Den of Antiquities – Blue Cheer

Editor’s note: what follows is the first installment in an all new column written for Heavy Blog by Laura Ansill! This new column, dubbed “Den of Antiquities”, will focus on the hazy day of proto-metal and the sounds and stories which surrounded the birth of our beloved genre. Read on below for loud pioneers, forgotten gems from days of yore and a healthy dose of fuzz! We couldn’t be happier to welcome Laura onboard!

Many bands have been cited as the first founders of heavy metal – Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple… you’ll even hear chirps of Grand Funk Railroad or Blue Oyster Cult – but if you asked me? I’d tell you that the first sparks of metal could be found at a back-to-school fundraiser in Sacramento, California, a good five years before any of those bands would put riff to record. Mid-September, 1965 a group of British-invasion struck teens come together to celebrate the new school year and with them, the first glimpse of what would become an entirely new subculture. Featured at this benefit were two bands, the Hide-a-Ways (later known as the Oxford Circle) and Group B, whose members would go on to form a powerful, groundbreaking, and quite literally deafening blues rock power-trio[1]. For your consideration, the first heavy metal band – Blue Cheer.

Singer and bass brutalizer Dickie Peterson formed Blue Cheer, named for a particularly strong strain of LSD, in 1967 out of a commune on Haight St. in San Francisco, California. The core original members, alongside Peterson, were guitarist Leigh Stephens and drummer Paul Whaley. Before finding their patented barebones sound, the core trio had brought three other members into the fold, including Dickie’s brother Jerre[2] and famous writer V. Vale, but that didn’t even last until the first album.

The decision to pare down from six members to three has been the source of the band’s first, highly contested, piece of mythology. The story goes that Peterson, Whaley, and Stephens attended the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and upon seeing Jimi Hendrix tear up the stage (the flint that caused the heavy metal spark) immediately fired their bandmates and helped to solidify the concept of the power trio. There seems to be some disagreement among members as to whether this performance really helped them make that decision, but it clearly made an impression regardless. It doesn’t matter too much, because what’s clear is that somewhere on those festival grounds, heavy metal fire was lit. Six months later, they were signed to Mercury and released their first fuzz-laden Marshall driven aural assault within the same year.

Vincebus Eruptum, the searing debut from Blue Cheer, was recorded in a mere three days with minimal mixing and a wall of amps. While that sounds rather par for the course for heavy music these days, even for some of the raw power that would follow them over the next couple of decades, for California in 1968, no one seemed to know what hit them. In an interview with Ken McIntyre, Peterson explains, “People thought we were just making noise. They thought we were a detriment to the scene. I just know we wanted to be loud. We wanted our music to be physical. I wanted it to be more than just an audio experience.”

If you wanted me to define what gives metal, or any heavy music, its staying power despite its lack of marketability or consistent mainstream appeal, that goal right there is what I’d point you to. The second you turn on Vincebus, you feel it in your gut. Each wail from Stephens guitar is accompanied by a completely chaotic pummeling from the rhythm section that knocks you thoroughly on your ass and proceeds to kicks you in the stomach before you even have a chance to recover. Nothing about the Beatles kicks you in the gut, hell I’d even say that nothing about Led Zeppelin kicks you in the gut. But Blue Cheer gets you on the floor and then takes your quaking, terrified body and holds it over a cliff until you’re screaming for mercy. And that screaming sounds a lot like Vincebus Eruptum. Finding their inspiration in the blues artists that Peterson worshipped, and not much else, Blue Cheer took the saccharine coating left behind by the British-Invasion and shattered it.

As the brilliantly blunt Julian Cope put it when he beat me to the punch several times over[3] with his Unsung homage to the group over at Head Heritage, this all too powerful trio sounds like “Contemporary Drum’n’Bass played deafeningly loud on a cheap stereo in a house built on the Heathrow flight path.” In fact, I find it hard to define Blue Cheer in any original or illuminating way because the truth is that the best comparisons have already been made in a variety of thrillingly exaggerated forms. According to Ken McIntyre, “There were no big ugly noises in rock’n’roll before Blue Cheer,” and that sentiment was set in stone by none other than Rush’s Neil Peart, who eulogized Dickie Peterson in Rolling Stone after his death in 2011. “Dickie Peterson was present at the creation,” claims Peart, “[Peterson] stood at the roaring heart of the creation, a primal scream through wild hair, bass hung low, in an aural apocalypse of defiant energy”.

