It was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just recently. Watching the memorial services on the television reminded me of the Groundhogs album Thank Christ for the Bomb. The title was intended to be controversial and (I assume) to raise the question of whether the use of atomic weapons can ever really be justified. In spite of the appalling loss of life, both as a direct result of the blast and from the ensuing radiation, those bombs brought the second World War to an end. Was it worth it? It’s hard to know for sure and the album, rightly, doesn’t try to provide an answer.
The Groundhogs was a rock band with distinct blues influences. The line-up when Thank Christ was recorded in 1970 was: Tony (T.S.) McPhee (guitar and vocals), Pete Cruickshank (bass) and Ken Pustelnik (drums). There was another well-known, blues-influenced guitar/bass/drums trio around at that time: Cream, and there are some similarities between the two bands. Tony McPhee’s easy guitar style does sound a bit like Eric Clapton in places and it’s amazing how full a sound the three of them generate. But there the similarities end. The Groundhogs was a fairly typical rock band – a very good one, but ground-hogging rather than ground-breaking the way Cream were.
In the sleeve notes for the 2003 re-issue of Thank Christ for the Bomb Tony McPhee says that the album title was suggested by their manager. After some initial misgivings Tony decided that he liked the title and it prompted him to write several songs on the theme of alienation. It’s a theme that makes Thank Christ for the Bomb very nearly a concept album.
In almost every song there’s someone who feels out of place: a young man full of life in a dull, dead town or trapped by poverty in a bare, dark room. There’s a man of peace on a First World War battlefield; there’s an urbanite who finds he prefers the countryside. And there’s a rich man who chooses to live on the streets.
Musically, Thank Christ‘s nine tracks have a greater uniformity than any other album I know this side of Pink Floyd. There are no strings, horns or synthesisers, no backing vocals; it’s just guitar, bass and drums all the way through. And yet it remains fresh and stimulating for the whole 41 minutes, a triumph of composition and performance.
Pick any track from my Album of the Month and you’ll get a feel for the whole album, but the stand-out songs for me are the ones with one-word titles: Soldier and Garden.
Soldier is a bleak description of what it was like for a WW1 infantryman on the front lines:
Soldier, don’t think of runnin’, your death is just as sure.
If you don’t face it now, you’ll face it anyhow in front of the squad, y’know.
In Garden, a wearisome victim of the modern way of life declares his intention to give up the rat race and return to nature:
I’m forsaking my comforts to live another way,
Get my clothes from heaps, my food from bins,
My water from ponds and have tramps for all my friends.
Many years ago now I was privileged to see the Groundhogs at the Greyhound, Croydon on the southern edges of the London suburbs; a Google search turns up a date of December 13th 1970. I remember being immensely impressed by the band and absolutely amazed by the sound of Pete Cruickshank’s black Zemaitis bass guitar – deep, powerful and gritty.
It was one of those unforgettable gigs, an event to be remembered with awe and reverence. And that thought brings us back to those atom bomb blasts of 70 years ago. Playing Thank Christ for the Bomb would be a fitting accompaniment, I think, to our personal reflections on the events of August 1945.