the UK Top 10, but outside of opening for The Stones, they remained a cult band. Several lineup changes kept the band going until 2014.
Pure Pleasure Records has re-mastered Scratching The Surface to 180-gram vinyl. Nine tracks (eight of original material) are rendered live in studio, without overdubs. This is classic ’60s era British blues with guitar (Tony McPhee), harmonica (Steve Rye), bass (Pete Cruikshank) and drums (Ken Pustelnik). Like many of their contemporaries (Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers), the band delivers with skittle-induced rhythmic patterns. Side 1 opens with ”Rocking Chair”, a hard driving number featuring McPhee on vocals. Rye meshes harmonica with McPhee’s jagged electric guitar. Cruikshank’s formidable bass drives the number. Rye takes lead vocals on his composition, “Early In The Morning”. His voice has a high register and exhibits a subtle vibrato. The buoyant, loping tempo is enveloped by the fuzzy guitar tones and Rye’s wailing harp solo. The pace intensifies on “Walking Blues” which contains some punctuated rhythms and McPhee’s crisp guitar work. Groundhogs are versed in many blues styles. “Married Men” emulates a low-down Chicago-style jam, not unlike classic Cream. Rye offers his second vocal performance on “No More Doggin’”. This cut is a high-octane shuffle with propulsive guitar and harp.
Side 2 is a showcase for McPhee’s lead vocals and the band’s “jam” credentials. “Man Trouble” (which clocks in at 6:22) is an expanded creative epitome of 1960s psychedelic blues. With a funky, quasi march time (courtesy of Pustelnik), there is a cohesive feel to the number. McPhee’s guitar lines are more fluid and demonstrate a spacey vibe. There is a tricky fadeout and coda return at the end. McPhee adds slide guitar to “Come Back Baby”, as the low-key arrangement provides a slow-burning intensity. Breaking out a batch of hooks and grooves, “You Don’t Love Me” simply rocks out. The vocals (Steve Rye?) sound like Roy Orbison taking a shot at blues wailing. Groundhogs pay homage to the legendary Muddy Waters on their cover of “Still A Fool”. McPhee offers the most dynamic vocals, as the soulful downbeats and repeat refrain (“…with another man’s wife…”) does justice to Mr. Morganfield’s undeniable legacy. It is the longest (6:34) cut, and blissfully evocative.
Pure Pleasure has managed to upgrade the sonic technology of this straightforward blues band, but still capture the raw, live vitality. The stereo separation is excellent and the lower end mix puts emphasis on the bass (sometimes under-represented on blues recordings). Groundhogs are an accessible blues band, but not an exceptional one. They would hit their stride as they evolved on Thank Christ For The Bomb.
Side A: Rocking Chair; Early In The Morning; Waking Blues; Married Men; No More Doggin’
Side B: Man Trouble; Come Back Baby; You Don’t Love Me; Still A Fool