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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Blue Cheer: Vincebus Eruptum

BLUE CHEER: VINCEBUS ERUPTUM (1968)

1) Summertime Blues; 2) Rock Me, Baby; 3) Doctor Please; 4) Out Of Focus; 5) Parchment Farm; 6) Second Time Around.

«The Jimi Hendrix Experience for Lunkheads», this is what this band really is, but if you ask me, this is still much better than the poseur professionalism of Grand Funk Railroad, whose enduring popula­rity should have been more justly enjoyed by Blue Cheer. Had they been a Detroit band, their bite might have been worse than their bark, as they would have to compete with the Stooges; as it happened, they were based in San Francisco, where they did enjoy the cult status of the hea­viest, wildest band for miles around, but depended a bit too much on the usual «blues pedigree» that was shared by everybody in the business, and, despite being at about the same level of formal musical competence as the Stooges (zero), did not catch neither the contemporary nor the «revi­sionist» critical eye with the same force.

But they really should have. For one thing, there is so much that is «wrong» with this band that this realization alone should already turn them into cultural heroes. Like, what is their very name supposed to mean — how on Earth does one produce a «blue cheer»? Or if you are really going to show off by giving your debut LP a Latin name, how about getting it right? The correct Latin translation of "to break out of chains" would be vinculis eruptum, whereas vincebus is not even a proper wordform in the language. Or if you are covering Mose Allison's ʽParchman Farmʼ, do you really need to show how much you care by retitling it ʽParchment Farmʼ? It's not like any in­mates in any American prison ever spent much time scraping calfskin.

However, defying the laws of grammar, orthography, and semantics is one thing for a musician, and defying the music is quite another. From a simple, straightforward point of view, what this album represents is an attempt by three well-meaning, but barely competent guys (Dickie Peter­son on bass and vocals, Leigh Stephens on guitar, Paul Whaley on drums) to provide a local Fri­sco substitute for Hendrix — mainly by acquiring the same kind of musical equipment, but defi­nitely not by learning the same kinds of chords or nurturing the same kind of imaginative vision. In other words, an embarrassing fraud.

From a somewhat more complex point of view, this is a «caveman punk» take on Hendrix that could deserve its own special acclaim. Not just on Hendrix, of course: Blue Cheer were fascina­ted by everything as long as it was loud, screechy, and heavy — their cover of ʽSummertime Bluesʼ must have been inspired by The Who's version (which was not yet commercially released at the time, yet The Who had had the song in their repertoire since the early days), and they were certainly no strangers to the Yardbirds and Cream, either. But where they could not match any of these guys in terms of instrumental prowess, they could match and overcome them in terms of sheer brute force, which is really what classic Blue Cheer is all about: PURE MUSCLE.

If the opening chords to ʽSummertime Bluesʼ do not sound quite as mind-blowing as Jimi's ʽFoxy Ladyʼ, from which they are borrowed, at least they are more distorted — and if the body of the song does not produce the impression of a thunderstorm (because the bass and drum parts are fairly wimpy when compared with the Entwistle/Moon rhythm section), it still comes closer to con­veying «dumb teenage frustration» than the exquisite interplay between The Who could ever bring it. Which is to say, really, that this particular version also deserves to exist and be listened to — even if most of whatever Leigh Stephens is playing here does not make any particular musi­cal sense, other than "hey look, I can make those strings go WHEEEEE! and now I can make them go BOOOOO! and now I can make y'all believe I'm playing this thing with my teeth!" Fun thing, that rock'n'roll stuff.

They do have a feel for it, and it can be infectious. The songs are not so much songs as simply vehicles for wild improvisation (Peterson is credited with writing three of them, but other than the mediocre riff on ʽOut Of Focusʼ, I have been unable to spot much «writing» going on) — ʽSe­cond Time Aroundʼ sounds like they just left the tape rolling for three extra minutes after the song was over, and then decided to leave that uncontrolled chaos on the record (in honor of ʽThird Stone From The Sunʼ or any such other Hendrix noisefest). Laughable, yes, but every once in a while it so happens that all you need to do at a certain moment is just «go to eleven», and the result will be... impressive?

Besides, it's not like they do not know how to play at all. Stephens' obsession with pedals, wob­bles, fuzz, and distortion does not prevent him from correctly resolving the melody where he sees it fit to be resolved, or from borrowing some tricks from the arsenal of free jazz artists as well: at times, it is hard to understand if he is just being drunk / sluggish / incompetent or if he is really trying to pull off an Ornette Coleman. Whatever be the case, his playing turns Vincebus Erup­tum into the craziest hard rock album of 1968 I have ever heard, bar none — an affair in which he is much aided by Peterson (whose sin... screaming is a little colorless, but loud and brawny enough to match the guitar) and Whaley, who gives his best Keith Moon / Mitch Mitchell impres­sion — it still ain't good enough, but not a lot of people in Frisco were even trying.

