Album of the Week Club: Blue Cheer – Vincebus Eruptum
50 years on, does Blue Cheer's debut Vincebus Eruptum deserve its status as the first metal/heavy album? And, even if it does, does that make it any good?
The first ever Classic Rock Album Of The Week Club kicked off this week, with a landmark album that's 50 years old this week: Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum.
The idea of Album of the Week Club: we all listen to and discuss the album in question, vote on how good it is, and our findings will be published online each week, giving people reliable reviews of albums and the wider rock community the chance to contribute.
Here's what we learned about Vincebus Eruptum:
- Blue Cheer have long been acclaimed as “the band who invented heavy metal”.
- In his landmark feature for Classic Rock, Ken McIntyre wrote: “They were the bellowing Gods Of Fuck. There were no big ugly noises in rock’n’roll before Blue Cheer. They created sonic brutality, coiling their teenage angst into an angry fist of sludge and feedback and hurling it at stunned, stoned hippies like a wave of mutilation. Everything about them was badass. They had a Hell’s Angel for a manager, they were despised by the other bands in their scene, and they played so loud that people ran from them in fear. Proto-punk, proto-metal and proto-rehab, Blue Cheer took acid, wore tight pants, cranked their walls of Marshall stacks and proved, once and for all, that when it came to all things rock, excess was always best.”
- Formed by singer/bass player/mad visionary Dickie Peterson in San Francisco in 1966, Blue Cheer – named after the band’s favourite brand of LSD – was at first a gangly, six-piece blues revue with much teenage enthusiasm and little direction. After seeing Jimi Hendrix perform for the first time, the band’s prime movers – Peterson, drummer Paul Whaley and guitarist Leigh Stephens – thinned the line-up and discovered their sound, a wall-shaking throb of low- end beastliness that sounded exactly like the world ending.
- There really wasn't anything as loud and badass as Blue Cheer before Blue Cheer. Hendrix and Cream are probably the closest, but both are far too skilled, melodic and musical to really compare. Blue Cheer brought an insolent aggression to rock – similarities can be found in earlier work, but nothing is quite as brutal. They were so heavy, their manager claimed, that "They turn the air into cottage cheese."
- Here's a rough timeline:
1966 albums: John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton > The Mothers of Invention – Freak Out! > Cream – Fresh Cream > Blues Magoos – Psychedelic Lollipop.
1966 songs: The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows > Count Five – Psychotic Reaction > The 13th Floor Elevators – You're Gonna Miss Me > The Troggs – Wild Thing > The Yardbirds – Shapes of Things.
1967 albums: Cream – Disraeli Gears > Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow > The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced and Axis Bold As Love > The Rolling Stones – Their Satanic Majesties Request > Vanilla Fudge – Vanilla Fudge.
1967 songs: The Doors – The End and Break on Through (To the Other Side) > Jefferson Airplane – Somebody To Love and White Rabbit > Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze and Are You Experienced > Iron Butterfly – Possession > Pink Floyd – Interstellar Overdrive > Cream – Sunshine Of Your Love > The Who – I Can See For Miles.
1968 albums: Blue Cheer – Vincebus Eruptum (released Jan 16th) and Outsideinside > Cream – Wheels of Fire > Deep Purple – Shades of Deep Purple and The Book of Taliesyn > Iron Butterfly – Heavy and In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida > The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland > MC5 – Kick Out the Jams > Steppenwolf – Steppenwolf > The Amboy Dukes – Journey to the Center of the Mind > The Jeff Beck Group – Truth > The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat
- Released in January 1968, Vincebus Eruptum really did kick off the year that rock got wilder.
- Julian Cope, former Teardrop Explodes-man-turned-solo-artist-turned-hard-rock-druid, once wrote: "Blue Cheer was like the bastard offspring of the Velvet Underground and the US Airforce... Their ‘guitarist’ Leigh Stephens actually put 6 strings on a Lockheed Starfighter ground attack aircraft and nobody even noticed. Except when it crashed halfway through the first LP."
- “People thought we were just making noise,” Dickie Peterson – who died in 2009 – told CR's Ken McIntyre. “They thought we were a detriment to the scene. I just knew we wanted to be loud. I wanted our music to be physical. I wanted it to be more than just an audio experience. This is what we set out to try and do. We ended up being in a lot of trouble with other musicians of the time. I remember Mike Bloomfield came up to me at the Avalon Ballroom, and he says, ‘You can’t do that’. I said, ‘C’mon, Mike, you can do it, too. All you gotta do is turn this knob up to 10’. He hated me ever since. He was this great accomplished musician and I was this 18 year old smartass,” Dickie laughs. “We did have a bit of an arrogance, but it was nurtured by people like that criticising us.”
