The stuff of legend, turned all the way up, Blue Cheer’s influence on rock and roll is indisputable. There can be no discussion about the beginnings of Heavy Metal without including Blue Cheer.
Named after their favorite Blue Cheer LSD (made by Owsley Stanley, the countercultural icon usually associated with the Grateful Dead), Blue Cheer wrung a different sound out of their San Francisco Haight-Ashbury beginnings. Originally a six piece combo, the band was whittled down to Dickie Peterson on vocals and bass, Leigh Stephens on guitar, and Paul Whaley on drums. By cutting the band in half, and doubling the volume, Blue Cheer found the ear blistering psychedelic blues sound they craved.
Blue Cheer recorded their first album Vincebus Eruptum (Phillips, 1968) in three days, with little to no mixing. The album propelled Blue Cheer into the world whether the world was ready for them or not. The first track, a hell bent version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, with the album hitting the Billboard 200 at #11.
Hitting the charts meant hitting the road so Blue Cheer began to make the media rounds. Backstage before their appearance on American Bandstand, Dick Clark declared, “It’s people like you that give rock’n’roll a bad name!” after walking in on the band smoking hash with their manager. When Steve Allen announced the band on his show, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Blue Cheer. Run for your life.”
Vincebus Eruptum‘s commercial success meant the label was eager for another album, so Blue Cheer was sent back into the studio, or partially back into the studio. Outsideinside (Phillips, 1968) was named because the band was too loud for the equipment. The studio ended up renting a pier for the band and mobile units recorded the basis of the album as they played outside. Outsideinside hit the Billboard 200 peaking in the #90 spot, but cracks were already showing in the trio.
Back in the studio to record New! Improved! (Phillips, 1969), Leigh Stephens had left the band. He was replaced by Randy Holden from the LA garage band The Other Half. But Holden’s Blue Cheer days were numbered. Bruce Stephens (no relation to Leigh Stephens) replaced Randy on guitar and the trio grew to a quartet with the addition of Ralph Burns Kellogg on keyboards. This lineup would lay down the first 6 tracks on the album. The B side returned Blue Cheer to a trio with the Randy Holden material. The result was oddly bi-polar, with a tinge psychedelic schizophrenia. The tracks wandered from sound to sound, with touches of Latin percussion on “When It All Gets Old” and Southern Rock on “I Want My Baby Back.” On the flip side, led by “Peace of Mind”, the Blue Cheer power trio awoke like the first side was nothing but a dream.
Eager fans pushed New! Improved! to the #84 slot on the charts, but didn’t know what to make of the experimentation once they put it on their turntables. Back in San Francisco, the 1969 scene was more destructive than nurturing. The drugs became harder and the band’s money would ebb and flow mysteriously. Mismanagement, drugs, and more personnel changes wrapped the band in a miasma of problems.
Dickie Peterson and Paul Whaley would stick together for a couple more years, trying to finish contract obligations with the studio, but the distinctive Blue Cheer vehemence was gone. Though officially disbanded in 1972, Dickie would tour in the late 1970’s with nightclub gigs and various musicians. In 1984, Peterson and Whaley were reunited and The Beast is Back was born on Megaforce Records. But Whaley didn’t stay.
Dickie rotated through highs and lows with the Blue Cheer name and a laundry list of musicians changing with the mostly European tour schedule. In 1999, the Blue Cheer lineup once again welcomed Whaley back into the fold. Dickie and Paul found a stable guitarist and manager in Andrew “Duck” MacDonald, who had previously rotated through the band in the fluxing formations by Dickie. The Peterson, Whaley, MacDonald line up would last until Dickie passed away in 2009.
In the early parts of the 2000’s, the ugly money troubles from the late 60’s and early 70’s would rear its head again as Randy Holden claimed the trademark on the Blue Cheer name. Nothing was ever resolved from the claim but a ball of anger and bruised egos. But Blue Cheer was never just a band, much less a name. It had two phases in later life, live hard-hitting shows or a quiet hiatus.
Blue Cheer at its best was a growling, snarling entity or the resting hum of 10 Marshall stacks turned up and waiting. When Dickie died, the power was cut from the amps on the phenomenon Jim Morrison called “the most powerful band I’ve ever seen.”
#10 “The Hunter”
Written by Carl Wells and Booker T. and the MGs, the house band at Stax Records, “The Hunter” was first recorded by Albert King in 1967. Blue Cheer was one of the first bands to cover the tune on their Outsideinside album. They gave the song more growl than prowl. Leigh Stephens brilliant guitar solo halfway through is almost buried in the bass and drum layers. More artists would be drawn to the song. Ike and Tina Turner took it to the R&B charts in 1969 and Led Zeppelin would carve out a portion of the song for “How Many More Times” on their debut album Led Zeppelin.
