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
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
taken from and
heavier than the LP if ya ask me... which is hard to say