Backstage Pass: Blue Cheer - The beast is on the loose again

Before the terms heavy metal or stoner metal came into parlance, San Francisco’s Blue Cheer was altering impressionable young minds with its classic debut record, Vincebus Eruptum, a dangerous dose of fuzz-toned, drugged-out psychedelic blues, enormous, sludgy riffs, scary distortion and impenetrable volume that vomited the Top 40 remake of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”
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by Peter Lindblad

Back in 1968, a powerful strain of acid-laced heavy metal was going around courtesy of the power trio Blue Cheer.

Before the terms heavy metal or stoner metal came into parlance, San Francisco’s Blue Cheer was altering impressionable young minds with its classic debut record, Vincebus Eruptum, a dangerous dose of fuzz-toned, drugged-out psychedelic blues, enormous, sludgy riffs, scary distortion and impenetrable volume that vomited the Top 40 remake of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”

Back then, it was guitarist Leigh Stephens conjuring up storms of blurred noise. For the past quarter century, however, original members Dickie Peterson (bass and vocals) and Paul Whaley (drums) have been joined by guitarist Duck MacDonald. In 2007, this three-headed beast laid waste to the musical landscape with What Doesn’t Kill You ...

And now comes a concert DVD titled “Blue Cheer Rocks Europe,” from Rainman Records, that features the only complete live footage of the band ever assembled. Songs such as “Summertime Blues,” “Parchman Farm,” “Out of Focus,” and “Doctor Please” sound as violent and massive as ever. Blue Cheer were louder than anybody else in the late 1960s, and they had a Hell’s Angels biker named Gut for a manager. And there’s more colorful stories from this group of survivors.

What excites you about touring and playing live these days, and is it different from when you started?

Dickie Peterson: Well, in one sense, yeah. But, in another sense, no. I mean, yeah, it is different in that the technology that we have at our command, that you have access to ... the monitors, the echo and expansion effects you can do on voices and guitars and everything else ... when we started out, I didn’t even know what a monitor was.

If we were lucky, you might have some little old speaker box sitting over in the corner blowing your voice across the stage from the side. An 8-track studio was like state-of-the-art. There was no such thing as a cassette or a CD. They just didn’t exist, so it is different in that you have all these things at your disposal. If you want to hear what you play tonight, all you gotta do is pop the disc out of the sound board and listen to it. In those days, that was not really possible without bringing along a semi-truck full of equipment, à la the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio.

So in that respect it’s different. In another respect, as a performing artist ... if you really want to experience Blue Cheer, you’ve gotta go and stand in front of us. That’s when our music does what we originally intended it to do, which was to try and transcend the audio and make it become physical — not meaning to beat you or hurt you, but to draw you in and make your body vibrate along with the music.

Watching the DVD, that chemistry that you’ve honed for a lot of years now with Duck and Paul really comes through.

DP: You know, the thing that I like the most about what our band does is its interaction with the audience. It’s being able to touch them and more importantly, to be touched back by them. I can tell when that’s happening because of the way the band sounds, the way things are happening onstage. I mean, like, they are bands that use samplers if the guitar player’s having a bad night, they just turn on the sampler. We’re not like that. What you see is what you get. There’s no smoke. There’s no mirrors. There’s nobody jogging across the stage in a jumpsuit ... it doesn’t happen. What you see ... and I think it really shows in my band, when we walk out onto the stage that we own it. We are there for a purpose.And we’re about to commit it. And I like this about Blue Cheer. There’s no grey areas. You know exactly what we’re there to do. We’re there to rock ’n’ roll, and that’s exactly what we do.

The majority of the set list for the DVD, you’ve got it broken down into three parts: you’ve got Vincebus Eruptum, and Outside Inside and then What Doesn’t Kill You ... Is that how most of the set lists go these days?

DP: On our last tour — actually the last couple of tours — we were picking songs from those three albums because — and we did this on purpose, you know — we didn’t want to be tagged a nostalgia band, as you know, like, “Let’s go and see the old f**kers because they’re old and they deserve it.” We didn’t want to be this.

