Like psychedelic pharaohs, the men of Blue Cheer erected a wall of Marshall amplifiers as a testament to their powers.
To understand the power trio, singer-bassist Dickie Peterson said, “you’ve got to stand in front of that stack.”
Blue Cheer released “Vincebus Eruptum” at the dawn of 1968. Often hailed as the first heavy metal record, the trio’s debut album preceded Black Sabbath’s bow by a good two years.
The heavy metal tag is a bit of a stretch, though, with psychedelic blues or acid rock better descriptions. (Like Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer started out as a blues outfit.)
In any case, “Vincebus Eruptum” — very loosely translated from Latin as “victory over chaos” — upped the ante in volume and ‘tude.
Blue Cheer’s immediate power-trio predecessors were the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. But the San Francisco-based group didn’t aspire to rock artistry of those outfits from across the pond. Blue Cheer was a blunt instrument, by design. Their manager, an ex-Hell’s Angel named Gut, saw to it.
Guitarist Leigh Stephens specialized in the distorted howling-beast sound identified with the heavier San Francisco bands, notably Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Drummer Paul Whaley was busy and athletic, his playing similar to that of the Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, but more forceful. (Whaley sometimes performed wearing golf gloves because of the pounding his hands took.)
Peterson sang with a yelp signaling frustration and desperation. His bass playing was of the Bill Wyman school, allowing bandmates to free-form at will. After the bandleader died in fall 2009, Rush’s Neil Peart eulogized him in Rolling Stone:
Dickie Peterson was present at the creation — stood at the roaring heart of the creation, a primal scream through wild hair, bass hung low, in an aural apocalypse of defiant energy. His music left deafening echoes in a thousand other bands in the following decades, thrilling some, angering others, and disturbing everything — like art is supposed to do.
Despite an initial shot of commercial success, Blue Cheer remained a band of outsiders, playing harsh music to a fanbase we’d now recognize as head-bangers. “We were put down mercilessly,” Peterson recalled, “but all it did was make us stronger.” (Grand Funk Railroad, another power trio, would receive similar treatment several years later.)
Blue Cheer took its name from the signature LSD tabs of Owsley Stanley. The acid king even wrote a poem printed on the album cover. It described the sonic contents surprisingly well, starting off:
“Vincebus Eruptum” stands its ground all these decades later, especially after the badly needed sonic upgrades given the first two Blue Cheer albums in 2012 (thanks, Sundazed Records). Undoubtedly a crudely recorded album, but the players now can be distinguished up against that wall of sound.
Half of the “Vincebus Eruptum” tracks were covers of songs by ace songwriters: “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran, “Rock Me Baby” by B.B. King and “Parchman Farm” by Mose Allison.
Blue Cheer roughs up these classics, but never betrays them. On “Summertime Blues,” the response bits are replaced by quickie band solos, an ingenious end run around the cute. On Allison’s shuffle-blues classic, Petersen adds the line “all I did was shoot my arm,” turning the sketchy narrator into a dangerous one. No one who heard the song doubted the band’s drug-scene bona fides. (Peterson soon fell into a nasty heroin habit.)
“Summertime Blues” was one of the first hits by the San Francisco psychedelic bands, reaching No. 14 on the singles charts. The young men dutifully performed the single on TV’s “American Bandstand” and “The Steve Allen Show,” with Allen urging the squares in the audience to “run for your lives.”
The other three songs are Peterson originals, and they’re crucial to the album’s success.
“Doctor Please” is a cry for drugs or love, maybe both. In “Out of Focus,” Petersen wails, “Now won’t somebody tell me what’s wrong / Tell me what’s wrong with me.” It’s as raw and honest as any of the lines on the LP’s cover songs. The number ends with Stephens’ primal guitar sounding straight from the killing fields of the Maasai Mara. The speed-rush “Second Time Around” ends the album with a glimpse of humanity, as the singer vows to make things right with a spurned lover … someday.
Part of the album’s genius is its brevity. Nothing goes on too long. The hooks hold. Just before the songs start to sound the same, just before the acid-rock formula makes itself obvious, “Vincebus Eruptum” crashes to a halt.
The original Blue Cheer members made but one more album, the fan favorite “Outsideinside.” Future recordings, made by Peterson with shifting personnel, focused on more commercial genres.
Peterson and Whaley kept Blue Cheer rolling well into the new century, ultimately bowing to their power trio heritage with the appropriately titled disc “The Beast Is Back.”
Liner notes: I played with a local rock band that opened for the original Blue Cheer one night in South Florida. A thrill, but what I remember most was the room-filling hum of the Marshall stack behind us, the amps louder in standby mode than our group in full throat.
Further reading: There are at least three excellent pieces on Blue Cheer to be found online:
- Blue Cheer: LSD, Rehab, Whisky, Fights … (Classic Rock)
- Interview With Dickie Peterson (House of Rock)
- Neil Pert Remembers Dickie Peterson (Rolling Stone)