In a system of values that praises «wildness» and «kick-ass potential» in rock music over every­thing else, Vincebus Eruptum is one of the indisputable champions. In a subtler system that re­quires, at the very least, a unique or technically gifted playing style, and at most, an individual artistic vision, Blue Cheer will forever be stuck as one of the epitomes of bad taste. As for my­self, in situations like these I do tend to select the «subtlety be damned» approach — the album has always been a minor favorite of mine, and I still go for the thumbs up judgement. Want it or not, these guys pretty much invented «brontosaur rock», where size does matter, and I both respect it — a little bit — and enjoy it — especially when it helps flush out unwanted guests.

PS. Oh, and, if I am not mistaken, that riff they hit in the middle of ʽParchment Farmʼ pretty much predicts ʽIn-A-Gadda-Da-Vidaʼ; so there you have some of the band's immediate influence on their contempo­raries.

Check "Vincebus Eruptum" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Vincebus Eruptum" (MP3) on Amazon

9 comments:

  1. "not a lot of people in Frisco were even trying"
    which is probably the only reason Blue Cheer is worth noting.

    "In a system of values that praises «wildness» and «kick-ass potential» in rock music over every­thing else"
    To me this is a false trichotomy. My system of values praises and and and . The latter, as British bands kept on showing at least up to 1977, makes sure my ass hurts more after getting kicked. When Blue Cheer tries I hardly feel an itch - exactly because of lack of competence.

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    1. praises wildness and kick-ass potential and competence.

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  2. Blue Cheer were named after an especially potent brand of LSD developed by a certain Owsley, who wrote the "liner notes" on the back cover. He was also a sound engineer who taped hundreds of local gigs, especially by the early Dead (back when they were quite a rough edged bunch of characters themselves).

    "Summertime Blues" was undoubtedly picked up from the Who, which the boys in Blue Cheer would have seen live at the Monterey Pop Festival the preceding summer (the Who's version can be seen on Youtube). At the same festival, our boys would also have seen the Experience, which explains the chaotic finale of "Second Time Around". Add in the influence of Cream, whose debut was finally released in America in the summer of 1967, and you've got all the "influencing" factors.

    Needless to say, Blue Cheer were horrible, and they were fucking fantastic. No British group ever kicked this much ass in 1968 (not Cream, not Purple, not Ten Years After).

    Beyond mere ass kicking, they...well, nothing. They didn't pretend to be writing great songs (or any songs at all), and the record lasts 32 minutes, and ends with a massive fried amp explosion. Bang for your buck!

    Is it a classic? No! Does it rule? YES!

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    1. P.S. As for the little bass riff in the middle of "Parchment Farm" influencing "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", I'd say it was sheer coincidence, as both groups were clearly working off the riff of "Sunshine Of Your Love".

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  3. Got to disagree with the condescending tone of the comments so far. These guys kicked ass and this album is a classic. It's been fashionable for years to slag these guys as incompetent Hendrix imitators but nobody else really sounded like this at the time (not even Hendrix). I guess you had to be there and hear these guys in the context of their time. Unfortunately they couldn't keep it going for a second album. Diminishing returns set in very quickly. I will agree that Grand Funk is probably one of the worst, most overrated bands in rock history.

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    1. I don't think there's really much condescension in any of the comments thus far. Blue Cheer were clearly a link between the garage bands of the mid-60's and the later heavy metal groups, i.e., a transitional figure which never fit comfortably into either camp. They sure weren't hippies! So what were they? The fact that their manager at the time, a gentleman who went by the charming name of "Gut", was an ex-Hell's Angel ought to be our first clue.

      The closest British analog to Blue Cheer may well have been the Groundhogs. Check out "Thank Christ For The Bomb" and "Split" for some seriously damaging post-blues/pre-metal that also conveys the "outlaw" spirit of BC, Stooges, and the post-war generation of bluesmen that influenced them all.

      As for Grand Funk, they were coming from R&B, Motown style, not the dangerous outlaw blues of Hooker and Wolf. No comparison!

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    2. Oh, come on, in terms of ass-kicking there definitely was a competitor: in '68 they were already moving on from the kaleidoscopic psychedelia of "We Are All Flower People" to the uber-heavy "Brainhammer" ("Big Bottom", anyone?).

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  4. The only thing from 1968 that comes close to this beast in terms of sheer sonic assault is "White Light/White Heat" by the Velvet Underground, and even that was nowhere near as absurd as this one.

    This is the second time you've reviewed this record and, again, you didn't mention "Doctor Please", which is probably the most insane track on the album, specifically the break at the 2:19 mark where the band goes absolutely ballistic, not to mention the closing ripped straight from "I Don't Live Today".

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    1. Thanks for mentioning Doctor Please. I don't know why, but this song is almost never written about in the numerous reviews of this record. IMO it's the best thing here. The words and singing are spine chilling, and the band plays together like a ripped to hell leather glove that you can't throw away because it still fits so well.

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