I have tinnitus. That probably comes as a shock to absolutely none of the people who daily have to put up with me asking “what?” repeatedly, but probably would come as a shock to my parents if they read this fucking blog. Well, the main reason I’ve got noise-enforced deafness is because I’m a true music addict. Not long goes by before I’m needing sick grooves and basslines dropping down like fucking bombs on my head. I’m also a volume freak, with my iPod barely ever dropping below the 75% marker. The only reason I don’t have the super-decibels nailed at home is because I live sandwiched between office drones and I might blow their minds enough to call the pigs, hey look everyone, it’s our tax dollars protecting us from ourselves! Because I’m a distortion volume freak, a lack of these things genuinely puts me in a state of hysterical angst; like car sickness, even once the horror ends it is some time before the angst lifts and I can function again. The BRIT awards threw me into a self-destructive spiral when I genuinely thought that the world was at rock bottom and getting worse; scratching out a basement at the bottom of the barrel... It prompted a period where I couldn’t bear to look at anything produced in this or last year, and had to focus my attention on the opposite of pop music. Music so dark and heavy and violent and mean-spiritedly wonderful that these frets dare not show their face on any broadcast of any kind. Sexual deviant music of the sort that probably keeps those insane Republican hopefuls awake at night quivering with paroxysms of Jesus-based rage. It brought you a piece about Randy Holden, you got one about High Rise and one about L.A.M.F. and now I’m going to go a bit more relatable to all the doom-heads and get to grips with the band most directly responsible for my tinnitus. Blue Cheer.
Just like Sir Lord Baltimore but among a larger crowd, the very mention of Blue Cheer causes positive murmurs to ripple around. This guy gets it, this guy is talking about all the right cats. Blue Cheer, along with their more remembered peers Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were revered in the mid-to-late sixties for kick-starting the wave of music which has come to be heavy metal. While HST was zipping down to the Matrix to see Jefferson Airplane talkabout a revolution one more time, something very funny was going on in the bay area. Something noisy and something really quite amazing. When the Beatles first came to America, they brought rock and roll back with them. America had invented it and famously Vanity Fair had called it a fad that would be “gone by autumn”, sorry! But when the Beatles did bring rock and roll back to the US they brought a piddlingly pathetic sound set up, and during the live shows you couldn’t hear the songs for girls screaming. This all changed almost immediately when Orange and Sunn began manufacturing gigantic high-wattage amps and Blue Cheer were one of the first acts to get to grips with this idea that however braying the girls, you could shut them right out with just a mediocre sound setup; and with a gigantic one you could literally ring every bell in town. Named after a street brand of LSD purveyed by Grateful Dead hip genius and Bay Area guru Owsley Stanley. Blue Cheer did just exactly what High Rise did twenty years afterwards (which is beautifully poetic because High Rise did it to them!) and what Sleep did to Sabbath. All of these being bands that were heavily influenced by another extremely popular band’s sound; so you can’t go hiding those influences under a bushel and hope only the mad writers nobody pays any attention to notice, nope, yooz gonna have to go all out to prove that yes, you have half-inched all your ideas from a certain band, but you’ve done it sooo much more righteously that you ought to be able to keep those riffs. So it is with Blue Cheer and Hendrix. In fact they decided to set up as a power-trio after seeing Hendrix at Monterey and the opening salvo from their debut EP Vincebus Eruptum (another metal cliché they started – pig Latin album names!) is a blatantly Hendrix-inflected riot of a Summertime Blues cover, but by about the second chorus they’ve overshot Hendrix’s usual runway en route to somewhere much more raw, undefined, unrefined and loud (and those, for true Hendrix devotees, are the adjectives most represented in his best (i.e. Woodstock) work).
What they created is nothing short of genius. Stupidly loud, stupidly heavy and so full-on you’ll want to check you haven’t been molested by Dickie Peterson mid-solo, he’s in the crowd motherfuckers, you’ll have to follow the microphone chord. The guitars are a ten stone lump of peanut butter wah melting into the burnt toast of the percussion. Peterson’s bass seems to be playing to his own rhythm and sod the rest of the band. The whole band are playing blues so totally honestly that they must be recording this in some beggars alley; or at least just picked up these three bums and dropped some instruments into their hands and told them to come on in for the big win. Undoubtedly the king hell bastard of the album is the closer; Second Time Around is the kind of song that ironically never gets copied or bettered. Romanticised by my own memories of it I was almost wary approaching it when it came time to listen to this album the requisite million times; would it stand up? They always say, not even Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane. But Second Time Around is Citizen Kane, it really just is. From the guitar tone, so much more metallic even than the rest of the record; to the flawless vocal pattern like rivet guns hammering in time; the way the bassline rises like a Kraken after the rest of the instruments stop to take on some nutrients at the end of the massive fuck-session that this record quickly descended into, and the way that same bassline is still kicking after the wild solo finally abates. The whole album cooks, everything is so resonantly un-messed-with and un-produced; well, for me on my original copy procured at great personal expense and having to pry it from the cold, dead fingers of the rightful owner just like the Cheer did with those Hendrix licks! What the album did for music is almost as epic, long lasting and eminently righteous as the actual sounds. They started Heavy Metal! I mean, they inspired a whole generation of uppers and downers to grab guitars and get playing in their wake, to spend the next fifty years trying to work out what the hell was going on with this crazy power trio setting up ‘midst the freak circus of the sixties bay area, with Tom Wolfe and Ken Kesey racing about in the back of a pickup truck and in some sweaty basement these three proto-metal heads cranking out sounds that would inevitably change the world. Combining blues and heavy rock music was something that was only being tried by these guys; the idea of coming of age just late enough to totally miss the acid wave, the great wave, in the early and mid seventies was an experience rife with questions that the Jefferson Airplanes of this world couldn’t answer, and as usual mainstream culture wasn’t addressing and here along came this power trippin’ power trio with a stackful of amps and some pretty lofty ideas about bettering the great Jimi and god-damn, they just nailed the beauty of that image and brought it all together. We have Blue Cheer to thank for Pentagram as well as all the others.
Vincebus Eruptum is one of the records I’m afraid to review, in case I either spoil it for myself or do the heads a disservice; but after that BRITs fiasco, I needed to get rid of the hysterical angst and the only avenue available was to drop out of life and lie like William Hurt in Altered States in a sensory deprivation tank; water body-temp absolutely nothing bothering me and just take in the raucous mastery of this image. It’s never really been matched except perhaps by High Rise, but that’s a far less accessible trip; and in terms of moving along the same sonic pathways it’s never really been beaten. A stone cold killer mindgame from start to finish and just listen to that bass! LISTEN TO IT!
Written under duress by Steven.