Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

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Blue Cheer

by Julian Cope, 17/05/2000ce

Truly Bracing Atonality

Doubters called them ‘sub-sub-sub-sub-Hendrix’. Believers called them ‘the first true heavy metal band’. But it took the open-minded Motherfucking genius of Lester Bangs to realise that they were both. Their blues wasn't blue but their cheer was deafening, and they took their name from bad biker acid and quoted Owsley on their first LP sleeve. And like the Vikings who broke into the Neolithic tomb of Maes Howe only to write graffiti about getting laid in the main chamber, Blue Cheer was an advance guard, but an unsustainable part of the counterculture — they broke into the right pharmacy but did all the drugs right there and fell asleep under the counter. They came on like Picts beating on Hadrian’s Wall, but left virtually no traces of their culture behind for future generations. They couldn’t read, they couldn’t write, and left monolithic messages carved out of the living rock. Hey, do I mean Blue Cheer or the Picts? I dunno, the two kind of meld together when you really think about it.

But Hendrix? Nere. The first Pretenders album is more like the Experience than Blue Cheer ever was. Robin Trower was more like Hendrix than Blue Cheer was. Blue Cheer was more like the bastard offspring of the Velvet Underground1 and the US Airforce. The sweet soul music hitherto played by a 10-piece horn-driven posse of black brothers was here redefined by 3 punk longhairs with umpteen stacks of Marshall amplifiers and a double-bass drummer in a flyagaric mushroom frenzy. 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. In 1968, nothing but nothing in America and Britain sounded as brutal as Blue Cheer except for the Velvet Underground. And even that group was never as harrowingly wanton as Blue Cheer — intellectually more out there perhaps because you always got the feeling that John Cale knew precisely why each fuck-off ‘Sister Ray’ organ chord fucked you off, and that Lou Reed secretly wanted to hurt his listeners. But that shows an awareness of the audience — while Blue Cheer were fucking oblivious and clearly doing it because it satisfied them. An audience was a nice bonus.

Like the Stooges later on, Blue Cheer stood way out for their sheer lack of control. Way way out there. If Blue Cheer had been a department store, the door labelled ‘Complaints’ would have led you straight back out on to the street. Accept our noise or exit pursued by a Ziljian cymbal in the head.


Slipshod

Leigh Stephens is the most famously out-of-control guitarist I've ever heard. Yes, it was the influence of his playing which turned the MC5 from a Them/Stones ‘66 garage band into the proto-slipshod of 1968’s Kick Out The Jams. But the MC5’s Wayne and Sonic were fucking guitar gods with total control who chose to play that way. And much as I adore the Five, NO fucking band in the universe ever achieved the grim assault of Leigh Stephens’ guitar solos on songs like ‘Out of Focus’, except for maybe Lou on ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’. And Lou’s fighting to be heard over a sonic smog of schmorgandrum cacophony while Leigh is given all the space he needs and still manages to hog 80% of the Blue Cheer sound.

To give Blue Cheer a sonic context to the blissfully uninitiated, try this: contemporary Drum‘n’Bass played deafeningly loud on a cheap stereo in a house built on the Heathrow flightpath sounds a lot like Blue Cheer. So would Sly & Robbie if you asked them to play unaccompanied in the British Aerospace wind-tunnel. Maybe the first Pop Group LP approaches their sonic disorientation. But even then, there’d be nothing like the moments of silence that chilled the listener once they got into the eye of the Blue Cheer hurricane. On barbarian thrill-rides like ‘Sun Cycle’, ‘Parchment Farm’ and ‘Second Time Around’, this group gets even quieter than the Doors when they took it down on ‘When the Music's Over’. In fact, they do it twice on ‘Second Time Around’ and still hoodwink me into thinking it's over every time I listen. No wonder Iggy screamed ‘let me in’ at the Stooges when those bozos blasted away in their fatuous flophouse frenzy. He’d heard Blue Cheer be ‘the loudest band in the world’ as they'd always proclaimed, but he’d also heard them shut the fuck up in such a pindrop-stylee that it was possible to hear the freaked out gum-chewing of disorientated front-row pre-teens only there to see the Cheer play their hit version of ‘Summertime Blues’.

