Sunday, March 4, 2018

1968 Revisited: Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum & Outsideinside

Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum
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

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 Motörhead 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. This 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 than 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...

Blue Cheer's Outsideinside


Blue Cheer’s Outsideinside

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 psych-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.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

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! 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.

Buy the CDs from
Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum
Blue Cheer’s Outsideinside 

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