So we decided that our first album and our last album were very important to have on here because we still pretty much do the same thing we did on our first album. We’re just better at it. I mean that in all seriousness because you learn things about playing loud and about tone, and about how when you play at certain volumes, less is more. And things like this that took, for us ... man, we took it seriously, not to mention the fact that we’re all slow learners (laughs). But that’s why we had the song lineup the way we did it, because it basically covers our whole career.

I wanted to take you back close to the beginning of the band. You guys were originally a six-piece. How did you whittle your way down to a trio?

DP: You know, that’s a very interesting story, ’cause that happened in one night.

It did, huh?

DP: Uh huh. I remember it vividly. We were playing at the Matrix, which is a little club in San Francisco. And we were a six-piece band. At one point, Leigh and Paul and I — drums, bass and guitar — we thought something wasn’t happening and we couldn’t figure out what it was onstage, and we were playing.

So we decided at a specific point that the three of us were just going to completely stop and see what was going on in the middle of the songs. So we did. We completely stopped. And what happened was, the only thing that was going on was the rhythm guitar, which was my brother, Jerry. And so we took a break.

We told the other two guys that they had to leave the band, that we were breaking the band into a four-piece band. And my brother said, “You can’t do that. We’re a family. If you break us up, I quit.” So my brother quit, and we became a three-piece band. And we walked onstage for the next set, and I was not the singer in the band. I was just the bass player. And all of a sudden, we realized — I told you we weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer — that we got up and realized that we had no singer. And I basically stepped to the microphone ... I had sang with my brother before — my brother was a singer — but I had sang with him, but I wasn’t really a singer. That night, I became the singer.

How did you guys come to be managed by the Hell’s Angels?

DP: Well, we weren’t actually managed by the Hell’s Angels. We were managed by a guy who was an Angel, Gut. Gut was his name, and he managed us. He taught me many, many things about life and about ... I loved Gut. He was great. He was a mentor to me. And there were always lots of Angels around our house. We played for quite a few of their parties.

I have to say this, ’cause we have sort of a reputation of having played quite a few biker runs and rallies and stuff. And over the years, people have said, “Yeah, but they’re outlaws and they’re this and they’re bad people and stuff,” but you know what? They always paid us. The only ones that didn’t were the guys in the suits. The bikers always paid us ... in advance. You know, you made a deal with them, it didn’t matter what kind of paper they had, the deal was made. And they kept it. I can’t say the same for the guys in the office buildings.

How did you meet Gut?

DP: Exactly where I met him? You know, I can’t really recall. I think I met him through Jerry Russell and Eric Albronda, who were also part of the management team. Gut did the first album cover on the first album. He did that cover.

Yeah, that’s a classic album cover.

DP: Yeah, it’s really interesting because on the original, the album cover, it’s embossed. You know, you can feel it. The writing in it is sort of raised. And at one time, I was playing with a band called the Longhorns up in Chico, Calif., some friends of mine. And there was a guy that showed up backstage, and he goes, “You’re Dickie Peterson from Blue Cheer?” “Yeah.” And he goes, “Well, I got a guy out here who really wants to meet you, man. Would you take the time to meet him?” And I said, “Well sure.”

And I go out to meet him, and it’s this guy in a wheelchair and he’s blind. And what he said is, “I want to thank you for putting out the only album cover I’ve ever been able to read.” And I said, “Wow.” This knocked me off my feet, you know. And I went, “Wow.” I says, “I gotta tell you, man. We didn’t think about this at all. We were all stoned on acid.” We thought, we could feel this, and that makes it cool. But that was a good deed by serendipity.

Going back to Vincebus Eruptum, it’s such a groundbreaking record. Were you aware you were doing something that nobody was even dreaming of at the time?

DP: Uh, no. We didn’t even ... you know, we were kids. I think this kind of thing is something that you don’t think of in the middle of the creative process: Is this going to be successful? Am I going to make a difference?

