REDLINE FEVER (AND A SIDE ORDER O’ SLUDGE…) Blue Cheer

On, improbably enough, a classical label, and managed by a Hell’s Angel, the S.F. band was the ‘60s Motorhead – but with longer hair and better drugs.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

Back in
the primordial stew that was mid-to-late 1960s era rock ‘n’ roll, record label
execs were literally clueless about the music, and were just as likely to chase
trends as they were to discover new talent. With their collective ears to the
ground, they listened for the buzz, and in 1966 and ’67, nowhere was the
howling louder than in the San Francisco Bay area. The region was home to a
virtual buffet of bands and styles, from the electrified blues-rock of Big
Brother & the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin) and the
folk-influenced psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane to the Grateful Dead’s
original roots-rock stew.  

 

What was
missing from the San Francisco sound was a true hard rock band…and into the
breach would step the almighty Blue Cheer. Louder, bolder, and brasher than any
other band on the scene, Blue Cheer evolved…or some would say mutated…from a
six-piece blues-rock outfit complete with dueling guitarists and a harmonica
player, into a nasty, turbocharged power trio in the image of the Jimi Hendrix
Experience. Signed to Dutch-based Phillips Records, noted mostly for its
success in the classical music field, Blue Cheer represented the label’s attempt to capitalize on the growing garage-rock side of
pop music.

 

Phillips
had no idea what they were getting themselves in for, however. Blue Cheer was
brought to their attention by fledgling producer and popular S.F. radio deejay
Abe “Voco” Kesh, an Armenian blues fan who would also discover
guitarist Harvey Mandel. The band was managed by a Hell’s Angel member
nicknamed “Gut” and, well, Blue Cheer had a tendency to play every
bit as loud in the studio as they did on stage, redlining the equipment and
freaking out the recording engineer.

 

While
Phillips may have thought that they were getting an American version of Eric
Clapton and Cream, or maybe even Led
Zeppelin, what they got was Vincebus Eruptum, a debut album completely devoid of melody,
bruising songs performed by sonic thugs who mangled the blues-rock equation
with squalls of piercing guitar and spine-bashing rhythmic overkill.    

 

Blue
Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum roared out of the gate, literally, with
bluster and ferocity that wouldn’t be matched for almost a decade…or until
Motorhead released its ground-breaking, earth-shaking 1977 debut album. Released in early 1968 and riding
on the back of the band’s first Top 20 single – a grungy, fuzztone,
feedback-ridden reading of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (also
successfully covered by the Who) – the album would peak at number eleven on the
Billboard Top 200 albums chart, and
rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same again. The new Sundazed Records label CD
reissue restores the album to its glorious, bulldozer mono mix.

 

 

 

 

“Summertime
Blues” still sounds pretty damn hot today, although Blue Cheer’s
performance of the song has long since been overshadowed by the Sturm and Drang
of thousands of bands that followed the same blueprint to musical notoriety in the
decades to follow. In its day, though, the song sounded like nothing and nobody
else – not for Blue Cheer the fey moptop
harmonies of the British Invasion bands, or even the niceties of polite,
boy-next-door garage-band America. Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues”
sounded like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse straddling their iron steeds,
belching fire and shrouded in smoke, filthy rock ‘n’ roll bikers coming for
your daughters with phallic guitars and amps set on eleven.

 

Guitarist Leigh
Stephens’ fretwork on the song broke new ground, establishing the framework for
what would eventually become heavy metal, ringing with reckless abandon, the
performance itself riff-happy, druggy, feedback-drenched psychedelic-blues with
the heaviest bass line the recording tape could capture,
and drums that sounded like the soundtrack to a short boat ride down the River
Styx. That “Summertime Blues” became a hit single is a testament to
the musical anarchy that ruled the 1960s, as well as an indicator of the
madness creeping into rock ‘n’ roll.

