The heavy trip of Blue Cheer

Members of the rock band “Blue Cheer” pose for a circa late-1960’s portrait. Original members include Dickie Peterson, Leigh Stephens, and Paul Whaley. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

By Martin Popoff

San Francisco’s Blue Cheer definitely warrant more than a footnote in the invention of heavy metal — and yes, they usually do figure prominently in such discussions — but the band’s sound, across certainly the first two records, was also the hard rock anchor of the West Coast psychedelic scene. The band’s 1968 debut album is most definitely loud, brutish and electric, but man, factor in that the album lurched out of its acid haze early in 1968, having been recorded in late ‘67, and that’s one wallop of a record for its day, nudging up to MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” Hendrix and assorted Cream tracks for kinship and not much else from that formative time, way down low at the rumbling end of psychedelia.

Blue Cheer formed in early ‘67 as the nondescript San Francisco Blues Band, before paring down to a power trio, again, unarguably one of the first. The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Monterey Pop Festival provided the epiphany. The band — consisting of bassist Dickie Peterson, guitarist Leigh Stephens and drummer Paul Whaley (ex-Oxford Circle) — signing to Philips and then blowing the doors off everywhere they alit.

Explains Paul Whaley: “Dickie and his brother (Jerre Peterson) came to Davis, California, a college town in California, and they had a band together called Andrew Staples. Actually first Group B, and then Andrew Staples, and the town was small. We all hung out together, and I was with the Oxford Circle. It was a big music scene for such a small town.”

A Hells Angels following developed (there were also rumours of Hells Angels-related management of the band); not surprising, given the raucous “fuzz rock” volume of the band and the ever-present drug vibe. Party-rocker “Summertime Blues” was the calling card, rendered savage and tribal, an instant hit, was issued concurrent with the album.

Examining the band’s pioneering heaviness, Dickie Peterson, who passed away in 2009, once said that Blue Cheer “had the concept of making music something more than an audio sensation. We wanted to make it physical. I think chemistry in a band has a lot to do with everything that is going to happen with that band, and Paul and I have always had good chemistry. I can’t say any particular band was an influence. Otis Redding is a big influence on me personally, but you don’t hear him in our sound. I mean, we weren’t the only ones. There were other people doing this stuff. I think it’s just a process in the development of the media. We knew we wanted to be loud, and we knew we wanted to be physical. We just kept adding more and more amps.”

“Of course there was The Yardbirds and The Who,” adds Whaley, “and they opened up the doors for progressive R&B, hard, heavy, loud music. And this was music for the young generation, for the 13-year-olds until, let’s say, up to 30. And the over 30-year-olds were more into this laid-back, country folk rock. And Hendrix, oh yeah, God yes! We saw him and we immediately wanted to be a three-piece. Him and Cream. All of that aggressive, no holding back, smashing your guitars, getting totally high on aggression, person-to-person, instrument-to-instrument, self-to-instrument…”

But was it all just accidentally loud psychedelia? The album’s cover art certainly sent those signals, and after all, one could argue that metal was a psychedelic bad trip with guitars. And there it was, staring out at you, three grim hippies surrounded by crazy explosive psych typography… with extras.

“The first album, originally, was an embossed album,” noted Dickie. “You could feel the bubbles and the grooves on that cover. We did this because when you’re high on acid and you’re tripping… well, years and years later I was playing with a band called The Longhorns, one night up in Chico (in California). This guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, I have a friend who wants to meet you, but he can’t come back here because he’s in a wheelchair.’ And I said, ‘Well, take me to him.’ So he takes me to this guy, who’s in a wheelchair and he’s also blind. And he says, ‘Man, I want to thank you so much. Because you’ve made the only album cover I’ve ever been able to read.’ But yes, we were very, very, very into drugs, particularly LSD.”

Which is where the name Blue Cheer came from, right? “Yes, partially it comes from that, and another part of it is that we were all into the blues, but we weren’t into being sad. And actually, in the blues medium, they have a name for this, and it’s called jump blues. But the album title, ‘Vincebus Eruptum’… that came out of a friend of ours by the name of Richard Peddicord (“architect, artist, musician, freak, eccentric, acidhead,” according to Paul), who showed up one day at the commune with a big piece of butcher paper on it and put it on the kitchen wall. And we all looked at it, for quite awhile, didn’t say anything, and finally said, ‘Richard, what is this?’ And he said, ‘This is the name of your new album. This is what you should call it. Vincebus Eruptum means “We control chaos.”‘ And we said yeah, that’s cool, that’s great.”

Once inside the album, “Summertime Blues” hits you right between the eyes. Dickie’s ungodly wail takes the song higher, as does the howl of Leigh Stephens’ bog-blasted guitar tone. The end result, said Dickie, was brought about by too much acid. “’Summertime Blues’ was just always a great rock ‘n’ roll song, and we used to use it more for filler,” Dickie recalled. “We didn’t think anything was ever going to happen to that song. You know, most of my influences came out of the blues. And I know Paul was very influenced by The Yardbirds, and the whole concept of beefing up the blues. This is why we gelled so well together. And it was pretty much up to a guitar player to hang on.” The song hit No. 14 on the Billboard charts, driving the album to a No. 11 placement, far and away the biggest commercial success Blue Cheer would ever enjoy.

