CAUCASIAN POWER BLUES:
AN APPRECIATION OF THE BLUE CHEER
Photo © Herb Greene
by Carlos M. Pozo (August 1999)
"Blue Cheer 'Vincebus Eruptum': (Philips 1968): These guys well may have been the first true heavy metal band, but what counts here is not whether Leigh Stephens birthed that macho grunt before Mark Farner (both stole it from Hendrix) but that Stephens' sub-sub-sub-sub-Hendrix guitar overdubs stumbled around each other so ineptly they verged on a truly bracing atonality"
Lester Bangs "A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise"
Village Voice, 1981
That's four (4) "sub"s below Jimi if you're counting. Actually, the man who should have been credited with that "macho grunt" was Blue Cheer singer/bassist Dickie Peterson, not guitar-man Leigh Stephens, as implied in the above quote. Sorry Mr. Bangs. Additionally, Leigh's leads are not really as multi-tracked as Bangs would have you believe- you can clearly spot them on the songs "Out of Focus" and "Second Time Around" but as evidenced from the two bootlegs discussed below the "confused" flying-out-of-nowhere sound seems to be Leigh's own doing, and doesn't really jump out as an element of their sound until Outside Inside, their slightly more obscure second LP also from 1968. Sorry Mr. Bangs, again, with all due respect, etc.
But on to the subject at hand- Blue Cheer. Way back in the '70's and '80's they lived in US adolescent lore as the dumbest and loudest heavy rock band ever, the progenitors of "heavy metal", the pinnacle of acid flashback play-it-through-all-the-pedals-at-once fuzz rock. Their first album from January 1968 predates the MC5, the Stooges and every other cave-man sixties rockers except the Troggs, who were never half as dangerous as this trio seemed. And yeah, its arguable (the Satan-gothic-crap is missing- see Black Sabbath's debut, 1969) but they probably did NOT invent heavy metal- they did perfect Caucasian Power Blues, Stoner Rock and Ruthless Fuzz Mongering, all valuable genres and rarely practiced well these days- except maybe in Japan, though not without a certain ironic edge that the Cheer never possessed. This article concentrates on the SOUND of The Blue Cheer, or more specifically, the two albums recorded by the original trio of Dickie Peterson, Leigh Stephens, and Paul Whaley. A definitive history of the band remains to be written, and if it is never written, at the very least we'll always have the recordings... but just in case, I've linked to a site at the end of this article that can fill in some factual information.
THE BLUE CHEER SOUND
"On the surface, Blue Cheer was the epitome of San Francisco psychedelia. The band was named for a brand of LSD and promoted by renowned LSD chemist and former Grateful Dead patron, Owsley Stanley. The band's sound, however, was something of a departure from the music that had been coming out of the Bay area. Blue Cheer's three musicians played heavy blues-rock and played it VERY LOUD!"
Tim Hills from "The Many Lives of the Crystal Ballroom"
The Blue Cheer philosophy, intentional or not- was to do as much with as little as possible- crude playing, crude production, reaching out, a primitive grasping, a sonic transcendence only possible through rock and roll, the blues, speed, and volume. You know, all the stuff that's powered the great confused rockers from Bo Diddley to Half Japanese.
They take the idea of Jimi's explosive "Let me stand next to your fire" and cram it into every song- Jimi took a breather every now and again, but these guys come at you full-bore non-stop every single fucking song. An air of demented over-indulgence permeates their first two LP's- the songs are merely the excuse for the "jamming"- which consists of freaked out noise-making under a bluesy shuffle more than anything resembling a "solo."
Left out of Lester Bang's equation are the considerable contributions of drummer Paul Whaley, whose time-keeping skills are truly distinctive beyond the obvious debt to Keith Moon and Mitch Mitchell, again, with the added teenage vigor, and a "pitter-patter" tone to the sound of the drums themselves that must have faded away with time, as demonstrated by his pedestrian hard-rock work on Randy Holden's 1996 comeback CD (Guitar God) on the Japanese Captain Trip label.
Those first two albums did a pretty good job of destroying rock music as it headed towards Rolling Stone-approved respectability: they take standard blues and rely on volume and distortion to take themselves into another musical dimension of noise and static, a sonic blur powered by Stephens' guitar, which has a white-hot over-amped tone matched by few, Paul Whaley's quick hands on the ever-busy shifting drum beats, and the cock-rock swagger of Dickie Peterson's shriek. Add to that whatever they used two power the recording sessions (Outside Inside was partially recorded outdoors, and according to Leigh Stephens, Vincebus Eruptum was engineered by an off-duty cop) and you get a sort of Maximum RnR, nothing but amphetamine beats and a wall of distorted one-string geetar. Rock on.
The guitar on these two LP's is something that deserves enshrinement somewhere. Stephens told me by e-mail that no effects were used on the guitars- if this is true then these records present as deep an irreproducible enigma as those legendary King Tubby and Lee Perry productions of the early seventies. The sound itself, solid sheets of amp feedback and echo evokes aural images of everyone from Robert Fripp to Keiji Haino, and of course, the model for all this wankery, Jimi Hendrix, whose soulful freakouts get expanded, cranked up and multiplied. "Bracing Atonality"- yeah, something along those lines.