 

Much of Vincebus Eruptum follows along the same darkened path towards insanity, the band forever corrupting traditional blues in a haphazard and
amphetamine-fueled haze of which Eric Clapton
and Cream, or even John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers could never conceive. A cover of
B.B. King’s classic “Rock Me Baby” is warped beyond even the low
standards the band set with “Summertime Blues,” the song’s
sludge-like dino-stomp pacing matched by Stephens’ razor-sharp, demented
fretwork (a mutant approximation of King’s unique single-note leads), bassist
Dickie Peterson’s husky voice lacking all pretense of nuance as he mauls the
lyrics…only drummer Paul Whaley manages to come anywhere near a standard blues
rhythm, but even that is lost come the bridge as chaos reigns, Stephens’ axe
flies off the planet, and the once-subtle percussion explodes like a brick of
C4.

 

Even
Peterson’s original songs evince the same sort of dirty, greasy signature as
the band’s much-beloved cover tunes. “Doctor Please” sounds like
Humble Pie thrown down a deep, dark well, the bass-drums rhythm track creating
an enormously claustrophobic vibe while Stephens’ manic mangling of his guitar
bludgeons the listener with sound and fury. “Out Of Focus” isn’t much
different, although it does allow Stephens to show off a few more chops that
his previous stammer-and-stun, and the band strikes a sort of slippery groove
as Peterson’s quicksand vocals barely project above the din of the instrumental
soundtrack.

 

Vincebus Eruptum closes out with a
particularly-inspired cover of Mose Allison’s classic “Parchman Farm”
(notoriously listed on the album cover as “Parchment Farm”).
Performed as a sequel, of sorts, to “Summertime Blues,” the band cops
an almost identical melodic arrangement as their hit single upon which to
unravel Allison’s lyrical tale of betrayal. Stephens’ solos bob and weave like
a punch-drunk prizefighter throughout the five-minute jam, Whaley’s drumwork
slips and slides from light-fingered, jazzy brushes to jackhammer blasts of
white light, while Peterson’s leaden bass technique clearly opens the door for
Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler to stagger through a year later.

 

Whaley’s
tribal drumming intros the blast furnace that is “Second Time
Around,” the song teetering on the edge as it balances a semblance of
garage-rock innocence and melody with the freefalling musical cacophony that
characterized the most adventurous of the era’s psychedelic acid rock
explorers. Although the song won’t open your third eye, its overall oozing
instrumental mud is certain to bongo-beat your eardrums even as it carelessly
slaps your medulla oblongata into submission. And that’s it for Blue Cheer’s
debut album…six tarpit tapestries, roughly half-an-hour in length, which will
take you days to recuperate from…

 

 

***

 

How do you
follow up a hit album, as unlikely as its success may have been? For Blue
Cheer, whose debut disc Vincebus Eruptum hit number eleven on the albums chart, spawning
a Top 20 hit single with a cover of “Summertime Blues,” you basically
follow the words yet spoken by drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs. Sayeth the
beloved B-movie scribe, “if you’re gonna make a sequel, make a sequel.
Bring the dead people back to life and do it all over again.” And
that’s pretty much what Blue Cheer did with their sophomore effort Outsideinside…resurrect all the bodies
they’d buried with their blunt-edged, riff-driven musical attack while refining
their sound with an even muddier mix
and a bunch of new, but no less dull and rust-flaked, production tools.

 

Whereas
Blue Cheer’s debut was louder than the ass-end of a fighter jet, and denser
than a room full of politicians, the album’s production was ultimately
designed…if, indeed, much thought went into it at all…to mimic the band’s
incendiary live shows. With Outsideinside,
however, they were seemingly inspired by all of the psychedelic outlaws that
made up their hometown music scene, bands like the Jefferson Airplane and
Quicksilver Messenger Service who were using the full capabilities of
contemporary recording technology to create a multi-textured, head-tripping
sound. In the hands of Blue Cheer and heavy-handed producer Abe
“Voco” Kesh, these advances in studio tech smoothed out some, but not
all of the band’s jagged edges, and further reinforced the smothering
wall-of-noise that was the Blue Cheer trademark. It seems that while their
first album had been recorded under the influence of whiskey and amphetamines, Outsideinside displayed a definite
hallucinogenic influence.