Yes, these were the punks whose only big hit was a degenerate version of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’. So degenerate that in the bit when Eddie’s congressman would ‘like to help you son but you're too young to vote’, Blue Cheer replaced his words with a drum solo! So degenerate that they repeat the same bit later in the song and again dare to replace that congressman’s words — this time with drums solo AND fuzz freekout guitar! Shit, those Blue Cheer guys never even said one of the ‘Summertime Blues’ lyric-hooks in the entire song and still got to number 14 in the U.S. top 40!

Deaf

As a young teenager, Blue Cheer scared me because older teenagers told me that a dog at a Blue Cheer concert dropped dead from the sheer volume of their amplification. My only contact with their music suggested this was very very likely to be true - hell, their guitarist only left the group when he went deaf!

But in adulthood, I have long wondered why Blue Cheer were summarily dismissed as Jimi Hendrix copyists when they had a snotty genius bass player like Dick Peterson who reggaed in the face of Noel Redding’s twangy muse and had the vocal ability of the Five’s Rob Tyner. And that overachieving shroomhead drummer was Paul Whaley from the underground’s legendary Oxford Circle. No jazz there! From the school of Tucker and Moon, Whaley's mantra appeared to be ‘if it moves hit it - if it doesn’t move, hit it till it does’!

Of course, Rock Legend says that when the original six-piece Blue Cheer saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Monterey Pop Festival, they were such a freaked out bunch that the bass player, the guitarist and the drummer sacked the others and thereby invented heavy metal. But it’s become almost a rock mantra that Blue Cheer was, therefore, some kind of sub-Hendrix Experience dropout boogie. Low budget Hendrix? Fuck that! Blue Cheer was over-recorded white noise with a total disregard for 4/4 convention. Blue Cheer was euphonious cacophony. So kack-off with the Hendrix comparisons - he’s an over-rated muso anyway.

It was T.S. Eliot who complained of our tendency in this culture to celebrate only the uniqueness of our artists, whereas older cultures also celebrated the way in which artists conform to a previous archetype. Well, nonhead rock reviewers saw Blue Cheer were a 3-piece and lazily wrote ‘like Hendrix’. Categorised. End of story.

But, unlike Jimi Hendrix, who was clearly in control of his guitar and jazz enough and clever enough to make young teenage me think I’d get it all when I was grown-up enough, Blue Cheer were truly beyond definition - they were the kind of teenagers that had my twee 12-year-old self happy in the cosiness of my pseudo-cultured parents’ copies of Private Eye and never even wanting to be a teenager.

The sound of the greatest rock‘n’roll is all the mysteries of your childhood, all the misheard conversations of your parents, all the glimpses of forbidden TV programmes, all the quoting of grown-up lyrics which mean nothing till they one day dawn on you as an adult. Why are Lou Reed’s Velvets lyrics so good? Because they’re low in the mix so you can make up half of them in an orgy of misunderstanding. Nothing could be more boring than discovering what Lou was really on about. Rock‘n’roll is all your human encounters, good and bad; all the threats and beatings you receive AND give out as a kid; all your sexual encounters both with the opposite sex AND yourself. Rock‘n’roll is your dancing stomping ancestor self giving the finger to AND flicking the ‘V’s at your intellectual self - it’s the part of you at school assembly which sings hymns wailingly off-key and droning - the skyclad pagan Maypole dancer versus the prim and subservient sinner.

Perhaps Blue Cheer‘s greatest misfortune was that songwriting self-doubt by Dick Peterson and the loss of Deaf Leigh saw them unready to jump on the heavy metal bandwagon they’d so successfully created. Indeed, rather than just bringing forth more of the same bile, later Blue Cheer LPs had them ‘progress’ into a museless, undefiant white-soul parody with an ever-changing line-up. And, like the mysterious carved stones of the pre-literate Picts, Blue Cheer’s first two LPs don’t give off enough evidence of cultural achievement to be highly regarded by most people. But to a few forward-thinking Motherfuckers, there are more than enough hidden clues to suggest utter barbarian genius. With the onset of 21st century post-Everything culture, the first two Blue Cheer LPs, Vincebus Eruptus and OutsideInside, are destined for certain deification.



FOOTNOTES:
  1. Listen to Blue Cheer’s version of ‘The Hunter’ by Booker T and tell me I’m wrong. No way. They had no more true soul or blues in them than the Velvets doing ‘Waiting For the Man’ (which replicated the beginning of the Vagrants’ version of Otis Redding's ‘Respect’) or Marvin Gaye’s ‘Hitchhike’, which Lou Reed incorporated into ‘There She Goes Again.’ Both groups probably just thought they were being the early Stones, in any case.