- Legendary rock writer Lester Bangs was an early champion of Blue Cheer, but the only real example of a review we can find is from 1981 in his "A Reasonable Guide To Horrible Noise" (originally in the Village Voice, and collected in his book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung):
- “We were on American Bandstand,” Dickie told CR, “And Dick Clark [AB’s host] didn’t like us at all. My manager was a Hell’s Angel, and we were sitting there smoking a hash pipe, and Dick Clark comes in and says, ‘It’s people like you that give rock’n’roll a bad name’. We looked at him and smiled, and said, ‘Thanks a lot, Dick’. We did the Steve Allen show too, and that was a real kick in the ass. When they introduced us, Steve Allen said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Blue Cheer. Run for your life’.”
- Tim Hills' book, The Many Lives of the Crystal Ballroom, claimed: "Blue Cheer was the epitome of San Francisco psychedelia. The band is named after a street brand of LSD and promoted by renowned LSD chemist and former Grateful Dead patron, Owsley Stanley." Jim Morrison of The Doors called the group, "The single most powerful band I've ever seen."
- Dickie Petersen was reluctant to say that Blue Cheer were the first metal band: "I can’t really say if we were the first heavy metal band or the first of anything because there were a lot of bands kind of in our realm around us, such as the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. I think we were the first American power trio. I guess if you listen to us you’ll find elements of heavy metal, elements of grunge, elements of punk, elements of the blues, and even elements of country. You’ll find all of these in our music."
- The phrase "heavy metal" wasn't really used to describe Blue Cheer at the time either. In 2013, Deena Weinstein did a fairly conclusive investigation of who used the phrase 'heavy metal' first and how it became attached to a genre of music. The short version: the phrase came into usage through a combination of its use in William Burroughs' Nova Express AND the strict scientific sense. Lester Bangs – who wasn't a metal fan – really DID use it first to refer to a group of bands or style of music: in a 1970 review of The Guess Who's Canned Wheat.
- After Dickie Petersen's death in 2009, Rush's Neil Peart penned a tribute for Rolling Stone which placed him at the start of something: "Dickie Peterson was present at the creation — stood at the roaring heart of the creation, a primal scream through wild hair, bass hung low, in an aural apocalypse of defiant energy. His music left deafening echoes in a thousand other bands in the following decades, thrilling some, angering others, and disturbing everything — like art is supposed to do."
- In the Album Of The Week Club, member Anthony Latz commented that it's hard to "say that one band created Heavy Metal. The Groundhogs, Atomic Rooster, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, New Yardbirds, Deep Purple were all getting heavier. It is a very raw sound without the melody or virtuoso of other bands from that era. More Grunge than heavy to me." Brandon Kyle Villumsen agreed: “The pure rawness of the album and the gritty vocals remind me of the band Mudhoney!”
- Blue Cheer were an influence on grunge. “I first heard Blue Cheer in 1981 while under the spell of hardcore,” said Mudhoney‘s Mark Arm. “I met this kid from the Bay Area while attending college in Oregon. He was one of about five folks at the school who was even slightly into punk rock. We were all hanging out in his dorm room and he puts Vincebus Eruptum on the turntable and says, ‘Check out what these crazy hippies did back in the ’60s.’ It nearly split my head in two. Hearing Blue Cheer at that point was almost as important to me as hearing The Stooges for the first time the year before. When Mudhoney started up, Blue Cheer was definitely part of our blueprint.” Blue Cheer made an album with Subpop producer Jack Endino in 1990.
The signature track of Vincebus Eruptum, Summertimes Blues lays out the band's stall. The Who’s version sounds like it’s played by people who love rock’n’roll. Blue Cheer’s sounds like they hate it - or at least have a love/hate relationship with it. Maybe they think it’s too corny, old, irrelevant - either way, they’re dragging it into a new age.
Anyone familiar with the original - or even The Who’s cover - will know that the verses end in a sort of call and response. Eg:
...Everytime I call my baby, to try to get a date, my boss says
[Deep boss voice] “No dice, son, you gotta work late”
...Well I called my congressman and he said, quote:
[Deep congressman voice] “I'd like to help you son, but you're too young to vote”
Blue Cheer don’t bother with the response part of the lyric. The voices of the parents, the boss and the congressman are replaced by, well, noise. The voice of authority drowned out or maybe reduced to just a drone.
