Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Blue Cheer - Vincebus Eruptum (classic album review)


Taking their cue from their Hell's Angels' buddies machines, Blue Cheer were explosive, heavy and loud.  In fact, they called themselves the loudest band in the world and who knows, with 24 speakers in six amps at time when, they just might have been.  Jim Morrison called them "The single most powerful band I've ever seen".

The opening track of 'Vincebus Eruptum', "Summertime Blues" is considered by many to be the very first heavy metal song, it predated Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" by a matter of months, but followed in the wake of Vanilla Fudge, Cream & The Jimi Hendrix Experience by a matter of many more months, let alone heavy contributions from The Rolling Stones, The Pretty Things and The Yardbirds.  But the point is a moot one because everybody knows that Black Sabbath was the first heavy metal band.  Were Blue Cheer heavier than Black Sabbath?  Nope.  Thing is Blue Cheer came first and were right up there among the heaviest of their era and are deserving of the respect they receive as pioneers.  But these days their classic output would be better recognized as belonging to the stoner rock genre than heavy metal and that will be our starting point.

Blue Cheer started out life as a sextet in the burgeoning heavy rock scene of San Francisco in early 1967, just in time to be a part of the Summer of Love and to witness Jimi Hendrix's inflammable set at the Monterrey Pop Festival, after which they divided their forces by two to end up as a very Experience-like power trio (Dickie Peterson - vocals / bass, Leigh Stephens - guitar / vocals & Paul Whaley - drums).  The band was managed by a guy named Gut who was mentioned in Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels, Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and On The Road by Jack Kerouac, which must only have served to increase their loud and heavy profile.  Some reports claim he was a full patch member of the Hells Angels, others that he was a hang-around and it's none of my business, except to give the reader an idea of the heavy and intense company this band kept.  This motley mix of band and management moved to Boston (an excellent destination for fuzzy rockers, even back then) and scored a top 20 hit single with their aforementioned high octane version of Eddie Cochran's classic "Summertime Blues" (Billboard #14 May 4 1968).

The classic lineup l-r: Peterson, Stephens & Whaley
It was quickly followed up by the release of "Just A Little Bit" a song off their next record 'Outsideinside', which was yet to be released.  Bands were more prolific in those days, or so it seemed.  More accurately, record companies wanted them to be and tried not to give the record buying public a chance to forget a hit making group, which is why bands like The Beatles, The Stones, Manfred Mann and The Hollies et al, released as many as six singles and two long players a year for much of the sixties.  Many bands were under tremendous pressure to deliver the hits on a ridiculously frequent basis and many sober minded witnesses believe that this is what drove Syd Barret to the brink of self-destruction and eventual exile from The Pink Floyd.  The tactic didn't quite pay off for Blue Cheer as "Just A Little Bit" peeked into the Billboard charts at number 92 and was quickly forgotten by mass audiences.  The subsequent full-length record didn't fare much better hitting number 90 on the album charts, a flop by pop standards, especially when compared to 'Vincebus Eruptum's number 11 placing.  Ironically, 'Outsideinside' was a much more streamlined affair, better suited to popular tastes than 'Vincebus Eruptum's sprawling free-flowing and swampy jams.

The title of the first record is deserving of some attention as the question of a perfect translation to the phrase has largely been a mystery.  Some translation sites on the web will pull up the result "conquering attack" or "conquering explosion".  But the true story behind the title is that Vincebus Eruptum (pronounced win-kay-bus ee-rupped-um) was coined by friend of the band Charlie Osborne and was intended to sound like a Latin phrase meaning "control of chaos".  Dickie Peterson confirmed this on the Steve Allen show in 1968.  When asked what the title of the LP meant, he said "controlled chaos".  When asked where they got their songs from guitarist Leigh Stephens replied, "arsenals".

'Vincebus Eruptum' is loaded with moments that would not sound out of place on many current records reviewed on this blog.  "Out of Focus" is a fine example of this.  Sounding equal parts 'And the Circus Left Town' era Kyuss, Kadavar, Heat and Witchcraft, this song speaks to the influence this album has had on the passing generations. Not just anybody stumbles onto this record.  The curious, the knowledge-seeking, those who wish to glean a better understanding of where their music comes from find 'Vincebus Eruptum'.  And those that do find it, find it absolutely mouth watering.  Heavier and fuzzier than CCR, Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge put together, louder and dirtier than Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience or Steppenwolf, more immediate and accessible than flower power bands like Country Joe & The Fish, The United States of America or The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Blue Cheer were a monster band with a monumental sound.

Their influences are immediately obvious.  The spirit and some of the ideas of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream are tangible, especially in the syncopated blasts of "Summertime Blues", but they were no copycats, they had many innovative ideas of their own.  By the time they had appeared on Steve Allen they had six amps with 24 speakers and they were looking to add more.  Steve Allen himself, who had an obvious and well-documented disdain for rock & roll and its progenitors could not help but be impressed with the power of the band, noting their music as an intense visceral experience that had to be experienced live.  This drive to constantly turn the knobs up to 11 and beyond was not lost on the succeeding generation who would go on to create the genre of heavy metal.

Their penchant for stop and turn on a dime dynamics has since spawned an entire industry of imitators.  It was something they had borrowed from 12 bar blues that they did in a unique way.  While in a typical blues song you might get that pause on the last line of the verse before the backing band comes back in with a syncopated and descending riff, Blue Cheer might cut the pause time in half and crash back in with a double time improvisation.  The guitar flourishes on "Doctor Please" and solos in "Out of Focus" sound like they could have been performed by Dave Chandler himself and there's little doubt that a young Chandler played along with this record.

If there were ever a band whose output embodied the sound of the thousand cc engine of a Harley Davidson, it was Blue Cheer.  Leigh Stephens left the band between the release of 'Outsideinside' and the band's third album 'New! Improved!', reportedly because he was going deaf.  'Vincebus Eruptum''s raw performance is a snapshot of a band discovering their own power and exploring it.  Their legacy is secure, far reaching and ever expanding.  It all started with this 'Vincebus Eruptum'.

Blue Cheer were the band that their fans wouldn't let die.  Main man Dickie Peterson left the band numerous times throughout the years but kept returning flying the freak flag high.  They disbanded several times throughout the years undergoing frequent lineup changes.  Their final album was 2007's 'What Doesn't Kill You ...'.  The band finally called it a day in 2009 after the death of Dickie Peterson.

Highlights include: "Out of Focus" and "Summertime Blues"

Rating: 4/5

1. Summertime Blues (3:47)
2. Rock Me, Baby (4:23)
3. Doctor Please (7:53)
4. Out of Focus (3:58)
5. Parchment Farm (5:50)
6. Second Time Around (6:18)
Total Run Time: 32:06

From: San Francisco, California

Genre: Fuzz Rock, Stoner, Psychedelic

Reminds me of: Cream, Iron Butterfly, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Steppenwolf

Release Date: January 1968

Suggested listening activity for fellow non-stoners: Tribal anthems for bikers in Cimmeria.

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