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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Blue Cheer: New! Improved!

BLUE CHEER: NEW! IMPROVED! (1969)

1) When It All Gets Old; 2) West Coast Child Of Sunshine; 3) I Want My Baby Back; 4) Aces 'n' Eights; 5) As Long As I Live; 6) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; 7) Peace Of Mind; 8) Fruit & Iceburgs; 9) Honey Butter Lover.

I think the title said it all even way back in 1969, when the words «new» and «improved» actually could have quite a positive ring to them. Yes, even great bands with established formulae were capable of occasionally «renewing» and «improving» their image. But how do you improve on a band like Blue Cheer, on an album like Vincebus? You just don't, unless you totally and decisi­vely change your direction — and how could a band like Blue Cheer change its direction? One doesn't usually expect a Neanderthal to rapidly accelerate his evolution in the presence of a Cro­magnon. There are some laws of nature that are quite tough to beat, you know.

Actually, this record is not so much of an improvement as it is of a total mess. With the depar­ture of Leigh Stephens, the band was left without an essential ingredient, and had to reestablish its balance — first, by hiring little-known guitar player Randy Holden, a former member of The Other Half (an underappreciated, short-lived psycho-garage band from LA), then, after he found out that his style was largely incompatible with the band's image, by replacing him with Bruce Stephens (presumably, no relation to Leigh). Consequently, the band's third LP featured both of their guitarists — the earlier one on Side B, the later one on Side A — and essentially sounds like two completely different mini-records.

The Bruce Stephens stuff is generally tolerable, but a little boring. None of the songs come within ten miles of the band's trademark crunchy bombast — it is all a rather chaotic mix of blues-rock, psychedelia, «roots» stuff, and pub-bound braggadocio, generally derivative and hollow. Original ideas are, for the most part, silly, like the attempt to reinvent Dylan's ʽIt Takes A Lot To Laughʼ as a heavy, aggressive rocker, with Dickie screaming his head off on the final verse and the gui­tars threatening the listener in a glum Chicago-electric-blues sort of way. Nice try, but either they didn't get the song's essence or they failed in their quest to mutate it.

Even more laughable is their piano player's contribution, ʽWhen It All Gets Oldʼ, sort of a mix of Traffic with Satanic-era Rolling Stones — a sunny, friendly psychedelic anthem that invites you to «bring back a whole new change» (how do you actually bring back a change?) without offering any collateral, such as, for instance, a truly mindblowing sound effect or melodic synthesis. Blue Cheer as the late-coming prophets of The Great Revolution of Conscience? Yeah, right. Even the pigs wouldn't be flying until at least eight years later.

Instead of talking about the rest of the songs on Side A (we could, since some are better than others, but it is still hardly worth the space), let us therefore look at Side B, which reflects an en­tirely different ideology. There are only two lengthy songs on it, plus a short useless acoustic coda, but they make all the difference, amply featuring the talents of Randy Holden — the guy who has been called, by some critics, one of the greatest overlooked guitarists of the 1960s, and for a very good reason, I'd say.

ʽFruit & Icebergsʼ, in particular, is transformed by Holden into one of the finest examples of the era's heavy blues-rock style — not as experimental and groundbreaking as contemporary stuff by Jeff Beck or Led Zeppelin, but every bit as powerful and awe-inspiring. The descending bass riff sets a creepy, nightmarish mood that wouldn't be out of place on a classic Black Sabbath record (no wonder, considering that it incorporates the same «Devil's Chord» tritone as ʽBlack Sabbathʼ) and the lengthy solo that comes in at 2:23 and occupies the bulk of the song is, likewise, one of the most «evil» solos of the decade — where all of his garage predecessors were using their axes to express righteous anger and straightforward frustration, Holden clearly uses his to summon the forces of evil; had he come forward with the song a year earlier, it would have made a great soundtrack for Night Of The Living Dead. The only thing that feels altogether out of place on this fantastic mood piece are the lyrics — "It's so nice to feel the colors / All days when you are new / You close your eyes / And feel the foam of silence"? Unless it's spoken from Dracula's point of view, I just refuse to understand.

ʽPeace Of Mindʼ, which is the slightly longer piece, is not nearly as impressive: its main part is an arpeggiated, slowly moving dirge, waking up midway through and launching into yet another massive Holden solo, by which time, unfortunately, it can no longer qualify for masterpiece sta­tus. Still, the solo is equally nimble and melodic, with a perfect flow and sense of timing — enough to make one think of an analogy with Mick Taylor, another technically and emotionally gifted blues-based musician who happened to find himself in the utterly wrong band, ultimately, to the great benefit of all mankind. Although, come to think of it, ʽPeace Of Mindʼ and ʽFruit & Ice­bergsʼ are basically Randy Holden songs with Dickie Peterson guest-starring on them — this has very little to do with any kinds of «Blue Cheer», and this is why Holden spent so little time with the band. There were really only two choices — either «Blue Cheer» would have to become «The Randy Holden Experience», or Randy Holden would have to go on increasing his experience without any assistance from Blue Cheer.

As far as any final judgement is concerned, I would award an unquestionable thumbs up to Side B and a sceptical, if not altogether hateful, thumbs down to Side A — merely to reinforce the idea of «two different entities». But if a single answer is still required, I will repeat that ʽFruit & Icebergsʼ alone is worth the full price of the album: there is something about that solo there that I cannot remember about any style of 1960s guitar playing. It's like a perfect merger of the «thin», folk-and-country-derived electric styles of West Coast bands and the «thick», aggressive, show-no-mercy style of British hard rockers. And if you play it loudly in a church, it will most certainly attract lightning, I'm sure of it.

Check "New! Improved!" (CD) on Amazon

2 comments:

  1. I prefer to keep things simple. Fruit & Ice­bergs has a killer riff and some excellent soloing, so I'm happy. As a bonus the vocalist doesn't make a fool out of himself and the drummer is more than competent (though not that much more). Yup, very good song.
    Me likes Piece of Mind as well. Too bad Holden went bankrupt and had to leave music.

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  2. Randy Holden's story doesn't end here. Check Youtube for various copies of Randy Holden's 1970 solo album, "Population II". It's more of the same, only louder, and features a redone "Fruit & Icebergs" which is done in extended, epic fashion, coda and all. No commercial potential whatsoever, of course. Too lumbering and hookless to compete with Purple and Sabbath, and way too heavy for the American hard rock market, which was more than happy to settle for the likes of Grand Funk. Holden's real audience only emerged decades later, after the ossification of all the surviving classic rock dinosaurs, and the ensuing search for fresh inspiration among the various undiscovered also-rans. Among psych revivalists, stoner rock fans, and doom metal enthusiasts, Holden's name is legend, alonside the likes of Pentagram and (of course) Blue Cheer.

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