Back in 1968, Dickie Peterson (vocals/bass), Leigh Stephens (guitar), and Paul Whaley (drums) released Vincebus Eruptum, the album that included the overdriven hit cover version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” I vividly recall the B-Side of that single, Peterson’s “Out of Focus,” also having its fair share of admirers. But, in my circles, I knew only one friend who owned and liked the 1969 New! Improved! Blue Cheer. I heard the record once and didn’t think it had much in common with Vincebus Eruptum. It was sort of like Iron Butterfly following In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and Ball with Metamorphosis. Same brand name, completely different sound.
That’s because, other than Peterson, Blue Cheer quickly became a band with a continually changing line-up and format throughout the next three decades, sometimes adding keyboards. Musicians who took brief turns with Peterson included Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience), Nick St. Nicholas (Steppenwolf), and Prairie Prince (The Tubes, Journey, Starship). In 1988, Andrew “Duck” MacDonald became the group’s longest lasting guitarist. He was with Blue Cheer until its final concerts in 2008 when Whaley had rejoined the power trio he had helped found.
By then, Blue Cheer was largely remembered for “Summertime Blues,” a song widely credited for being a predecessor of hard rock and heavy metal. I don’t dispute that claim, but have long wondered why younger rockers don’t give as much due to Mountain, Steppenwolf, and Iron Butterfly. If Leslie West belting out “Blood of the Sun” isn’t hard rock, well, I digress.
In 2009, a high-definition DVD of Blue Cheer’s April 11, 2008 performance for the Rockpalast television show in Bonn, Germany, was released. Sadly, it documented the Cheer’s final tour as Peterson died in October 2009. For Cheer fans, the disc included the 12 extended songs, Peterson’s voice over commentary, a Dutch TV featurette, and a bonus unreleased audio studio recording of “Alligator Boots.”
This May, Rocks Europe is coming out on a two-CD set with all the live music but, naturally, without the featurette and Peterson commentary. But we do get “Alligator Boots” and the previously unreleased “She’s Something Else.” If you didn’t pick up the DVD, here’s a good excuse to catch up with a band credited for one rock classic, but which deserves much more attention five years after its official demise.
The live selections were drawn from three of Blue Cheer’s albums. From Vincebus Eruptum, not surprisingly, we get “Summertime Blues,” “Out of Focus,” “Doctor Please” (an eight-minute jam on the original album), and Mose Allison’s “Parchment Farm.” From the band’s second album, Outsideinside, the band performed the set’s opener, “Babylon,” “Just a Little Bit” and “The Hunter.” There were also three then-new numbers from 2007’s What Doesn’t Kill You, “Rollin’ Dem Bones,” “I’m Gonna Get to You” and “Maladjusted Child.”
From the get-go, listeners can be forgiven for feeling they are being transported to 1968, not 2008, and are sitting in San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom or one of the Fillmores. It didn’t take me long to decide Peterson was a kindred spirit with Leslie West, especially West’s vocals for Mountain. This trio knows the psychedelic blues, and jams with the best of them, evoking memories of the extended instrumental solos of Cream. In addition, MacDonald’s wah-wah on “Maladjusted Child” is pure Hendrix. Other songs like “I’m Gonna Get To You,” especially due to Peterson’s raw and angst-filled vocals, showcases why punkers can rightfully point to Blue Cheer as forefathers to the roughness of the late ’70s rebellion against corporate rock. “Rollin’ Dem Bones,” for another example, can be described as punk-blues.
One distinction between the original ’60s recordings and this concert is the preciseness and brilliance of the recording. (Onstage, Peterson credits the sound engineer as the fourth member of the band. I couldn’t find his name on the liner notes.) Back in 1968, “overdrive” was putting it mildly; now, each of the instruments are given space to fill out their part of the sonic spectrum. In only one case was this a disadvantage. “Out of Focus” is virtually unrecognizable, a more laid out, slicker version from the original. Likewise, the decompressed “Summertime Blues” takes some getting used to. But, to be fair, that’s because the original is so engraved in my brain. With repeated listening, I know I will better appreciate the update which includes MacDonald’s “Star Spangled Banner” quote.
Disc two opens with “Doctor Please” which quickly demonstrates why Black Sabbath fans can justifiably cite Blue Cheer as a predecessor. (I wonder if Tony Iommi was familiar with the opening lines of “Doctor Please” when coming up with the riff for “Iron Man.”) Once again, MacDonald pulls out all the tricks from the guitar god arsenal. This was the track that really got me to sit up and know I’ll be playing “Doctor Please” over and over. Then again, I’m one of the few, the proud, the brave fans of neglected lengthy drum solos. But, really, Peterson, MacDonald, as well as Whaley each show off their stuff on this acid-rocker.
The concert ends with the three-minute filler, Peterson’s homage to Albert King’s “The Hunter.” Speaking of the blues, the first of the bonus studio tracks is an energetic “Alligator Boots” where Peterson does his best Howlin’ Wolf growl. The package is complete with the surprising “She’s Something Else” which is straight-up old-fashioned rockabilly. That seems appropriate—here’s a more overt tribute to Eddie Cochran than Cheer’s version of “Summertime Blues.”
While Rocks Europe might not be indispensable listening, it’s a good show with multi-generational appeal. In 2008, Blue Cheer showed, more than ever, that they were a perfect synthesis of psychedelic jams, punk vocal delivery, and no frills heavy guitar work. Yes, there are cures for the summertime blues, whether you’re not old enough to vote or have seen your share of disappointing elections.