Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

The Godlike Genius of Blue Cheer

The Godlike Genius of Blue Cheer

AOTM #114, November 2009ce
THE GODLIKE GENIUS OF BLUE CHEER was invented by Julian Cope for the purposes of this eulogy.

Side One (July ’68)
  1. DOCTOR PLEASE (7.53)
  2. OUT OF FOCUS (4.08)
Side Two (October ’68)
  2. SUN CYCLE (4.18)
  3. JUST A LITTLE BIT (3.30)
  4. GYPSY BALL (3.01)
  5. COME & GET IT (3.18)

Note: This brief compilation and its attendant review were written as a thanks and a eulogy to the late, great Dickie Peterson of Blue Cheer, who just died on October 15th.

“The Blue Cheer. Run For Your Life”
– Steve Allen’s TV introduction, 1968

Although Blue Cheer’s 21st century myth as thee Ur Power Trio is nowadays so suffused with an incandescent Post-Everything 20/20 hindsight that Messrs. Peterson, Whaley & Stevens sit quite snugly alongside the other great Ancestors (MC5, Stooges, Pentagram) on most Stoner Rock.commer’s record shelves, it’s still particularly important at this sad time of Mein Hairy Dickie’s sudden demise to remember that Blue Cheer’s story only even began to re-surface during the Grunge-y, Sabbath-informed-in-a-Melvins-stylee St. Vitus-propelled early ‘90s, as a whole new generation of orphan rockers suddenly asked “But whence sprung our current Mung Worship? And who were these pre-Sabbathians who bequeathed us these snottiest of lick scraps & riffic mishaps?” Had the more literate among them trawled the then-current selection of 1980s Blues Rock treatises available on the high street rockshelf, they’d have been alarmed to discover that Blue Cheer had been entirely passed over by the Bluesologists, those prim Robert Cray’n’Elick Crapton Authenticists relegating Dickie’n’Co to that sub-category just below ‘Hendrix & Cream Copyists’ known as ‘Garage’. Yup, alongside the Count Five is where Blue Cheer dwelled throughout the 70s and 80s. THEY was the world’s forgotten boys (not Nincompoop & the Stooges). Ahem, anyway even Charles Shaar Murray’s big 1982 blues tome CROSSTOWN TRAFFIC didn’t give’em a mench; didn’t even dignify the Cheer with a snidey one-line putdown; their absence in the index says it all. Squish. And the real truth of it? Well, let’s take a look at the sonic evidence, i.e.: the compilation of music contained within this Album of the Month #114. For it was all of it released between July and October 1968, when the original version of Blue Cheer was at its Mekong Delta-strafing height. Yup, the Cheer unleashed two hugely dynamic and killer albums barely 14 weeks apart, each one being chock full of great bludgeoning soul, berserk & off-kilter (so-called) blues rock, and hefty freeform bass’n’drum excursions of sheer cranium pummelling, over which white noise ramalama was inappropriately daubed as often as was possible. So was it blues after all? Who knows? Search me, I hate the blues and love Blue Cheer, so what does that say? Besides, being managed by Hell’s Angels and named after a brand of LSD, Blue Cheer was the absolute antithesis of the Zeitgeist, singer Dickie Peterson later commenting: “We were the ugly stepchildren. Everybody of the San Franciscan scene was all ‘kiss babies’ and ‘eat flowers’. We were sort of ‘kiss flowers’ and ‘eat babies’; we weren’t peace and love.” No shit, Sherlock! Blue Cheer’s debut album VINCEBUS ERUPTUM was an absurdly unbalanced adventure playground of screeching white noise guitar drool and Exxon-levels of axe spillage from Leigh Stephens, clumsy shed-building drum assaults from Paul Whaley and Mae Westian corner o’the mouth vocal asides from bass player Dickie Peterson, each band member showing next to no regard for the standard soul or blues chord patterns that struggled to be heard far far below. Buoyed up by their freak occurrence US Top 20 teen hit versh of ‘Summertime Blues’, the rest of this first LP wedded the Cheer’s brutally tough soul and blues rhythm section to Leigh Stephens’ inordinately disconnected take on the role of the modern lead guitarist, almost every solo commencing as though the guitarist had been caught on tape actually in the act of Giving Up Guitar Playing. Chaos ensues every time his turn comes, as Stephens’ inner demons force him through the solo (“Come on Leigh, you daft tripping cunt, you can give up guitar after this one final assault”). Three months later – in October ’68 – the gentlemen of the ensemble returned with album number two, entitled OUTSIDEINSIDE, and ‘twas another catalogue of drunken midnight dodgem shunts, amphetamine stop-start buzzsaw sprawls, even the occasional moment of delightful Pin Drop silence, this time occasionally overladen with mucho stacked soul harmonies (MC5-style a year ahead) and some exquisitely heavy keyboard contributions from a divinely ordained guest pianist/organist by the unlikely name of Ralph Burns Kellogg. And it is to this brief but Uber Visionary period (July-October 1968) that I have concentrated my attentions for this Album of the Month #114.

So, what’s it sound like?

