As post-punk mainstay turned psychedelic music maven Julian Cope has been quoted, "In 1968, nothing but nothing in America and Britain sounded as brutal as Blue Cheer, except for the Velvet Underground."
Though this is a case of apples and oranges, in terms of breaking sonic ground, Cope is right. Blue Cheer was a proverbial kick in the pants to the late-'60s San Francisco scene. The band might have been named after a strain of LSD, but Blue Cheer most likely fouled more than a few trips predating the harsh darkness that hippiedom would nurture at the end of the decade (Altamont, Manson, etc). With the band's 1968 debut, Vincebus Eruptum, Blue Cheer predated all of the now more-famous bands (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, MC5, Stooges) credited with forming the blueprint for heavy metal, proto-punk, or (very) hard rock. The hyper-distorted album contained the band's only hit, a needle-in-the-red version of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues."
Purchasers of the 45 version of that single were greeted with quite the head-scratching moment when the single was flipped over to unleash the B-side "Out of Focus" (also on Vincebus), a no-fidelity sucker punch of loose and loud fuzz of a kind that wouldn't resurface until the early days of Seattle's pre-Nirvana Mudhoney. Vincebus Eruptum also boasted what some listeners of the day possibly saw as a bastardization of Mose Allison's "Parchman Farm," flipping the over-covered number inside out with disjointed grooves and low-end rumble.
Blue Cheer's original lineup of Dickie Peterson (bass and lead vocals), Leigh Stephens (guitar), and Paul Whaley (drums) would only last for one other LP (Outsideinside, released the same year as Vincebus), and these guys were far more adept at pushing the limits of blues rock than they were at competing with the virtuosity peddled by Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix or the production values of any contemporary. Due to constant lineup changes and, perhaps, the understandable desire to veer from the velocity and volume of their early sound, Blue Cheer would carry their particular proto-metal power-trio torch for about two and a half albums before smoothing things out with more accessible white boogie and rootsy pop until a breakup in 1971.
But, despite the constant lineup changes, the band still managed to release an astonishing six albums in less than four years. After dialing down the distortion a tad for Outsideinside, Blue Cheer would undergo a notable change with 1969's New! Improved! Blue Cheer. Each side of the album features a different guitarist -- side one with Bruce Stephens and side two with Randy Holden. Side one also negates the trio approach with piano player Burns Kellogg, and the band's expected sound is thrown further off course with some misguided country rock. Side two, written entirely by Holden, is 14 minutes of an altogether different Blue Cheer. A largely unsung guitar god, Holden was a West Coast surf and garage veteran, and his three tracks on New! Improved! stand as some of Blue Cheer's strongest material, especially the mournful and minimal yet suitably heavy "Piece of Mind."
The last three albums in Blue Cheer's initial run, Blue Cheer (1969), The Original Human Being (1970), and Oh! Pleasant Hope (1971), found the band attempting several styles of the era that are anything but heavy, notably treading a more musically accomplished ground shared by the Band and late-period Byrds, with touches of rhythmic prog rock. When the band got loud on these albums, the attempts were easily lost in a hard boogie world that was now saturated by higher profile acts such as Mountain, Humble Pie, and Grand Funk Railroad.
After a hiatus that lasted most of the decade, Peterson and Whaley re-formed Blue Cheer in 1979, eventually releasing a 1984 comeback album, The Beast Is Back, on metal safe house Megaforce. The band stayed fairly active (sometimes with Peterson as the only original member) through the '80s and '90s, releasing live and studio recordings. It was during this period that the band had a knack for attracting rather odd touring bedfellows. Danzig, Biohazard, and '80s goofball skate-punk footnote Mucky Pup all toured with Blue Cheer, making for, if nothing else, surreal live bills. Since 1990, Blue Cheer's lineup has been mostly static: Peterson, Whaley, and Duck MacDonald on guitar.
It's been a busy two years leading up to Blue Cheer's current fall tour. Last year, the band entered the studio with members of heavy-metal stalwarts Raven and Pentagram (release pending). Performing as part of this year's Vice magazine Intonation Music Festival, Blue Cheer was placed alongside radical rappers Dead Prez, Japanese noise band the Boredoms, and trendy Brit-rock band Bloc Party. Once again, one can only imagine it a surreal day of music. Saturday's show at the Hi-Tone makes a little more sense; if there were two local bands that have lovingly updated the metalized hard rock that Blue Cheer, well, invented, the Joint Chiefs and the Sonsabitches make the cut.
Blue Cheer, with the Joint Chiefs and Sonsabitches
The Hi-Tone Café
Saturday, November 18th
Door opens at 9 p.m.; admission is $12