“You know, it happened from the beginning,” muses Paul, on his connection with Dickie, so apparent from the opening strains of this ancient classic. “The first time that we played together we just clicked! There was no plan, no nothing. It was just solid, with no ‘You go there and I’ll follow you,’ or vice versa. There was none of that. It was complete intuition from the beginning.”

Next up was yet another cover, “Rock Me Baby” being less impressive in modernity and savagery than the album’s opener, and more grist for those who looked at the band as accidentally stumbling into this heavy psychedelic area than had yet to exist deliberately.

Dickie’s comments: “Well, ‘Rock Me,’ that’s just a traditional blues song. If you notice, we will take the blues and turn it in many different directions. And that was just a song we really liked. There’s not a lot of plotting. We don’t say, ‘Well, maybe this will make a lot of money or maybe this will sell in Europe.’ We pretty much know that if you are really into a song, and you really are of that song, then you’ve accomplished something, and there will be people that like it.”

Side one closer “Doctor Please” is something much more interesting, the band bashing away at nearly nine minutes of horror-filled psych (Dickie said he wrote the song in 10 minutes, as was the case with “Out of Focus”). This track innovative of rhythm and colorizing riff, again Paul Whaley settling into a jungle groove while Leigh and Dickie raise the dead, places amidst a lyric Dickie said “romanticized my addiction.” Peterson added that there was a lot of soul-searching going on at the time, as to which drugs to take and which to avoid.

“Yes, I love jungle tom-tom patterns,” notes Whaley, “because it’s primitive. I get a really good feeling from that jungle tom-tom, that way of looking at playing drums. It’s strong and it makes you move easily. It’s got a lot rhythm and it’s really a lot of fun to play. You have to use a lot of energy and you have to be very fit and strong. Not to the point where you cramp up and can’t play no more; you really have to learn how to reserve and preserve your strength when you’re playing, and it takes some concentration.”

Of note, Paul was an early proponent of double bass, having used it sparingly on “Vincebus Eruptum.” Still, he cites Ginger Baker as the first in rock, while also naming jazz great Louie Bellson as an early pioneer, adding, with respect to gear, “I started out with a Rogers, and then I went to a Japanese drum kit and got rid of that really fast, because it was too cheap. And then I got a double black set of Rogers. There were no better drums at the time, and they are still considered to be, if not the best, one of the best.”

Also prominent is Peterson’s bass, which carves up these tracks somewhere between Entwistle and Lemmy, no surprise given that Dickie was the chief songwriter and leader of the band, also writing most of his songs on bass, citing a very real connection between the bass patterns and his vocals, given that the two were often birthed together.

“I just have a unique style of playing,” explained Dickie, who came from a very musical family and started out on drums, not deciding on bass until he hit 13 years of age. “In a dressing room that I was in in Winterland, with Muddy Waters, at the Blues Bash… and dude, being in a dressing room with Muddy Waters is like being in a dressing room with God. And thanks to a friend of mine, I finally got the courage to go and ask him for some advice. And he asked me, ‘What do you play?’ And I said I played bass. He said, ‘Just play in the spaces more; just play in the spaces. Don’t play more than you have to. You’ll just get in other people’s way.’ And that’s what I’ve always done. And that’s part of the reason why our music is so big and fat. I don’t overplay.”

Side two of the original vinyl opened with “Out of Focus,”  which again is the band finding psychedelic heavy metal structure, even if the riff is again in that colorizing zone over rudimentary rhythmic chaos from Dickie and Paul. “’Out of Focus’ was written two weeks before the first album,” remembered Peterson. “I had been diagnosed with hepatitis and had to be in bed for six weeks, which meant I wouldn’t be able to do the album. So I talked to this old black man who lived underneath our flat, and he told me, ‘What kind of soda do you like?’ And I said Pepsi. ‘Well, if you eat watercress and radishes and drink a can Pepsi a day, that’s all you need.’ And I did that and it went away.”

“The whole album was extremely exciting for me,” adds Paul. “’Out of Focus,’ ‘Doctor Please’… these are just off the wall. Who would’ve thought that in 1967, 1968, a group could come out with songs that refer, in depth, to such controversial and untalked-about subjects? We liked that about ourselves. We didn’t like to hold ourselves back. If we found a song that we liked, no matter if it was about drugs or Willie meeting his girlfriend down by the river and feathers from the tree or whatever, we wrote about it. Or I should say Dickie did.”

“Parchment Farm,” granted, is another cover (correct spelling: “Parchman Farm”), but Blue Cheer metalize it but good, much as they did with their big Eddie Cochran hit, “Summertime Blues.” With Dickie singing mad and harrowing, the song becomes a white-knuckle ride, also featuring some surging guitar electrocution from Stephens.

