Deconstructing Pop Culture

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An Encomium to Blue Cheer

March 14th, 2015 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

I was a disaffected adolescent in my last year of middle school when three power trios burst upon the scene: Cream (with “Sunshine of Your Love”), Jimi Hendrix (with “Foxy Lady”), and Blue Cheer (with “Summertime Blues”). The first two would go on to achieve massive success; the last, to vanish, basically unknown. Yet, at the time, we accorded all three the same level of face validity and seriously debated their relative merits or lack thereof. Later, I attended several concerts where Blue Cheer was on the bill, and listened to the band’s first record–“Vincebus Eruptum”– more or less constantly. For some reason I had it on my mind, and did so again the other day. It instantly transported me back in time. It sounded as wild and fresh now, as it did then. In comparison, the best Cream record by far is their reunion one from a few years ago. They played like the band they always should have been. And, all of the additions to the original pre-demise Hendrix catalog are boring and superfluous.

Although “Vincebus Eruptum” nominally is broken up into different songs, they are not well-differentiated sonically, so it plays like a single big long one. The mix is of its time: bass and drums to the right and guitar to the left. What makes the record so spectacular is its primitiveness. It has a thunderous, leaden (like the metal “lead”) quality to it, not unlike a gigantic dinosaur lumbering through a Mesozoic landscape. Paul Whaley, the drummer, was not particularly skilled, especially in comparison to later players like Billy Cobham. He did, however, beat the living daylights out of his instrument. Dickie Peterson, the bassist, was no Jack Casady or John Wetton; but he was appropriately supportive throughout.

Most of the heavy lifting was done by Leigh Stephens, the guitarist. Aside from some predictable chording, what upgrades his work to the outstanding category is his creative use of feedback. Even more astonishingly, if I remember their concert set-up correctly, he appeared to be generating it solely with interactions between his Gibson SG guitar and early-issue Marshall amplifiers. Several of his solos on the record were double-tracked, resulting in flocks of screaming-banshee-like notes, in no particular key, descending like shards of hail from the upper atmosphere.

It is particularly illustrative to isolate those parts of the record where nothing in particular seems to be going on. Whaley is playing a solid 4/4 beat, Peterson a few eighth-notes here and there, and Stephens undoubtedly maneuvering his guitar into various awkward positions vis-à-vis his amplification. These are sprinkled throughout the album and can go on for several measures; they are particularly evocative and surreal.

Blue Cheer’s style was tremendously influential on my own playing. Not just how they did it, but also their attitude, their approach to composition, and their creative use of unconventional elements, like silence and feedback. As I later came to discover, the descent from structure into pure noise is fraught with peril. It’s not simply a matter of abandoning one’s preconceptions about what music should sound like. Rather, it’s adopting a whole new aesthetic, with its own demands and requirements, barely translatable into what one’s heard before. Noise is not the jumble and clutter people typically think of when they hear the word. Rather, it is deconstructing what we typically think of as “music” into its most finely-granulated particulates, then reassembling them in a way that is unpredictable and unexpected.

The band’s second record, “Outsideinside“, is inconsistent. Whoever recorded and mixed it did a terrible job; there is some weird phasing effect throughout and the drums sound like trash can lids being banged together. Still, there are some great moments, like their take on the Rolling Stones song “Satisfaction.” After “Outsideinside,” their recorded output is disposable, except for one later song, “Peace of Mind”, with a different guitarist (Randy Holden). Which, although it is an excellent song, is completely different stylistically than the band’s earlier oeuvre.

In any event, listen to “Vincebus Eruptum” again with fresh ears, and prepare to be amazed.