Don’t go running for your old Latin textbook. The quasi-Latin phrase Vincebus Eruptum is supposed to mean “We control chaos” and if San Francisco psychedelic rockers Blue Cheer had any say in the matter, it was going to be the name of their first album. Recorded live in the studio, the six song set kicked off with their version of Summertime Blues and the record company hitched their wagon to that song for the album’s title because that is how a band was supposed to be marketed. Blue Cheer was a band that always did things their own way and they were not going to put out an album called Summertime Blues. “We control chaos” was not just what they wanted, it was the perfect summation of their sound. During the fabled Summer of Love, Blue Cheer commanded attention but not much love from other bands. Band leader Dickie Peterson (bass/vocals) would not have wanted it any other way.
Unlike a lot of musicians who haunted the Haight/Ashbury district in the late 1960s, Dickie Peterson had been there since his parents migrated to San Francisco in 1950 when Dickie was one year old. When he tragically lost both of his parents in his early teens, he was shipped back to their native North Dakota to live with an adoptive family and finish his schooling. In an interview with Classic Rock Magazine in 2003, Dickie described his time in North Dakota as a little less than idyllic: “That was purgatory after San Francisco. I was bored to death. Two weeks after I finished high school I was gone.” He ended up living with his brother Jerre in Sacramento and they formed as a blues-based duo. By 1966, they were back in San Francisco playing in a band called Andrew Staples & The Oxford Circle. When Dickie got fired (“I mean, I’d grown up on Little Richard. Woodie Guthrie and those folkies meant nothing to me. I used to do a spot when the others took a break and the leader got angry with me and fired me.”) some of the other guys in the band went with him including the prime components of Blue Cheer: drummer Paul Whaley and guitarist Leigh Stephens.
Blue Cheer started their first gig as a six-piece band but ended the night as a trio. Peterson, Whaley, and Stevens stopped playing during a song because they couldn’t hear the harmonica and keyboard players at all. They could hear Dickie’s brother on rhythm guitar but when they let the other two guys go, Jerre said, “If they go, I go.” The thunderous classic lineup was in place and they proceeded to alienate just about everybody with their bombastic live show. Dickie said that at the time, he was about the only bass player around playing chords on bass similar to the style later adopted by Lemmy of Motorhead fame. It was loud and distorted, but it certainly filled in any empty spaces in the trio’s songs. Other bands hated them, but they carved out a career catering to the likes of the Hell’s Angels. Peterson recalled, “Bikers never ripped us off. Bikers always did what they said they would do. If they said they would pay you this much, that is what you got. The ones that abused us were the ones wearing suits and ties. They were the real criminals.”
Through their association with the Angels, they gained their first manager, a former Angel named Allen “Gut” Terk. Gut was also friends with Owsley Stanley, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. The Pranksters famous Magic Bus was parked at the Blue Cheer band house and because the Pranksters’ house band was The Grateful Dead, BC also became well acquainted with them. Knowing the Dead wasn’t the same as loving the Dead according to Peterson: “We never had any kind of relationship with them. In fact, we quickly grew up to hate them. If you were doing a show with them and they went on first, you didn’t get to play. If it was a three-hour show, they’d go on first and play for three hours.” Peterson says it wasn’t about the money: “If you didn’t get to play, nobody got to know you.”
This doesn’t mean Blue Cheer didn’t get a chance to play on some historic bills, however. Fillmore owner and promoter Bill Graham liked them and booked them regularly around the Bay area. Blue Cheer can be found on many of the iconic concert posters of the day billed with bands like Buffalo Springfield, Jeff Beck (with Rod Stewart on vocals), Pink Floyd, Electric Flag, Soft Machine, Big Brother and the Holding company (with Janis Joplin), and Jimi Hendrix. The last two are significant to the band’s lore because Joplin and Cheer drummer Paul Whaley were an item for a while and hearing Hendrix convinced them that they needed to be the frist Bay area band to import Marshall equipment from England. While they were entranced by Hendrix’s guitar playing and Stewart’s singing, they were less impressed with Pink Floyd: “We were interested because people told us: ‘These guys use feedback and they’re really interested in psychedelic music.’ And so they were. But it was different from what we were hearing. We listened to two songs and walked out.”
