Blue Cheer: Harder ‘n’ Louder Than The Rest

By: Chris Pacifico

With the passing of Dickie Peterson earlier this week on October 12 after a long battle with liver cancer, we wanted to share this conversation with Peterson that took place in late 2006 as the band was firmly establishing a young, new audience. This interview has never been seen until now.

Blue Cheer
There are certain bands in the history of rock & roll that never got their proper due, yet remained pivotal in serving as the blueprint for a genre. Case in point, Blue Cheer. In the mid to early ’60s, this trio was just another pack of “crazy longhairs” that happened to form a band and go to San Francisco. Perhaps they weren’t wearing any flowers in their hair but Blue Cheer’s presence on the Haight-Ashbury scene was one louder than most of their musical peers.

Blue Cheer was amongst the first to turn their amps up to eleven. Bassist-vocalist Dickie Peterson, guitarist Leigh Stephens and drummer Paul Whaley blared out cumbersome guitar riffs with blizzards of raw, psychedelic voltage, bluesy hooks and quaking beats. Peterson, whose un-decibel friendly vocals and beefy bass was no less than lacerating, always saw himself as more of a “blues screamer” than a lead singer. They never quite morphed into a household name in part because they were a tad loud for some of the peace loving, tune in and drop out generation. Yet Blue Cheer managed to share the stage and local limelight with the who’s who of musicians in the Age of Aquarius.

In 1968 their debut album, Vincebus Eruptum, peaked at #11 on the Billboard, and their version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” went to #14 on the singles chart.

Their sophomore LP, Outsideinside, was just as creatively fervid, but as the ’60s wound down Blue Cheer slipped through the cracks of much deserved recognition while still cutting albums, touring and enduring a revolving door of lineup changes well into the ’80s and ’90s. Yet, it was with their first two albums that Blue Cheer became unsung heroes, with many crediting the power trio for laying down the first brick in the towering house that became heavy metal.

Dickie Peterson 2007
Many a heavy band swears by them, which in past decades has solidified them as cult heroes. “I first heard Blue Cheer in 1981 while under the spell of hardcore,” recalls Mudhoney‘s Mark Arm. “I met this kid from the Bay Area while attending college in Oregon. He was one of about five folks at the school who was even slightly into punk rock. We were all hanging out in his dorm room and he puts Vincebus Eruptum on the turntable and says, ‘Check out what these crazy hippies did back in the ’60s.’ It nearly split my head in two. Hearing Blue Cheer at that point was almost as important to me as hearing The Stooges for the first time the year before. When Mudhoney started up, Blue Cheer was definitely part of our blueprint.”

“I have a more interesting relationship with Blue Cheer’s songs than I do most people I know,” explains “psychedevangelist”/ring leader/lead singer Eddie Gieda of An Albatross. “Their music, throughout their entire catalog, is a sonic epicenter of the prolific cultural revolution of the ’60s and ’70s West Coast. Their degree of separation between virtually all of the ’60s political, musical, philosophical, and cultural figures that I deem essential in forming our country’s history is unbelievably minute. These guys are the real fucking deal and to meet them is to know that their spirit, unlike their peers, hasn’t eroded. They’re still loud and still proud.”

Prior to Peterson’s passing, Blue Cheer continued to tour with two-thirds of their original lineup, with guitarist Andrew “Duck” MacDonald taking Stephens’ place, and crossing into the shattered eardrums of a new generation of fans who like it loud and lewd. Dickie Peterson spoke with JamBase about the band’s place in history, the upheaval of their youth, and how the Grateful Dead managed to piss them off.

JamBase: In the early days of Blue Cheer you guys started out as a regular young California band just aiming to head out to the Bay Area, right?

Dickie Peterson 2006
Dickie Peterson: Yeah, everybody was just moving to San Francisco because it was such a happening music scene that was wide open. It was a really rare event in the music world since all the rules were being tossed out the window and everything was accepted.

JamBase: How did you get the attention of PolyGram Records?

Dickie Peterson: Actually, Abe “Voco” Kesh, who was our producer had a bit to do with it. He had talked to several record companies and nobody wanted anything to do with us because we were so different than anything else that was going on. We went in and we did a demo, and we took it to KPIX radio and they got so many requests for it that the record companies couldn’t ignore us.

Any sort of music style or artists that really roused you or the members of Blue Cheer to pick up the instruments and start playing?

Blues. Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker. These were all big influences for me, and also Little Richard. Oh, and Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. I had the unique honor of meeting both of them.

