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John Peel OBE, 1939 - 2004

Red Lick Records



Early Blues Interview
Tony 'TS' McPhee - Vocals / Guitar, The Groundhogs

© Copyright 2008 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Tony, thanks for sparing us a few minutes for these questions. 

Firstly, how is the current tour going? 
It’s a bit rushed tonight but, otherwise really good.   

What first attracted you to the blues? 
Cyril Davies I think.  I used to go and see him at the Marquee Club.  Somebody just said something about this R&B band and they were there every Thursday, and they were just magic.  From there, I just went on to find out things about other people – Muddy Waters especially and the numbers they were doing (Howling Wolf stuff) so I went and bought stuff, especially John Lee Hooker.  Although we never did any Hooker because it’s so difficult to do. 

Who impressed you musically in the early 60s, both in British blues and across the water?     Hooker, absolutely.   Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and Hubert Sumlin – amazing, odd style of guitar work which I loved.  Playing with Hooker, who played with a finger saw style, as did Sumlin and from there, that’s how I did it. 

The Groundhogs played regularly at Mother’s Club in Birmingham.  Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs there? 
Well it was always amusing because of that fire escape that you had to pull down to get in there.   One time a truck was backing up the alley and it got bashed trying to get in. There was a time when I lost a pair of jeans when they were stolen from the public area at the back there.  There was a pool table round the back area we used to play on – that was good. They were well worn but they were my favourite pair of jeans. 

Alan: They’ll be on somebody’s wall now! 

What was it like playing with such greats as John Lee Hooker? 
Hooker was fantastic.  Great fun and a real gentleman.   Little Water however was not much fun, really not a nice man at all.  He’d been shot and somebody finished the job when he went back in.  Memphis Slim, I did a couple of gigs with Memphis Slim.  There was one particular gig where I think he was being shafted and he said “I ain’t no ignorant nigger” and he went to find the promoter to sort it out.   Jack Dupree was fantastic – a lovely man. 

What inspired you to write the songs for Thank Christ For The Bomb? 
Well, the idea for the title of the album came from our manager.  He just had this idea that we needed to show we were getting away from blues and with Thank Christ For The Bomb, he decided that we needed a gimmick and John said “Christ” will cause an uproar.  The manager thought, well, let’s mate it with the day’s other big subject which was the bomb and he said how about calling it “Thank Christ For The Bomb”.  I thought, “No, you’re joking.  No way”.  But when I got home and thought about it, I thought it just could work.  My original idea was that if you had your toe or foot blown off in the First World War, you were sent back home and you wouldn’t go back to the front – so, thank Christ for the bomb.  But then as it worked through, it had to be the big one for the finish. 

And what about inspiration for the songs for Split
Split was unfortunately for me a bit of a mental aberration and it was caused by the only time I ever did any dealings with drugs.  It should have been cheaper than booze, that’s what everybody told me, but it really had this effect.  It really came on after I’d done a bit with Ken Pustelnik in his flat when he was playing at Earls Court and nothing happened.  But then I worked with this roadie who had some stuff, and he had a mate, who made joints out of it. I had all the bad things from LSD and it had been spiked.   That wore off and then a couple of weeks later, I just had this go at scribbling these songs.  And Split happened. 

Who are your favourite blues artists, both old and new?
Robert Johnson, obviously.  Son House – when I heard him, I just thought “Wow”.  And Charley Patton – my God!   They are all so different.   Of the later ones, Hooker obviously.    I always say that if Johnson had lived, he would have been Hendrix.  He would have taken an electric guitar and done things with it.  Because what he did with acoustic was unbelievable. 

Which is your favourite guitar?
It’s gone.  A Gibson. It was nicked in Irvine, in Scotland.  But can I say that whoever’s got it – I’m going to get him one day! 

Of all the many albums the Groundhogs made, what was your favourite? 
I think it’s got to be Thank Christ because I wrote all the songs. Before that they were derived songs. 

And what about your favourite solo album? 
Really, I do like listening to The Two Sides of T.S. McPhee because I said about the hunt and it’s now banned.  That was the whole point of it, that one side.  And I made it with the blues solos as well. 

There is a lovely quote here about you – “he is a blues man with a pedigree as long as your arm.”  What are the high points of your career? 
Playing with Hooker has got to be the highlight. 

Do you ever regret turning down the offer to replace Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers? 
Initially, yes. But then I learnt later, after we did a gig with them when Eric had said to me that he was leaving to go on a world trip, he got as far as Greece and came back. That was when John Mayall asked me and I thought naa. I didn’t realise that he’d made a pact with John Mayall that he could have his job back if he came back.  So, Peter Green, who got the job, was kicked out.  If I have any regrets, it’s not joining Chris Barber when he asked me before.  If I’d have joined him, I’d have been round the world 15 times. 

How pleased were you with Martin Hanson’s biography, Hoggin’ the Page? 
In the end it turned out okay because we did a lot of input.  He used to come round with this really old cassette machine where the cassettes used to hum; you could hear the noise of the motor above what he was saying.  He misheard a lot of things when he listened back to them so we rewrote it. 

How healthy do you think the blues scene is in the UK compared to the US? 
Well, when Seasick Steve gets in the charts, it’ll be back.  I don’t know what he’s doing in the US. 

How do you see the future of blues music? 
It’ll just keep going.  There’s always booms, like the one in the 60s and then again in the 70s and then you think it’s gone but it’s always bubbling under somewhere. 

I don’t know if you’ve heard the Ian Siegal Band, who sings Groundhog Blues.  Have you ever fancied a duet with him? 
Well, I’d have to listen to it first! 

When did you first meet Joanna?
Ah, it was when I was kicked out of my home by my second wife. She accused me of being boring.  Before that I didn’t go to any gigs because I liked to be home but then I went to a gig probably with the The Producers at this place called the Haygate in Wellington. A friend of mine from the past was there with this Ska band and he took me to a house (I didn’t know where I was, I just knew I didn’t want to go home – that was it) which turned out to be Joanna’s house – that was Joanna’s friend I knew from the past.  Next morning I woke up, I didn’t know where the hell I was and I went upstairs and Joanna was in bed.  I didn’t know it was her at the time because she wasn’t around the night before.  I was taken to the station by a friend of hers and that was how we met.  We later played the Haygate as a band, and I invited her down – and that was it.   The rest is history. 

Any album releases in the pipeline? 
Not really, no.  People come out with these live things and they get bunged out, which is okay.  But no serious stuff at the moment. 

Anything with Joanna, acoustic wise? 
Sometime, yes.  I’ve got a lot of songs that I want to put into some sort of thing. 

Finally, what about future plans? 
Ah, there’s a guy called Karl Hyde from Underworld, although they are a dance band he’s a blues man and he wants to come in with me and do a blues album, which will be fantastic.  I keep saying I’m going to send these ideas across to him.  We’re doing it a bit like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.  I send my guitar parts and he sends me his guitar songs and we’ll see what happens. 

Thank you very much Tony.

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