This has been my favorite part of researching this article, reading the ways people spoke about this band. If you imagined how people would talk about the band who took the blues, amplified the hell out of it, and wailed their ways into the formation of heavy metal, those are exactly the kinds of words you’d expect to hear.

Despite the surface un-marketability of both their sound and attitude, Blue Cheer managed to achieve some degree of fame for their first record. An absolutely unhinged cover of Eddie Cochran’s 1950’s hit “Summertime Blues,” – the highlight of not only Vincebus Eruptum but of the band’s entire forty-year career – helped them see some unexpected time on the charts. Due to this mainstream success, the juvenile, drugged out, totally untested trio had the opportunity to take television audiences by storm.

When they appeared on the Steve Allen Show, the host ended his ominous introduction with, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Blue Cheer… run for your lives.” In my research for this article, I came across some footage of “Summertime Blues” being performed on American Bandstand in 1968 that really shows how unprepared America was for their onslaught. The fuzz and the volume speaks for itself, but the real gold comes at the end when the long-haired, slightly lost looking teenagers are being interviewed by a clearly very nervous Dick Clark. “What makes Blue Cheer different?” asks Clark, to which Paul Whaley gives the only answer there is, “Heavy.”

They made quite an impression on their contemporaries as well. Their Billboard success landed them slots on concerts with some serious heavy hitters, quite a few of whom didn’t really appreciate the band’s treatment of their holy rock and roll. In one of my personal favorite anecdotes, Peterson recalls to Ken McIntyre, “Mike Bloomfield [the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag] came up to me at the Avalon Ballroom, and he says, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘C’mon Mike, you can do it too. All you gotta do is turn this knob up to 10.’ He hated me ever since.”

But that kind of in-your-face loudness both on and off the mic, the exact kind of attitude that would go on to define heavy metal for decades to come, won them more than a few famous fans. Jim Morrison referred to them as the single most powerful band he’d ever seen…though interviews with Peterson imply that the Cheer wasn’t quite as impressed with Morrison’s own music. Their success, however reluctant, had won them a multi-album contract, which proved to be more curse than gift in the long run.

For the band’s second record, 1968’s Outsideinside, the label demanded some actual production value, and with it another piece of incredible Blue Cheer mythology. They were the first band to be dubbed the “Loudest Band in the World” by the Guinness Book of World Records, the band so loud that they inspired an urban legend that a dog once exploded from sitting on one of their practice amps. And yet somehow, Blue Cheer had to find a way to not blow the entire roof off of the recording studio while not sacrificing their legendary power.

Their solution? Just leave the studio entirely. Part of Outsideinside was actually recorded inside a mobile unit in the New York Harbor to allow the band to reach their maximum volume. In a surprising – yet entirely understandable – move, Leigh Stephens chose to leave the band at this point fearing hearing loss if he stayed much longer. Probably a good call. Stephens’ replacement, Randy Holden, did not make the largest impact on the legacy of Blue Cheer but as we’ll get to in the future, his impact on heavy music as a whole is incalculable.

After booting Holden over musical differences the band essentially broke up in 1970, leaving Peterson with the better part of a seven-album contract to fulfill. A stream of formidable releases came from Dickie and a rotating crew of solid musicians under the Blue Cheer banner – which, to his credit, he continued to wave proudly until his untimely death in 2009 – but none of it ever came close to that first, lava-spewing offering. God exists, kids, she’s just buried somewhere deep in your amplifier.

[1] As if that wasn’t enough, there is the absolutely wild fact that one of the bands to play this show, the Marauders, boasted a bass player who had successfully auditioned for the Beach Boys at only fifteen. Of course, his parents blocked him from joining due to his young age.

[2] Here’s where we really see the convergence of the various sparks contained in that back-to-school fundraiser. Both Dickie and his brother Jerre were originally in the band Group B, as replacements for bassist Dave Damrell. Damrell will appear in a future discussion of the group Kak, who he formed with Gary Yoder, a former member of the Hide-a-Ways, Paul Whaley’s old band! Yoder would later appear on a 1970 record from Blue Cheer.

[3] Cope’s claim that the group was “louder than God” has remained their legacy and still the most accurate description of their heaviness that anyone could make.

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Laura Ansill is an ethnomusicologist and heavy music loving freak living in Northampton, MA. After duping Hampshire College into giving her a degree for 50 pages worth of Earth Crisis quotes, Laura manages a used bookshop and spends her free time preaching the psych rock gospel. She is currently working on a book about black metal music and Puritan New England.






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