TWO-AND-A-HALF LPs OF GREATNESS
The debut Vincebus Eruptum LP was recently included in Wire magazine's "100 Records that set the world on fire while no one was listening". The LP kicks of with their sole hit "Summertime Blues"- maybe you have not listened to it but you know you've heard it, and it may not be exactly representative of their prowess as demonstrated on their first two LP's, but it's definitely pretty close. They take a familiar structure- this classic '50's rockabilly song will do- and inflate it into their trademark explosive spasm of noise- cymbal-heavy drums and bass that appear to be occasionally playing an entirely different song, and a guitarist who seems to be soloing even during the rhythm parts. By the time they hit "Doctor Please", the third track, things start getting really heavy- the first 2:20 or so features a straight-up live sound- each instrument as distinct and separated as they ever get. Then the song breaks down into a relentless cave-man drum rhythm underpinning some tremendous burning lead guitar riffola- whoah, it's the Blue Cheer at their best: run for your lives. They bring back the vocals for one more try at the song- but let's face it, the guitar always leaps out and does whatever it damn well pleases. This time its another one of those monstrous endings that builds up out of a simple riff beat hard into the ground. The multi-tracked guitar leads really come to the fore on "Out of Focus"- the first guitar solo is a perplexing atonal freakout, very brief, very disorienting, where one lead heads this way while the other one comes back around to bust your skull from behind. The album ends with "Second Time Around" another Dickie Peterson blues-rock original- this time it's the drum solo that annihilates the song 2 minutes in- rhythms upon rhythms cascading relentlessly without "jazzing" out into free-form territory. Just as the beat lulls the listener into a semi-calm state the freaked out guitars swoop down out of nowhere (here's your bracing atonality) "L.A. Blues" without the sax. That ending- wow. Buy it, OK?
Their follow-up LP, Outside Inside is the album that should have logically been on the Wire's hot 100. You rarely see original vinyl copies of it floating around but it seems to have vanished without a trace. The mix is overall much more separated and clear, stereo panning effects are used throughout, and the multi-tracked guitar makes an appearance in almost every song. Performance-wise, Paul Whaley's primal drumming really steals the show- his youthful exuberance dominates almost every cut without overpowering the other instruments (like the guitar distortion did on the debut). Don't let that mislead you into thinking Leigh Stephens is buried in the mix- he expands his palette to include all manner of distorted and clean electric guitar tones. Along with the sound of Ron Asheton on the Stooges' debut, this is one of those highlights in fuzz-rock history, from Link Wray on down that just can't seem to be duplicated. Track 2, "Sun Cycle" is perhaps my favorite 'Cheer track- it flows nicely and paces itself beautifully with a slow bluesy beginning that mutates into a "Wind Cries Mary" bass riff before the guitar soars out into Leigh's patented tone. The "solo" here (at the 1:55 mark to be precise) is pretty amazing in its simplicity- the fuzz pans from left to right channel while Whaley pummels the skins mercilessly in the background. Side two opens with a speedy cover of the Stones' "Satisfaction" which is just as monstrous as their take on Eddie Cochran's classic. Their original target audience probably held the Stones in higher regard than Cochran, so one wonders what they made of this demolishment. The fast arrangement is practically the same as Otis Redding's cover of this song, as featured memorably on the "Monterrey Pop" movie. No horns, of course, just layers of guitar, over Whaley's non-stop speed-freak pounding which never sounded so good- an amazing performance all around. If you paid attention to the periodic revival of sixties music throughout the '80's you probably heard the brief instrumental "Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger" on some college radio show- plus Mudhoney "covered" it on their debut LP, a sort of fuck-you to the critics. Right on, boys.
Their 3rd LP, New! Improved!, sees the departure of Leigh Stephens and has their sound steering towards bland LA-style country rock mediocrity. Enter Randy Holden. Randy Holden had been in several semi-famous California groups, all of whom benefited from his supreme stinging guitar prowess. Blue Cheer was his to save- alas, he only dominates three of the tracks on New! Improved! and left midway through the LP's recording session. Those tracks are heavy but much more intricate than what constitutes the Blue Cheer sound- they're pretty fine doomy psych dirges nonetheless. Lucky for us, Randy also managed to record one LP on his own: the semi-mythical Population II (1969), an album rarely seen even as a bootleg, but long held as some sort of pinnacle of psychedelic guitar excess. Well, it's pretty good, but suffers from the stiff studio band sound and lack of group interplay- the rhythm section plods along mightily, but the spastic drum fills that complement the guitar excess of Blue Cheer are sorely missed here. However, If you're in the mood for some heavy slow motion guitar swaggering, nothing beats this LP- as it is, mostly just Randy's excellent endless guitar solos played over a standard slo-mo blues-rock strut. The best CD issue of this, on the UK "Flashback" label features fine sound quality and as a bonus, the Holden tracks from New! Improved!. Damn those helpful bootleggers.
