What Doesn’t Kill You…
We’ve been doing this a long time and it hasn’t killed us yet.
~ Dickie Peterson, Blue Cheer
The late-sixties had its share of musical innovators. Several regions burst on the scene promoting their brand of music, sex and drugs but northern California had the best of all three. Somewhere between Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and Santana were a grizzly acid-crazed power trio that never knew when to turn it down. Blue Cheer took their name form a potent brand of LSD causing headaches everywhere they played. Claiming to be the loudest band in the world, the pre-Motörhead self-confessed drug addicts played heavy blues-rock with the dexterity of a train wreck. They were managed by an ex-Hell’s Angel and promoted by renowned LSD chemist and Grateful Dead patron Owsley Stanley it’s a wonder they ever got anything to the radio. But it was the ‘60s and those kind of things happened. After catching Hendrix at the ’68 Monterey Pop festival, Leigh Stephens (guitar. vocals) Dickie Peterson (bass, vocals) and Paul Whaley (drums) set about recording their unconventional and uncompromising debut Vincebus Eruptum (’68).
The record would have gone nowhere until their cover version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” got stamped as a 45 and hit the airwaves. Amazingly, the song catapulted to #14 on the US charts moving the record to #11 and it looked for a while like the band might go the distance. Using the largest amount of amplification allowed on stage, Blue Cheer took to the road crossing the US. In Detroit they sold out the Grand Ballroom with The Stooges and the MC5 - this would make history as the first ever heavy metal triple-header. Landing in New York City they set up to cut tracks at the Record Plant but blew the studio monitors and had to finish back in Sausalito, CA outside with a mobile - hence the name of the disc Outsideinside (’68). The trouble was they couldn’t seem to keep a steady lineup. During 1969 they underwent several personnel changes and while recording New! Improved! Blue Cheer used a different guitarist for each side of the album.
Guitarist Randy Holden, formerly of LA garage rock band The Other Half stuck around for most of ’69 but quit before recording the next platter. More changes haunted their fourth outing Blue Cheer starting with guitarist Bruce Stephens then replacing him with Gary Lee Yoder to finish. Oddly the record is considered their most cohesive body of work moving toward a more commercial Iron Butterfly / Steppenwolf sound. The lineup remained intact for 1970’s The Original Human Being and 1971’s Oh! Pleasant Hope neither of which dented the charts and the band temporarily broke up. “It’s funny,” says founder Dickie Peterson in our recent conversation, “here it is nearly forty years since we started and we’re becoming the next hip thing all over again. I think it has a lot to do with the younger stoner rock crowd. It’s overwhelming in a sense and yet so gratifying to know that what you spent your life doing is appreciated…it’s valuable. What higher compliment can you get? These younger people accept us in a most ingratiating way.”
Blue Cheer tried several times to regroup. They reformed in the mid ‘80s recording for Megaforce Records with Rod’s drummer/producer Carl Canedy turning the knobs on The Beast Is…Back (1985). They toured Europe with other classic rock bands like Mountain, The Groundhogs and Ten Years After. In 1989 Syracuse native and guitarist Andrew “Duck” MacDonald took up full-time residence with the band adding his handy work to a couple records during the nineties. In their time off, Dickie recorded two solo albums Child of Darkness and Tramp. Things started to heat up again for the new millennium with live recordings in Japan, England, and Germany. In 2006 they were approached by Arny Goodman and Ron Rainy of Rainman Records to record a US release. It been several months but now the band are on the road promoting What Doesn’t Kill You… “We’re older now,” says Peterson, “but I think we actually surprise a lot of younger people. We’re not a nostalgia band. We’re rock and rollers, man. If there were anything nostalgic about us none of us would do it. We’re not built that way.”
Like the prodigal sons returning, the Cheer felt the need to resurrect the band body and soul. Back on the stool is original drummer Paul Whaley. His fierce playing is not only heard but felt in the rattle of your bones. Andy “Duck” MacDonald, a walking history lesson in blues guitar, lays down a lethal edge as well as manning the production helm …and the bombastic bass and gravel voice of Dickie Peterson always remains solid. “A lot of our songs were written with only the bass and the vocals,” comments Peterson on the albums writing. “You get a connection with the vocal and the bass line that cements the song together. I will have an idea and me and ‘Duck’ will work the patter a bit and let it change until were ready to go with it. We let it breathe and develop on its own. A song takes you where it wants you to go.” He compares it to painting on canvas. “The bass is a completely different animal than the guitar. Its whole mission is to make the soloist sound like a god. The bass and the low end of the drums are the canvas. The voice and the guitar and the cymbals are the paint. If you give it a good canvas a beautiful picture can be painted.”
To really experience Blue Cheer one must see them live. “You should be ready for Blue Cheer,” says Peterson. “We make no bones about what we do. It’s a physical experience. When we play there are three people on the stage that sound like four. The fourth person is all the people that come to the show. That’s what makes this band happen. That’s the magic. Without our people the ones that come out and see us - without them, what we do is actually pointless. Without the crowd we’re useless. When we can get physical with an audience and that’s what we do…we become the real deal. A low-end power trio.” The soul or spirit of the band is also a kin to the wind. Peterson, a long-time biker makes this analogy, “We treat our band like it’s a motorcycle. You gotta change the oil every once in a while and straighten the frame but it always rides better in the end.” The Cheer have played a lot of rallies over the years - Europe being the most memorable. “Wherever we play - bikers show up,” continues Peterson. “We’ve always been renegades so were cut from the same cloth. They’ve always treated us fair. There wasn’t a time we didn’t get paid by the guys wearing patches and leather. The guys that didn’t pay were the ones wearing suits.”
Blue Cheer’s uncompromising lifestyle is the key ingredient poured into the cauldron of their records. Says Peterson, On the new record ‘Rollin’ Dem Bones’ was a song that evolved when I sat down and thought about all the places I’ve smoked pot. I got no problem talking about drugs. I did ‘em most of us did. LSD was a good thing for me. It opened doors of perception that I was unaware of. Did we take it too far? Yes, we did! I wrote this song for the new album called ‘Young Lions in Paradise’ which is about how we believed we were immortal. We were lied to in the Sixties. We were told drugs were bad and war was good. It was all turned around. “Young Lions” is about our friends. I stood right next to them and did what they did. I lived and they didn’t. They believed they were immortal.” The record pays tribute to young lions by including a blistering version of Albert King’s “Born under a Bad Sign,” the Hendrix-inspired “Maladjusted Child” and the politically charged “Piece O’ The Pie.”
“I did have a period of my life where I didn’t want to be connected with Blue Cheer,” confesses Peterson. “I would go into bars and hear the house band playing ‘Doctor Please’ or “Out of Focus’ and would disconnect. But recently I’ve fallen back in love with this band. Hell man, I owe my whole career to ‘Summertime Blues’. The older I get the more I dig this music. I’m very proud of what we do. When you see this band walk out on stage, you see guys that are gonna rock your balls off. A Blue Cheer concert is eight bars and then hold on tight - it’s balls-to-the-wall with everything cookin’. Not always fast - but it’s hard and it’s heavy and it hangs on.
Website: Blue Cheer, Rainman Records