With regard to his brother Jerre, Dickie credited him for teaching him things like music theory, the mechanics of music and approaches better suited to jazz and classical. Over to the contentious Blue Cheer guitar slot, Dickie added that “Leigh was aloof, and it was difficult to communicate with him, which is why Paul and I eventually let him go. It just got to be like, you couldn’t communicate with the guy. I kept wanting him to contribute to the songs, but all he would ever contribute is the lead part. I kept saying, ‘Well, show me what you want to do here, man.’ And he would never give anything up.”

Peterson called the album closer “Second Time Around” “just sort of an exercise in chaos.” Still, it’s not much more chaotic, or worse, or different than the other clanging originals on the album, or indeed the band’s take on “Parchment Farm” or “Summertime Blues” (“Rock Me Baby” must be set aside). Once more, the rhythms are tribal, almost raga, certainly in a zone the Stooges would soon adopt. Stephens slashes his way through it, and Whaley takes a solo as well. All told, a pattern emerges, which becomes evident in Dickie’s oft-told summation that the drums and the bass are the canvas, while the guitar and vocal act as the paint. Lay down a good rhythm, said Peterson, and the guitarist is free to roam, as long as he stays in tune.

As one can easily surmise from the intense interplay — the “umbilical cord” — between these three players, “Vincebus Eruptum” was recorded as a live affair, Dickie indicating the whole lovable mess took but three days. With the musical tracks truly live, the vocals were added later. “I never, ever want to be in a band that comes out of the studio and has to spend three months trying to sound like their album. I have a thing that, when I work with a producer, the first thing I tell him, or I say to him — I don’t tell him anything; he’s the boss really — but I will say, hey, my interest in producing is to make us sound like we sound onstage. We are performers first.”

Like Black Sabbath and many other bands at the time, recording was just a pit stop between live dates. “The tour that I have to say was probably the most grueling was I think in 1967, maybe ‘68. Yeah, we left home and we didn’t come back for a year. And we recorded the second album in the middle of that tour. The first album had come out already. We did one show with the MC5 in Detroit — Iggy and The Stooges, MC5 and us. And they were great; I loved what they did. I loved Iggy, too. I mean, that night, at Grande Ballroom, was probably the first hardcore rock ‘n’ roll concert. That was in 1967. I remember we also played Gulfstream Racetrack in Miami, and it was an enormous three-day festival with Hendrix, Arthur Brown and Traffic with Ginger Baker and Steve Winwood and all kinds of people, and when it came time to get paid, the promoter was nowhere to be found. It was so packed that, the bands never even saw each other.”

And what was the camaraderie like back home? “We didn’t chum around with any bands,” says Paul. “Big Brother was the only other band that would chum around with us. And a little bit of the Quicksilver. And the rest, they turned up their nose at us — too young, too heavy and too brutish.”

Blue Cheer went on to a ragged collection of albums with various stylistic directives on display, album number two, “Outsideinside,” issued in 1968, being a personal favorite and Dickie’s favorite as well. “It was the first studio production we’d ever done, and I really like the psychedelic nature of it. I can’t really say that I have a favorite. That’s like who’s your favorite singer? That’s really impossible for me to say, but that one is up there.” Amusingly, the band were still up to their high volume hijinx, the album being named thusly because the guys had blown up the studio monitors, having then to take the balance of the recording literally, outside.

Then 1969 saw the release of “New! Improved!,” Blue Cheer’s malevolent hard rock chemistry on the wane. Hotshot guitarist Randy Holden (from the psychedelic garage band, The Other Half) was aboard for one side of the record, and the result is, well, two half records. Said Peterson: “Randy is a really great guitar player, but he’s very difficult to work with, in the way that Blue Cheer was engineered. Like I said, I don’t tell anybody what to play. If it works, it works. And the only way Randy could work is if he dictated every note that was played. And it was just way too rigid for us. But he’s a great guitar player. And I like the whole album. But I really have a problem with Randy’s side of it, because all these notes, none of them are me. They are all notes that Randy came up with.”

Paul sums up the drifting apart of the guys this way: “With Leigh, it was a conflict of egos. Friction; we were too young, we didn’t know how to handle each other. And me leaving… me and Dickie just finally one day, at an auditorium, had just had enough. Leigh walked into the rehearsal room, where we were rehearsing with the other guitar player, Randy Holden. And Leigh walked in and he saw that and he started crying. It was upsetting; it was emotional.”

After the collapse of the band, we really didn’t hear much from ol’ Dickie. Not unless Blue Cheer got it together for some sort of heavy metal cash-in record, or ragged live situation. “I’ve worked on many projects that haven’t happened,” mused Dickie. “I have other friends I play with. I even have my own solo band which is called Mother Ocean. The original band… well, there were a lot of drugs involved. We just weren’t getting along with Leigh at all anymore, and we just decided to stop it for awhile. I was in and out of smalltime jail for possession or things like this, but nothing serious.”

At some point, did you give up music and enter the workforce?

“I did a few painting jobs at one point, but no, I didn’t enter the workforce. I went into the drug force.”

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