THE LIVE EXPERIENCE
"The texture they produce somehow equates to the simplistic imagery of the oft-quoted words uttered by Gut- a Hell's Angel who managed Blue Cheer early in their career- who, attempting to describe that trio's sound, said 'they turn the air into cottage cheese'"
review of Melvins self-titled LP (on the Boner label) Forced Exposure #18
For those of us unlucky enough to have missed the Blue Cheer in person, the enterprising Japanese label Captain Trip has put out two semi-legit CD's of live performances. The first Live and Unreleased from 1996 gives us three live tracks ("Summertime Blues", "Out of Focus", and "Doctor Please") from their appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1968, plus six demos of Dick Peterson's 1974 version of the band, produced by Kim Fowley. Steve Allen introduces our heroes, and off they go with a blazing rendition of "Summertime Blues". Sound quality is decent lo-fi but muddy. What did you expect? Best part of the first two tracks is when Steve Allen introduces "Out of Focus" with "...the Blue Cheer- run for your lives." The '74 tracks sound a lot better (fidelity-wise) but are basic bar-band sub-Grand Funk power crap-and-roll, with Dickie sounding like Wolfman Jack most of the time. If you've worn out your Rick Derringer and Montrose LP's, you might need these tracks in your collection, otherwise...
In 1997, we were treated to Live and Unreleased 2 which is perhaps the most lo-fi non-Stooges related recording I have ever had the pleasure of shelling out money for. Here you get six tracks live at the San Jose Civic Center from 1968, plus two from LA and one from San Francisco, also from 1968. You've got to really use your imagination to play this one cause this baby has it all: wobbly fall-outs, hiss, crackle, and very distant low volume. The San Jose take on "Summertime Blues" manages to impress with its fury- Dickie's bass really jumps out. You can hear someone complaining about it drowning out the guitar, and it does but it possesses a fuzz-tone missing from the LP's (as if Lemmy was in the house) in fact. But it's one of those purchases that can make me question my sanity. When they introduce "Satisfaction" one of those detached groovy-styled chicks you know and love from all those cinema-verite documentaries of the era utters "Oh wow!" in that Joni Mitchell atonal stoned whisper. The wild extended ending on "Doctor Please" conjures up images of a slower Mainliner or High Rise. Of the bonus cuts, the L.A. tracks have the best sound but leave the vocals and most of the bass out of the mix. Paul Whaley's drum solo on "Second Time Around" sounds a bit tired but he makes up for it a bit in the ending free-from drum rolls. Ambient speaker hum is probably the most appropriate way to end this disc.
ONE LINKA great site filled with photos, interviews and some history, as well as updated information on all Blue Cheer personnel's recent activities:
Blue Cheer Page
Blue Cheer Vincebus Eruptum
January 1968 LP (Philips)
Blue Cheer Outside Inside
August 1968 LP (Philips)
Blue Cheer New! Improved! Blue Cheer!
March 1969 LP (Philips)
Randy Holden Population II
1969 LP (Hobbitt)
Blue Cheer Live and Unreleased
1996 CD (Captain Trip)
Blue Cheer Live and Unreleased 2
1997 CD (Captain Trip)
Randy Holden- Guitar God
1997 CD (Captain Trip)
NOTE: The first two LPs are out on CD in the US as budget-priced reissues. Vinyl copies of the debut are actually not that rare- it has been legally reissued sporadically since its release. Don't pay more than 10 bucks unless you can help it. Outside Inside has been bootlegged through the years, always in slightly different covers- my copy is a tasty little Swedish number from the mid-80's. I'm not a vinyl fetishist, but I stand by the vinyl as definitive on both these LP's. Every dust mite resting within the vinyl grooves of these masterpieces can only enhance their overall fuzz value. New! Improved! Blue Cheer! is, I believe, only available on CD as a German import on the screwy Line label. The Blue Cheer CD's recorded in the mid '80's floating around the used bins are of a reformed version of the band, usually with Dickie Peterson as the only original member, though Paul Whaley drifts in and out of the line-ups. These CD's concentrate on the hard-rock side of the 'Cheer sound, and have more in common with bar-band blues and sub-sub-sub-sub-Ted Nugent "heavy metal" boogie. The spaced out psychedelic fury of either Leigh Stephens or Randy Holden's guitar sound is sorely missed. The Population II original is one of those unattainable artifacts only real collector scum will ever get their hands on. The CD reissue on Flashback is probably out of print by now, but features excellent sound. Beware of any other CD bootlegs. The three Captain Trip items should be obtainable through some of the better mailorder sites or just stumble over to Amoeba Records in Berkeley (the happiest place on earth)- that's where I got mine.
NOTE FROM JOHN HOWARD: Kak is great Cali psych. This is the group from which Blue Cheer drew members from when they regrouped after Leigh Stephens' departure. The keyboardist, at least. Sony reissued their album, who knows if it is still available.
Also see our Blue Cheer interview
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