“Vincebus Eruptum” by Blue Cheer (1968)
Anyone who’s been attending rock concerts for 36 years might have trouble pinpointing the most memorable ones. But I sometimes give it a stab.
In November 2007, I paid all of $15 to gain entrance to the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh for something I’d wanted to do for decades: see Blue Cheer.
The re-formed version of the band had been touring here and there since the ’80s, and when I learned about the Pittsburgh show I canceled some other plans and headed to the South Side. The show was unfortunately sparsely attended, but those in the audience were treated to a memorable performance: a time warp of sorts, back to when a trio of musicians, their instruments and their amplifiers were sufficient.
That was rock at its most basic and, not coincidentally, its most exciting.
Blue Cheer was touring to support its first new studio album in 16 years, “What Doesn’t Kill You …,” a title that became chilling in the wake of subsequent developments.
On Oct. 12, 2009, vocalist-bassist Dickie Peterson, the one consistent in Blue Cheer since its 1967 formation, died of prostate cancer. Longtime guitarist Andrew “Duck” MacDonald wrote on the group’s website: “Blue Cheer is done. Out of respect for Dickie, Blue Cheer (will) never become a viable touring band again.”
I still often wear the Blue Cheer T-shirt I bought at that Pittsburgh concert. And I still often listen to the album that put the band on the musical map, way back in 1968.
“Vincebus Eruptum” – the title is supposed to mean “controlled chaos” – is the least technically accomplished album on the Harry’s Hundred list. As Peterson wrote in the liner notes to a CD re-release: “To say the recording standards were primitive would be an understatement. ‘Vincebus Eruptum’ is what can happen when you set three young men in a room, give them all the gear they want and three chords. Then leave them alone … there are no rules and no holds are barred.”
The result is what may well be the birth of heavy metal. Watch this video of Blue Cheer mimicking Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” on a German TV show: Each of the guys is cranking it up as loud as he can, with Paul Whaley particularly bashing it out on the drums. (Fortunately, he was part of the band again as of ’07.)
“Summertime Blues” kicks off “Vincebus Eruptum” and also reached No. 14 on the charts as a single, probably because of the novelty of a band playing that hard and loud on what began life as a rockabilly song. The decision to play instrumental solos in lieu of some of the lyrics is questionable, but it’s kind of apropros to hear the line, “I went to my congressman and he said, quote, ‘Take this, boy!’,” followed by a wall of guitar feedback.
Next, Blue Cheer covers the blues standard “Rock Me, Baby,” with all the subtlety of a flying mallet (to borrow from the title of a Dave Edmunds album). Actually, in some places Whaley sounds as if he, indeed, is drumming with a mallet, providing minimalist backing to Leigh Stephens’ feedback-laden guitar stylings.
Peterson’s “Doctor Please” is purely and simply about drugs, as the singer implores: “Without your good livin’, Doc, I believe that I’ll be dead.” The song became a longtime concert staple, with extended instrumental sections.
Another original, “Out of Focus,” lyrically leans toward the psychedelic music in vogue at the time, with Peterson writing passages like: “And then from out of a mystic dream/There came an angel, she spread her wings.” But the instrumental backing continues to be pure sledgehammer, and outright chaos in a middle section during which none of the band members appear to be paying attention to what either of the others is playing.
Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm” – Blue Cheer calls it “Parchment Farm” – receives the over-the-top treatment, as well, with Peterson seeming to particularly enjoy shouting the line, “I think I’ll be here for the rest of my life/All I did was shoot my wife.” Toward the end of the song, he switches it around for another drug allusion: “I’m sitting over here on Parchment Farm/All I did was shoot my arm.”
For anyone whose eardrums have sustained the onslaught to that point, “Vincebus Eruptum” concludes with one more original, “Second Time Around.” The lyrics pertain to a temporary break in a relationship, but they’re secondary to the instrumentation, which gives each band member a chance to solo during a lengthy outro that seems to fulfill Blue Cheer’s mission, according to Peterson:
“Our thing was to be so powerful that the music became a physical experience, to activate all the listeners’ senses.”
Since Blue Cheer’s inception, bands have played louder and they’ve played better. But if they’re playing what’s come down in history as heavy metal, their roots trace back to “Vincebus Eruptum.”