Ian McFarlane’s Metallurgy: BLUE CHEER (1989)

Published on December 21st, 2016

Originally published Hot Metal #6, 1989

With the release of their debut album, Vincebus Eruptum, San Francisco’s Blue Cheer closed the book on heavy metal before anyone else opened it. It was early 1968 – at a time when most of their acid rock contemporaries were getting deeper into controlled psychedelia – and this relentless power trio stepped forth with a raw sound that could have been the soundtrack to the final scene of Godzilla vs. King Kong.

Vincebus Eruptum (loosely translated as “control of chaos”) had everything: thunderously loud guitar riffs, unintelligible vocals, uncontrolled feedback, pounding rhythms and landmark songs such as ‘Second Time Around’, ‘Out of Focus’, ‘Dr. Please’ and even a hit single, the band’s hammer-down rendition of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’. In short, it was mandatory listening for volume and distortion fans.
The album’s place in the HM Hall of Fame can be appreciated readily when you realise that it came out a full year before Led Zeppelin’s debut album, two years before Black Sabbath’s and at a time when Deep Purple was still a psychedelic pop band (Book of Taliesyn was the title of an early LP).
Blue Cheer was also the first band to adopt a wall of Marshall amps as a way of life and their shatteringly loud performances remain legendary to this day.
Blue Cheer was originally a six-piece blues band but soon settled into a concise three-piece line-up consisting of guitarist Leigh Stephens, bassist/vocalist Dickie Petersen and drummer Paul Whaley (ex-Oxford Circle). The year was 1967 and influential British power trio Cream and the first Jeff Beck Group (featuring Rod Stewart on vocals) had just made their presence felt in the States with their blues-based hard rock. The three Californian musicians took their inspiration from Cream, melding their hard rock with the prevailing sounds of acid rock, cranking up the volume and never looking back.
The band took its name from an especially potent batch of LSD, found a manager in the form of a huge ex-Hell’s Angel by the name of Gut and set about converting all the acid heads and freaks to the heavy metal cause. Blue Cheer would play the same ballrooms and halls as the leading San Franciscan psychedelic bands of the day – Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company (no slouches in the volume department at that) – but they were clearly of quite different stock.
Blue Cheer was one of a contingent of new American hard rock bands comprising Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, Vanilla Fudge and the Amboy Dukes (featuring Motor City Madman Ted Nugent) all of whom released debut albums within months of each other in late ’67/early ’68, thereby setting the guidelines for subsequent excursions in the field. In their wake came the likes of MC5, Mountain, Black Pearl, Frost, Demian, Dust, Sir Lord Baltimore and Cactus, while three more power trios in Grand Funk Railroad, the James Gang and ZZ Top latched onto the Blue Cheer musical identity as a vehicle for even greater success. The early albums by the above bands and, of course, Blue Cheer have stood the test of time and remain relevant to this day.
Once Vincebus Eruptum was released (eventually reaching #11 on the Billboard album chart) and “Summertime Blues” foisted upon an unsuspecting public after lodging itself in the American Top 20, Blue Cheer had to come up with a decent follow up. This came in the form of an even more raucous album OutsideInside, easily their most interesting release. The band’s playing was of a pile driving consistency, while songs such as ‘Feathers from Your Tree’, ‘Sun Cycle’, ‘Gypsy Ball’ and ‘Magnolia Caboose Babyfinger’ even topped the fuzzed-out standard set by the debut. ‘Come and Get It’, in particular, was a catchy amphetamine freak-out and is possibly the first recorded example of speed metal.(continued below)

Ironically though, the album was a disappointment sales-wise, and its two singles, ‘Just a Little Bit’ and ‘Sun Cycle’, failed to chart. It seemed that by the end of 1968 Blue Cheer was already a spent commercial force. Further problems arose when Stephens left the band just as the album came out. His replacement, ex-Other Half guitarist Randy Holden, only stayed long enough to record one half of a new album.
Guitarist Bruce Stephens (no relation) and keyboards player Ralph Burns Kellogg (ex-Mint Tattoo) were brought in to finish the set. Each version of the band was consigned to a side of the longplaying album a piece. Consequently New! Improved! Blue Cheer was a patchy effort.
Nevertheless, two Holden contributions, ‘Peace of Mind’ and ‘Fruit & Iceburgs’, stood out with their heavy, psychedelic sounds.
By the fourth album, simply titled Blue Cheer, much of the old magic was gone and for the subsequent albums, The Original Human Being and Oh! Pleasant Hope, the heavy psychotic blues based metal was replaced by easygoing, melodic rock. What started out with such fire and tenacity had grown tired and limp all too quickly. As the early ’70s arrived with the likes of James Taylor, Three Dog Night and the Jackson 5 to the fore, the kinetic demon once known Blue Cheer found itself out of step with the times, and it broke up without so much as a whimper.
For many years the name Blue Cheer was a forgotten one, relegated to the backblocks of some passing fad. Until the early ’80s that is, when a whole new generation of American metal bands, who were fed up with AOR wimp rockers like Styx, Journey and Boston, erupted with a force that recalled the halcyon days of the original Blue Cheer, the MC5 and the Stooges. Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Manowar may not have played the same brand of metal but it was the raw guitar fury and the no-bullshit attitude to which the parallels may be drawn.
Enlivened and encouraged by the now thriving metal scene in the States, the Blue Cheer machine (Petersen, Whaley and new guitarist Tony Rainer) leapt back into action and released their first album in fifteen years, The Beast is… Back (on Megaforce Records which was the home to, you guessed it, Anthrax and Metallica). The album mixed re-recorded versions of old Blue Cheer classics and new material and was powerful enough to re-establish Blue Cheer as a name to remember.
To further cement the Blue Cheer legend, Rhino Records then released a compilation called Louder Than God, which drew together the best moments from the first four albums. Blue Cheer continued to rear its ugly head every so often for a series of shows along the west coast of the States.
Nostalgia maybe, pure cabaret maybe. Whatever, Blue Cheer was clearly a band ahead of its time.
They were heavy metal before the term had been invented! Loathed by the critics of the day, this bunch of primal metal heads has now been acknowledged as the forerunner of a peculiar brand of American power metal, where sheer volume and monstrous guitar riffs combined to out-do the sonic boom of the Concorde Jet.

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