#9 “Feathers from Your Tree”
The first track on Outsideinside, Dickie and Leigh co-wrote “Feathers from Your Tree” with Peter Wagner. Wagner had been in the original six piece blues combo before Blue Cheer was slashed to the power trio. Peter may not have played in Blue Cheer past that point, but he often helped manage the band and Dickie would rely on him for song writing help. Dickie and Peter were often inseparable with Peter sticking around the band through the first six albums. Ralph Burns Kellogg laid down the keyboard tracks for the song. Kellogg would become a regular member of Blue Cheer when they recorded New! Improved! and stay until 1972.
#8 “Out of Focus”
It may have been “Out of Focus” but it was heavy as hell. One of the original songs off of Vincebus Eruptum, the lyrics resonated with the youth and uncertainty of the times. Not everyone could run off to San Francisco, but with a few bucks invested in some vinyl one could submerge themselves and participate from afar. Turning up a hard hitting song like “Out of Focus” was audible transportation. In later interviews band members would recall seeing the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival. It wasn’t long after that when Blue Cheer hit the studio for their first album and Hendrix’s influence is peppered throughout “Out of Focus” and other songs off the album.
A rising, wah heavy opening guitar crescendo gives way to heavy funky blues to kick off “Babylon” from Outsideinside. Leigh Stephens really shines throughout this illicit invitation to experience the drug filled world of Blue Cheer. Dickie’s lyrics alluded to mind relaxation, rushes, and overcoming the blues with various means. Also mentioned several times is a “big automobile” and “I want a big automobile.” In later years Dickie would often be seen cruising San Francisco in a large white Cadillac. He referred to this car as “Kitty” and called it his second most prized possession, right behind his custom bass guitar.
#6 “Parchment Farm”
The Blue Cheer treatment of “Parchment Farm” may rely more on the Mose Allison version for lyrics, but the grit comes closer to Bukka White’s original. The autobiographical song was written by Bukka in 1940 after his release from Parchman Farm prison in rural Mississippi. He had been doing time for shooting a man rather than a woman as the song lyrics suggest. Mose Allison recorded his jazz version in 1957 with a different arrangement and modified lyrics. The earsplitting, tumultuous Blue Cheer version was included on Vincebus Eruptum.
#5 “Second Time Around”
“Second Time Around” thunders with angst. The lyrics may suggest a typical break up anthem, but the heavy driving music revels in the anger of being jilted. At times it falls apart in a disconnected brilliance reminiscent of free-form jazz. Leigh’s guitar screams, but leads you back into the song. Then Whaley’s drum solo takes on a life of its own, as it winds down, Dickie’s bouncy bass line fills in until Paul comes back. When Leigh rejoins the jam, he takes total control leading to full guitar solo screaming meltdown. The pattern is then repeated until the final spent finish.
#4 “Just a Little Bit”
Another entry off of Outsideinside, this one is scorching. Dickie’s growling pleas and screeches are well matched by his heavy fuzzy bass and Leigh’s guitar. Yet, Paul steals the show with “Just a Little Bit.” Blue Cheer legend tells of Paul having to wear golf gloves during the outdoor recordings and after listening to this track, it’s easy to believe. Years ahead of his time, Whaley’s drum pattern was innovative and distinctive. Neil Peart loved the pattern so much he included it towards the end of Rush’s cover of “Summertime Blues” as a salute to a drummer that inspired him.
#3 “Sun Cycle”
The second track on Outsideinside is a studio mixing masterpiece. Dickie’s bass and Paul’s bass drum sync up for the powerful trance that starts out Sun Cycle. Leigh’s guitar features psychedelic panning at its best, but his solo takes it up several notches. Full of fuzz and classic wah, Leigh’s sound goes full circle several times practically lifting the listener up out of their seats. Songs like “Sun Cycle” are why everyone should own a pair of kick ass headphones.
#2 “Peace of Mind”
Flipping the vinyl on New! Improved! to the B side is a slow dive back into the original Blue Cheer sound with this psychedelic masterpiece. The music is dark and brooding at times, rising and falling from clean guitar arpeggios and lulling drums to slow fuzzy aggression. The dark love song lyrics are almost buried alive. They may speak of a woman, but the lyrics closely mirror the problems going on inside Blue Cheer at the time. The circus feel halfway through the song hints back to the beginning but leads to a guitar solo and overall pleading trip to the classic finale.
#1 “Summertime Blues”
This simple rockabilly anthem was penned by Eddie Cochran with his manager, Jerry Capehart. Blue Cheer dosed their version with heavy growls. Hendrix fans will recognize “Foxy Lady” riffs roaring out from behind the hard drum treatment and snarling vocals. Their anti-establishment stance is peppered throughout by replacing the portions of the lyrics representing authority figure’s responses with instrumental aggression.