Cochran’s version is gently anti-establishment but it’s from a time that still believed in consensus – the prosperous post-war boom. Blue Cheer’s is from a more divisive age. The dream is over: Vietnam raging, Kennedy and MLK dead, the civil rights struggle, the tune-in, turn-on, drop-out movement in full force. It’s less jokey, more nightmarish: there is no cure.
Member Chris Wigmore: "It kicks off with a sandblasted jam of Summertime Blues which makes The Who’s version sound like Europop. The rest of it is clearly so influential that it could be one of the most influential albums in hard rock. You can clearly hear the future in there - the MC5, Stooges, Sabbath and later, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. How they managed this is beyond me as they’re totally unhinged and clearly off their tits. It’s a metal, blues & psych template. I want it on vinyl!"
Maxwell Martello: "Speaking of Summertime Blues, I find particularly interesting the ultra sloppy tremolo riff that starts at 2.25. It’s definitely a precursor to Atomic Rooster’s Death Walks Behind You (although this one is ascending and Paul Du Cann’s was descending)."
In a vote on which version of Summertime Blues was better, Blue Cheer's came second to The Who's, with the original and Rush's in third and fourth. (In 2009, Neil Peart commented of the Rush version: "In 2004, my bandmates and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary by recording an album of covers, Feedback, to pay tribute to our early influences. We combined the Who's and Blue Cheer's versions of Summertime Blues, and ended with me playing the innovative drum pattern from Blue Cheer's Just a Little Bit, from Outsideinside, which I had never forgotten.")
WHAT YOU SAID
Here are what the rest of the Album Club thought:
Eddie Peuker: “50 years ago? …I was about 10 then. Pretty sure mom n dad didn't approve of this album.”
Stan West: “I can see where some of their guitar licks here might have been inspiration for Zakk Wylde and what he tries to do with pinch harmonics. They both throw in a nice high pitch lick or squeal to compliment the heaviness of the riffs.”
Maxwell Martello considered the influence of Hendrix: “The riffing, the tone and the feedback abuse borrow heavily from Jimi, but, again, musicianship and inventiveness are toned down, while aggression and intensity are turned to 11!”
Iain Macaulay: "I bought it 22 years ago while in a band that were influenced by Kyuss - and it fits with that style more than pure metal. Its the MC5, Stooges, Pink Fairies, Hawkwind, underground music, dirty and raw, DIY proto punk to me."
Shane Hall: "If you liked this album and want to check out more Blue Cheer, try the albums Outsideinside, The Beast is Back, and Oh! Pleasant Hope. The latter is closer to '70s singer-songwriter folk rock and thus, a little out of character for the trio, but worth a listen as it shows their versatility."
Boris Bregmen: "I’m not sure this ever got released in New Zealand so this is the first time I’ve heard it. Love the raw sound, and the blues influence. I don’t see the comparison to Sabbaths first, more a Hendrix/Who/Cream thing going on, live in the studio. I’m sure it influenced Rory, Purple, Zeppelin, or at least they heard it liked what they heard and a bit of it rubbed off on them."
Martin Bailey: "I find this style of fuzzy feedback guitar too loose and noisy. Great vocals though, punky at times. The drums are heavy, vocals powerful, let down by guitar when it gets too muddy or psychedelic. Bloody racket (I say this as a Slayer fan). Noise doesn't mean heavy. Credence Clearwater Revival to me, although similar in some ways, have a heavier sound at times as it's tighter and punchier."
Chuck Miller listened to it first time around: "Definitely the first Classic Rock Album for me. I remember just like it was yesterday . Me and my buddy picked up because of the cover of Summertime Blues. We lit one up put in on the turntable and I was hooked. Platted everyday for three months straight. Just ain’t no cure."
Not everyone was as positive, reflecting the final score:
6/10 (89 votes cast, with a score of 542)
Alistair McIntösh summed up the negatives well: “I’m afraid I found this album very dull. It's not heavy metal by any definition and isn't even very good as a blues album. I appreciate that I have the benefit of 50 years of perspective but it hasn't aged well so couldn't be considered 'classic'. I have heard later Blue Cheer songs which are better. Obviously most of these are covers but it's just pure self-indulgent psychedelia.”