Proto-metal gods Blue Cheer are making a racket as if it were 1967 all over again
Even as Haight was serving up a summer of love in 1967, something darker was brewing in the Bay. Not Altamont, which was still a couple of years away, but Blue Cheer — a thunderous blues act that delved into the shadowy corners of psychedelia rather than indulging the flowery, paisley beatitude of the Grateful Dead and their cohorts.
When they formed in 1966, they were a six-piece. By the next year, they had been culled to a power trio — by most accounts, the loudest of their time. While based around 12-bar blues, the sound was thick and rolling, swathed in distortion and quaking bottom end, prone to grimy excursions teetering on the verge of breaking down before returning home. Out of the box, they scored a hit with their signature cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," off their classic debut, Vincebus Eruptum.
"There was a saying around then, 'Kiss babies and eat flowers.' Blue Cheer's motto was 'Kiss flowers and eat babies," says singer/bassist Dickie Peterson. "According to the general consensus of San Francisco's psychedelic peace and love musicians, we were outcasts."
Inspired by the hard rock blues improvisations of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer was among the pioneers of the American acid-rock movement, along with Iron Butterfly and other acts (The Count Five, The Seeds) that might have been lost were it not for the popularity of the Nuggets collection and periodic garage rock revivals during the past couple of decades. Yet Blue Cheer stands out among their peers for the primal throb and intensity of their shows. Sure, they were loud; they were the first band in the U.S. to employ Marshall amps, having them shipped over from Britain after hearing Hendrix use one.
"I always had guys come up to me and say, 'You can't do that with that amplifier.' See this knob here? Just turn it up to 10. It's that easy," Peterson recalls. "We were pretty sassy little shits."
There's an apocryphal tale that before one of their most famous shows — in 1968 at Detroit's Grande Ballroom, with the MC5 and the Stooges — a call went across Michigan for amplifiers. According to the story, the MC5 borrowed as many as they could to ensure they'd stack up against Blue Cheer, and proceeded to blow windows out in the back of the ballroom.
These days, Peterson's using Ampeg amps (guitarist Andrew "Duck" MacDonald uses old, tube-style Marshalls), but it gets just as loud. He recalls a show a few years ago in an Osaka, Japan, skyscraper.
"The low-end on these Ampegs was beautiful — it vibrated the foundation of the skyscraper we were in. The low-end was so intense that it shook the tubes right out of Duck's amplifier. The tubes fell out and just started breaking on the floor. Duck looked at me, at first like he was really angry, and I just started laughing and then he started laughing, and the audience started laughing," Peterson says. "It's like, if this isn't rock 'n' roll, what is?"
For Peterson, playing music will always be about the live performance. He, MacDonald, and drummer Paul Whaley still tour old school, cramming in the back of a van with their gear, because, according to him, "When you start getting away from that shit, you stop playing rock 'n' roll." It's a topic dear to his heart, and he echoes a familiar garage/punk ethos when he suggests their sound is "10 percent music, 90 percent attitude. It's how you deliver it."
Witnessing Blue Cheer live greatly enhances your opinion of them. There's a physicality to their thick-limbed boogie that probably can't be appreciated without surrendering the volume knob, and giving over to the slashing peals of guitar and the muscular rhythms.
"Our rhythm section has a lot of tension in it, because Paul's always playing the backbeat and I'm always shuffling. Normally, those two things don't go well together, but we manage to find a wormhole and make it work," Peterson says.
Though one is reminded of Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins when Peterson recites the hoary conceit about the audience being the fourth member of the band, it's hard to be too judgmental. Blue Cheer's been at it for 40 years; who's to say they didn't invent that cliché? Any suspicions to the contrary are erased when Peterson confirms that (other than the combustible drummers bit) they are Spinal Tap.
"I think they wrote that movie from us; somebody heard enough of our stories. We still get lost on our way to the stage. You think after 40 years of walking around in sub-basements and dressing rooms, you would have an instinct," Peterson says. "Nah, we get lost, man."
Because Peterson came of age in San Francisco during the '60s, you can pretty much take drug abuse for granted. After all, Blue Cheer took its name from a strain of Owsley Stanley's acid. Peterson lost his brother to heroin, and was addicted himself for a time. Many early Blue Cheer songs, such as "Out of Focus" and "Doctor Please," are inspired by youthful indulgence, and Peterson is forthright about it.
"'Doctor Please' was about romanticism," he explains. "Part of the reason I became a heroin addict was because I'd been told, 'If you take marijuana, you'll be slave to it all your life.' I found out real soon that was a lie. They said, 'War is good.' Vietnam showed me that was a lie. So when heroin and these other drugs popped up, we said, 'They already lied, why should we believe them now?' This is why I say don't lie to the kids: All you do is open them up for another screw-up later in their lives."
Though he doesn't like recording ("I do it because that's what you do in this business"), the band's supporting their first album of new material in 15 years, What Doesn't Kill You. Surprisingly, the highlight track is the ballad (pretty much a Blue Cheer first) "Young Lions of Paradise," dedicated to many of his lost peers.
"That's what this song is about — surviving it. I'm here to tell you there are more that didn't than did. The ones that aren't here, those are the 'Young Lions of Paradise.' Those are my friends that died young. I don't mean Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, some screwy-ass, psychologically amputated rock star," he says. "I'm talking about the guys that struggled like the rest of us. I stood next to them and did the same drugs, while they dropped to the floor and I didn't."
While it may have its dark moments, Peterson protests that the blues Blue Cheer was founded on isn't about feeling bad. He cites jump blues, and almost sounds as though he's describing Van Halen. "It's the music I cut my teeth on," he explains. "It's about women, sex, dancing, fast cars, and being cool. It has nothing to be with being sad. Just the opposite — it's about having a good time and kicking out the jams, as the MC5 would say."
Let the kicking begin.
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