Blue Cheer Were Heavy When Flowers Were in Full Bloom

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Krist Novoselic's column on music and politics runs every week on Reverb.
San Francisco was known as the place for peace and love in the late '60s. The music wasn't all about "flowers in your hair," though. There was another side to the scene--people were burned out from all the dope. A heavy band emerged from this dystopia with a sound that has left its mark on later generations.

Blue Cheer was a heavy power trio comprising bassist /vocalist Dickie Peterson, guitarist Leigh Stephens, and drummer Paul Whaley. The band's sound is seminal hard rock--the branch of music known as grunge leads straight back to this important band. The tune "Out of Focus" is a great representation of what Blue Cheer does: big riffs and heavy drums with biting guitar licks. Then there's the alienation in the lyric "Won't somebody tell me what's wrong with me?" They do a cover of "Parchment Farm," a tune about life in a Mississippi prison. Peters sings, "All I did was shoot my arm." Well, that's a cautionary tale, but the band's sound itself is intoxicating, and music is about its relationship with the listener. The basic message to the aspiring rocker is simple--go forth and be heavy!

Volumes have been written about the 1967 summer of love. I wasn't there, so I'll instead write about the summer of 1987. I was rummaging through the record bin at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Tacoma, where I came upon a dog-eared copy of Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum. The cover jumped out with its mirrored lamination and embossed type. It cost 50 cents, and I remember this because my copy still has the price written in grease pen on it. If you've ever seen the videos from the Nirvana box set With the Lights Out, that copy is in front of a stack of records on the floor while the band is practicing /partying. It was front-and-center because it was played a lot.

That summer, the San Francisco scene that had produced Vincebus Eruptum was long gone from what was happening in music. California instead gave us bands like Flipper and Black Flag. It was an exciting time, and I must say that Blue Cheer's first album, even 20 years down the road, fit in quite nicely with '80s punk. Listen to Black Flag's My War back to back with Vincebus Eruptum, and you'll hear that not a whole lot separates them. It was no secret that Mudhoney were also worshippers of the group. Stephens' dripping guitar riffs were part of the template for the Seattle Sound.

In 1990, our own Jack Endino produced their album Highlights and Low Lives, with Duck McDonald on guitar replacing Stephens. Blue Cheer toured and released music until Peterson's death in 2009. Vincebus Eruptum even produced a Top-20 hit in 1968 with their version of "Summertime Blues." You used to hear that song on classic rock radio or various late-'60s nostalgia compilations. But even that recognition has fallen by the wayside--that's the old media. As the canon of rock establishes itself in the information age, Blue Cheer will hold onto its place as one of the very first heavy rock bands.

 
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