If the wild and woolly Blue Cheer’s self-titled debut were to take on physical form, it would perfectly materialize into one of those massive jugs of Boon’s Farm wine you can see being communally passed in rock festival footage from 1968, the year of the album’s release. There would be nine-or-so Mandrax crushed into the bottle plus several hits of really speedy acid, and it would be passed to you along with a thin joint of dirt weed smoldering between the prongs of a long silver roach clip.
Vincebus Eruptum was most certainly not about expanding your mind, nor was it tangled up in eastern mysticisms or utopias close at hand. It wasn’t goin’ on up the country to get its head together. It wanted to knock your head clear off and bludgeon your body numb with shock. It wanted to tell you of its women and its turquoise chunky jewelry. It wanted to pile up marshal stacks as high as ancient desert ruins, and be that high as well, and wanted for you to to be as high and flustered and radioactive to the touch as its very grooves. If you were to tear out and burn the many pages dedicated to exploring the cause of the death of the good vibes ’60s, and instead just played this record, then even alien beings would get it.
It was a record that frighted The Dead and inspired Iggy to take off his shirt. It was the end of everything. And the beginning. It was a record perfectly of its time.
It’s tough to believe that Blue Cheer came out of San Francisco, a city known at the time for its jammy exploration and granny glasses. Indeed they are named after one of the lesser known brands of LSD floating around that scene at that time, a strain we would guess to be much less sunny and ego-free than Orange Sunshine. Just how this band managed to exist within such a gentle empire remains an acute mystery, but within the first notes of their debut on Atlantic’s sub label rock ghetto ATCO Records you get the idea: Oh, they bludgeoned their way out. There was seriously nothing that could contain this band, no city or scene or subculture. They blew out studios and cracked the walls of the venues they graced. In their short prime there was nothing that could touch them, and that prime is fully documented on this jaw-on-the-floor debut.
All they needed was six songs on this thing, six chances to strut and shake the demons loose from your psyche. Sure, they were a power trio, but unlike Cream you can’t tell the instruments apart, not really, with the bass distorted and up high in the mix where the guitar should be, guitar lines attacking the rhythm instead of grooving with it, drums just bashing away at anything that moves in hopes that it will die. Which makes it all the more strange that they would choose to tackle ’50s rock staple “Summertime Blues” as Track One, and all the stranger that it became a fluke top ten hit. You couldn’t really call this a cover though, could you? If anything it’s a deconstruction, a demolition, an annihilation. Unlike Zeppelin or The Who’s faithful versions, Blue Cheer do not respect this song or the strongly held rock traditions it represents. They want it dead, the song and those traditions, and they savage them both with a demented glee that the young kids of the time, the ones who didn’t quite get Sgt. Pepper’s, picked up on and ran with until the song soared into the charts right in the face of all the corporate board room good vibes being peddled in that year. It wasn’t a hit single. It was a harbinger of doom. And it was a whole lot of fun.
It’s hilarious that the second track, “Rock Me Baby”, was most likely considered “slowing things down a bit and just getting into a groove, maaan” by the band after the opening assault of “Summertime”. I mean, sure, it’s a rolling country blues, but it only manages to stay that way for just over two minutes before warping into a glazed-over nightmare of broken leads and screaming and a fade-out that sounds like California sliding slowly into a post-earthquake ocean.
“Doctor Please” is the birth, plus the death, of oh so many things. Surely The Melvins were birthed here, as was the whole of heavy metal, Pacific Northwest grunge, stoner rock…and the deaths? Well, these were many, but some of the big ones would be optimism, utopian fantasia, peaceful protest, an entire generation really. Don’t get us wrong, the sound here was indeed psychedelic as the times required, but it was a degenerative, primate psychedelia that looked back instead of forward, primates dancing round fires under new moons, the opposite direction of the forward-thinking post modern fetishists so in vogue that summer.
The loping, offbeat riff on “Out Of Focus” is so simple that anyone who knows a few chords may be easily fooled into thinking they could play it, but they would be dead wrong. Sure, you may be able to imitate it, expertly even, but to get over the completely fried and funkified hot concrete vibe would be an impossible task unless you were actually in Blue Cheer in 1968, stalking the filthy streets of The Haight with a head full of your namesake acid, ducking panhandling hippies and wondering how this would all end. In many ways this could be the best song on the album, smuggling some deft musicality under its barbarian fur and working in some James Brown years before Physical Graffiti. Don’t forget that the princely young Jimmy Page would have been touring America with The Yardbirds at the same time Blue Cheer was stomping the circuit, and “Out Of Focus” is proof that he crossed their formidable path at least once.
“All I did was shoot my wife, she was no good” So proclaims The Cheer at the start of the insane “Parchment Farm” which threatens to run off the rails only a minute in, somehow picks itself back up and dusts itself off, falls into a brief drum and bass pit, then is conjured into startling focus for the final verse, like a bear caught in a bright searchlight that, instead of running for the woods, decides to charge right at you.
There’s really only one logical way to close out this record, and that’s “Second Time Around” with it’s hammer and chisel percussion intro, fluidly evil serpentine riff, and strutting cock rock lyrics that contain an edge of paranoia within their heavy-lidded swagger. There has never been a guitar solo as insane as the one dive-bombed into the middle of this song like a crashed and short circuiting satellite, and the outro is so savage and disorienting and chord-less it could easily be classified as post-rock. Just what exactly is the Blue Cheer drummer using to pound on those splintered-sounding drums during his completely non-pretentious minute-long solo? Sticks? Logs? Entire trees? And did they actually plan out this complete meltdown that closes the track or did they perhaps just get bored with playing the song and decide to let it sputter to a halt and die in the most glorious way possible? Plus how did the bass and guitar dudes get that just-right level of distortion where it sounds like they’re playing through a fog of teargas? The mysteries of this record are truly endless. The more you listen, the more come to the surface. Which begets another important question: Could it be that this is not mere bonehead riff rock but instead an experiment in musical nihilism pulled off by otherwise expert musicians? The answer to this question is “no”, but the fact that you had to ask it points to the wicked brilliance of Blue Cheer in their prime.
It was the blood red tide and the gnashing of teeth. It was bombs over jungles and tanks in the streets. It was speed and ludes and those bellbottom blues. It was a fully-doomed reality that CSNY just couldn’t seem to grasp. It was full-on doom and catastrophe, and instead of fighting it the heroes of Blue Cheer chose to embrace it, to expand within it, to ride it out and utilize it for their powers. It’s really no surprise that Jim Morrison loved this band. It truly was the end of the line, and this was the band for end times.
Listen here baby
‘Cause you outta time
I’m so sorry
It’s the end of the line