You know, we were just young kids, and we were just going for all the gusto we could get. And when people said, “Hey, you can’t play that loud.” We’d go, “Oh, yes, you can. You just turn this knob up to 10. It’s really easy. You’ve been playing for 30 years, and you didn’t figure this out?” We were really sassy little brats. And we got a lot of flak for what we did. A lot of people didn’t like what we did, because you weren’t supposed to do it. And we were in the hippie scene in the middle of the Haight, but at the same time, we were pretty much a renegade rock ’n’ roll band that just wouldn’t go away.

I wanted to touch on 1969. That was an interesting year for the band. You put out two records. What was happening with the band at that time?

DP: I think Paul and I were moving in one direction, and Leigh was moving in another, which eventually led to the breakup of the original trio. I mean I like Leigh, and he and I have played together since then. We played together a couple of years ago in Golden Gate Park. But, basically, most bands ... like, I once read this article that the average life expectancy of a rock ’n’ roll band is 18 months. Within 18 months, there’s usually a change that takes place — a personnel change. Like I say, this is on the average.

But it’s just like bands say they’ll never do an unplugged album. Well, you know, Metallica did an unplugged album. So everybody eventually arrives at this point to where they do these things. You have to. If you’re going to be an artist, if you’re going to be a musician and grow at all, you’ve got to change. Otherwise, you become pretentious. It ain’t real no more.

What was it about that time that made you want to try something different?

DP: Well, like I said, chemistry is really important. I think the chemistry between Leigh and Paul and I had drifted apart. We were young street people all of a sudden that had a lot of money. And things just got out of hand. People just went in different directions. It’s very typical — you’ve got a plan to get somewhere and then you get there and you don’t know what to do. I think this happens to a lot of bands. You’re working so hard to get there that when you finally get to some point of success, you have to remember that you have to follow that up. And it’s only good for a very short period of time.

How did it come to pass that you made two albums that year?

DP: I think it was basically a thing with the record company. At that time, you signed a record deal for so long, and you had so many albums to do in that time. I don’t remember for sure.

I know that when I first started recording, it was imperative that you have a hit single before you have an album, as opposed to these days when you have 12 hit singles and we’ll give you an album. Or where there is an attempt to make every cut on an album a single. It wasn’t approached in that way. A band would have a hit record. And then you would get an album up, and it showed you more of what the band did musically. It wasn’t like today where if you’re a heavy-metal band, and I’m a rapper band, well, we’ll we can’t be friends. We have to be enemies. Things were much different then. It was okay for my country influence to shine through. It was okay for classical influences to flash through, which are not okay these days.

In what ways were the two albums were different, the Blue Cheer self-titled LP and The New! Improved! Blue Cheer?

DP: I know we did a lot of writing for these albums in the studio. We’d show up the day of recording with ideas, and they would be what turned into our songs ... plus, like I said, as people we had a lot more to say than “there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.” And for that reason, I think the music changed.

Like, on those albums, Randy Holden was the guitar player on one. And Randy was with the band for eight months. And we recorded three songs with him. But with Randy, the chemistry was all wrong. His way of playing, his way of doing arrangements, everything, were absolutely the direct opposite to the Blue Cheer philosophy. I never tell a guitar player what to play. The guitar player says, “What do you want me to play?” I look at him and say, “Good. I want you to play good. That’s what I want you to play.” With Randy, every note, every breath, every rest had to be calculated ... that’s not the way we work. I like the way we work, because everybody has a personal investment in every song. And then, you know, also, there was Ralph Kellogg and Bruce Stephens [who} were from the Mint Tattoo that were on the Blue Cheer album, which was the fourth one. They’ve been friends of mine since before Blue Cheer. And when I was groping around there trying to like find a direction again that I could deal with, they were around. So, we put together a four-piece group, which never went on the road. Bruce never made it on the road. He was too high (laughs) ... But Ralph and I went out on the road. Ralph and I were in jail in New Orleans and Chicago — not for anything serious, just being drunken lunatics (laughs).

by Peter Lindblad

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