On their debut album Vincebus Eruptum, which turned 50 on January 16, Blue Cheer dragged the delta blues through the muck and the grime and injected a heavy dose of rebel soul. Rather than plucking chords on covered porches, Vincebus Eruptum evokes the imagery of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Easy Rider: the open road, the freedom of riding wherever the wind takes you, songwriting and beer drinking around campfires, sleeping in the van, meeting the locals in dive bars, and grabbing the mic if it’s ever left open. Blue Cheer took the blues of their father’s generation and rubbed some dirt on it in the manner of the late 60s counterculture sense of rebellion, adventure, free thought, and passionate uprising. The generation that spawned acid rock and proto-metal is that same that stood up to the war-mongering government in outrage over the Vietnam War, flipped a bird to the accelerating war on drugs that would soon be declared, witnessed the dehumanizing suppression and heroic acts of the Civil Rights Movement, and culminated in Woodstock and the moon landing.
Vincebus Eruptum, Latin for “We Control Chaos,” perfectly juxtaposes the restlessness of the younger generations with the powerful momentum of that time in history. Blue Cheer understood the call to take a soulful genre of music and de-evolve it — to make it louder, fuzzier, and more challenging. Their cyclical riffs evoke the feeling that society is progressing nowhere fast, and the guitar distortion explores the capability of the instrument to be a weapon of revolt as if to say, “Here we are, and we won’t conform. This is our war cry, our expression of futility, and we don’t care what you think.”
Blue Cheer’s brand of harsh rock was a progression of the psychedelic wave: in fact, they took their name from their favorite variety of Owsley’s LSD (the same pharmacist who supplied the Grateful Dead), catered to the Hell’s Angels, and was known to associate with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Blue Cheer rubbed a lot the late 60s established rock bands the wrong way. One characteristic that set Blue Cheer apart during the Summer of Love was their cynical, arrogant attitude. They were counter to the counterculture, and this anger and disregard of decency comes through in their twisted, distorted blues music.
When Blue Cheer began to form in 1966, it was a six-piece, but after drowning out the harmonica and keyboard players during their first live performance, Dickie Peterson and Paul Whaley, the band’s founders, decided to let them go rather than turn down. Peterson’s brother, rhythm guitarist Jerre, decided “if they go, I go,” and Blue Cheer pared down to a power trio, with Leigh Stephens on guitar. After receiving radio play on KPIX, Mercury Records signed them to release Vincebus Eruptum, a split of three covers and three original songs that was recorded in a single live session — well, the second of two live sessions, since the band literally fried the soundboard during the first.
Blue Cheer’s classification as heavy metal is often debated, but their legacy is strong. Jim Morrison is quoted as calling them, “the single most powerful band I’ve ever seen,” and American Bandstand host Dick Clark accused them of giving rock-and-roll a bad name when he caught them getting high in the green room with their manager, former Hell’s Angels member Allen “Gut” Terk. The caustic attitude, disregard for the status quo, and stripped down and distorted style make Vincebus Eruptum one of the premier proto-metal albums, along with other notable late 60s greats such as Sir Lord Baltimore’s Kingdom Come, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, and Budgie’s self-titled debut.
What made Blue Cheer’s sound unique wasn’t necessarily their songwriting, in fact half of the songs on their famous debut album, including “Summertime Blues,” are covers. They were the first band to insist on turning their amps up to ten and to consider their music not only an audio experience but a visceral one. They wanted their audience to feel the music they played. Furthermore, the guitar parts on Vincebus Eruptum are not technical. In fact, Blue Cheer’s wall of sound may have been a way to compensate for their inexperience as musicians. If evoking the rage and rebellion they wanted to instill in their audience wasn’t possible by utilizing music theory and skillful musicianship, then they would rattle the response loose with high-decibel, all-stops-pulled rock. Their primitive brand of blues rock inspired not only future heavy metal bands, but also proto-punk that would evolve throughout the 70s. Lo-fi production and effect experimentation inspired would-be artists to start making music before becoming great musicians, and this movement has produced some of the most raw, impassioned music at the root of our beloved metal scene.
The second track on Vincebus Eruptum is a B.B. King cover, “Rock Me Baby,” and stays more true to the original blues song, but is more simplified, lacks the expert blues solos in favor of bending the strings out of shape and making some noise, and is sung with raw intensity. This primitive sound is a crucial aspect of Blue Cheer’s influence on rock music and would inspire artists with sub-par equipment to accept lo-fi sound quality and urge inexperienced musicians to start performing before they were masters at their instruments and let their technique catch up later.
“Doctor Please!” is one of three original songs on the album, written by Peterson. The rhythmic riff is often carried through the solo sections by the drums, played by Whaley, which makes the tune hypnotic and at the root of modern stoner rock. The solo gives a hard nod to one of Blue Cheer’s main influences, Jimi Hendrix, with its long, meandering solo (Hendrix is also the reason Blue Cheer elected to import Marshall amps). Leigh Stanley isn’t the same caliber of musician as Hendrix, but his expression is just as apt to evoke a perception-altering experience.
The second Peterson song, “Out of Focus,” features a more melodic riff and is a little less distorted overall with more of a blues feel than the previous track. The song cuts loose in the middle and again at the end to inject noise, which must have been unnerving in 1968. Peterson was one of the few bassists of the time to strum chords, a technique that lends to the three-piece’s ability to achieve such powerful output and was later adopted by none other than Lemmy of Motorhead.
The original version of “Parchment Farm” was actually called “Parchman Farm” and is a swinging jazz number by songwriter and pianist Mose Allison about serving time for shooting his wife. This track is one of the least structured on the album and tends toward a heavy metal jam with its frequent restatements on a theme, few lyrics, and long raucous solos.
The album closes with Peterson’s “Second Time Around,” which continues the trend of simplified songcraft compensated for with attitude and inventive, scrawling instrumental sections, including a long drum solo with Whaley pounding frantically. The other voices are introduced after the percussion interlude one at a time and before long the cacophony is back at full blast. The album concludes with bending, screeching strings and feedback, true to the axiom that it’s better to burn out rather than to fade away.
The rising tide of acid culture crested and crashed by 1970. Stephens left the band and was replaced by Randy Holden for Outsideinside, their sophomore effort, and Blue Cheer itself fell apart soon after that due mainly to hard drug use. Artists and musicians of the 60s went back to college or were integrated into family businesses as the LSD and money dried up. The 70s shifted away from psychedelic blues and birthed punk rock and heavy metal. While Blue Cheer remains among the ranks of acid rock and blues, they lent fire to the American metal scene yet to come and will forever hold a place in our black little hearts.
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- “Cult Heros: Blue Cheer — The Band Who Invented Heavy Metal.” (Nov 4, 2016) Ken McIntyre. TeamRock.com
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- “Throwback Thursday: Get Into BLUE CHEER’s Vincebus Eruptum.” (March 7, 2013) Eduardo Rivadavia. Metal Injection.
- “Blue Cheer: Vincebus Eruptum.” (Oct 7, 2003). Alexander Lloyd Linhardt. Pitchfork.