50 Years Ago: Blue Cheer’s ‘Vincebus Eruptum’ Arrives as One of Metal and Punk’s Seminal Influences
“Here they come: the Blue Cheer! Run for your life!” That's how comedian Steve Allen introduced the power trio – bassist/vocalist Dickey Peterson, guitarist Leigh Stephens and drummer Paul Whaley – on his TV show in March of 1968. They were promoting their debut album, the oddly titled Vincebus Eruptum, released two months earlier, on Jan. 16, 1968.
It was an apt introduction: even though Blue Cheer hailed from San Francisco, they had little to do with bands like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, besides long hair, electric guitar and a common LSD hookup (the legendary Owsley Stanley). If you tried to put a flower in their hair, it would have undoubtedly wilted. They were loud, ugly and they sounded pissed off. This wasn't a band to invite to the love-in.
The release of Vincebus Eruptum came almost exactly a year before Led Zeppelin's self-titled debut, and a little more than a year before the MC5 and the Stooges released their debut albums. It was two years before Black Sabbath’s first LP was unleashed. A lot of what the founders of metal, hard rock and punk were doing, Blue Cheer did first.
Sure, by 1968 there were other loud, blues-based trios – Cream debuted with Fresh Cream in late 1966, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced? came out in '67. But Blue Cheer was different: they were certainly less virtuosic than either of those bands, and definitely had less of a hippie vibe.
And for what they lacked in technical skill, Blue Cheer (over-) compensated with abrasiveness. After their performance of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” on The Steve Allen Show, the host asked the band, “Would it be safe to say that the number we just heard is not something you could walk out of a theater whistling?” Stephens replied, “Yeah I think it’s true.”
“So you’re not selling melody, in other words,” Allen responded. “What are you selling?” “It’s a powerful physical thing, to knock you over,” Stephens concluded. That's an apt description of the mutant strain of rock music that would become known as heavy metal.
They also had a punk rock attitude. In a 2009 interview, Peterson recalled an interaction with blues prodigy Mike Bloomfield (of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag). “People thought we were just making noise,” he said. “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 smart ass. We did have a bit of an arrogance, but it was nurtured by people like that criticizing us.”
They also offended some powerful types in the industry. "We were on American Bandstand,” Dickie remembered. “And Dick Clark 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 and roll a bad name.' We looked at him and smiled, and said, ‘Thanks a lot, Dick.’"
Blue Cheer covered some of the same artists that their peers did, but they were never tethered to the original versions of songs with the student-like devotion. Exhibit A: their take on "Summertime Blues." Eddie Cochran sang about the summertime blues, but it was in the form of a bouncy rockabilly tune. You got the impression that there was fun to be had, even with his dull job, no money and no car. Blue Cheer's version dragged the song to the depths of hell: you could imagine their summertime blues taking place in an inferno where it's 110 in the shade and weekends don't exist.
They also adapted jazz pianist Mose Allison's "Parchmann Farm" (itself taken from Delta blues legend Bukka White's "Parchmann Farm Blues"); they even changed the song's name (to "Parchment Farm"). Peterson didn't sing with Bukka White's sorrow (White wrote the song from experience, based on his time in the Mississippi State Penitentiary), and he didn't have the finesse of Mose Allison, but he spit the lyrics out with such venom that when he sang, "Oh Lord, I bet I'll be here for the rest of my life/All I did was shoot my wife... She was no good!," it sounds chillingly convincing.
It's worth mentioning that The Who's Live At Leeds -- recorded in February of 1970 and regarded as a seminal early influence for a lot of hard rock bands -- also featured a metallic take on "Summertime Blues" and a Mose Allison cover ("Young Man Blues"). Even they seemed to pay attention to Vincebus Eruptum.
They also wrote their own songs: the Peterson-penned "Doctor Please," "Out of Focus" and "Second Time Around" would be brutal in any era, but particularly in '68.
Whether or not Blue Cheer influenced Sabbath, Zeppelin, et al, it's clear that they were, at the very least, setting the stage for audiences to devour bands long-haired dudes taking the blues and early rock and roll to louder, uglier and more distorted places, and echoes of Vincebus Eruptum can be heard through the decades in the music of Soundgarden, Nirvana, the Melvins, Earth, Clutch, Fu Manchu, Elder, Pallbearer and Monster Magnet, just to name a few.
As Steve Allen noted during his interview with the band, nearly fifty years ago, "You are without question, the loudest musical abrogation, regardless of size, in the world ... the volume here is utterly undescribable. It is the loudest thing I have ever heard." And while metal and punk would get louder (not to mention faster and meaner), the seeds for all of that music were being sown here.