Mercury Records wouldn’t touch the band until station KPIX started spinning Summertime Blues and Out of Focus. When they became the two top requested songs in the Bay area, they were flown to Los Angeles to record their first album. The producer heard they were best live so had them set up their Marshalls and Rogers Power drums in the studio to record them in their raw form. They tried to warn him how powerful it would be but the producer thought he had it all figured out. He just didn’t expect them to literally smoked the recording board. Three days later, with a new board in place and the levels brought into a recordable range, Blue Cheer laid down the six live tracks that would be included in Vincebus Eruptum.
When I heard the Summertime Blues track on the radio, I ran out and bought the single and added it to the stack of 45s I was playing drums along with. When my bandmates in The Twig Mike and Gene spotted it looking through my stack of records for songs to learn, they both said, “We have got to play this.” Mind you, the label said ‘Eddie Cochran’ under the title but I had never heard his version. When I eventually heard the track cut by The Who, I thought it kind of paled when compared to the Blue Cheer version. How could a drummer not like the thundering tom tom rumble that carries the song forward with frequent cymbal smashes (not crashes in this case) punctuating the spaces between each verse? Cheer also added a little rave up in the middle that had the guitar and bass ascending with eighth notes on top of more tom tom rumbling that built the tension level before breaking back into the last verse with another cymbal crash and a scream. We may not have been playing through Marshall stacks, but it was one of the most powerful songs we played. Blue Cheer was a trio and if they could make that much racket, so could we.
A second album with the classic lineup was recorded at The Record Plant in New York with engineer Eddie Kramer. Kramer was also working in the next studio with Jimi Hendrix and he would bring over the tapes so Cheer could hear what Jimi was up to. Leigh Stevens left the band not long after the second album (Ouitsideinside) was completed and they had embarked on a second tour that took them around the world and back. The band lingered on until 1971 with a succession of guitar players but it was the last gig of the classic line up at the Newport Festival in 1969 that Peterson remembers from that era: “It was just the pressure of being what we were. The stage was really high and immediately below us was the press, including a bunch of writers from Rolling Stone who had really slammed us. After four songs, we dropped our guitars and pushed all of our equipment off the front of the stage. You should have seen those guys scatter. We got some pretty bad reviews that day.”
Peterson decided that his drinking was affecting his ability to play music. He did not want to die as a drunk but as a musician so he sobered up and moved to Germany. He would put together occasional Blue Cheer shows with Paul Whaley, but not with Leigh Stevens who continued to make “impossible demands.” To say that he went through a lot of guitar players would be a gross understatement and even Leigh Stevens showed up in the band line up from time to time. At the time of the 2003 CRM interview, Peterson was planning another revival of the band. Paul Whaley’s health at that time was “up and down”, but Peterson was not about to let that keep him off the stage: “If he can’t get involved, then I will get another drummer. Paul would lose all respect for me if I did anything else. We’ve seen way too many people fall by the wayside.. I have buried a lot of my friends. I buried my brother in 2003. We have to go on.”
As of 2007, they had released their final album together (What Doesn’t Kill You . . .) with drummer Joe Hasselvander but Whaley recut the drums on half the tracks so he could say he took part in the album they would tour behind the next tour. On October 12, 2009, Dickie Peterson died in Germany of prostate cancer. Long time guitarist Andrew MacDonald posted the following message on the band’s web site: “Blue Cheer is done. Out of respect for Dickie, Blue Cheer (will) never become a viable touring band again.”
What legacy did Blue Cheer leave behind? In the 2005 documentary A Headbanger’s Journey, bassist Geddy Lee of Rush called them one of the first heavy metal bands. If you need proof, pretend it is 1968, put on Cheer’s Summertime Blues, and crank the volume up to 11. When your windows start rattling, you will feel what Blue Cheer’s sonic assault was like. Before the Cheer, there wasn’t anyone else doing it quite the same, but they certainly paved the way for countless other bands to Vincebus Eruptum.
Top Piece Video: Blue Cheer on the Beat Club – rocking their version of Summertime Blues