zondag 18 mei 2014

Vincebus eruptum. Blue Cheer

In the past months we have started a series of reviews on albums from 1968-1969. This post is a part of that series which holds the like of Spooky Tooth, Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears and others. Today we add Vincebus eruptum by Blue Cheer.

When I was 8 years old, I had a friend called Peter. His ten year older brother bought records and had a tape recorder. One of Jan's singles was 'Summertime blues' by Blue Cheer. This was a song so wild and so heavy that I had never heard anything like it before. Not much later I found out that the song had even made it to the number 1 spot of the Veronica Top 40 that spring. Another major feature of Blue Cheer was the length of these guys' hair. All popstars had long hair and some front running older boys in the street had, but no one else. These guys had long! hair. Past their shoulders. The music was wild beyond imagination and the band members' hair was as well. For an 8 year old a winning combination.

'Summertime blues' remains up to this very second the only song I'd ever heard by Blue Cheer, as far as I'm consciously aware. That is being changed as I'm typing this sentence and Vincebus eruptum bursts out into a blues song called 'Rock me baby'. 'Summertime blues' remains a song that I think is great. Of course a cover version of early rocker Eddie Cochran's hit single, then a circa ten year old song. 'Summertime blues' is one of those covers that totally overshadows the original, almost beyond recognition. The first heavy metal hitsingle? Certainly a song cut by a power trio outblowing the Jimi Hendrix Experience's hitsingles. It is not only the power with which this version of the old rock and roll song is played, it's more like it's chewed up, swallowed, puked and spat out at the listener. The instrumental, experimental intermezzo was sort of unheard of in 1968. Another piece of evidence that everything went on record in those days.

Blue Cheer was unfortunate(?) in having scored its first and as it turned out only, hit with a cover. Not always a good start for a career in a time when originals started to become a key factor. Let's take a look into the band first and move on to take a closer look at Vincibus eruptum next.

Blue Cheer, apparently the name of an acid sort on the streets in San Francisco in the mid-sixties, was formed in 1967 in San Francisco by singer/bassist Dickie Peterson. From the beginning band members came and went. Peterson died in 2009, which was the end of an endless line up of Blue Cheers. The list of ex-members of the band that basically was a trio is so incredibly long. There is one other person that on and off was member through the years, drummer Paul Whaley. Guitarist Leigh Stephens completes the trio on this album (and only on the next 'Outside inside').

Looking back on Vincebus eruptum by 46 years, I have the impression that the opportunity to record an album arrived too soon for Blue Cheer. The band basically seems to have been a blues cover band in the process of collecting its own songs. Vincebus eruptum holds only 6 songs, 3 of which are covers. The last song 'Second time around' is a long jam in which Leigh Stephens is allowed to blow the top off his Marshall stack, but by then it has become quite clear to me that Stephens at the time had acquired one major trick and that he had exposed us to it in 'Summertime blues' the best: The long, distorted, quivering wail of the sound of his guitar in the famous lick and solo in the song comes back in each song. The start of 'Second time around' does bring something of the excitement of 'Summertime blues' to Vincebus eruptum, before the jam starts that is. And a drum solo on a record? Yeah, that used to be cool once. Nothing in between these two songs is really worthwhile mentioning.

What is harder to imagine in 2014 is the novelty of this sound in 1968. All I have to go on is my recollection of 'Summertime blues'. That was stunning to me, for years to come, but I was only 8 at the time. Let's take a closer look at the other songs anyway.

The blues of B.B. King's 'Rock me baby' is something which I've heard being played and sung better by many an average blues band and many professional ones as well. The song also falls apart in the solo. Everything's too thin and the end noise seems to miss something as well. The right chord? Dickie Peterson's voice is too thin for this sort of blues. Part of this has to do with the production which is not as good as it probably would have been if this was Blue Cheer's second record. There is an odd guitar overdub here or there, as is Dickie Peterson's voice at times. The basis however is the guitar on one side, the drums on the other. The voice in the middle and a far too clean and too soft bass somewhere in the background. On the whole the sound of the band does not give enough support to the song. This could have been better produced. Even in 1967. (It may have been enough for the simple record players youths had in 1968 though. I ought to take that into account.)

'Doctor please' is a sort of jam. A long song about drugs, it seems. "I need a pain killer, shot inside of me, but I ain't got no money". The guitar certainly echoes all this agony, but also mimics 'Summertime blues' too much. A lot of the tricks are the same. The song isn't that good as well. Dickie Peterson's song writing skills are not that good (yet?) it seems. There is an echo of Janis Joplin's way of singing and diction. Blue Cheer's members may have seen her rise to fame, coming from San Francisco.

'Out of focus' was the b-side to 'Summertime blues' and also a Peterson original. Blue Cheer does a very nice Jimi Hendrix here and there's an echo of The Small Faces as well. There's a central riff supporting the song. The best effort, for the sung start of 'Second time around'. 'Parchment's song', a Mose Allison cover, has the same aural problems. Also here the Leigh Stephens' guitar goes off into uncharted territories, again without support. That leaves a very empty space on this record.

Summing up, it may certainly be true from an historic point of view that there has been no or hardly any records like Vincebus eruptum released in January 1968, that does not necessarily make it a great album; and it doesn't. It also does not invite me to explore the rest of Blue Cheer's catalogue. Great single, meagre album. Blue Cheer just was not a very talented band. Still, it has reached a legendary spot because of one song and what a song that is. Blue Cheer had a career of 42 years, on and off, all based on one song. Hearing the rest, it was very fortunate it had that one hit.


You can listen to 'Summertime blues' here.

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