Tuesday, December 7, 2010

To 1971 and Back Again: T.S. McPhee and his Mighty Groundhogs; America Cried

The Secret Museum
Jim Webb and Michael Mooney

The Groundhogs—Split
(Liberty Records/United Artists 1971)
At first I don’t believe the things I thought the night before,
But now they come back like a torrent of ignorance once more,
I can’t accept life isn’t a dream; it doesn’t seem real any more,
My mind and body are two things, not one.
T.S. McPhee (Split Part Three)

Making the most of the LP record format, Tony (T.S.) McPhee utilizes the first side of his claustrophobic masterpiece, Split, 1971’s sixth bestselling album in the United Kingdom (!), to document his (subsequently recognized as mistaken) descent into schizophrenia. I believe it’s the Post-Sixties Life-In-London Comedown he’s describing here—see Ray Davies’ Muswell Hillbillies LP for further proof that 1971 wasn’t the best of times to be residing in The Smoke—or maybe just the drugs, but McPhee does a convincing job of relating the terror of psychic disconnect regardless of its nature (I should know).

Briefly John Lee Hooker’s UK backup group, The Groundhogs use the archetypal Power Trio format, a la Cream, Experience, Cheer, Grand Funk, and Budgie (Budgie!) as a springboard for uniquely furious and unglued shape-changing riffage, with a flair all their own for spontaneous shifts in tone and rhythm. This definitive ‘Hogs lineup of T.S., Peter Cruickshank and Ken Pustelnik play an equivocal configuration of Rock: Blues-derived in the loosest sense (more a mood than a style), but stripped of all Brit B-Boom artifice, then layered with dense distortion, wah wah-fired guitar dementia, and an unsettling lyrical fatalism. I call it Punk Rock. The four Splits (Parts One, Two, etc.) of side one create a mood of paranoia matched only by Van Der Graaf Generator’s Pawn Hearts (also from 1971, more evidence that maybe it was the times.). Split One set the tone and rocks its multi-tracked-axes-self silly, as T.S. descends into the psychogenic inferno, but the entire side is a monster. Tony doesn’t find any answers by the end of Split Four, though one gets the sense that redemption may be found by flipping over the record.

Almost. Side two modulates the mood a little, but not the attack, beginning with leadoff cut—and hands down bonafide Rock Classic scorcher—Cherry Red. Not much optimism for T.S., though:

All night long I loved her
Morning came too soon
I knew she’d be gone by the afternoon
I said, “Please don’t go”
Still she said goodbye
But as she turned around she had a crafty look in her eye.

All next day I waited for her return
But she didn’t show
The daylight turned to the dark of night
I said, “Please come soon”
Still there was no sign.
As the dawn returned
I knew that look in her eye was just a lie
And I thought it said:
“When the moon rise this evening, you turn round in your bed,
The warmth of my body will heat you,
Make your blood run Cherry Red”

Cruickshank’s bass and, especially, Pustelnik’s unbridled drumming approach brilliance here, yet McPhee’s incandescent playing outguns them both. You will not have lived a full life until you’ve heard this song. The somber, near-gothic ecological paean A Year In The Life follows, then the truly lunatic Junkman (famously covered by The Fall) with its skronky atonal solo guitar that takes up the song’s entire second half. And lest anyone forget that T.S. was/is an expert Blues player (a version of The Groundhogs still exists in 2010), the record ends on a relatively quiet note with a grungy roots version of Hooker’s Groundhog Blues—basically Tony, his masterful vocal, authentically bluesy guitar, and wavering stick tapping for accompaniment.
Also recommended:
Thank Christ For The Bomb (1970)
Who Will Save The World? The Mighty Groundhogs! (1972)
-Michael Mooney

America Cried

In the fall of 1971, singer, songwriter Don McLean released his epic song about experiencing the tumultuous 1960s, entitled “American Pie.” It has a lot of specific and vague references to musical events that shaped his (and our) consciousness while growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. It is also a lament for the idealistic “America” that finally vanished during that same period. The Civil Rights Movement, political assassinations, and events of the Vietnam War changed our country, and the music that was being created became a reflection of those turbulent times. Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson and Richie Valens were killed in 1959 when their plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, while on tour. Don McLean felt we had lost a whole lot more than just those three gifted musicians, and his tale still resonates to this very day. Much has happened since 1971, so I thought it was time to add a few more verses for these last 40 years.

They were singing,
“Bye – bye miss American pie”
Drove my chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’, this’ll be the day that I die.

We mixed Funk and Soul with Rock n’Roll
I thought that sound would never grow old
Some went so high they just drifted away
And while Son of Sam cruised with the power turned off
The studio dancers could never stop
Too busy tasting the real thing in the dark
Freaking out like tomorrow would never come

The King fell over, and never got up
Now he wanders in Vegas, another lied to ghost
Sometimes you got nuthin’ when you think you have it all
The corporate suits still controlled the game
But a Rotten smell wouldn’t go away
So they disguised it with skinny ties and short cropped hair

While JB was discoing all around
The street gangs stole his processed crown
And the Great Black Music slowly faded away
The plastic ono man was then cut down
Bigger than Jesus with the Woodstock crowd
We all gathered in the park, the day the music died

The TV screens replaced the record machines
With grown men dressed like runway queens
All that sprayed up hair only made us laugh
The angry young boys then had enough
Yelling here we are now, entertain us
Some things just don’t ever change

I met a jazz man who played the blues
I asked him for the latest news
He said they’ll call this the Black Holocaust soon enough
Always Rappin’ guns and drugs, the new stars are throwaway thugs
That same song has been playing far too long

Wanting too much fame, has been an expensive ride
Ask the princess if her fare was too high
No one’s heard her answer from the grave
There was a young boy who loved to sing and dance
In front of millions he grew into a lonely man
With his gloved hand he never got to wave goodbye
The day the music died

They were singing,
“Bye – bye miss American pie”
Drove my chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’, this’ll be the day that I die.

Don McLean—“American Pie”
Jim Webb

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