You took your name from a strand of Owsley Stanley’s acid, right?

Yes, that and also because of the strain of music that we gravitated toward was jump blues.

I’m sure you’re aware that over the years there have been many journalists, as well as fans, that credit Blue Cheer for paving the road for what is now heavy metal.

You know I can see where people are coming from but I can’t really say if we were the first heavy metal band or the first of anything because there were a lot of bands kind of in our realm around us, such as the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. I think we were the first American power trio. I guess if you listen to us you’ll find elements of heavy metal, elements of grunge, elements of punk, elements of the blues, and even elements of country. You’ll find all of these in our music.

Continue reading for more on Dickie Peterson and Blue Cheer…

We were aiming to become louder and more powerful than anybody else in the world. It wasn’t just limited to San Francisco.

Dickie Peterson

Coming from the musical era of the ’60s in San Francisco, Blue Cheer’s music was obviously heavier and a whole lot louder than that of your civic counterparts of the time, such as Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Grateful Dead. At the time, were you guys intent on becoming heavier and louder than those bands or was that what just came out naturally?

Blue Cheer
Well, we were aiming to become louder and more powerful than anybody else in the world. It wasn’t just limited to San Francisco.

Blue Cheer shared the stage with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Hendrix, and Santana. Any stories from those times that you’d like to share?

Well, I know that we always had a problem with the Grateful Dead because once they walked on the stage nobody else went on. They would go on for hours and I thought that this was really unprofessional, chicken shit bullshit because all of these bands, all of us needed our stage time and they would hog it. So, we started chasing their ladies around.

What was it like the first time that you saw Hendrix play?

This was a religious experience for me. I swear to God, that night at The Fillmore the man’s feet left the ground, and I think all of these guitar players today owe him no matter how many practical skills they’ve learned. Everything they do, Hendrix did first. There has not been another Hendrix type guitarist that’s come on the scene. Perhaps he’s being born now. I don’t know.

Any bands out there today that have caught your ear?

There are several bands but I don’t really follow too much contemporary music. You get in my car and you get a lot of rhythm & blues.

The turbulence of that era obviously played a big part in the creative process of a lot of bands in the ’60s. Would you say that was accurate as far as Blue Cheer was concerned?

Blue Cheer
Oh yes, it certainly did. I don’t know that it was so much a political thing with us as much as it was a social thing.

So, the overall loudness is what evoked a semblance of the upheaval?

Yeah, I think the whole social, Vietnam, and anti-establishment protests were all things that I think helped our band.

What was it like being in a band during an American cultural revolution?

It was a time I’m sure none of us will ever forget because we were living in Haight-Ashbury, which was wide open. The Hell’s Angels were basically the police department, LSD was legal [prior to October 1966], and the stuff that I miss very deeply was that everybody was everybody else’s keeper. Everybody took care of each other. If you didn’t have a place to sleep, somebody would take you home so you could sleep and they’d feed you.

A really deep community vibe, huh?

It was an alternative culture that was really working.

It must be a bummer to see Haight-Ashbury now since all that gentrification went down and with the McDonalds and the Gap up in there.

Dickie Peterson
Sort of, but there were so many people that were around at that time that I’m disappointed in personally. I think they’re traitors to the revolution. I think they dropped the ball. They went back to selling insurance and real estate at daddy’s office, which is what we were all against. We didn’t want that but in the end I would say that the one thing that brought that era down was hard drugs.

I always saw it as kind of a cliché when people point the finger at Altamont as the single catalyst of what made it all come falling down. It was no doubt a major turning point but there is just so much more that led up to it.

I think of it in a different way. I think critics and historians want to look back at that and cite that as a reason, and it’s kind of insane. If you look at concerts these days, you’ll be lucky to walk out of them alive at some of these places. At some of these big concerts people are being crushed; there is so much going on. With Altamont, a guy got killed there and it was the first time, and now this happens all the time.

How does it feel to be playing to a new generation of fans?

We’re so humbled by the fact that all these young people come out to our shows. Every night I can look down in front of my microphone and there’s somebody much younger than me who knows all the words to the songs. We’re very humbled by this, and it means more than I can actually put into words. I’m trying to figure out how to write a song about it. We not only crossed over to younger people but we bridged generation gaps. At any of our shows there are fathers and sons and daughters that come, and some people that say, “Hey man, I’ve been listening to your music since I was six hours old.” It’s humbling. It’s not anything that we tried to do, it just happened.

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