Flashback to 1967, the San Francisco music scene is starting to take off with the likes of The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Jefferson Airplane offering an antidote what they regard as the slick money-making operatives in rival city Los Angeles. But even by the radical standards of the day Blue Cheer hardly fit in. Their closest comparison points are probably the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, yet the likeness is superficial. The Cheer guys hung out with the local chapter of the Hells Angels and their own look or image was of the biker kind, a rough blend of wolverine hair, denim and leather garb. They looked like you wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley behind the Fillmore West.
By late ’67 they were so well versed in their preferred blend of freak out metal blues that they recorded their debut album Vincebus Eruptum in a matter of days at Amigo Studio in Hollywood. Named after a particularly potent type of LSA concocted by local acid chemist Owsley, Blue Cheer concentrated on documenting their own lifestyle, which was extreme to say the least. The track ‘Doctor Please’ is a classic narcotic number but then ‘Parchment Farm’, a cover of Mose Allison’s prison tune ‘Parchman Farm’ is a political diatribe against the American penal system, the government and the Vietnam War in general. Their infamous assault on ‘Summertime Blues’, which was ripped off in just less than four minutes, had kicked the album off, swiftly pursued by a version of B.B. King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’ that replaces the dapper style of the original with in-house ferocity. The re-master offers outtake ‘All Night Long’, but in any format, Vincebus is a blockbuster despite a running time of just under 32 minutes. Critics either loved or hated the sound and Rolling Stone magazine fell into the latter camp, which somewhat ditched the group’s chances. Although the disc is so influential now that most who reassess it are more than happy to agree that this is where metal first got molten.
Follow up recording Outsideinside varied the format with covers of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ and Booker T. Jones’ ‘The Hunter’ (as made famous by Albert King). New! Improved! Blue Cheer took a swipe at Bob Dylan’s ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ and gave new pianist Ralph Burns Kellogg a seat at their high table. Weirdly, Blue Cheer started going back to out and out psychedelia on The Original Human Being (1970) before being taken over by guitarist Gary Yoder for the rustic Oh! Pleasant Hope. In 1983, after a twelve-year hiatus they emerged again with The Beast is Back and have continued to release sporadic missives from their oddball underground ever since.
We also have the superb compilation Good Times are So Hard to Find: The History of Blue Cheer. This is the bees’ knees. It includes everything you’d want like ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘Out of Focus’ but it also allows one to discover the Cheer’s esoteric moments. Delaney Bartlett and Mac Davis wrote ‘Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham’ during the time when white blues players from the South were struggling to square the circle of racial tension in America. Blue Cheer really does this track justice. They shine even brighter on ‘I’m The Light’ and the stuttering groove of ‘Preacher’ and the title track is another reminder that no one could outdo this band on rock and roll passion.
Perhaps it’s ironic that people who gravitate towards the band probably do so to experience their heavy and menacing side, but there is much more to them. They evolved in phases and didn’t stick around to bask in the reflected glory of their original image although they never lost the ability to sound like the dirtiest garage band made good. Radical, progressive, funky, damn loud and undeniably potent – Blue Cheer were and are all these things. Stick some in your music machine and prepare to have your head blown off.
Words: Max Bell