The Groundhogs got close, but they didn’t get the cigar they deserved. These men of British blues had the credibility, the tunes and the musical prowess, but they lacked that mystical missing ingredient that would have propelled them into Yardbirds/Fleetwood Mac territory. It didn’t help matters that their second studio album was called Blues Obituary. I mean – way to harsh our mellow, man… They persevered and racked up a handful of UK top 30 albums and continued to tour until 2009, when founder member and head ‘hog Tony McPhee suffered a stroke which affected his ability to sing. A version of the band, now helmed by drummer Ken Pustelnik is playing the festival and biker bar circuit in Britain, but it’s low-key stuff. Fortunately for the purists, the die-hards and their small but vociferous fan base, Fire Records have given Blues Obituary a wash ‘n’ brush up and it’s out again – a mere 50 years since it first emerged, bleary eyed and denim-clad.
Despite the fact the album is meant to symbolise the burial of the blues, it’s pretty darn bluesy. The album hinges around the ‘hogs version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Natchez Burning”. Originally inspired by a blaze which started in the Rhythm Night Club in Natchez Mississippi , resulting in the death of 200 people, Howlin’ Wolf’s song is given a Chicago blues spin, with McPhee tuning in an exemplary performance on both guitar and vocals. For a band that wanted to get away from the blues, this seemed a rather odd way to do it.
Elsewhere, “Express Man” is a great example of their stock in trade – hard-hitting, riff-driven blues, that’s about an inch away from the sound that propelled Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck into international arenas while the Groundhogs toiled away in town halls and ballrooms across Britain. Maybe that’s the price you pay for authenticity, which the ‘hogs had in spades, having played with John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, and Champion Jack Dupree. A couple of years after Blues Obituary, the band were hand picked by Mick Jagger to support the Stones on their 1971, UK tour. That exposure helped, but it hardly turned them into a household name.
The 2018 version of Blues Obituary is augmented with a couple of extra tracks – the ‘a’ and ‘b’ side of the first (and only) single from the album – “B.D.D” and its flip, “Gasoline”. It was a flop everywhere, with the notable exception of Lebanon, where it reached the giddy heights of #1. Not a market one normally associates with grimy British blues rock, but every day’s a school day… It’s also pressed in a rather fetching blue vinyl for all you retro-futurists. Watching a lovely blue disc revolve on your Dansette may divert your attention from the album’s rather eccentric production values.
In 1969, stereo was still a novelty and whoever mixed this record, pushed instruments into the far corners of the sonic spectrum, with the bass occupying the left hand channel, while the drums clatter around on the right. Vocals and guitars are scattered across both sides, resulting in a rather unbalanced sound, but if you’re the bassist in a Groundhogs tribute band and you’re trying to work out what Pete Cruikshank is playing – this album is a gift to you. In spite of that, the album sounds raw and live with minimal mechanical interference. What is recorded here is essentially what you would have got at a Groundhogs gig in 1969. That does mean that you get the dubious addition of a “freak-out” – “Light Was the Day” is almost seven minutes of tribal tom toms, pulsing bass and McPhee making the most of one chord. This maybe should have stayed on the stage, because in 2018 it tests the patience and dilutes the strength of the rest of the album.
If ever a band needed serious reappraisal, it’s the Groundhogs. They plugged diligently away at their raw brand of blues, whilst the sexier Led Zeppelin, the more commercial Fleetwood Mac and the more Stateside-savvy Savoy Brown reaped the rewards. They should be up there with the big boys, but instead, they’re a footnote, higher up the rankings than Jellybread, but nestling below Chicken Shack in the popularity stakes. Maybe this reissue will help. The ‘hogs deserve it.