 

As such, Leigh
Stephens’ guitar was multi-tracked and multiplied in the mix, his free-riffing
technique flying straight out of your speakers like a pissed-off honey badger. Dickie
Peterson’s already heavier-than-uranium bass style was reduced to a thick,
migraine-inducing throb while Paul Whaley’s drums were frequently downplayed to
a mere eardrum-shredding sledgehammer rather than the head-bashing wrecking
ball that had almost dominated Vincebus
Eruptum
. While Outsideinside lacked the casual menace
and amateurish, bang-a-gong mentality of its predecessor, that’s not to say
that it was lacking in velocity or ferocity. The band still pursued a
louder-than-God, blues-infused psychedelic-rock sound, albeit with a few more
vintage R&B and boogie-blues elements thrown into the boiling brew this
time around.

 

For
instance, the album-opening original “Feathers From Your Tree” starts
out like your typical hippie hash, with a few folkie strings and odd vocal
harmonies, Peterson’s voice almost lost in the chorus until the nut breaks open
and Stephens’ six-string begins screaming and Whaley’s percussion stirs up a lazy
cyclone comprised of flurries of drumbeats and raffish whacks on the old
cymbal. Altogether, the song is somewhat more claustrophobic and schizophrenic
than much of the era’s psyche-rock and clearly foreshadows the coming flood of
doom-minded fellow travelers like Sir Lord Baltimore, Black Sabbath, and
Pentagram.

 

Peterson’s
“Just A Little Bit” breaths a little fire-and-brimstone into the
album’s grooves, picking up the pace with a mid-tempo yet undeniably muddy
performance where the vocals are sinking quick in the song’s quicksand
arrangement, Whaley’s drums blast away like a chattering machinegun, and
Stephens’ multi-tracked guitars stun in their fuzzy magnificence with both a
fluid tone and imaginative phrasing. The group-written “Come And Get
It” is a flashback to the band’s debut, a muscular, cro-mag composition
that offers up raging fretwork, hurricane-strength blast-beats, and Peterson’s speed
king vocals shouting up from the darkness of the mix.

 

Whereas a
full half of the songs on the Blue Cheer’s debut had been covers, Outsideinside offers up only two
significant departures from the band’s new internal songwriting dynamic. The
Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is revved-up and
amped-up beyond the original’s heart-attack pace, Blue Cheer stripping down the
instrumentation at times to just Stephens’ humming, buzzing guitar, the entire
thing racing past your ears like a bad dream. Whaley’s locomotive drumbeats
drive the performance to a manic crescendo as Stephens’ solos sting like a knife-cut
behind Peterson’s speedfreak vox.

 

 

 

 

By
contrast, the band’s cover of Albert King’s “The Hunter” (also done
nicely by British blues-rockers Free) is about as straight a performance as the
trio could muster with this short-lived line-up. Peterson’s vocals are edgy,
but the groove is fat and swings hard, and Stephens’ guitarwork is
uncharacteristically subdued. The Stephens-Peterson collaboration
“Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger,” later covered (appropriately) by Seattle tricksters Mudhoney during the grungy 1990s, is a
short, sharp shock of an instrumental, hitting a quick lick and quitting in
favor of the album-closing musical strokefest that is “Babylon.” Pulling out all the stops,
Blue Cheer crowbar every psychedelic cliché and hard rock sleight-of-hand they
can imagine into slightly less than four-and-a-half minutes, thus giving birth
to both Iron Butterfly, Kyuss, and therefore,
Queens of the Stone Age.

 

Lacking both
the ear-shattering charisma and the shocking element of surprise that made Vincebus Eruptum an unexpected hit, Outsideinside fared much less well commercially, the album barely scraping its way into the
Top 100 and failing to yield even a moderately-successful single. The tide had
quickly turned for Blue Cheer, and guitarist Leigh Stephens would become the
band’s first – although nowhere near its last – casualty, leaving before the
recording of 1969’s New! Improved! Blue
Cheer
to pursue a solo career with the release of his future cult fave
album Red Weather.

 

Meanwhile,
Dickie Peterson would carry the torch as Blue Cheer’s original founding member,
leading various band line-ups well into the 21st century with a number of album
releases and sporadic touring, the band’s 2007 swansong What Doesn’t Kill You… a welcome return to the caveman-dumb
dinosaur rock that built Blue Cheer’s reputation in the first place. Sadly, the
band’s return to rock would be sidetracked when Peterson, the prototype hard
rock bassist, passed away in 2009. Still, there’s no underestimating the band’s
influence on the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, and its status as one of a handful
of true originators of heavy, heavy music.

 

 

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