PAUL FREEMAN, the author of Eccentric Man: A Biography & Discography of Tony (TS) McPhee, remembers this behemoth’s contributions to shaping future musical movements
The first time I saw Tony McPhee was in 1970 on BBC2’s late night music show Disco2, and it was a life changing moment. McPhee’s band The Groundhogs were playing ‘Eccentric Man’ from their new groundbreaking album Thank Christ For The Bomb, and I was transfixed by the amazing sound and the spellbinding wizardry of the band’s guitarist. The period ’70-72 marks his greatest commercial success with three chart albums including Split (’71) which sold over 100,000 copies. McPhee was firmly grounded in the blues, and backing numerous Americans on their British tours in the ’60s was a critical influence. The Groundhogs were John Lee Hooker’s favourite backing band, and fortunately Hooker & the Hogs on BBC2’s The Beat Room (5th October ’64) is the only edition of this series that wasn’t wiped. The Beat Room was the first of the BBC2 music series that continues to this day with Later. After the first tour with Hooker, McPhee adopted his finger playing style and the unusual habit of only having the guitar strap over one shoulder. Also, the band recorded an album with Hooker in ’65 and this has been issued with various titles including John Lee Hooker (’71) on the XTRA label. Other later versions include Hooker & The Hogs (’96) on Indigo.
Although primarily known as a guitarist, singer and a songwriter McPhee was an innovative and highly experimental musician. His training as a GPO engineer, and a keen interest in electronics was fundamental to his individual approach. Every guitar, amp or effects unit was dismantled and customised. In an interview with the NME in ’72 he stated: “All musicians ought to have at least a simple understanding of electronics. Even if it’s as basic as knowing, with your guitar or amp, only why it’s doing what it’s doing.” He used the recording studio to produce weird noises, and the track ‘Junkman’ on Split concludes with an extraordinary sonic freak out. In ’73 he undertook a solo tour which included a synthesiser suite titled The Hunt. This was described in his Guardian obituary: “He recited an anti-foxhunting narrative against a patchwork of experimental synthesiser sounds.” His politics were distinctly left wing, and he loathed blood sports and the aristocracy. He became a vegetarian aged 16 and remained committed to animal rights throughout his life.
Apart from an outstanding body of work (albums and live recordings) his legacy is assured via the extensive list of disparate musicians that have credited him as a major influence. These include Captain Sensible of The Damned, Julian Cope, Mark E Smith of The Fall, Karl Hyde of Underworld and The Arctic Monkeys. The Fall recorded bizarre interpretations of two of his songs, and Queens Of The Stone Age included a knockout version of ‘Eccentric Man’ on The Desert Sessions Vol 3/4 (1998). The major Hollywood movie Logan Lucky (2017) included sections of two songs on the soundtrack. Coincidentally, on the day he died episode two of the BBC TV drama The Gallows Pole featured ‘Cherry Rd’.
Although his career trajectory was somewhat erratic, in 2005 he stated: “The highs definitely outweighed the lows, that’s for sure.” And the highs are numerous: touring in the ’60s with all those blues legends, performing ‘Cherry Red’ on Top Of The Pops (April ’71) with the first metal fronted Zemaitis, supporting The Rolling Stones of their “farewell tour” in ’71, and setting up one of the first home studios. Thank Christ (’70) and Split (’71) are widely acknowledged as milestones in the history of rock. The comic book album cover for Who Will The Save The World? The Mighty Groundhogs! is a classic.
Tony McPhee is a unique figure in the history of British music, and he fully deserves the accolade of “great” that was used repeatedly in all his obituaries. I’m fortunate to have known him, and enjoyed so many of his live performances. It didn’t matter to him if the gig was at The Royal Festival Hall or playing solo to a handful of people in the back room of a pub. Nobody else could make so much noise that was so utterly compelling.