The July side of this compilation commences with the near-eight-minute freerock bonanza ‘Doctor Please’, throughout which the three band members assault us with all of their choicest manoeuvres, again and again and a-fucking-gain. Blue Cheer sound like forgotten technicians jamming with long obsolete weaponry aboard some abandoned space freighter, Paul Whaley’s incredible and relentless drumming providing a clattery backdrop of ‘busy canteen’-style midrange as a vehicle for L. Stephens’ solipsistic and a-rhythmical guitar flailing. In comparison, the soulful strut of ‘Out of Focus’ is a catchy slab o’tambourine driven loveliness, that is, until Leigh Stephens interrupts the song with a solo so inappropriate that it could be a whole other song, hell, a whole other ensemble! The July side concludes with the Cheer’s ultimate avant-garde Garage Epic, the six minutes of ‘Second Time Around’, on which these gentlemen prove once and for all that their sense of dynamics was both Intenser & Immenser than the other boys’. Again and again, the Cheer do their utmost to False Ending us to death, each time returning to that same barely restrained pulsing silence… there is one massive final shoot-out and all is silence. Albeit briefly, however. For the October 1968 side opens like some tsunami at sunrise, as the massive and resounding piano chords of Ralph Burns Kellogg herald OUTSIDEINSIDE’s epic album opener ‘Feathers From Your Tree’, and the multi-voiced searching searching choir anticipates the harmony vocals of the MC5’s KICK OUT THE JAMS, still over a year away. ‘Sun Cycle’ sound like J. Hendrix’s Experience attempting something from the third Velvets’ LP, that is, until Paul Whaley kicks in the hardest and most stentorian drumbeat available, and the three Cheers cycle over and over, inserting just plain weird in-joke stop/starts, until the whole thing collapses… peters out beautifully… phew. Continuing Whaley’s over-drumming motifs, ‘Just a Little Bit’ is another simple cycling riff song entirely based around his phased amphetamine percussion lunacy, even Leigh Stephens’ contribution being reduced to hurling in the occasional sonic hand grenade. But there’s no let up from Whaley, and the final seconds of this raging song sound as colossal as any 100-piece orchestra, and as elemental as Niagara Falls. Then, we’re off into the stumbling grunge of ‘Gypsy Ball’, a jaunty snorkel across the shallow end of the swimming pool, a sub-sub-Hendrix, sub-Troggs gadabout of the kind MADCAP-period Syd Barrett coulda served up whilst backed up by the Soft Machine’s arch over-achiever Robert Wyatt on drums. This compilation concludes with the archetypal rummage sale ramalama of ‘Come & Get It’, in which Dickie P. lets fly a spirited series of fatuous lyrical declarations declaimed with such intensity that they sound positively life enhancing, the Cheer – for this final statement – now cast as Norse trail blazers galloping off into the sunset, as Leigh Stephens – sitting bareback astride Odin’s eight legged horse Sleipnir – hurls down thunderbolts and epic stereo squalls of molten axe murder into both speakers simultaneously.

In Conclusion

And then they was gone; that is, as the flame-thrower-wielding’n’bolt-throwing artillery division Ur Power Trio. With truly poetic correctness, Leigh Stephens quit Blue Cheer when he went deaf, being replaced by the Oxford Circle’s guitar genius Randy Holden, who lasted barely long enough to contribute a whole side of material to the 3rd LP NEW IMPROVED BLUE CHEER, before himself quitting to record his own legendary POPULATION 2 (see Head Heritage’s February 2004CE Album of the Month #45). Next, drummer Paul Whaley left because of his heroin addiction. New members came and went, as Dickie Peterson refashioned the band first as a blue-eyed hippy soul squad, thereafter as a really fucking fine band of songwriters for the 1970 LP THE ORIGINAL HUMAN BEING and 1971’s OH PLEASANT HOPE. Great songs, great sound, but no fucker wuz expecting Badfinger from such badasses because, well, oh what’s the fucking point? Dribbling on into the mid-70s, even Kim Fowley attempted to prop up their stinking carcass with a fairly excellent and abrasive four-song demo recorded in Hollywood. But the band had by then become a period piece à la the Count Five, an anachronism too early and too punky for the real metal heads, only Lester Bangs daring (with mucho hindsight, mind you) to comment positively about the ‘bracing atonality’ of Leigh Stephens’ playing. The mid-70s saw them forced to compete in a Jon ‘Know Nothing’ Landau-informed Post-Cream Pro-Virtuoso Corporate Rock World that made the Stooges pay for their sonic ineptitude with alcoholic death and heroin addiction, and even dared question the transcendental Godlike Genius of the MC5’s rhythm section of Michael Davis and Dennis ‘Machine Gun’ Thompson. Sheesh! And in these dark mid-70s days of soft rock managed by a bunch of Hollywood soft arses, Blue Cheer could only sit and wait it out, until the time again arrived when being a thunderous Viking Poet with a Canon of proto-metal anthems counted for something … anything. And so it is, at this sad time of Dickie Peterson’s death, appropriate to celebrate the fact that he at least lived long enough to experience the pleasure of being accepted as one of rock’n’roll’s important originators. For myself, I’d just like to let out a corvine screech of thanks to ye Bass Lord of Blue Cheer… Dickie! May ye drink Valhalla dry!